The Persistent Progress of Israel’s LGBT Community

Corinne Berzon

Corinne Berzon

Writer and doctoral candidate in Israel

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~ Also by Corinne Berzon ~

From the Blog

Though obstacles still remain, increased rights for, and visibility of, Israel’s LGBT community has been both astounding and utterly unsurprising.

Forty years ago this year, a small group of gay and lesbian Israelis founded the Aguda, the country’s first organized Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) rights group. The Aguda remains Israel’s most prominent LGBT organization, focusing on health, advocacy, and community empowerment. And it has met with considerable success. Numerous advocacy groups have followed the Aguda in blazing trails for LGBT Israelis, and Israel has slowly but steadily moved toward the inclusion of all its citizens, regardless of sexual orientation.

Of course, despite the great strides made by LGBT Israelis, there remain obstacles to equal rights and equal treatment under the law. But even with these challenges, Israel is a country where members of the gay community are mostly safe, free, and valued members of society—in stark contrast to the rest of the region. Perhaps the most telling sign of this is that individuals who were once silent and closeted—such as religious, Sephardi, and Right-wing Israeli gays—are now being heard. These new and diverse voices are creating a shift in Israeli politics, religion, and culture, as stereotypes regarding LGBT identity are swiftly crumbling.

Israel is, despite numerous arguments to the contrary, a democratic Western state. Its achievements in pursuit of LGBT equality, beginning in 1988 with the repeal of anti-sodomy laws, have made Israel the only LGBT-friendly country in the Middle East and one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world.

In 1993, for example, Uzi Even challenged discrimination against gays in the IDF, saying that he had been stripped of his rank and security clearance because of his sexual orientation. In the wake of his courageous statement, the IDF slowly became one of only 26 national defense forces that allow gays to serve openly. And it is now one of only ten countries in the world that allows transgender soldiers to enlist. Ever the trailblazer, Uzi Even became Israel’s first openly gay member of Knesset in 2002.

Israel’s judiciary has consistently found in favor of greater equality for LGBT citizens on issues such as inheritance, fertility treatments, adoption, surrogacy, and divorce. While same-sex marriage is still illegal in Israel, this is mainly due to the fact that the country has no institution of civil marriage. Instead, marriages are authorized—or not—by religious institutions that consider same-sex marriage a violation of Jewish, Muslim, or Christian law. But this lack of separation between religion and state strikes all Israelis, not only its LGBT community. And in an effort to provide remedies, the state does recognize common-law spouses—one of the very few countries to do so—as well as civil unions and marriages performed abroad.

It seems clear, moreover, that as more and more Israelis challenge religious hegemony over the institution of marriage, same-sex marriage will become more and more acceptable. Indeed, with an estimated 70 percent of Israelis supporting equal rights for all citizens regardless of sexual orientation, it is clear that the country’s traditional Jewish character and its ultra-Orthodox minority cannot stop the tides of social change.

As mentioned above, one significant indication of this trend is the emergence of new and more diverse voices from within the LGBT community itself. Traditionally, Left-wing parties like Meretz have been the champions of LGBT Israelis. The only two openly gay members of the last Knesset belonged to Meretz.

This election, however, was different. Until recently, the loudest LGBT voices in Israel rose from the beaches of Tel Aviv, from its parades and nightclubs, from the far Left, and mainly from gay Ashkenazi men. That has changed. Voices like those of Amir Ohana of the Likud party and Zehorit Sorek of Yesh Atid are being heard.

Amir Ohana is the openly gay leader of Proud to Be Likud. Founded in 2011, the group is the ruling Right-wing party’s LGBT forum. In a recent interview with i24 News, Ohana discussed the shift away from Left-wing hegemony over LGBT equality. “It has become a monopoly by the Left over human rights,” he said, “but we can and we are discussing human rights in Likud… One can be gay and have other views on other subjects. It doesn’t mean anything about my political views and my views on security and the economy. I’m a Likudnik because I have supported the Likud’s views for years.” The Left, says Ohana, has stated time and again that one cannot be both gay and on the Right. This is obviously not the case—Proud to Be Likud is the largest LGBT group in the Knesset, and as such exerts considerably more influence than similar forums connected to Meretz or the Zionist Union.

Speaking at a conference held by the Aguda last month, Ohana spoke about how LGBT voters were previously forced to choose between LGBT equality and other political concerns. “The community has historically voted for the Left because it was the Left that spoke to them,” he said, “but that has changed. Likud also speaks to gays and lesbians, and those who have a Right-wing viewpoint but didn’t vote for us because of LGBT rights will now feel they have a home.”

