Israel is considered one of the most progressive countries in terms of LGBT rights, gay life and social acceptance.
LGBT people are active in society, politics and culture, with openly gay and lesbian politicians, writers, filmmakers, artists and activists, contributing to the advancement of LGBT rights.
Both left-wing and right-wing political parties support LGBT rights in Israel, where almost 61% of the population is in favour of same-sex marriage.
The State of Israel is internationally active in supporting LGBT rights.
According to different opinions, Israel’s openness on LGBT issues stems from: Israel’s disposition to cope with diversity for its pluralistic society; LGBT activism in advancing social claims for equality and rights; the army as a social institution for integration of diverse societal identities.
The legal advancement of LGBT Rights
When Israel was founded, it inherited both Ottoman and British laws. Homosexuality constituted a crime punishable with imprisonment up to ten years. The norm was never applied.
On the basis of a legal opinion issued in 1972 by the then Attorney General Haim Herman Cohn (grandson of rav Shlomo Karlibach), the law was repealed in 1988, as part of a general reform of the penal system.
Discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation is prohibited under the Equal Opportunity Law, reformed in 1992 for protecting sexual identity.
In 1993, the Israel Defence Forces officially repeal internal regulations discriminating against homosexuals, who have long been considered a threat to national security.
In 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court recognised the rights of same-sex couples, considering homosexual unions as common law marriage. In the case, Jonathan Danilowitz sued the Israeli airlines El Al, for which he worked, for not recognising spousal privileges to him and his partner. In the ruling, Justice Dalia Dorner argued that it was not a question of mere anti-discrimination, but rather a question of equality.
In 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court recognises the right of same-sex couples to adopt the biological children of the homosexual partner. This ruling was followed by a 2008 legal opinion of the Attorney General, according to which same-sex couples have the same rights to adopt as heterosexual couples.
In 2006, a ruling of the Supreme Court recognises same-sex marriages celebrated abroad.
The major opinions of judges argue in terms of LGBT people’s right to be treated equally to heterosexuals and in terms of changing meaning of “family” and “marital union”, including same-sex unions.
Minor opinions in judicial decisions argue that the changing meaning of “family” and “marital union” is controversial and not yet generally accepted.
Lower courts have already ruled on the divorce of a gay couple and on the status of non-citizens married or partnered to Israeli citizens, allowing residence permit in Israel on the basis of their union.
LGBT in politics and society
The left-wing party Meretz was the first political group to support gay rights, creating in 1996 the “Gay Forum” for the advancement of LGBT issues in the party and in Israeli politics. Member of Knesset (MK) Uzi Even (Meretz) was the first openly gay Israeli parliamentarian.
In 2011, the Labour Party as well as Kadima establishes Gay Forums. • In the same year, Even Cohen and Omri Rosenkrantz founded the Gay Forum within the right-wing Likud Party.
Tel Aviv municipality, known for its large LGBT population, has a counselor for LGBT issues, Yaniv Waizman.
The Israeli LGBT community is extremely active in society through several associations, among which: Ha-Agudah founded in Tel Aviv in 1975; Habait Hapatuach-Open House, founded in Jerusalem in 1996; Bat Kol, Jewish lesbian religious organisation founded in 2004; Havruta, Jewish religious gay organisation; Hod, Orthodox Jewish gay association; Hoshen, an educational organisation for social change focusing on LGBT issues; Israeli Gay Youth, founded in 2001; Shoval, founded by Orthodox Jewish Lesbian, Gay and Transgender; and Tehila, the association of parents of LGBT people.
Israel’s international commitment to LGBT rights
Together with Peru, Colombia, Romania, UK and US, Israel voted in favour of the 2006 decision of the United Nations Economic and Social Council to recognise two LGBT associations consultative status—while Burundi, China, Egypt, Guinea, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia and Sudan voted against.
