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Israeli LGBTQ community thriving and accepted

On December 3, 2012

  • Mara Sassoon

In the United States, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights movement has recently witnessed major triumphs in legislation, litigation and public support. Voters in three states-Maine, Maryland and Washington-passed legislation allowing marriage equality. Not only is this the first time such a ballot measure has passed, but it also underscores the shifting attitudes of the American people. Until a few years ago, gay men and women could not serve openly in the military, the federal government was defending the Defense of Marriage Act and until this November, no openly gay politicians were elected to the Unites States Senate.

While the LGBTQ rights movement is finally beginning to gain widespread support here in America, thousands of miles away in Israel, most of the battle has already been fought. Israel, a country of over seven million and the only Jewish state in the world, is culturally inclusive and has passed varying legislation guaranteeing rights for its LGBTQ citizens. Over the past few decades, it has passed laws prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexuality and granting same-sex couples equality before the law, just to name a few. Despite its volatile surroundings in the Middle East, Israel has chosen a path of equality.
First and foremost, the vast majority of Israel, with the exception of highly religious communities, is culturally inclusive and accepting.

There are numerous gay bars and clubs throughout the country, and the nation's yearly pride parade in Tel Aviv draws over 100,000 participants. In fact, in 2011, Tel Aviv was named the Best Gay City in an international American Airlines competition that selects the most popular destinations among LGBTQ tourists, and a 2007 article in Out Magazine named Tel Aviv the "gay capital of the Middle East."

This fact is even more impressive once you examine the policies of other countries in the region. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, among others, have penalties for homosexuality including prison time, corporal punishment and even death.

Furthermore, many Israeli movies and television shows openly depict same-sex romances, including the well-known 2002 film Yossi & Jagger which won awards at the Tribeca Film Festival and at other international film celebrations. Once again, this stands in stark contrast with the entertainment available in other countries in the region.

In terms of legislation, Israel has moved at a swift pace. While the United States' Don't Ask Don't Tell policy was not repealed until 2010, Israel has allowed gay citizens to serve openly in the military since the early 1990s. Additionally, in 1992, a law was introduced prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Other such laws have been passed, including a Supreme Court ruling stating that the partner of a gay employee at El Al, Israel's national airline, is entitled to free airline tickets just as the spouse of any other heterosexual employee.

The situation, however, is not yet perfect. Despite a 2009 poll in Haaretz, a major Israeli newspaper, indicating that 61 percent of Israelis support gay marriage-a percentage much higher than the 51 percent of Americans who expressed support in a November CNN poll-same-sex marriages are not permitted in Israel. This is due to the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, with, according to a 2009 government study, eight percent of the population identifying as "ultra-Orthodox," 12 percent identifying as "religious," and 13 percent as "religiously observant."

While being religious does not necessarily equate with not being supportive of gay marriage, Israel functions under the stricter Jewish requirements of Orthodox Judaism in order to ensure that even the most religious of its citizens feel comfortable under the law. This means that only traditional marriages between a man and a woman can legally take place there.  Nonetheless, unlike the United States and many other western countries, Israel recognizes all foreign marriages, including same-sex marriages. It thus comes as no surprise that many Israeli couples venture elsewhere to get married, and return to Israel to reap the benefits.

Additionally, many Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum support same-sex marriage, including Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon of the governing right-of-center Likud Party; Shelly Yachimovich, head of the left-of-center Labor Party; Yair Lapid, head of the newly formed Yesh Atid Party; Zehava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz party; and many other members of the Israeli parliament.

While it is clear that Israel still has progress to be made on the issue of LGBTQ rights, same-sex couples in Israel profit from the recognition of foreign same-sex marriages, equal benefits, equal pay and the clear support of the majority of Israeli citizens.

While attitudes are shifting slowly in the United States, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is once again a proposed piece of legislation, in Israel same-sex couples are fully equal before the law. As of now, it seems as though Israel will continue to pursue an agenda of equality, and will hopefully someday overcome the barriers blocking same-sex marriages from being performed in the country.

Daniel Koas '16 is the membership coordinator of the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee and Joe Babeu '15 is the president of the Queer Policy Alliance.

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