This spring, two important chapters in the surprising story of Israeli gay and lesbian politics concluded. In the mid-May elections, the leftist Meretz Party failed to snag enough votes to seat the first openly gay Knesset candidate, a Tel Aviv University chemistry professor named Uzi Even. Twelve days later, transsexual pop diva Dana International relinquished her crown to this year’s winner of Eurovision, Europe’s cutthroat, high-kitsch music competition, in which an estimated 100 million viewers watch contestants from twenty-five countries perform pop songs and choose the winner through phone-in voting.
Even and Dana International are central characters in what looks like some modernized, badass Bible tale: he the gruff, pragmatic, deep-voiced, gray-haired gay Ashkenazi, a soldier-scientist-scholar who has swapped war stories with President Ezer Weizman and fought for political rights for gay men and lesbians; she the tiara-toting, Gaultier-wearing, outspoken young Yemenite woman who started as a working-class man named Yaron Cohen doing Whitney Houston drag in Beersheba and wound up a singing sensation and national heroine, turning gender stigma into a badge of honor. They don’t have much contact with each other, and they aren’t friends. But together they summarize the dramatic, rapid coming-of-age of Israeli sexual politics.
Watching those politics is like viewing the United States in a funhouse mirror. Over the past decade, Israel has quietly placed itself among the most advanced countries on gay civil rights. “We made a total revolution in the law,” says Menahem Sheizaf, head of the Agudah, Israel’s main gay and lesbian organization, who also runs one of the largest lobbying firms in Israel.
That’s not an exaggeration. The Knesset decriminalized homosexuality in 1988 and prohibited sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace in 1992; in 1993 Knesset member Yael Dayan initiated a subcommittee on lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, and the Israel Defense Force established an antidiscrimination policy; in 1994 a High Court of Justice decision required full spousal benefits to the same-sex partner of an El Al Airlines employee; in 1997 the Tel Aviv Military Court recognized Adir Steiner as the legal widower of a male officer, and the High Court ruled that a program on homosexual youth canceled by the Education Ministry be broadcast on educational television; and in 1998 the Civil Service Commission granted pension rights to same-sex partners.
In the United States we’ve had decades of Stonewall, gay lib, rainbow flags, Ellen and Will and Grace, marches on Washington, gay ghettos, lesbian music festivals, corporate sponsorship–and there is still no federal antidiscrimination protection for people who are not heterosexual. Homosexual activities are still criminalized in many states, and same-sex partners are nowhere near on a legal par with opposite-sex ones.
In Israel, however, despite a decade of legal wins, the first national-scale Israeli Gay Pride Parade wasn’t until last year. “I cannot say that the gay community here started as a courageous fighting group,” as Dayan, the principal straight fighter for gay rights, puts it. “Here it went from top to bottom,” says Even, who made a media splash with a dramatic coming-out speech in the Knesset in 1993 and who with his partner, Amit Kama, has been one of a handful of poster children for gay and lesbian rights. Gay people in Israel have made huge legal strides while remaining, until the last couple of years, a tiny dot on the cultural map.
Silence and Noise
The rights-before-visibility dynamic certainly puts in perspective the American assumption that homosexuals have to demonstrate their widespread existence (“We are everywhere!”) as a prerequisite to making claims for civil rights protections, resources and acceptance. Yet at least in part, the ease with which legal changes have taken place has to do with the Israeli political structure, in which the legal realm is often more progressive than the cultural one. Without a Constitution, the role of protecting minority and marginalized populations is generally taken up by the Israeli Supreme Court, which has tended historically to take that job seriously. In nearly every case the Court has ruled in favor of lesbian and gay civil rights. “The Supreme Court decision becomes law, so I don’t have to repeat a decision in the Knesset,” says Dayan. “I just use [the court decisions] as precedent.”
In part, though, legal change has been dramatic and quick precisely because the “community” itself has remained, until recently, largely out of the public eye. After all, if there seem to be so few openly gay people to take up the offer of equal rights, granting those rights appears to be politically inexpensive for members of the Knesset and economically inexpensive for the government. “People think it’s not a real thing, the gay thing, so what’s the big deal to give them rights,” says Yair Qedar, founder and publisher of the gay monthly Pink Time. Of course, there is a serious downside to this: Israeli lesbians and gay men complain about the persistent strength of the closet. “We still have to do a lot of work on ourselves,” says Luba Fine, director of the Agudah. “I think we don’t know yet how to take up the liberalism that other people are offering. The community hasn’t yet come out of the closet.”