Documentary on Palestinian gay refugees in Israel
Israel accepts Palestinian gays fleeing Palestinian Territories from persecution for their sexual orientation. Although not recognising political asylum on grounds of sexual orientation, Israel welcomes refugees seeking relocation.
Israel is accused of “pinkwashing”, a neologism combing “pink” and “whitewashing” and describing the alleged attempt by Israel to emphasise its gay-friendliness in order to divert attention from other policies considered negative.
Jonathan Danilowitz, born in South Africa, made aliyah in the early 1970s. He worked as a Senior Flight Service Manager for El Al Israel Airlines. He sued the company for refusing to recognise spousal privileges for his partner. In that lawsuit, El Al v. Jonathan Danilowitz, the Israeli Supreme Court recognised same-sex couples as common-law marital unions—the first step toward equality for gays in Israel.
What is the status of the gay community in Israel?
Homosexuality in Israel is generally accepted. Over the years, Israel has recognised gay rights in terms of family rights, child adoption and gay parenthood. I would say the status of the gay community in Israel is far more advanced than in many countries in the Western world, including Europe.
Certainly, there is still some discrimination and many prejudices to fight against, but generally Israeli society is open to diversity.
Any major imperfection?
I would say that the major problem is marriage, which is not recognised in Israel. But that is not a problem just for gays, as it is a problem of the entire society.
Israel does not recognise civil marriage. If you want to marry you have to go to a religious court or get married abroad. Same-sex couples, as heterosexual couples, are recognised as common-law spouses. However, civil marriage remains an ambition for many Israelis.
How do you explain gay rights have been recognised in Israel, in spite of religious influence in the public sphere?
I would not say that religion plays a major role in most of Israeli society and in Israel’s public sphere as it may be elsewhere, including Italy, for instance. Israelis are very liberal and are inclined to accept differences. Israel was built on cultural differences and that has made Israelis disposed to cope with diversity.
What about religious communities, which are very influential in Israeli politics?
There is a very firmly religious minority that is remarkably vocal in expressing their ideas of how people should live. Homosexuality is not something they accept. But Israel is something else. Israelis are proudly Jewish, but that does not mean they are rigidly religious, or religious at all.
I also think that there are so many external problems in this country, that people really say, “who cares about gay rights?” By this, I mean that gay rights do not represent a real issue in Israeli society and politics if you consider the other grievous threats Israel faces almost every day—first and foremost, the menace to its existence. Thus, if one has to worry about something, it is the missile that may destroy the country and not the gay couple who wants to get married.
You settled in Israel, made aliyah from South Africa, in the late 1960s, how was the impact with Israeli society?
I was born in South Africa and I lived there as a straight person until adulthood. I was totally unable to come to terms with my homosexuality; even to myself, I was completely unable to admit I was gay.
Then I came to Israel and I had my first experiences which helped me admit who I am in the sense that I left behind my previous life in another country and opened a new chapter, a new book indeed, in a new country. This included being able to open up to myself about who I really am deep inside and eventually admit to myself that I am gay.
Obviously, I went through the pain and questions of what’s going to happen, which most gay people go through; but I was already an independent adult when I came out of the closet and began to understand that I am equal to the others and I deserved equal treatment.
You have been living in Israel for over 40 years now, and you have not only seen the progression of gay rights in Israel, but also contributed to it by litigating the case against El Al (your then employer), for the recognition of spousal privileges for your partner and yourself, which eventually ended with the recognition of gay couples’ rights. How do you see the development of gay rights in Israeli society?
As I said, I was born and raised in South Africa and one must remember that South Africa was, and to some extent still is, a very suppressive and oppressive society. It was oppressive even for white people: there was severe censorship, on movies, magazines and books, and no television! There was a free press—one must say, in their favour, that media were pretty free—although not completely.
I came from that oppressive society to this liberal, open Israel and it suited me, and I immediately became politically active. I was like a child starved of chocolate who suddenly comes into a chocolate factory and starts eating chocolate all the time. And that’s perhaps what happened to me.
