Homosexuality in Israel

Israel is among the leaders in equality for sexual minorities.

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Evolution

By the early 1980's, the values of Israeli society began to evolve, and with them, the scope of public discourse. The socialist certainties of Israel's founders gave way to a consumer society. The certainties of Zionism gave way to a multitude of political and cultural identities: ultra-orthodox Judaism, growing assertion of a Palestinian identity among Israel's Arab citizens, nationalism, and yearnings for a more Western, liberal society competed for the allegiance of Israelis.

Yet, gay identity and politics still did not go public. The close-knit nature of Israeli society made coming out exceedingly difficult, as did Israeli society's emphasis on family and reproduction. So it fell on non-gay supporters of gay rights to move things forward.

By the late 1980's, these efforts began to pay off, laying a road map for future gay political success. As part of a broader reform of Israel's penal code, liberal Knesset members decided to try to repeal the sodomy law. In 1988, they literally called a vote to repeal the sodomy law in the middle of the night, when it was prearranged that religious Knesset members would not be present, promising not to draw too much attention to the effort. The next day, following repeal, religious politicians screamed to the heavens on the radio and in the press, but it was largely for show. This pattern of doing things quietly, even under the table, would repeat itself.

The next few years marked the golden age of gay political success in Israel. By 1992, lesbian and gay activists had succeeded in getting the Knesset to amend Israel's Equal Workplace Opportunities Law to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In 1993, the Israeli military rescinded its few regulations discriminating against gays and lesbians. And in 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered El Al Israel Airlines to grant a free plane ticket to the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline had long done for heterosexual partners of employees.

Since then, there has been steady progress, especially in the courts. As the victories mounted, so, too, did the number of people prepared to be open about their sexual orientation.

Mainstream Success

The reasons for gay and lesbian political success during this period from 1988 through the mid-1990s were many. Chief among them was the fact that gay activists pursued a very mainstream strategy, seeking to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex.

This strategy, pursued until recently, reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it. Embracing gay rights enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities.

Another reason for success was that the only source of real opposition to gay rights in Israel stems from the country's religious parties. This may seem contradictory, but it is not. While religious parties have played a role in every Israeli government since the establishment of the state in 1948, in recent years, as their power has grown, so has the resentment of secular Israelis. Thus, the opposition of religious parties to gay rights has engendered the opposite reaction among non-religious Israelis.

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Lee Walzer

Lee Walzer is the author of Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through Today's Changing Israel and Gay Rights on Trial.