There are several explanations about how Israel has come to embrace its gay and lesbian community. One is that the family as an institution is central to Israeli Jewish society. Therefore, parents would rather accept their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children than let homophobia destroy family unity. Because Israel is such a small country, LGBT individuals are never socially or geographically far away from their families; a tight web of social relations guarantees that one can never be totally anonymous. Jews, having faced persecution for centuries, understand the plight of gays, who were killed alongside Jews during the Holocaust. Additionally, Israelis live in constant threat of attacks from neighboring countries, making unity a priority and minor differences, including those relating to sexuality, less critical. Also, Israel is in many ways a Western society and therefore has a more liberal perspective than its Middle East neighbors on a variety of issues, including sexual orientation and sexuality. Finally, Israel, as a democratic and mostly secular society, has been a model for promoting the rights of all of its citizens, regardless of gender, religion or race.
First and foremost, gay rights are protected by law. Gay marriages - performed outside Israel - are recognized by the state, and same-sex couples are permitted to adopt. Gays can serve openly in the military. Gender reassignment surgery is legal and openly performed. The gay community has gained wide acceptance throughout Israeli society, including in the political, legal, military and cultural realms. In fact, the city of Tel Aviv has one of the most flourishing gay communities in the world.
Because of these freedoms - and intolerance of gays in Muslim countries and entities such as areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) - Israel has become a haven for gay Palestinians who flee persecution in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they are subject to severe abuse by their families, communities, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
Opposition to the gay community does exist in Israel, primarily from members of the ultra-Orthodox community and ultra-Orthodox religious groups in the Knesset, or Israeli Parliament.
When protests arose against plans to hold a gay-pride parade in the streets of Jerusalem in 2006, pressure from the ultra-Orthodox community and ultra-Orthodox clergy prompted moving the parade to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's sports stadium. In addition, members of religious groups in the Knesset have made derogatory statements about gays and certain groups have attempted unsuccessfully to stop legislation affording the gay community equal rights.
As far as the gay and lesbian struggle for civil rights is concerned, the struggle is over.
-- Dr. Amit Kama, Department of Communications, Emek Yezreel Academic College Since 1982, Dr. Amit Kama has been active in various LGBT organizations and served as the first executive director of the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights (SPPR) in the early 1990s. In 2003, Kama published the first Hebrew language book that covered the history, sociology and psychology of gay men in the world, and Israel in particular.
In response to marked opposition to gays by members of the Orthodox community, some of its members who are gay launched a Web site in February designed to provide support and advice to gay religious Jews. One of the founders of the Web site, HOD (the Hebrew acronym for religious gays), is an only openly gay rabbi.
Israeli Gays/Lesbians in Politics
Gays serve openly in public life, such as in the Knesset and municipal courts. For example:
- In 2002, Dr. Uzi Even became the Knesset's first openly gay member. In 2006, Even, who no longer serves in the Knesset, left the leftist Meretz Party for the more centrist Labor Party.
- In 1998, Michal Eden was elected to the Tel Aviv City Council, becoming the first openly lesbian elected official in Israel.
- In 2003, Saar Netanel, a Jerusalem city council member and member of the Meretz Party, became the first openly gay man elected to a city council in Israel. That same year, Etai Pinkas was elected to the Tel Aviv City Council, replacing Michal Eden. Pinkas is a former counselor for the Meretz Party.
Significant Legislation and Developments in the Gay Community
In the last two decades, gay rights have advanced significantly -- legally and politically -- in Israel. In addition to recognizing same-sex marriages performed outside of the country and legalizing adoptions by lesbian and gay couples, there are numerous other examples of noteworthy legislation to advance gay rights. For example:
I welcome the decision. There is no reason why same-sex couples who meet the criteria for adoption should not be able to join the process of adoption and of parenthood. We must adapt to the spirit of the times and the changes that are afoot.
-- Israeli Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, commenting on a ruling by the Israeli government granting gay couples adoption rights
- Feb. 12, 2008: The Israeli government grants gay and lesbian couples the same adoption rights as heterosexual couples. Previously, gays and lesbians could only adopt children that were their own biological offspring.
- March 2007: The Education Ministry recognizes the Israeli Gay Youth Organization (IGY), enabling the organization to receive funding from the government. IGY, founded by the Association of Gay Men, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgender (The Aguda) in 2002, is a volunteer-based support organization for gay youth between the ages of 15 - 23.
- January 2007: In the city's branch of the Interior Ministry's Population Registry, Jerusalem registers its first married gay couple, Avi and Binyamin Rose. Pictured at right: Avi and Binyamin Rose: Israel's first registered gay marriage Photo courtesy of The Jerusalem Post
- November 2006: The High Court of Justice (Israel's Supreme Court) sets a precedent by ruling that the civil marriages of five gay couples wed in Canada may be registered as married couples in Israel. (The Roses, married in June 2006, were not one of these five couples.)