You mean that the major point was liberation from an oppressive regime to a liberal democracy?
I have never really thought about it, but I believe that it was as though I was released from the prison of South Africa into this very liberal and open society, with a very free press. Moreover, I worked for El Al so I was exposed to so many other countries and cultures, which I had never understood nor knew much about.
When I lived in South Africa I thought that apartheid was the natural thing: it was the only thing we knew and I did not know much better than that. My parents were both born in South Africa so they thought it was natural too. There were political parties which included a powerful small party that represented the major opposition to the nationalist apartheid government; it was mostly run and supported by Jews. There was this budding liberalism which I learnt there, but I had never experienced living in a liberal society before I came to Israel, where I kind of burst out and started being active.
You claim Israel is a liberal and open society, which accepts differences and recognises rights to different communities. In the case of gay people, Israel’s legislation is more liberal than many other Western states. How do you explain, then, that so many in the gay and lesbian community are so outspokenly and virulently anti-Israeli?
We have just talked about South Africa. You could have asked me the same question, rephrasing it in relation to that country: “How do you explain that the black community in South Africa today, that was so supported by the Jewish community there is so anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic today?”
Indeed, it is something I honestly cannot get; it is an anomaly that I cannot understand. I do really believe that there is basic anti-Semitism that is embedded in many societies and mostly inherited from a consolidated history of Catholic anti-Semitic prejudice: anti-Semitic tenets have resounded for two thousand years and the result is that people just hate Jews.
I know people hate hearing that, because they usually say “nobody can criticise Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism”, but it is a fact. People simply hate Jews, and Israel being the state that represents Jews, people hate Israel accordingly.
There are many organisations that are neutral and not anti-Israeli. But I am convinced that those organisations that are, in the same way that the minority of Israelis who are anti-gay are so vocal, they make their voice heard much louder than those groups that are neutral or supportive of Israel.
So you consider it as a media-inflated phenomenon? They have also fabricated the expression “pinkwashing”, accusing Israel of whitewashing its image through its liberal legislation toward gay people.
The media play a major role in that because while they look for sensational news and people believe that what they see/read is always true.
I believe that by and large, the world’s gay majority is serene, but there are groups that go out and scream “pinkwashing” at every opportunity, making their voice heard. In the same way, it happens all over the world that at gay parades, the media focus only on the extravagant and outrageous: in most media reports on gay parades, extreme pictures are shown in the newspapers and on television.
The more naked men and women there are, the more the newspapers and the media in general will focus on that. The same goes with the pinkwashing. It is something outrageous, something different and something noisy and so they succeed in getting the world’s attention.
But there are places where gays are persecuted, executed and killed just for being gay, so why focus on Israel?
It seems to me that it is the result of blatant racist anti-Semitism disguised as “liberalism”. I do not have another explanation I just do not understand it. Really, I do not get it.
Broadly speaking I believe that being pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli is just a cover for being anti-Semitic. Obviously, people would prefer not being accused of being racist anti-Semites, but would rather be considered as liberal, and therefore they pretend to be pro-Palestinian and try to be “fair”.
Accusing Israel of “pinkwashing” is even more absurd when one recalls that Israel accepts Palestinian gays escaping persecution and seeking asylum for their sexual orientation.
Exactly. Can you think of another explanation except racist anti-Semitism?
Israelis are doing so much for their own gay communities and so much for the Palestinians and yet we are accused of violating human rights and we are accused of almost everything.
The faux-liberals should decry the treatment of gays in Russia, China, Uganda and the entire Muslim world but they prefer focusing obsessively on Israel. I really cannot explain this position, except as racist anti-Semitism.
Because of certain interpretations of the Bible, people often think it is difficult to combine homosexuality with Judaism. How do you see it?
