Israel Society & Culture: LGBT Rights in Israel
Expanding Legal Rights
Timeline of LGBTQ Rights
A Gay Friendly Nation
Events and Incidents
More Progress Needed
On March 22, 1988, the Knesset repealed a British Mandate-era law banning sex between people of the same gender and thereby legalized homosexuality in Israel. The action followed a 10-year struggle to overcome the opposition of the religious parties, all of which boycotted the vote.
In 1953, the Attorney General issued a directive ordering the police to refrain from enforcing the British Mandate-era law banning sex between consenting adults of the same gender. A decade later, the Supreme Court ruled that the law should not be applied to acts between consenting adults in private. Israel never prosecuted anyone under the law against sodomy since the 1963 court decision; nevertheless, its maximum penalty of 10 years in prison created fear in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community. After a long battle to overcome the opposition of the religious parties, the Knesset repealed the law despite the religious members boycotting the vote.
Today, LGBT rights in Israel are considered the most developed in the Middle East. Israel became the first country in Asia to recognize unregistered cohabitation between same-sex couples, making it the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex unions in any capacity. Although same-sex marriages are not performed in the country (as it does not have civil non-religious marriages), Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was prohibited in 1992. LGBT people are also allowed to serve openly in the military.
Expanding Legal Rights
The Civil Service Commission extends spousal benefits and pensions to the partners of homosexual employees. The Israeli State Attorney’s Office has extended the spousal exemption from property-transfer taxes to same-sex couples. Israel’s Attorney General has granted legal recognition to same-sex couples in financial and other business matters.
LGBT couples in Israel have the same pension, inheritance, and medical rights as heterosexual couples. In 1992, legislation was passed into law to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, with some exemptions for religious organizations. In 1997, an amendment was added to the nation’s Libel and Slander Law. The amendment broadened the prohibition of uttering and publishing defamation and slander, motivated by the sexual orientation of a person. Moreover, the law specifies that every violent crime, motivated by sexual orientation, shall be considered a hate crime, doubling the punishment. The Prohibition of Discrimination in Products, Services and Entry into Places of Entertainment and Public Places Law, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, among others, on the part of those who provide products, public services or operate public places.
The city of Tel Aviv recognizes unmarried couples, including gays and lesbians, as family units and grants them discounts for municipal services. Under the bylaw, unmarried couples qualify for the same discounts on daycare and the use of swimming pools, sports facilities, and other city-sponsored activities that married couples enjoy. In 2007, following a Supreme Court ruling ordering them to do so, Jerusalem registered its first same-sex couple.
In 2010, Israel’s marriage law was amended with the passage of the Civil Union Law for Citizens with no Religious Affiliation, 2010, allowing an opposite-sex couple to form a civil union in Israel if they are both registered as officially not belonging to any religion.
Adoption by LGBT parents had only been permitted in certain restricted situations, notably when a previous connection exists between the adopting parent and the child, such as being a family member or a foster child. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that a lesbian couple can legally adopt each other’s children. In 2008, a court ruled that same-sex couples are now permitted to adopt a child even if that child is not biologically related to either parent. In 2017, the government announced that it no longer opposed same-sex adoption and that potential parents can legally adopt a child, regardless of their sexual orientation; opposite-sex and same-sex couples being given equal treatment.
In 2014, the Supreme Court said that same-sex couples could adopt through surrogacy so long as the biological parent in the same-sex relationship was willing to take a paternity test or present highly convincing alternative medical and legal evidence of paternity. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples should be given access to surrogacy, holding that the current law harms the “right to equality” and gave the state one year to amend the existing legislation.
Since 2015, the Health Ministry has allowed transgender people to change their legal gender without undergoing sex reassignment surgery or a sex change operation.
In 1993, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) formally opened the draft to all, regardless of sexual orientation. In 1998, the IDF ceased to link sexual orientation to security clearances and rescinded a standing order that required commanding officers to report gay soldiers for evaluation.
Discrimination against gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers in recruitment, placement, and promotion is prohibited in Israel. Harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation is also prohibited in the Israeli military. The military recognizes same-sex couples, including widows and widowers of the same sex. Soldiers are also allowed to participate in gay pride parades. The IDF currently does not consider gender dysphoria to be a disqualifying condition for service. Furthermore, the IDF considers certain transition-specific medical treatments (hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery) and counseling to be medically necessary for those diagnosed with transsexualism and thus pays for said treatments. The IDF also determines gender-specific army regulations (length of service, which gender to be housed with, whether they are to wear a male or female uniform, etc.) on a case-by-case basis for its transgender soldiers.
