Leaders of Israel’s LGBT community talk about 38 years of progress

Thirty-eight years ago, there were no words back then that could describe how they felt. The language did not exist back then, Natalie Sade, executive director of LGBT organization Aguda said, to define their sexuality. In the years since the term “GL”, standing for “Gay or Lesbian”, has changed to LGBT. And today that acronym can expand to LGBTQQI, which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex.”

Issues of sexuality were once not discussed within Israel, Shai Doitsh said to an audience of 20 people in the chapel of Temple Sinai in Oakland. Doitsh helped found the Aguda in 1975, the largest and oldest LGBT NGO in Israel. The Aguda has focused on providing a community and gaining recognition for Israelis of all sexualities.

“The number one mission was to create a community, because back then there was no community,” Doitsh said. At the time of its founding, the Aguda focused only on GL issues, which at the time was the most progressive term for people who were not heterosexual. Members of the Aguda would meet in each other’s basements and throw parties to provide moral support, he said. Politicians refused to recognize that there were issues of sexuality within the very conservative and religious state.

Homosexuality, in a sense, was never illegal in Israel, Doitsh said. “Being gay was legal, but having gay sex was illegal,” Doitsh told the audience. But in 1988, Doitsh explained, the law was changed. But it was not from a change in the public’s perception of Israel’s GL community.

Under the pressure of the conservative parties, politicians would not budge on the issue. The law containing the clause that makes sodomy illegal was large, he said, with several unrelated amendments, Doitsh said. When it came time for renewal, a left wing politician sneaked in a change to the sodomy clause that would make it legal.

Since many politicians did not read through the bill, the law passed with the changes. And that was how homosexuality first became legal in Israel.

From that point forward, the LGBT movement gained traction in Israel. The best chance they had for winning their rights from the government was to take their grievances through the courts. In El-Al v. Danilowitz, in 1994, Israeli’s won their right to private sector benefits in same-sex unions. Victories for members of the LGBT community were not so much in changing the law, Doitsh explained, but in the way that the law was interpreted.

All marriages in Israel were required to be held by an Orthodox Rabbi, no matter what your religion was, and many Rabbis refused to marry LGBT couples. After having won private and public sector benefits through court battles, and the right to openly serve in the military in the 1990s, the Israeli government recognized the first gay marriage license in Tel Aviv in 2007. “We’re very proud that this is the only issue that we are better than the US,” Doitsh said, laughing.

Israel’s LGBT community’s crowning achievement, Doitsh said, was during the Eurovision competition in 1998. Eurovision is a competition with viewership that Doitsh likened to the Super Bowl. That year Israel chose to send a transgender woman to represent their country. It was a risky decision, he said, but she won.

Natalie Sade, executive director of the Aguda, has taken the reins from the last generation and has led successful efforts to increase community involvement. Under her leadership the LGBT community has experienced great success in reaching out to the transgender community.

“The conversation has progressed, it’s not just the courts anymore, we can have these conversations with professionals and members of the public,” she said. When a transgender woman was denied health care coverage for breast augmentation surgery, the Aguda spoke with the doctor and the hospital and made sure she had the surgery done. The hospital contacted the Aguda afterwards and asked them how they could set up a panel that how they could set up a panel that would be able to better understand LGBT patients and their needs, she said.

However not all is well for the LGBT community in Israel. Studies on suicide were finally extended to survey members of the LGBT community in Israel recently, which showed that a shocking 50% of LGBT youth are at risk of suicide. Sade is also working to extend the openness of the Jewish LGBT community to Muslim Arabs, who due to cultural problems still hide their sexuality. It’s not a religious problem, Sade said, who made note that there is an openly gay Arab Muslim who is a leader in the Aguda. It has more to do with the tribal division in the Israeli Arab community.

Doitsh said that he could not make a definitive judgment on the state of the LGBT community in America, but that American gays have a better image in the media than Israeli gays. He mentioned that Israeli corporations donate millions to charity organizations every year, but that they would never donate to any kind of organization with LGBT ties. In Israel, there was no separation between religion and politics, he said, but the religious aspect of Israeli society is very minimal. In America there is a distinct separation between church and state, but the religious have more power, and that makes it difficult for the LGBT community in America to gain their rights.