You could also ask the same question about Catholics. How can you be gay and Catholic at the same time? How can a Catholic priest be gay (and we know that there are so many in the Catholic Church who are gay). Homosexuality has nothing to do with race, religion or culture; it cuts across all segments of society.
The same goes for Judaism. Moreover, Judaism has many streams; the haredim, also known as ultra-Orthodox is just one of them. Among the haredim, there are also the Naturei Karta, who are even more extreme and are allied with the Palestinians for the destruction of Israel because in their view only when the Messiah comes can Israel exist. But there are also the Orthodox, the Conservative and the Reform.
The majority of Israelis are not observant. They are proudly Jewish and look upon themselves as Jewish, but do not observe the rules and the laws as laid down in the Torah. In addition, modern people understand that the rules introduced 5000 years ago are no longer applicable. Things like slavery, selling your daughter, and so on and so forth are forms of social organisation that today represent an anachronism. Even many religious people believe that those laws are no longer valid in modern society.
The same goes with the alleged Biblical ban on homosexuality. Most people, of many Jewish religious streams, believe that Biblical law is not applicable and they reinterpret it according to the principles and necessities of modern times.
In your autobiographical book, “Flying Colors”, you describe how you decided to sue El Al for not recognising your partner’s spousal privileges it nevertheless granted to heterosexual common-law couples. Thank to your case, the Supreme Court firstly recognised the rights of same-sex couples as the first step to equality. Your name is associated with an historical ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court and you have been active in pro-gay activities; you give interviews and write op-eds. Do you feel you are a political icon?
It is funny you ask me this question. I was talking to a friend some days ago about the possibility of translating my book into Hebrew. I explained that I hesitate to translate it because of the financial burden. He replied: “People will buy it because they know who you are”. For a moment I was taken aback. It sometimes happens that when I say my name to people, they immediately ask me, 15 years after the end of the court case: “Are you the Jonathan Danilowitz from the El Al court case?”. It still happens. Other times, I say my name and people simply ask me how to spell it and conversation goes on.
To some extent I am known in Israel, which is terribly flattering. For example, I have been asked to write articles on gay issues when editors think I am the most suited. It means that my name is known and people are aware of what I have done. On the other hand I see articles on gay issues where they interviewed other people and I think: “Well, I could have told so much more, they should have contacted me about this newspaper article”. But perhaps I’ve been forgotten.
I am old news, I am yesterday’s news and there are new, younger people who are going ahead. I am happy to be remembered when it happens but I do not cry when I realise that I am no longer an icon. So I guess I was an icon; to a larger extent, I am no longer.
Daveed Ehrlich is an Israeli wirter, one of the founders of the Israeli LGBT organisation “Habait Hapatuch” in Jerusalem. He currently lives in Jerusalem with his two children where he runs the café-bookstore “Tmol Shilshom”.
David Ehrlich is author of “Who Will Die Last—Stories of Life in Israel”, published this year by Syracuse University Press.
As a gay person, how did you have children?
As you said I am gay and I decided with a friend of mine—she is straight—to have children in the frame of what is called co-parenthood. We are old friends and we live in the same neighbourhood in Jerusalem. We have two twin children, 6 year-old.
Legally, we did not have any problems. It works the very same way a girl has children with a man she is not married to. I am their biological father; she is their biological mother, and the state does not care whether we are married or not.
But you had to go through a medical procedure.
Yes, sure. We went through what is called “in vitro fertilisation” (IVF). It is a medical procedure you can do in the hospital.
And nobody asked you if you were married?
No, nobody. You simply start the procedure in the hospital. It is very common here in Israel, for both gays and straight people. And once they were born it was obvious I am their biological father, so there was no legal question or judicial procedure to go through.
Why is it?
Many couples in Israel go through IVF procedures and the state supports them financially. It means the state funds IVF, normally in hospitals or other medical centres.
