On the same day the American military officially ended its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, a gay Israeli military veteran spoke at Rutgers University about the thriving gay rights movement in Israel.
Avner Even-Zohar, a decorated former IDF captain, said that Israel stands alone in the Middle East in its acceptance and legal protection of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.
Openly gay and lesbian soldiers have served in the Israel Defense Forces since 1993.
“Tel Aviv is the mecca of the gay rights movement in the Middle East,” said Even-Zohar, in a talk at the George Street Student Activities Center on the New Brunswick campus.
The program, “Harvey Milk and Honey,” was cosponsored by Rutgers Hillel and its affiliated JAQs (Jewish Allies and Queers), Rutgers Queer Student Alliance, the pro-Israel Rutgers Scarlet Blue and White, and the Caravan for Democracy, an initiative of the Jewish National Fund and Media Watch International bringing Israeli speakers to college campuses.
Even-Zohar served as an education officer in the West Bank and Lebanon. He noted that Israel’s late prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was able to smoothly remove restrictions to gays in the military in the same year that President Bill Clinton reluctantly accepted “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“My own theory is that Yitzhak Rabin had been a commander in the Six-Day War,” Even-Zohar explained. “He fought for the establishment of Israel. He had more credibility.”
Rabin also had served with gays and saw for himself how they fought for their country, he said. By contrast, Clinton never served in the military and was forced to acquiesce to then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell.
Even-Zohar kept his own sexual orientation mostly to himself during his six-year stint in the IDF, which ended in 1993 just as the new rules took effect. Previously, officers were often demoted if their homosexual preferences became known.
Today, the Israeli military has been so accepting of the presence of GLBT soldiers, said Even-Zohar, it gave its blessing when an IDF member dressed in uniform became a 2007 contestant in the annual Mr. Israel pageant for gay men.
Today Even-Zohar chairs Turkish and Hebrew studies at the United States’ Department of Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. In many ways, he said, Israel is ahead of the United States in protecting gays and lesbians. While protection to those suffering employment discrimination based on sexual orientation varies from state to state — New Jersey is one of 15 states offering such protection — in Israel it is national law.
Additionally, there are gay pride parades and events across Israel. Even-Zohar said that Jerusalem Open House, founded in 1997 to support the GLBT community, became the first GLBT organization in the world to offer a web page in Arabic.
Although the Rutgers event was designed to showcase an aspect of Israel beyond its conflict with the Palestinians, it drew pro-Palestinian supporters who sat quietly in front rows with signs proclaiming “No Pink Washing” and “Queers Against Israel Apartheid.”
During the question-and-answer period, they questioned how Even-Zohar, who had touched on the oppression and death threats gays face elsewhere in the Middle East, could tout Israel as a beacon of tolerance when it “oppressed” Palestinians.
“If there were any Arab government that would protect the rights of queer people, I would support that country,” he replied. “But I haven’t seen it.”
In fact, he said, gay Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza seek refuge in Israel because they would face persecution or death if they came out of the closet at home. He said he finds that fact “remarkable.”
“As the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel provides a safe haven for all people and a safe haven for queer people,” he explained. “Why would they want to live in Israel if they could live with their families?”