Amir Ohana, leader of Proud to be Likud, arrives to casts his vote at Likud’s primary elections, December 31, 2014. Photo: Flash90

Amir Ohana, leader of Proud to be Likud, arrives to casts his vote at Likud’s primary elections, December 31, 2014. Photo: Flash90

On March 18, in the jubilant morning hours of Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest victory, Ohana stood shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Likud members and proudly waved the rainbow flag. Though at number 32 on the Likud’s list he will not hold a seat in the Knesset, Ohana is not alone in his support of LGBT rights. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, for example, has come out in favor of marriage equality. “It is our duty to allow the members of the community to start a family, raise children, live, make a living, and contribute to Israeli society,” he told an Aguda panel. “I hope that the next Knesset passes laws that allow the members of the community to do just that.” Likud MK Miri Regev, in an interview with a drag queen a week before the election, echoed Ohana: “Part of the media and part of the public still believe this stigma [that the Right is anti-gay and the Left is in favor of gays]. The fact is that there are many gays on the Right.” Likud’s public support of LGBT issues lay in stark contrast to accusations of embedded homophobia in the Jewish Home party. Party leader Naftali Bennett struggled throughout his campaign to smooth over media maelstroms swirling around anti-gay statements made by Jewish Home hopefuls, largely without success.

Public support of the Israeli Right’s shift on marriage equality is an indication of the growing diversity of LGBT voices in the national political arena. Another such voice is that of Zehorit Sorek of Yesh Atid. Although she will not hold a seat in the next Knesset, Sorek continues to work tirelessly in support of Orthodox-affiliated LGBT individuals. In 2009, after she and her partner chose to make a public Kiddush to honor their recent wedding, Sorek was made unwelcome at her Tel Aviv synagogue. Having decided to remain Orthodox-affiliated despite coming out as a lesbian, Sorek found herself without a community or a place to worship. It was then that she decided to invite friends from the LGBT community to Yom Kippur services. Although she anticipated that perhaps a hundred people might participate, over 300 attended. Since then, Sorek’s Tel Aviv Pride Minyan has hosted numerous yearly events marking the Jewish holidays. “From my desire to connect between my lesbian identity and my Orthodox identity,” she has said, “I answered the needs of many people, so we carried on with more and more activities….It is a struggle that has succeeded.”

This growing diversity, including Sephardi, Israeli-Arab, Orthodox, and transgender men and women, diverges from the paradigmatic portrayal of LGBT Israel in the global media. While the typical picture of LGBT Israel is that of young, fit, secular, and white gay men flamboyantly partying on the beaches of Tel Aviv, this is not how most LGBT Israelis live their lives. Many of them identify with a multiplicity of identities and communities separate from sexual orientation, just as straight people do.

Thousands of people march during the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, September 18, 2014. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

Thousands of people marched during the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, September 18, 2014. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

Indeed, as LGBT Israelis are met with greater acceptance even in conservative circles, it is becoming clear that there is no “gay consensus” in Israel. Sexual orientation may not be the primary identity of many LGBT Israelis. Moreover, being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender—or straight, for that matter—does not necessarily intersect with or influence other forms of identity, such as family, religion, and politics. With greater inclusion, it is no longer necessary for LGBT Israelis to abandon traditional Judaism, identify with Leftist politics, or move to Tel Aviv in order to live outside the closet. The growing prominence of voices such as those of Sorek and Ohana, and the formation of advocacy groups within diverse communities, represent a fundamental shift that is currently taking place.

One such advocacy group is Havruta, a forum for gay Orthodox men. Like Sorek’s Pride Minyan and the Orthodox lesbian group Bat Kol, Havruta offers services to a predominantly traditional and moderate demographic that does not identify with the stereotypical Tel Aviv gay scene. Havruta’s website states that its main goals are to raise awareness of the issue of religious gays among the religious public; promote Torah, rabbinical, and public discourse on the subject; and contribute to the integration of religious gays in religious society. The group also works to combat false and dangerous beliefs commonly held by Orthodox Jews, including that being gay can be remedied through “reparative” or “conversion” therapy.