There were earlier blips of visibility, but communal coming-out, still centered mostly in Tel Aviv, is a very recent phenomenon. The past three years have seen the emergence of Israeli Wigstock, a hit not just with gay people but with hip straight ones. Tel Aviv was also the site of a major demonstration last year, in which several hundred people did battle with police and marched to City Hall. A lesbian and gay community center and a gay-friendly bookstore/cafe have opened in Jerusalem, the first books of gay fiction by Israeli-born authors have been published and Pink Time, with a distribution of close to 10,000, was founded. Michal Eden, a lesbian activist, was elected to the Tel Aviv City Council, and Uzi Even ran for the Knesset (a “symbolic” candidacy, he says, to establish “the fact that someone who’s gay can run for office”). There was a lesbian-run demonstration against the Education Ministry, which had refused the lesbian-feminist organization KLAF a booth at its fair, and the Gay Pride parade had seven Knesset members in the front row. This year’s Pride celebration is supported by the City of Tel Aviv, which will put rainbow flags along a major avenue, as part of the city’s ninetieth anniversary celebration.
Then there’s Dana’s victory, hailed over and over by Israeli lesbians and gays as a watershed event. Dana, who has always retained her ties to, and spoken up for, the gay community, was kissed by journalists and by the Minister of Tourism. She performed at the Gay Games in Amsterdam. Benjamin Netanyahu himself claimed to hum along to her single “Diva.”
Despite fears to the contrary, this road to visibility has not been blocked by mobilized opposition from the Orthodox communities. Uzi Even tells of participating in a pilot for a political television program, for instance, with Yael Dayan and representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the National Religious Party and the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party Shas. The topic was the revelation that gay men, some of them with partners, were serving in diplomatic positions with full Foreign Ministry support. “Comes the religious guy, the NRP guy, and he says it’s against the Torah and all that,” recalls Even. “But, he says, there are many things against the Torah. Yael Dayan looks at him, shocked. ‘You mean you give up?’ And the guy from Shas jumps in. ‘Yes, why should you always be the liberal-minded and we should always appear the other way?'” he says, laughing. “So there was no argument. Everybody agreed. And the show never aired.”
This is not to say that there is no antigay antagonism from religious parties. The Shas Party’s Shlomo Benizri, for instance, sounding like Jesse Helms in a kippah, announced that Dana International “is an abomination” and that “God is against this phenomenon.” In Sodom even, he suggested, there was nothing like it. “This legitimizes homosexuals and other perverts in society. She is–he is–a pervert.”
Gay people have been pulled into the intense battle between religious and secular Israeli Jews, symbolizing, whether they want to or not, freedom from religious strictures. Dana’s win came just after a religious victory requiring Bat Sheva dance company members to put on more clothes for their performance at Israel’s Jubilee Bells celebration (instead, the company refused to perform). The Eurovision victory was a sweet payback for secular straights and gays alike, thousands of whom celebrated in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. As one Dana International fan said simply to the London Guardian, “As much as the religious party thought they would defeat us, we are showing them this is a secular country, and the secular people will win.” For most Orthodox Jews, homosexuality certainly remains a symbol of the secular values they vehemently oppose.
Still, few on the Israeli religious right have bothered to get up in arms for more than a few blustery moments. It’s easy to overestimate religious antigay activity, to see it as somehow akin to the US fundamentalist right. In the 1996 elections, when Shas got ten seats in the Knesset, the general board of the lesbian-feminist KLAF had a meeting. “We talked about how the last person out should turn off the lights,” says Edit Meran, a KLAF committee member, “since now we’d have to shut everything down. We thought it would be catastrophic. But nothing really changed.” In fact, claims by Jerusalem’s deputy mayor that he would see to it that Dana International would never host this year’s Eurovision in Jerusalem (the winning country hosts) were, as Qedar puts it, “just ordinary noise, less than rhetoric.” The Orthodox did not work to have Dana’s title withdrawn, just as they have not worked to reverse lesbian and gay civil rights advances, and last month she presided in Jerusalem. “It’s symbolic opposition,” says Sheizaf, the lobbyist. When there’s a vote coming up, he meets with members of the right-wing and religious parties. “We just ask them not to come,” he says. “And usually they don’t.”
