Homosexuality in Israel
Israel is among the leaders in equality for sexual minorities.
Reprinted with permission from The Gully Online Magazine.
Although the idea of a vibrant queer community in Israel, reputed birthplace of the biblical condemnation of same-sex relations, may seem far-fetched, Israel today is one of the world's most progressive countries in terms of equality for sexual minorities. Politically, legally, and culturally, the community has moved from life at the margins of Israeli society to visibility and growing acceptance.
In the Beginning
There is no magic mythical beginning to Israel's LGBT community, like the 1969 Stonewall riots that spurred American queers into action. Instead, changes in the values and politics of Israeli society over the past twenty years or so created the space in which a gay and lesbian community could coalesce.
The first gay organization was established in 1975, thanks largely to the work of immigrants from the United States and other English-speaking countries influenced by the development of gay liberation and the counterculture of the 1960s.
The very name of this first organization, the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights (then, as today, known as the Agudah, in Hebrew), reflected the difficulty of organizing sexual minorities at a time when the existence of a sodomy law was thought by many to make homosexuality itself illegal. In its early years, the Agudah functioned more as a support and social group rather than as a political organization.
Lesbians began organizing within the Israeli women's movement, which provided some space for the discussion of lesbian issues and radical feminism. But for many years, Israeli lesbians funneled most of their energies into feminism, rather than the struggle for gay and lesbian equality.
The development of a gay identity was difficult for many at a time when Israeli society was still in the midst of its Zionist revolution. Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, sought to create a "New Jew" as part of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. The New Jew would work the land or engage in blue collar jobs, rather than in the "bourgeois" professions taken up by Jews in the Diaspora (the early Zionists were resolute socialists).
The security problems facing the Jewish state also precluded for many years discussion of a variety of social issues and problems. Pleading more pressing issues, the public agenda did not include the place of mizrahim (Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Arab countries) in a society dominated by European-born Jews, women's liberation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, or gay rights. Moreover, the collective values preached by the early founders of the Jewish state likewise left little room for exploration of personal identity.