The aims of Orthodox LGBT groups are quite different from those of secular advocacy groups, and serve a population that is largely concentrated in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv. Thus, while many groups, including the Aguda, do not have a Jerusalem branch, both Bat Kol and Havruta offer programs and support to Jerusalem’s LGBT community, many of whom identify as traditional or Orthodox.

Yiscah Smith, a transgender Orthodox Torah scholar and teacher, lived in Jerusalem during the 1980s and returned to the city in 2011 after she underwent gender reassignment. These two periods in her life stand in stark contrast to one another, both in terms of her personal journey and in relation to the changes in Jerusalem’s LGBT landscape. “The shift is not coming from above,” she says.

Rather, the temperament of the community has changed. LGBT Jews used to feel as if they were constantly asking permission to be who they were. There was no place for them in the Torah world or in Jerusalem. The subcultures of today, be they communities or individuals, are benefitting from the struggles of older generations. I no longer need to ask permission, and this automatically creates a safer place to live authentically. Since I have been back in Israel I have not had a problem in any shul, at the Kotel, or anywhere else. There is still transphobia, but education is happening from the ground up.

Yiscah lives in a quaint neighborhood in Jerusalem that is home to a very diverse population. I spoke to Sarah Weil, a prominent and outspoken Jerusalem LGBT activist who lives in the same neighborhood, and it became clear during our conversation that the nation’s capital is quickly becoming a very different sort of “gay haven” than Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv celebrates LGBT equality with a yearly parade replete with ostentatious floats, loud techno music, and over 100,000 gyrating, partially clad partygoers—20,000 of whom are tourists. For Jerusalemites, however, their city’s parade is a political march for rights and recognition. The yearly event, which has been met with hostility and violent opposition since its inception, is characterized by modestly dressed youth holding homemade placards with rainbow-colored messages, such as “Proud and Orthodox,” “Proud and Right,” and “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.” Many of the young men wear kippot and some of the women do as well.

For the city’s estimated 40,000 LGBT residents, the hedonistic secularism of Tel Aviv is not necessarily something that appeals to their worldview. Sarah sees being LGBT in Israel’s capital as unique. “Jerusalem is diverse,” she says,

And Jerusalem’s LGBT community is likewise diverse. In general, LGBT people are found in every part of society, come from the entire spectrum of socioeconomic and religious backgrounds, and hold differing political beliefs….Like our friends and neighbors, many LGBT Jerusalemites are moderates, and some are more traditional and conservative. We often don’t identify with the underlying ideology of local LGBT organizations, which often tend towards a radical Leftist (anti-Zionist) political agenda. No one group—political, religious, or whatever—has (or should have) a monopoly on LGBT identity.

Like Zehorit Sorek, Sarah remained Orthodox-affiliated after coming out and has struggled to bridge these two identities. Although she found a home and a community in Jerusalem, she recognizes that there is still work to be done in gaining greater acceptance. She believes this will be accomplished through empathy, understanding, and fostering greater visibility for diverse LGBT communities. She works towards this by producing a number of events that intersect Jerusalem’s multiple dividing lines and bring the city’s subgroups together. These events include the Women’s Gathering, “a monthly gathering of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and queer women and women-identified peoples and friends for mingling, meeting, and community building”; “Lilith // music art,” a women’s and women-identified art showcase; and “eVe,” a Jerusalem-based club night that brings women and women-identified DJs from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem together.

Until recently, Sarah was active in Jerusalem’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, the Jerusalem Open House (JOH). The JOH offers a wide range of services and programs to the city’s LGBT population, including running its yearly pride march. Despite all of the good the group does, the JOH is not without controversy. This past summer, at the height of the conflict in Gaza, the group’s executive director engaged in open incitement, including a call to burn down the Kirya military headquarters and the offices of the prime minister, and urging soldiers to disobey orders. This sparked outrage and raised concerns about political, and especially Leftist, hegemony over the organization.

No longer feeling that the JOH could provide a secure space for her, Sarah walked away. Months later, she still expresses disappointment, explaining that the dissonance between the radical Leftist politics embraced by the leadership of the Jerusalem Open House and the politics of the individuals the organization purports to serve is divisive and counterproductive. Speaking on Voice of Israel radio in September, Sarah articulated this divide. “The gay people who live here share the values” of other Jerusalemites, she said.

The vocal gay community is dominated by an extremist voice that many Jerusalemites do not identify with and may in fact alienate LGBT Jerusalem residents….The Jerusalem Open House is not living up to its mission statement. On the ground, it is not an open house; rather it is a closed house for a very small number of people who in general are affiliated with radical Left-wing politics and those who sympathize with these politics. If you don’t identify with these politics, then you will not feel at home in the JOH….This is an organization that is using the LGBT community to appeal to donors and to get money on the backs of all of us to promote a very specific agenda.

