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Israel Society & Culture: LGBT Rights in Israel

Israel was ranked as the seventh happiest place in the world for gay men to live on the first ever annual Gay Happiness Index in 2015, which surveyed over 115,000 gay men in 127 countries. The survey named Iceland as the country in which gay men feel most accepted and happiest to live in, followed by their Nordic neighbors Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Israel ranked above the United Kingdom (23) and also above the United States (26). Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz and the gay dating network PlanetRomeo collaborated to complete this study.

Following the opening of the mixed-gender prayer space at Robinson's Arch, transexual Jewish people could pray for the first time without fear of  misgendering themselves at the Kotel. The site is managed by a government appointed pluralistic council including Orthodox and non-Orthodox representatives.

Recent Events

Six individuals were stabbed at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade on July 30, 2015, by an Ultra-Orthodox Jew. The attacker, Yishai Schlissel, had been released from prison just weeks prior after completing a 12 year sentence for stabbing three individuals at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade in 2005. Schlissel emerged behind spectators at the rally and began stabbing wildly and screaming, before being apprehended by security personnel. While being questioned, Schlissel asserted that he did not accept the rulings and authority of the Israeli courts because they were not based in the Torah. One of Schlissel's victims, 16 year old Shira Banki, died of her stab wounds a few days after the attack. Schlissel was convicted of murder and multiple charges of attempted murder on April 19, 2016, and he could face life in prison.

The Knesset officially designated February 23, 2016, as the state of Israel's official LGBT rights day. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the Knesset marking the occasion, claiming that he had come to say one thing to the Israeli LGBT community: every person was created in the image of God. Amir Ohana, a gay Knesset member from Netanyahu's Likud party, compared LGBT peoples to Jews, who throughout history have been “hated for no reason, persecuted, discriminated against and faced forced conversion.” Although it was a celebratory atmosphere as the Knesset honored the first LGBT rights day, they failed to pass legislation the following day that would have recognized same-sex widows of slain soldiers, recognized civil unions, banned conversion therapy for minors, and required medical professionals to study gender and sexual orientation as part of their licensing process.

Popular Israeli professional basketball player Gili Mosinzon announced that he is bi-sexual in a Facebook posting on May 12, 2016, Israel's Independence day. Mosinzon plays small forward for the Maccabi Bat Yam basketball team, and is generally considered one of Israel's best basketball players. In his 2,000 word post, Mosinzon spoke on issues of modern homophobia in sports, and stated that some of his fellow athletes have chosen suicide over “coming out of the closet.”

The first ever Miss Trans Israel contest took place on May 27, 2016, in the Meskin Auditorium at the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv. The twelve contestants, all born biologically as men, competed for a $15,000 prize as well as a place in the Miss Trans Star 2016 contest to be held in Barcelona, Spain, and the Miss International Queen 2016 contest held in Thailand. The winner from Miss Trans Star 2015, Miss Chile Vanessa Lopez, crowned Christian Israeli-Arab Ta’alin Abu Hanna as the first ever Miss Trans Israel.

In July 2016 the city of Beersheba's first ever gay pride march was cancelled, after the route was altered by the Israeli Supreme Court due to concerns of violence in the area.

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced on December 8, 2016, that the naturalization process for same-sex couples in Israel would from then on be the same as the process for heterosexual couples. For heterosexual couples the transition period to full citizenship took approximately four years; but the Israeli Gay Fathers Association asserted in a petition to Mandelblit that it was not uncommon for homosexual couples to have to wait seven years or more. On top of this, the couples were often granted permanent residency instead of citizenship. The organization lauded the decision as “a huge victory against discrimination for same sex couples.”

Shachar Erez, the first openly transgendered officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, was welcomed with open arms by his brothers after admitting his true self to them.  Erez extended his IDF service beyond the mandatory two-years after finding his niche, and took on a position as an advisor in the gender affairs office of the IDF.  

General Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek became the first senior IDF official to come out of the closet, on May 10, 2017.  In an interview with the Israel Bar Association, General Afek stated that he had never experienced discrimination in the IDF because of his sexual orientation, and that he never felt his sexual orientation was a factor in his superiors making decisions about him.  Afek was promoted to the rank of Major General in July 2018, the first openly gay individual to hold this rank in the IDF.   

Approximately 20,000 people flooded the streets of Tel Aviv to celebrate Israel's Pride festival in early August 2018.  Israel is the only country in the Middle East where a celebration like this can openly happen.  

Legal Cases

Two major legal cases in Israel involved homosexuality. On Jan. 10, 1997, Tel Aviv District Court, acting as an IDF appeals committee, ordered the army to recognize Adir Steiner as the common-law spouse of the late Col. Doron Maisel and to grant him benefits as an IDF widower.

Maisel, who died of cancer in November 1991, had lived with Steiner since 1984. The two shared finances and their relationship was public knowledge. Steiner asked the army for the compensation it pays bereaved spouses and for recognition as Maisel’s spouse for memorial purposes. The army refused, saying that only heterosexual couples qualify.