- July 2003: The Tel Aviv municipality grants homosexuals the same spousal discounts provided to heterosexual married couples at cultural, sport and other facilities.
- 1998: Same-sex partners are granted pension rights by the Civil Service Commission.
- 1997: The High Court of Justice overturns a decision by then-education minister Zevulun Hammer, a member of the National Religious Party ('Mafdal'), to ban a television program about homosexual teenagers.
- November 1994: The High Court of Justice grants full spousal benefits to the partner of an El Al airlines employee, paving the way for other same-sex couples to receive equal benefits.
- 1993: Former Knesset member Yael Dayan establishes a Knesset subcommittee on lesbian, gay and bisexual issues. In the same year, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) implements an anti-discrimination policy after Dr. Uzi Even, who had been an officer in the army, testifies to the Knesset that he was discharged from the military and stripped of his security clearance after the IDF discovered that he was gay. Even went on to become the first openly gay Knesset member.
- 1992: The Knesset outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace.
- March 22, 1988: The Knesset decriminalizes homosexuality.
- 1975: The first Israeli organization for gays, the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights (SPPR), is founded. Today, the organization is known as the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association (The Aguda).
Gays in the Military
The military plays a significant role in Israel; society sees military service as an integral part of every citizen's duties. Military service is compulsory for almost all Israelis. (Arab Israelis and Orthodox Jews are exempt from service.)
They're citizens of Israel, like you and me. The sexual orientation of the workers around me doesn't bother me.
-An IDF officer on gays in the army
At right: An Israeli soldier holding the rainbow flag at a 2004 gay pride parade in Jerusalem Photo courtesy of Associated Press via bbc.co.uk
- In Israel, gays and lesbians serve openly in the army. Unlike in the U.S. military, Israel doesn't have a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. There are no restrictions on the recruitment, advancement and placement of lesbian and gay soldiers. Israel's military is one of 24 in the world that allows openly gay men and lesbians to serve.
- In a 2007 University of California-Santa Barbara study of 17 heterosexual IDF soldiers, only "two said they would have a problem serving under a gay commander and three expressed concern about showering with a gay colleague. None objected to gay soldiers in general."
- Israeli films, such as "Yossi and Jagger" and "The Bubble," frequently explore the topic of gays in the military.
- In 1993, the IDF banned discrimination against gays.
Gays have entered the mainstream of Israeli culture. "Gay" themes are prevalent in film, music, television and literature. Tel Aviv has a bustling gay scene with a selection of gay bars, clubs and saunas.
- Israeli singer Ivri Lider and director Eytan Fox were chosen as two of the world's 100 most important gay individuals by Out, an American magazine that caters to the gay and lesbian communities.
- In 1998, a transsexual Israeli singer, Dana International, represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest -- and won first prize. In a poll, 80 percent of Israelis called her "an appropriate representative of Israel."
- According to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, gay storylines are regularly featured in mainstream Israeli television dramas.
- Some of Israel's most popular films have been those with gay themes: "Walk on Water," "Yossi and Jagger" and "The Bubble."
There is no better place than Israel in the world to be gay... Gay culture in Israel is not 'underground' or 'alternative' the way it is in New York, for instance. Instead, in places in the country where we are integrated, we are fully integrated members of Israeli society.
-Gal Uchovsky, gay Israeli film producer of "The Bubble"
Tel Aviv - The Gay Capital of Israel
Tel Aviv is the business and cultural center of Israel. Out magazine called the city "the gay capital of the Middle East."But officials in the Israel Ministry of Tourism have greater plans for the city's gay community: They want Tel Aviv to be the "gay capital of the world" and make it the hottest tourist destination for the international gay and lesbian community.
At left: Gay Pride Parade, Tel Aviv Photo courtesy of Ynetnews.com
- Since the 1990s, Tel Aviv has hosted Israel's largest gay pride parade; about 20,000 people attended in 2007.
- Tel Aviv is home to Beit Dror, the only emergency shelter in Israel for LGBT teens who have been rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation.
- The gay nightlife in Tel Aviv rivals that of New York and London, with gay and lesbian bars and clubs open until the morning
Status of Gays in Neighboring Countries
Compared to neighboring Arab countries, Israel is far more tolerant and accepting of gays. While homosexuality is legal and there is legal protection for gays In Israel, homosexuality is illegal in countries such as Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In Iran, gays and lesbians are sentenced to death and hanged in public executions. In Saudi Arabia, punishment ranges from imprisonment and flogging to death. In Syria, gays and lesbians are subject to imprisonment for three years. Although homosexuality technically is legal in Jordanand the Palestinian territories, gays there are not legally protected from discrimination and hate crimes. Gays in Jordan often seek asylum in other countries and are often assaulted by family members or are subject to being murdered as part of "honor killings" --- murders committed by family members typically against female relatives who are perceived to have tarnished the family's reputation. Women are killed for, among other reasons, marrying without the family's consent, embrace of Western culture, committing adultery, refusing arranged marriages and being raped.