This “very specific agenda” is not one shared by the vast majority of people stepping through the JOH’s doors. Officially, the Jerusalem Open House is politically neutral, but nearly all of its leadership, as Sarah Weil experienced, is on the far-Left, making the JOH inhospitable to the large number of LGBT Jerusalemites with more traditional and conservative leanings.

JOH’s pretense of political neutrality seems to have been permanently damaged, but at least the organization has made efforts to outwardly appear neutral. Other Jerusalem LGBT groups are much more blatantly radical. From 2001-2007, the Palestinian LGBT group Al Qaws was housed and operated by the Jerusalem Open House. According to the organization’s director, Haneen Maikey, Al Qaws chose to divorce itself from the JOH because “Al Qaws do not work with any Israeli queer groups or with any international queer group that does not condemn Zionism as colonialism and inherently racist.”

According to Maikey, gay liberation for Palestinians cannot be separated from Palestinian national liberation, and as such can only be undertaken by LGBT Palestinians who understand the “resistance movement,” i.e., those who support radical forms of Palestinian nationalism. Israeli LGBT groups, she believes, became complicit in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians by placing their struggle in the context of political and social recognition—including the right to openly serve in what Palestinians see as an occupying army. A further level of complicity, as Maikey explained at the World Social Forum in 2012, is LGBT Israelis’ participation in what has become colloquially referred to as “pinkwashing.”

The term “pinkwashing” was first used in 2010 by the vitriolic anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada in order to describe what it sees as Israel’s cynical use of LGBT rights to cover up more severe human rights violations against the Palestinians. This branding of Israel as LGBT-positive is, according to anti-“pinkwashing” (popularly called “pinkwatching”) activists, further proof of Israel’s racist and colonialist nature, and a means of distracting people from the truth about Israel’s violent occupation of the West Bank. The World Social Forum describes “pinkwashing” as “a tactic that uses gay rights to divert attention away from the continued violation of Palestinian human rights and the conditions of Israel’s apartheid system, occupation, and colonization of Palestinian land.”

During the 2013 Tel Aviv Pride Parade, the anarcho-queer collective "Mashpritzot" (“Squirters”) held a die-in to protest Israeli “pinkwashing” and the priorities of the city-sponsored LGBT center. Photo: Tmagen / Wikimedia

During the 2013 Tel Aviv Pride Parade, the anarcho-queer collective “Mashpritzot” (“Squirters”) held a die-in to protest Israeli “pinkwashing” and the priorities of the city-sponsored LGBT center. Photo: Tmagen / Wikimedia

Al Qaws and other Jerusalem groups, like Pinkwatching Israel and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, operate safely from within Israel’s borders, enjoying freedom of speech and assembly while simultaneously opposing Israel’s existence and justifying terrorism as a “grassroots popular uprising.” These groups campaign for the exclusion of other Israeli LGBT groups from international conferences and events—in effect, cutting off LGBT Israelis from possible support and safe spaces in which they can express themselves.

It seems clear that the rights, security, and freedoms of LGBT individuals are not a top priority to this alliance between the anti-Israel Left and radical LGBT advocacy. In fact, these groups maintain that achieving legal equality is not the true aim of the LGBT protest movement. Instead, it sees extending rights to LGBT people—whether in Israel or elsewhere—as an extension of the racist, colonial occupation of indigenous lands. LGBT individuals are made complicit in these crimes simply by virtue of their participation in mainstream society. Trans activist and Seattle University law professor Dean Spade gave quintessential expression to this ideology at the World Social Forum, saying,

Same-sex marriage is useless and participates in harmful colonialism and social control. Israel is controlling who can reproduce how, who can live how, [in order] to eliminate the Palestinians. This is the goal of settler colonialism—to have the land without the people….Marriage and military service law reforms are developed by white elite lawyer-led organizations funded by wealthy philanthropists and publicized by corporate media that is pro-war and that is invested in selling romance and weddings and all this shit…telling gays that they can be soldiers and spouses.

