When Israelis try to explain their country, they invariably end up with “it’s complicated”. The situation for LGBT people in Israel is equally vexed. Despite a reputation for being progressive, the struggle for equal rights has actually not been very fruitful: apart from abolishing the law which prohibits homosexual intercourse, the Israeli LGBT movement has been unsuccessful in reaching any meaningful legislative accomplishments in the Knesset. And yet — often thanks to brave individuals and judiciary rulings — many victories have taken place on a social scale. In the early 1990s, LGBTs were given equal status in the Israeli army, years before the United States withdrew its “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”. This was a significant accomplishment in a country where the military is possibly one of its most sanctified institutions. Even so, today, 12 years after a trial established that the IDF must officially recognise a gay spouse as a widow(er), the law still discriminates same-sex couples who lost their loved ones in the army — and the government refuses to change it. Likewise, even if same-sex marriage remains a faraway dream in a state that does not offer civil unions to anyone, LGBT wedding ceremonies are regularly held by mayors and even by former Minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni, albeit without legal validity.
A similar absurdity exists regarding LGBT families: adoption for same-sex couples is virtually impossible (surrogacy is only legal for heterosexual couples), but LGBTs enjoy increasing popular support for their wish to establish families while Israel is a leading advocate for LGBT parenting internationally. This tension is sometimes even more extreme: Tel Aviv is frequently nominated the best gay-friendly city in the world, but just last year a teenage girl was murdered at the Jerusalem Pride parade.
It sometimes seems that we are marching forwards and backwards at the same time in a mirror dance of the many oppositional forces that are driving the nation apart—with some gaps— between Arabs and Jews, secular and religious Jews, the Left and the Right, settlers and kibbutzniks— seemingly impossible to bridge. But the state of Israel needs to find a way to deal with this polarity. One may think that the LGBT community has some special unifying role to play. It comprises the exact same oppositional groups: there are LGBTs who are Orthodox Jews, LGBTs who are Arab, LGBT immigrants from Russia or Ethiopia; there are men and women, and even left-wing and right-wing gay MKs. All these people dance together, sleep with each other, and rally side by side for the same causes. These days, one would be hard pressed to find any other demonstration where right-wing and left-wing voters stand side-by-side while Arabs and Jews shout out the same slogan. In fact, the Israeli LGBT community has managed to lead an actual revolution in challenging the public opinion in just a few years through non-violent resistance. The national pride marches have played a significant part. For example, this year’s Tel Aviv Pride, which took place between 31 May and 4 June, was themed Women. Elsewhere this may be a trivial topic. However, in a country where there is no separation between state and religion, exposing the general public to a progressive discourse on feminism, gender and identity is significant (particularly in 2015 when the march was themed Transgender people).
It seems the Israeli government is also starting to understand that marketing itself to the outside world as a progressive, gay-friendly country (apparently) or “united’ through its diversity is complicated by its corresponding conservative ambitions. In the lead-up to this year’s Tel Aviv pride, the Ministry of Tourism decided to invest an unprecedented amount in an international campaign to promote Israel as a gay-friendly country while the government simultaneously dropped the largest number of pro-LGBT legislative initiatives. The discrepancy was glaring. In May, the Aguda, the Israeli National LGBT Task Force, led a protest against the planned financial expense of the Ministry of Tourism by threatening to cancel Tel Aviv Pride. The push was successful and the Minister of Finance decided to transfer more funds, not to the pride march, but to fight homophobia and directly aide the LGBT community, designating these additional funds as part of the state’s official budget. This instance encapsulates the complicated nature of the LGBT situation in Israel. Maybe for the first time in the world history of the LGBT movement has a threat to a conservative government to cancel a gay pride march resulted in the actual improvement of LGBT conditions. But it also shows how the subversive and brave LGBT community in Israel is slowly beginning to understand its own position and power.
Imri Kalmann is the co-chairperson of the Aguda, the Israeli LGBT National Task force, and has been chosen as one of the 40 most promising young people in Israel. He was responsible for the Tel Aviv pride parade from 2012-13.
This piece is a Summer 2016 Dispatch. Subscribe for more stories from the Summer issue.