Two major legal cases in Israel involved homosexuality. In 1991, 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 military 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 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 because 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 November 21, but on November 20 said he was delaying it again 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.
In 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 could not 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 one-sided. He supported his view with experts’ opinions who asserted that it lacked balance, ignored social values, and encouraged homosexual experimentation. According to these experts, the program should be made more evenhanded and moved to a non-educational television channel. The petitioners submitted the opposing opinions of other experts.
On September 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. Although the justices ruled that Hammer could not prevent the broadcast, they said that opponents could express their opinion in a “complementary” discussion on an educational television station, Kedmi wrote that “education” is a broad concept and, therefore, the program qualifies as educational.
In 2011, the Law of Return was tested when a gay male couple, one Jewish and one Catholic, made Aliyah to Israel. This couple was the first same-sex, different-religion married couple to request joint Aliyah status, although opposite-sex married couples of different religions receive joint Aliyah as a matter of course. The Jewish man quickly received citizenship, but the Ministry of the Interior delayed the decision of citizenship for his husband despite the clause in the law saying the spouse of the Jewish immigrant must also be granted citizenship. The Ministry of the Interior subsequently granted citizenship to the non-Jewish husband. In 2014, Interior Minister Gidon Sa’ar decided that Jews in same-sex relationships married abroad wishing to immigrate to Israel can do so—even if their partners are not Jewish—and both they and their partners will receive Israeli citizenship.
In December 2016, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued an instruction to Israel’s Interior Ministry to consider applications for citizenship by same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally under the same terms. The same-sex spouse of an Israeli citizen will now be able to claim Israeli citizenship at the same speed as an opposite-sex spouse. Previously, same-sex couples had to wait up to seven years, and would generally only be granted permanent residency rather than citizenship.
1963: Justice Haim Herman Cohn discourages the enforcement of British Mandate-era laws regarding consensual same-gender acts by denouncing the laws as “outdated.”
1968: Tel Aviv’s first gay bar opens in a private apartment, the harbinger of other gay clubs to follow.
1975: Israel’s first organization for the protection of LGBT rights is founded.
1979: Israel’s first Gay Pride event is a protest in today’s Rabin Square.
1986: Sex reassignment surgery is permitted and recognized.
1988: Same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults are decriminalized under Amendment 22 of the Israeli Penal Code.
1992: Discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation becomes illegal.
1992: Stepchild adoption and limited co-guardianship rights are introduced for non-biological parents.
1993: Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Israelis can serve openly and equally in the IDF.
1993: First Pride Parade takes place in Tel Aviv.
1994: Unregistered cohabitation is legalized. The Supreme Court mandates equal benefits for same-sex employees in the workplace.
1998: A trans woman, known as Dana International, represents Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.
2001: The first Pride Parade takes place in Eilat.
2002: Meretz MK Uzi Even becomes the first openly gay member of the Knesset. The first Pride and Tolerance parade held in Jerusalem.
2004: Same-sex couples are awarded the same inheritance rights as heterosexual couples. A 1999 Supreme Court ruling that foreign nationals married to Israeli citizens cannot be deported extends to common-law marriages, including same-sex couples.
2005: Lesbians can officially adopt a child born to their partners by artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor.
2006: Lesbian couples are able to adopt each other’s biological children. Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed abroad in the same way it recognizes heterosexual civil marriages, as legal units for tax, real estate, and financial purposes.
2007: Jerusalem registers its first gay couple. The Jerusalem Open House organizes a Pride Parade in central Jerusalem.
2008: Same-sex couples can jointly adopt.
2008: Tel Aviv opens the first municipal LGBT Community Center in the country. A gay Palestinian man from Jenin whose life is in danger there due to his sexuality is granted residency to live with his partner of eight years in Tel Aviv.
2009: The right of adoption is recognized for same-sex male couples.
2010: Supreme Court rules that discrimination against the LGBTQ community in allocating municipal resources is prohibited and dishonors human dignity.
2014: The Knesset approves an amendment to the Students’ Rights Law, prohibiting gender-identity-based discrimination for the first time.
2016: Knesset marks the first LGBT rights day. The Ministry of Finance increases annual budgets allocated to the LGBTQ community from NIS 2 million to 11 million.
2018: For the first time in Israel’s history, a mass LGBTQ protest brings 100,000 people to the streets, including 7,000 protesting against trans-phobic violence, recruiting hundreds of organizations and businesses to a solidarity protest.
2019: Israel elects its first openly gay party leader when Nitzan Horowitz becomes the leader of Meretz.