Nowadays many couples have difficulties in having children, for several reasons. First, people decide to have children at a later stage, when they are already 40 year-old or so, and their body is less prone to give birth to children. Secondly, there are studies that show that environmental changes, as well as what we eat, what we drink and how we live also influence the normal biological process.
Therefore, it is common for couples to ask for medical support in order to have children. You said Israel supports financially IVF.
Does Israel support everybody?
Yes, Israel finances IVF medical procedures for everybody who applies for it. And it is one of the few states that do so.
Take for example an American couple that cannot have children and want to try through IVF: it costs tens of thousand of dollars and the US does not give funds. And if they do not succeed and they want to try again, the whole financial burden is on them.
In Israel, it is different. The state wants people to have children and thus it gives money to couples for that, Jews and Arabs alike.
It is an interesting topic, which also involves ethical issues. I dealt with these questions when I used to work as a journalist for the Israeli newspaper “Haaretz”. For instance, what happens if you can influence the process for having male or female children?
Given the interest of the state in this issue, and also because Israel is a modern state, scientists have developed very modern techniques for IVF.
How come in Israel gays want children so strongly?
Israel is a deeply family-oriented society. Everybody in Israel wants children, and this is true also for the gay community. Society looks positively upon parenthood and family: it is considered one of the highest social values.
Consequently, other issues become less important. In the past a single woman who wanted children had to face several problems. Nowadays many single women manage to have children through IVF or adoption, and society at large accepts it and supports it.
Likewise, society accepts and positively looks upon gay and lesbian couples that want to have children. I would say that if you have children it is even easier to be accepted, because everybody is happy for you. Israeli society considers children a reason for collective joy, so it does not matter what your sexual orientation is.
Really, if you are gay it is not an issue. For example in the kindergarten that my children attend there are two kids who are children to two fathers. I cannot recall, not even once, that it has been an issue. I cannot recall one single time that someone said something or heard something about it. It is not an issue: two men with two children, as easy as it is.
Many people, however, oppose homosexual parenthood claiming children would suffer with two mothers or two fathers. What do you think about it?
There are several studies on this issue. Many of them were done in the US. Most of these studies show that gay parents are more committed and invest more in parenthood.
Indeed, for homosexuals having children is not something obvious, and they have to make extraordinary efforts for being parents. Once they have children they are ready to do everything for being good parents. For straight people it goes without saying that they get married and have children, while gays have to plan it and get prepared for it.
In my case, for instance, I had children when I was 48, and it was a moment I waited for and welcomed not only with immense joy, but also with passion and devotion.
It has not been always like that in Israel, though.
It is a process of social change that Israel’s gay community is going through. I can see things in perspective.
When I came out of the closet 30 years ago, there were a few gay couples with children. It was very rare. Now it is different.
Homosexuality is generally accepted in Israel, so more gay, lesbian and transsexual have children. Having a family is part of a normal life that also homosexuals want. If everybody can have children, why shouldn’t I have children just because I am homosexual?
Today gays and lesbians in Israel have many children, and it is an amazing change.
Many people criticise homosexuals having children and claim that having children among gays has become a normative behaviour, an attempt to imitate heterosexuals.
What do you think a bout it? Personally, I do not believe it is a prevalent opinion. On the contrary, it is marginal and it is a position proper of certain religious groups, mainly Orthodox. I do not believe such criticism is part of the general debate. I really do not read much about it in the newspapers or hear about it in conversation about politics or society.
Undeniably there are conservative people who disapprove of gays having children, but it is a minor opinion in Israeli society. Again, Orthodox Jewish groups strongly disapprove, but it is a minority.
Society in general accepts it, even right-wing people. There is also an LGBT association within the Likud party, which is the major right-wing political party in Israel.
You mean that the status of gays in Israel is consolidated?
Yes. It is a battle that has already been fought. And we won it a long time ago.
You do not hear voices opposing homosexuals for their sexual orientation and the debate is no more about recognising or not recognising rights. Gays have rights in Israel. We are indeed a step further.