Every year since 1993, Yael Dayan has organized a Knesset day to promote lesbian and gay civil rights, an officially recognized event with speakers under a rainbow flag. The first year, the Orthodox members objected vehemently, “almost a physical resistance,” she says. But the resistance “rose and died very quickly, because it didn’t have any substance.” By now, “it’s a non-event,” and the main difficulty is finding openly lesbian and gay people to come speak on a workday.
Gay bashing remains rare but is certainly not unheard of in Israel, and some of the public condemnation of lesbians and gay men has been ugly and threatening. As visibility grows there is certainly cause for concern about backlash. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we start to see homophobic violence,” says the Agudah’s Fine. “It’s just like the peace process: As the community is liberated, hatred also grows. That’s the price we pay.” But that remains to be seen; Israeli homophobia doesn’t look or act like the American version. There is no mobilization by political parties to deny equal rights and benefits to gay people, no equivalent of the Christian Coalition, no Defense of Marriage Act, no organized fundamentalist hate campaign.
Soldiers and Mothers
The prevailing cultural strategies of existing lesbian and gay organizations in Israel have often undercut potential opposition. Dana notwithstanding, the dominant image of gays and lesbians as they have moved into the public eye has been a remarkably conservative one: as soldiers and mothers who just want to be part of the Jewish nation. “From the moment that the community became visible and presented itself to the society at large, it tried to present itself as part of the Zionist pantheon,” says Ruti Kadish, a doctoral candidate researching the Israeli lesbian and gay community, who herself has two children with her female partner and a parental-rights case before the Supreme Court. “So the men are soldiers, the women make babies, and they have done their Zionist task. They’re embraced anew into the Zionist pantheon, back in the fold.”
The stereotypes that worked to keep gay men so silent–that Israeli men are masculine reversals of the soft Jewish wimps of the pre-state diaspora, and that gay men have their genders on backwards–were turned around by gay men. In his 1993 Knesset speech, Even focused on the military in part because of its social centrality. “The only thing we were asking,” he says, “was for the chance to serve like everybody else. It was difficult to turn such a request away.” It worked: Military policy changed within a matter of months. The traditional roles that have restricted women in Israel, as handmaidens to the men who do the “real” work, were tweaked by the lesbians in KLAF, which was founded in 1987 at a feminist conference. In the midst of an Israeli lesbian baby boom, KLAF now emphasizes family issues; their Saturday picnics in Tel Aviv include many children, and second-parent adoption is a major focus of current organizing. “Women in Israel are still primarily identified as mothers and wives,” says Kadish. “And for lesbians to bear children is in some weird way to redeem themselves.”
This soldiers-and-mothers approach certainly makes lesbians and gay men more palatable to the large population of Israelis from Arab countries, who tend to be more culturally conservative. It is especially effective in disarming the ultra-Orthodox, who are exempt from military service (and thus have no standing in that central area) and for whom the traditional female role of mothering is sacred. Its ultimate effectiveness, though, may be its appeal to Jewish nationalism. Gays and lesbians have fast become not-Other by emphasizing not just their similarity to straights but their difference from the ultimate Other in Israel. It is perhaps fitting that the first official document ever sent from the Israeli prime minister to the US-based World Congress of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Jewish Organizations, according to the daily paper Ha’aretz, was an April warning against the Palestinian Authority’s “negative attitude toward gays.” Without casting doubt on antigay attitudes in the Palestinian Authority, one can see the deal being offered: We will welcome you back inside if you distance yourself from the real outsiders. If gays and lesbians are gaining legitimacy, it is in part because of who they are not.
In this context, the Dana International story looks especially significant. She herself was a flashy nationalist warrior in a flag-waving song war. But she was a rupture in the system, and whether Israelis pick up on and expand that rupture remains the subject of future chapters. “I saw it in the streets when she won,” says Qedar. “A moment of liberation, a feeling of freedom, when all the gender categories blended.” She embodied, at least for a moment, as much as possible for a person in sequins, a different vision of Israel, one less tied to the renunciation of difference, be it on the basis of gender, sexual desire or nation. “I represent the regular Israelis, all the Arabs, the Christians,” she told reporters after last year’s win. “We’ll all meet in heaven or hell with no flesh, just soul,” she said, sounding as biblical as one would hope. “And souls have no gender.