Can gay friendliness boost Israel’s image?

Two of the five gay couples who married symbolically at the first Tel Aviv municipality same-sex wedding ceremony under the wedding canopy on June 12, 2009. (Dina Kraft)

Two of the five gay couples who married symbolically at the first Tel Aviv municipality same-sex wedding ceremony under the wedding canopy on June 12, 2009. (Dina Kraft)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — The sun was just beginning to sink into the Mediterranean as the couples took their places under the fluttering wedding canopy: three sets of brides and two sets of grooms.

In a nod to Jewish wedding tradition, a member of each couple stepped on a glass to seal the deal. Except in this wedding the centuries-old words that finalize the Jewish marriage contract were uttered with a twist: “If I forget thee, O Tel Aviv, let my right hand wither, let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Tel Aviv above my highest joy."

Replacing the traditional “Jerusalem” with “Tel Aviv” was a pronounced statement in Israel’s first municipal gay wedding ceremony and reflected the fact that it only could have taken place in Tel Aviv, the most open and liberal of Israel’s cities.

The wedding, although just symbolic because the marriages are not recognized by the state, was seen as a sign of how far Israel’s gay community has come since its coming-out as a tiny movement in 1974, when a handful of activists wearing masks marched in front of Tel Aviv City Hall demanding equal rights.

Since then there have been openly gay Knesset members, a law criminalizing homosexuality was removed from the books, and the Supreme Court has made a series of landmark decisions ensuring gay Israelis their rights in such matters as spousal and adoption rights. There is also a network of gay youth groups across the country.

But perhaps the most remarkable development in recent years has been the campaign to use Israel’s gay friendliness to sell Israel’s image overseas.

Israel advocates, including the Foreign Ministry, have found the relatively tolerant treatment Israel’s gay community experiences, particularly in Tel Aviv, as a good way to sell a more progressive image of Israeli society to the world.

As part of that effort StandWithUs, a U.S.-based Israel advocacy group whose funders include right-wing, socially conservative Americans like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, flew in a group of journalists and gay activists from the United States and Europe for a five-day event last week that culminated in Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride Parade.

In a panel discussion sponsored by the group, soldiers talked about gays in the Israel Defense Forces. In the late 1980s, the IDF reversed its policy of not promoting gay soldiers to the rank of commander. In Israel, which depends on nationwide conscription to fill its ranks, the issue of homosexuality has been a less divisive issue than it has been in the U.S. Army.

“In Israel we have an essential need for manpower,"  gay rights activist Anat Nir said during the panel discussion. "We can’t afford to have our gay men and women feel uncomfortable while they are serving. We need them.”

One panelist, Yoni Shoenfeld, a gay man who is a deputy IDF battalion commander in a paratrooper unit and the editor of the army magazine B’Machane, said, “The Israeli case proves that gays can be out in the military and the only result is that nothing happens.”

Despite the accepting atmosphere he described among his peers in the military, however, Shoenfeld also acknowledged the limitations that still exist for gay officers.

“Will 600 paratroopers follow a commander in battle knowing he is gay?” he asked. “Only the years will tell.”

Nitzan Horowitz, the only openly gay member in the current Knesset, said the issue of gay rights in Israel has to be cast as part of a broader struggle for civil rights.

Horowitz, a member of the left-wing Meretz Party, is the author of a bill that seeks to allow civil marriage in Israel for couples regardless of their gender or religion.

Israel currently has no vehicle for same-sex marriage; marriage is the exclusive domain of religious authorities. Horowitz says legislation, and not just the courts, must be used as a tool to secure gay rights.

“The main problem is that all of our achievements have been made in court, not in the parliament,” he said, noting that court rulings are reversible.

Hadar and Keren Shahar, both 30, a lesbian couple who met and fell in love while serving in the army together 11 years ago, were among those married in the group Tel Aviv municipal wedding. They brought their 5-month-old son to watch the ceremony.

“We want to be recognized as a family by law,” said Keren Shahar, who works at a center that assists victims of sexual harassment. Their last name is a new one they took together.

“Ten years ago we felt so alone and now life is very different,” said Hadar Shahar, who works for a high-tech firm. “Because of what people fought for and did we could stand here today.”

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