Joined by a stellar cast of anti-Israel radicals, including Angela Davis, Judith Butler, Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke, and other radical Left academics, the global “pinkwatching” campaign was already gaining traction when it went viral with a 2011 op-ed in The New York Times. In a piece entitled “Israel and Pinkwashing,” CUNY professor Sarah Schulman not only accused Israel of being inherently homophobic, but also claimed that homosexuality is legal under the Palestinian Authority and that LGBT Palestinians are not persecuted as frequently as Israeli propaganda would have us believe. Furthermore, she asserted, Israel’s campaign to attract LGBT tourism and participate in international LGBT events is nothing but a cynical conspiracy to cover up their continued colonial enterprise.

Schulman has since been exposed as a somewhat paranoid ideologue by Tower contributing editor James Kirchick. In an article for Tablet, Kirchick described how, at a CUNY conference on “pinkwashing,” Schulman accused Jewish-American LGBT activists of being Israeli operatives, refused to include speakers who did not sufficiently conform to her radical agenda, and lied about the number of attendees. It seems that Schulman, like many “pinkwatching” adherents, succumbed to her own ideological fantasies.

Another proponent of “pinkwatching” is Jasbir Puar, an associate professor at Rutgers University who coined the expression “homonationalism.” This term supposedly defines what happens when a Western LGBT “counterculture” achieves parity with its “heteronormative” counterpart. According to “homonationalist” theory, the counterculture’s members are absorbed into the colonialist project inherent in all neoliberal democracies and become its co-conspirators. Like Dean Spade’s “soldiers and spouses,” Puar’s homonationalized gays undermine the project of liberation for developing-world gays, as she explains in her article, “Rethinking Homonationalism.”

Homonationalism is fundamentally a deep critique of lesbian and gay liberal rights discourses and how those rights discourses produce narratives of progress and modernity that continue to accord some populations access to citizenship—cultural and legal—at the expense of the delimitation and expulsion of other populations. The narrative of progress for gay rights is thus built on the back of racialized others.

In the case of Israel, these “racialized others” are, of course, the Palestinians.

During our conversation, I asked Sarah Weil whether Israel markets its “good on gay” agenda a little too forcefully. From building up Tel Aviv as a global destination for LGBT tourists to taking out ads in The New York Times proclaiming how liberal Israel is in comparison to Hamas and ISIS, it does seem at times as though Israel is moving from start-up nation to come-out nation. She quickly dismissed the idea. “This radical protest movement views the very structures of society as inherently colonial, racist, and misogynistic,” she said.

They don’t believe in government or marriage or religion. Their blind support of the Palestinians has nothing to do with LGBT rights, and very little to do with Palestinian rights. It has far more to do with hating Israel and wanting to overthrow everything Israel stands for….The LGBT activists that support “pinkwashing” are willing to throw queer people and LGBT rights under the bus if it means achieving their greater political goals, which have nothing to do with LGBT rights….And we queer people are the ones who really suffer from this. Israel does support LGBT rights. Thank God! Why should that not be publicized?
Sarah is, of course, correct. Most LGBT individuals want a “heteronormative LGBT life.” They want marriage equality, army service, political representation, freedom of assembly, adoption, subsidized and accessible gender reassignment surgery, and surrogacy and inheritance rights. This is what the majority of LGBT people have been fighting for. The insinuation that, by wanting these things, LGBT Israelis are somehow oppressing Palestinians and betraying gay liberation seems not only ridiculous but malicious; and, for the most part, irrelevant to the progress being made by Israel’s LGBT population.

In spite of these attempts to undermine their cause and, of course, opposition from more traditionalist elements in Israeli society, LGBT Israelis are succeeding in their quest to achieve recognition and acceptance throughout the country. And politicians like Amir Ohana and Zehorit Sorek are showing that LGBT-friendly policies are not only the domain of the Left-wing, but can be embraced by both Centrist and Right-wing parties. This represents a quiet revolution in which all LGBT Israeli now have a chance to be represented.

Indeed, as the March 17 elections demonstrated, LGBT voices are being raised from nearly every sector of Israeli society. LGBT activism in Israel no longer belongs exclusively to one group, city, or political ideology. Across the entire political, religious, and geographic spectrum, LGBT Israelis are stepping up and being heard. With wide public and political support, these elections may well have been a turning point for all sides of Israel’s gay community. However, with the obvious opposition of ultra-Orthodox party members in his likely coalition, Netanyahu may be facing an insurmountable uphill battle—only time will tell if the Likud’s courtship of Israel’s LGBT voters was genuine.

Banner Photo: Tomer Neuberg / Flash90