2021: Horowitz is appointed as Israel’s first openly gay Health Minister.
2022: Amir Ohana becomes Israel’s first openly gay Knesset speaker.
A Gay Friendly Nation
Israel has an active LGBT community, with well-attended annual gay pride festivals. Israel was ranked 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. In 2011, American Airlines ranked Tel Aviv the number one gay city in the world. WOW travel did the same in 2023.
First held in 1993, Tel Aviv Pride is now one of the largest pride parades in the world. Pride events are also held regularly in cities around the country, including Haifa, Petah Tikva, Hadera, Ra’anana, Eilat, and Rishon LeZion. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where celebrations of gay pride can openly happen.
The first Pride and Tolerance parade was held in Jerusalem, where it attracts opposition from some Orthodox Jews. The Jerusalem parade gained international coverage when three marchers were stabbed in 2005. The perpetrator was subsequently sentenced to twelve years in prison. Six people were stabbed during the 2015 Jerusalem march. The marches have continued with a large security presence.
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.
According to a 2020 Pew study, 47% of Israelis said homosexuality should be accepted by society. Acceptance was higher among Israeli Jews (53%) than Israeli Muslims (17%).
Events and Incidents
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 before 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 on the Torah. One of Schlissel’s victims, 16-year-old Shira Banki, died of her 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 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 people 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 played small forward for the Maccabi Bat Yam basketball team and was generally considered one of Israel’s best basketball players. In his 2,000-word post, Mosinzon spoke on 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 occurred 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 and a place in the Miss Trans Star 2016 contest in Barcelona, Spain, and the Miss International Queen 2016 contest held in Thailand. The winner of 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 canceled after the Israeli Supreme Court altered the route due to concerns about violence in the area.
Shachar Erez, the first openly transgender officer in the Israel 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 Major General in July 2018, the first openly gay individual to hold this rank in the IDF.
Following the 2019 elections, Amir Ohana was appointed Minister of Justice, becoming the first openly LGBT individual to serve in the government. In 2020, he was appointed Minister of Public Security. And, after the 2022 election, Ohana was elected Speaker of the Knesset, becoming the first LGBT Speaker in Israeli history. After his election, he became the target of homophobic verbal attacks from some rabbis and Haredi MKs. Nevertheless, Akiva Novick noted in Haaretz the significance of Ohana’s election:
More Progress Needed
The number of complaints of harm to members of the LGBTQ community rose by 11% in 2022, according to the annual report by The Aguda – Israel’s LGBTQ Task Force. In 2022, the Task Force received 3,309 complaints of harm to the LGBTQ community compared to 2,971 in 2021. The number of complaints peaked in June, which is Pride Month.
Just over half the complaints concerned harm to the community in the media and social media, and the rest involved personal interactions. More than half the complaints came from transgender people. Of those reporting harmful incidents in 2022, 51% identified as gay men, 19% as lesbians, and 16% as bisexuals.
The chair of Aguda, Hila Peer, said, “In times when the public support for the gay community is the highest ever, extremist groups are working hard to inflame the hatred and there is no choice but to stop them. The report clearly shows the destructive influence of the policies, political discourse filled with hatred, and the expressions of violence on the daily reality of members of the gay community.”
Fourteen LGBTQ organizations work together to fight for their rights. These organizations have several shared goals:
- Outlawing “conversion” therapy.
- Implementing LGBTQ-inclusive materials within the school curriculums.
- Adopting internal procedures for addressing the needs of LGBTQ youth in the education system.
- Regulation of civilian marriage for LGBTQ couples.
- Equalizing registration procedures for LGBTQ parents to heterosexual procedures.
- Changing the national census gender question based on individual declaration.
- Systematic response to the severe discrimination against transgender individuals in the work and housing markets.
- Full financing of gender reassignment procedures as part of the national healthcare program.
Sources: Israel Yearbook & Almanac, 1998, pp. 257-258.
“The Gay Happiness Index,” PlanetRomeo.com.
“Best of Gay Cities 2011,” American Airlines, (2011).
“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).
Marion Fischel, “Timeline Of LGBTQ Rights In Israel,” Israel21c, (June 7, 2022).
“15 Most Gay Friendly Cities In The World,” WOW, (2023).
Akiva Novick, “The Most Important Gay Person in Israel,” Haaretz, (January 4, 2023).
Bar Peleg, “Complaints of Harm to Israel's LBGTQ Community Rose by 11 Percent in 2022,” Haaretz, (March 20, 2023).
Photos: Danny-w, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Neil Ward, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.