Israel has the most progressive LGBTQ+ record in the Middle East. Tel Aviv, its cultural capital, is known internationally as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, with the largest gay pride parade in all of Asia.
Members of Israel’s LGBTQ+ community enjoy equal rights with regards to adoption, inheritance, immigration, pensions, spousal benefits and medical rights. Israeli law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in employment, public services and municipal budgets. Violent crimes motivated by sexual orientation are considered hate crimes, doubling the punishment.
Since 1993, the Israeli Defense Forces have allowed openly gay soldiers to serve in any position, and LGBTQ+ officers have reached the IDF’s highest ranks. The military recognizes same-sex couples, including widows and widowers of the same sex.
Transgender Israelis can change their legal gender without undergoing reassignment surgery. In 2014, Israel’s Parliament approved an amendment to the Student’s Rights Law, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
Israel does not have civil marriage, but rather maintains the Ottoman-British Mandate system it inherited of marriage based on religious communities. It therefore does not recognize gay marriages conducted in Israel. However, Israel does recognize gay marriages performed abroad, and same-sex couples qualify for common-law marriages, enjoying the same legal rights and benefits as heterosexual couples.
Openly LGBTQ+ individuals play leading roles in Israel’s national, political and cultural life. In 2020, Israel had six openly gay Knesset (parliament) members (out of 120), and its Public Security Minister (from the right-wing Likud party) and Social Services Minister (from the left-wing Labor party) lived and raised their children with their same-sex partners. Many of Israel’s most popular musicians and TV personalities are members of the LGBTQ+ community, and LGBTQ+ themes feature prominently in Israeli culture and arts.
The annual Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade draws 250,000 people, including tens of thousands of tourists from around the world, making it the largest LGBTQ+ parade in Asia. Gay pride parades take part in a number of other Israeli cities as well, including Jerusalem. Tel Aviv has been called the “Gay Capital of the Middle East” due to its thriving LGBTQ+ scene.
While surveys show that the majority of Israelis support LGBTQ+ rights, in Israel, like in all democracies, there are conservative populations and political parties that oppose progressive legislation. This is especially the case among Jewish and Muslim conservative religious groups, such as the Ultra-Orthodox, and their representatives in parliament. There have also been cases of anti-LGBTQ+ violence and attacks. These were harshly condemned by all parts of Israel’s society and leadership.
The fight for further LGBTQ+ rights in Israel is led by a vibrant NGO community and civil society, who continue to advance their cause through advocacy, legislation and education.
LGBTQ+ Rights in the Middle East:
Israel’s record on gay rights stands in stark contrast to the wider Middle East, where homosexuals frequently face violence, ostracization and a denial of their rights. In some countries, such as Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania, “sodomy”, including homosexual acts, is punishable by death. In others, such as Syria, Qatar, Bahrain, Algeria, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, and Somalia, homosexuality can lead to imprisonment or other punishments. Outside of Israel, there are almost no laws in the Middle East prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or providing same-sex couples rights such as adoption, inheritance or spousal benefits.
In the Gaza Strip, ruled by the Islamist terrorist organization Hamas, homosexuality is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In 2016, Hamas executed one of its own members for allegedly having same-sex relations.
While no law explicitly prohibits homosexuality in the Palestinian Authority (PA)-controlled West Bank, openly homosexual individuals face violence, discrimination and societal censure. In August 2019, the PA Police announced that LGBT groups were forbidden to meet on the grounds that they were “harmful to the higher values and ideals of Palestinian society”. This led to a wave of threats against Palestinian gay rights groups.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the largest Palestinian LGBTQ+ NGOs have their main offices in Israel or in areas under Israeli jurisdiction, and that hundreds of Palestinian homosexuals have escaped to Israel.
The “Pinkwashing” Libel:
Israel’s progressive LGBTQ+ record poses a challenge to the virulently anti-Israel ‘BDS movement’, which seeks to paint a black and white caricature of Israel as an evil country which deserves to be wiped off the map. BDS aims to silence all discourse about Israel outside of its one-sided framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has therefore appropriated the term “pinkwashing”, in order to portray discussion of Israel’s LGBTQ+ record as part of a sinister attempt to hide alleged Israeli actions vis a vis the Palestinians. This term also serves as an excuse for BDS activists to silence and marginalize, at times violently, Israeli LGBTQ+ voices on college campuses.
The accusation of pinkwashing is no more logical than the claim that the discussion of any other country’s progressive LGBTQ+ record is illegitimate due to other actions or policies of that country. Both the status of LGBTQ+ rights in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are important issues, but discussion of one is in no way meant to negate or obscure the other. The steady advance of LGBTQ+ rights in Israel began long before the BDS movement, and Israel’s LGBTQ+ community reflects the diverse views in Israeli society regarding a solution to the conflict.
The pinkwashing libel, while marginalizing the Israeli LGBTQ+ community, does nothing to promote LGBTQ+ rights in the Palestinian Authority, or advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.