What about living Jerusalem? Jerusalem is considered a very religious and conservative city for its large religious and Orthodox population. Is it then a problem for gays to live in Jerusalem?
Jerusalem has indeed become more and more religious with an increasing number of Orthodox inhabitants. And this affects life in Jerusalem, but if I do not feel any difficulty in living here as a gay person. I consider it difficult to live here as a secular person—most of the places are closed on Shabbat, for instance.
There are far better reasons to live here, however. Originally, I come from near Tel-Aviv but moved to Jerusalem almost 30 years ago. I love Jerusalem: it is an interesting, fascinating and unique city. I believe that only here you can have the true experience of what Israel is about, with its extreme ethnic, religious and cultural diversity as well as with its tensions and difficulties. I happened to be born in this country, so I prefer living in the middle of all this complex diversity that Israel is.
You can live in Tel Aviv, in the illusion that the world is made of secular people and homosexuals, but it is not true, it is almost fake; it is only a bubble, as they call it. I would feel lost in the bubble, and rather prefer living in a place where things happen, although it may not be easy.
And what about gay families living in Jerusalem?
A gay couple with children is certainly more evident than my case: I hang around with my children and their mother, so we could be a heterosexual couple.
I believe that in Jerusalem gays and gay families are not so common as in Tel Aviv and therefore they can make the difference. When I founded, together with other friends, the LGBT association “Habait Hapatuah” in Jerusalem, I felt I was contributing to the gay community even in Jerusalem. I wanted to contribute to the social change in Jerusalem with a very simple act: letting everybody know that I am gay. My neighbours knew it, and so did my friends and colleagues and this certainly helped to change their preconceptions or misconceptions.
How do you explain then that so many gay organisations are against Israel?
If you are gay and politically active you fight for justice. People usually see in the Palestinians the offended part, and in Israel they always see the offender. But reality is far more complicated than that. It hurts me, obviously.
As I see it, the conflict affects both of us in every way: socially, economically and personally. In my entire life I have so far seen 10 wars, and had to fight in many of them as a soldier and officer. We live in a troubled region and we are wrapped around conflicts. But what hurts most is that one sees no solution.
Why Israel? Why is Israel so open on the gay issue?
Good question. Israel is a very modern country. We are one of the first countries in the world to introduce ATMs, for instance. Israel is a very modern country, committed to scientific and technological progress. We are a very young country with strong ambitions, including social ambitions.
However, Israel is known just for the conflict with Palestinians. Ugly enough, we do not have a solution for that and indeed the conflict is one of our political and social downfalls. But in other social issues Israel is a very advanced country.
I also believe that we are culturally influenced by the US and certainly the American gay liberation movement has influenced Israel’s gay community. When I was young, I saw, heard and read about liberation fights in the US and I felt the necessity to follow their way and do the same here. There are people who did it, like Jonathan Danilowitz.
You mention Danilowitz and the recognition of same-sex unions. In Israel it happened almost twenty years ago, long before this year’s decision of the US Supreme Court to recognise gay right to marriage.
Yes, but things are complex. In the US there were gay neighbourhoods, like Castro in San Francisco, long before we could even dream of gay rights. In the US there were gay bookshops and a definite gay culture long before gay liberation in Israel.
But it is true that in certain domains, we did not just follow their example but we went further. It was Rabin, when he was Defence Minister, who decided that homosexuality is not a problem for the military service. And we were the first country in the world accepting gays and lesbians in the army, while in the US the policy still is “don’t ask don’t tell”. And I think the reason is very simple: we do not have the privilege to select who is going to the army and who is not. We need citizens to do the military service: men, women, straight, gay and lesbian.
I also see it in my personal experience. I am an officer in the Israeli Defence Forces and I am still part of the reservist force with the grade of major. Everybody knows I am gay and it is not an issue at all.