Steiner’s attorney argued that the law does not rule out common-law spouses of the same sex and that the IDF’s position was discriminatory. The committee ruled that a woman in Steiner’s position would be eligible for the benefits—as the law applies to both married and common-law spouses—and that he was being denied them merely because he is male. The committee accepted the appellant’s claim that the law applies equally to relations between members of the same sex. The IDF appealed to Jerusalem District Court, claiming that the language of the law governing IDF pensions cannot be interpreted to entitle same-sex partners.

Steiner had filed two other petitions as well. In early February, in response to one of them—filed with the High Court of Justice in July 1996—Defense Minister Itzchak Mordechay announced that his ministry would recognize Steiner “as if he were a family member” in memorial matters. This status would allow him to attend and receive free transportation to memorial services, contribute to an entry in a memorial book, and receive a grant with which to memorialize Maisel. Steiner had argued that the benefits are given to live-in heterosexual partners and that, according to the Danilowitz precedent, homosexual partners are equally entitled to them. The Steiner decision was more far-reaching than the Danilowitz ruling, which dealt with a private contract; gay-rights activists expect the former to have ramifications for the entire public sector. In Steiner’s third suit, he sought recognition as the widower of a fallen soldier on the grounds that Maisel’s cancer was caused by exposure to the sun during his IDF service; in early 1998, Steiner was appealing a verdict in favor of the Defense Ministry.

The other case concerned Education Minister Zevulun Hammer’s decision to scuttle the broadcast of an Educational Television program on homosexual teenagers. On the program, part of ETV’s Open Cards series, homosexual teens and the mother of a homosexual boy told their stories to a teenage audience, followed by questions and comments from the audience. It was originally slated to be aired on Oct. 10, 1996. Hammer postponed it to Nov. 21, but on Nov. 20 said he was postponing it again in order to review it personally. No new date was set. In early January Hammer’s media advisor told the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women that Hammer was delaying the program because he considered its message inappropriate for an educational medium.

On Jan. 13, 1997, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), joined by the Lesbian Feminist Community and the Association for the Protection of Individual Rights of Homosexuals, Lesbians, and Bisexuals in Israel, petitioned the High Court to overturn Hammer’s decision. ACRI argued that the Education Minister has no authority to interfere with ETV programming. Furthermore, alleged the petitioners, Hammer’s decision violated freedom of expression. They asserted that one-third of teen suicides are related to homosexuality; the program was extremely important, because it shows homosexual teenagers that they are not alone and gives heterosexual teens a better understanding of their homosexual peers.

There were two main issues: Did the program present homosexuality in a one-sided manner that encouraged teens to try it themselves? Was the program appropriate for an educational series? Hammer contended that the program was definitely one-sided. He supported his view with the opinions of experts who asserted that it lacked balance, ignored social values, and encouraged homosexual experimentation. According to these experts, the program should be made more balanced and should be moved to a non-educational television channel. The petitioners submitted the opposing opinions of other experts.

On Sept. 21, the High Court ordered Hammer to permit the program to be aired. In his decision, Justice Ya’akov Kedmi wrote that homosexuality per se is no longer a “deviation” to be fought. As for the argument that the program did not belong on an educational television station, Kedmi wrote that “education” is a broad concept and therefore the program qualifies as educational. He agreed that it was not balanced but insisted that this flaw did not make it “anti-educational.” Although the justices ruled that Hammer could not prevent the broadcast, they said that opponents could express their opinion in a “complementary” discussion at the end of the program.

Sources: Israel Yearbook & Almanac 1998, pp. 257?258;
“The Gay Happiness Index.”;
“Jerusalem Gay Pride: Six stabbed by ultra-Orthodox Jew,” BBC News, (July 30, 2015);
“The Western Wall Fight Ends in Historic Compromise.” Times of Israel (January 2016);
Lahav Harkov. “Netanyahu voices support for gay rights on Knesset LGBT Day,” Jerusalem Post, (February 23, 2016);
Marissa Newman. “Day after marking LGBT rights, Knesset nixes 5 gender equality bills,” Times of Israel (February 24, 2016);
“Israeli pro basketball player comes out as bisexual in Independence day post,” Jerusalem Post (May 13, 2016);
Shachar Atwan. “Transcending beauty: Israeli beauty pageant for transgender women signals desire for normalcy,” Haaretz (May 17, 2016);
“Transgender Israeli Arab wins historic Tel Aviv pageant,” JTA, (May 27, 2016);
“Gay pride march in Israeli city cancelled after court restricts it,” AP (July 14, 2016);
Mor Shimoni. “Israel to ease citizenship process for same-sex couples,” Jerusalem Post, (December 8, 2016) ;
Naomi Zeveloff.  Meet Shachar Erez, Israel’s First Transgender IDF Officer, Forward, (April 3, 2017); 
Tova Tzimuki.  Military advocate general is first senior IDF official to come out of the closet, YNet News, (May 9, 2017);
Israeli army promotes first openly gay major general, JTA, (July 12, 2018).