Gay Palestinians commonly seek refuge in Israel, as they fear for their safety in the West Bank and Gaza, where they are subject to torture by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The P.A. views homosexuals as collaborators with Israel. Examples abound of Israel helping gay Palestinians - sometimes unknowingly - escape persecution. For example:
- In March 2008, the IDF granted a temporary residence permit to a 33-year-old Palestinian man after he said he was facing death threats from other Palestinians. The man had been appealing to the Israeli government for several years to live with his Israeli partner of eight years in Tel Aviv.
- A 22-year-old Palestinian man was almost killed when his family found out he was gay. After his brother tied him up and beat him, the man's mother untied him so he could escape before his father could kill him. The man fled from Gaza to Israel after discovering that his family was hunting him.
- A gay American man living with his boyfriend in the West Bank fled to Israel after finding a letter under his door from the Islamic court. The letter "listed five forms of death prescribed by Islam for homosexuality, including stoning and burning."
- In 2003, 300 gay Palestinian men were secretly living and working in Israel.
- According to Shaul Ganon, a former member of the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association, since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Palestinian police have enforced Islamic law, making it "impossible to be an open gay in the P.A."
For more information about the legal status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities around the world, see Amnesty International's Interactive Map or Sexual Minorities and the Law: a World Survey.
LGBT Resources and Non-governmental Organizations (In Israel)
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel
Tel Aviv Tel.: 972-3-560-8185
Haifa Tel.: 972-4-852-6333/4/5
Web site (English)
The Aguda (Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association)
Web site (Hebrew)
Beit Dror (House of Freedom in English) - Emergency Center for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans
Web site (Hebrew)
Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH)
JOH is a "grassroots, activist organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, and allies." 
English-speaking group coordinators:
Florian Aurich: firstname.lastname@example.org; Devorah: email@example.com
Web site (English)
The Other 10%: The GLBT Student Organization in Jerusalem (Ha'asiron Ha'acher)
Yair Lieberman, Chair
Tel.: 972-2-653-5454 or 972-54-741-3067 (cell)
Israeli Gay Youth Organization (IGY)
Web site (Hebrew); Web site (English)
Tehila - a support group for parents of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders
Web site (Hebrew)
Expert Sources (U.S. and Israel)
Professor Naomi Gale, Schusterman Visiting Professor, The Center for Israel Studies, American University (Washington, D.C.)
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Founder and President, The Israel Project (Washington, D.C.)
Tel.: 202-857-6644 (office); 202-365-0787 (cell)
Oren Pizmony-Levy (Expert on Gay Rights in Education), Former Director of Research, Israeli Gay Youth Organization (IGY); Ph.D. Candidate, Sociology, Indiana University (Indiana)
Tel.: 812-219-0826 (cell); 812-339-4137 (home)
Michal Eden, Lawyer, Former Tel Aviv Council Member, representing the Meretz Party
Nahum Eido, Spokesperson for Israel's Ministry of Social Affairs
Web site (Hebrew)
Prof. Uzi Even, Former Knesset Member; Tel Aviv University, School of Chemistry
Web site (English)
Prof. Amit Kama, Department of Communications, Emek Yezreel Academic College
Etai Pinkas, Tel Aviv City Council Member, representing the Labor Party and Tel Aviv Mayor's Advisor on LGBT Affairs
Mark Regev, Foreign Press Adviser, Prime Minister's Office
Tel.: 972-2-670-5555 (office); 972-2-670-5354 (direct)
Web site (English)
The Israel Project is an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom and peace. The Israel Project provides journalists, leaders and opinion-makers accurate information about Israel. The Israel Project is not related to any government or government agency.
Board of Advisors: Sen. Evan Bayh (IN), Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (GA), Sen. Tom Coburn (OK), Sen. Norm Coleman (MN), Sen. Susan Collins (ME), Sen. Judd Gregg (NH), Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT), Sen. Ben Nelson (NE), Sen. Gordon Smith (OR), Sen. Arlen Specter (PA), Sen. Ron Wyden (OR), Rep. Rob Andrews (NJ), Rep. Shelley Berkley (NV), Rep. Tom Davis (VA), Rep. Eliot Engel (NY), Rep. Frank Pallone (NJ), Rep. Jon Porter (NV), Rep. John Sarbanes (MD), Rep. Jim Saxton (NJ), Rep. Brad Sherman (CA), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC), Actor and Director Ron Silver