El Al purser who won partner benefits to speak in S.F.

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Jonathan Danilowitz and his partner of 18 years lead a quiet, comfortable life as gay men in Tel Aviv.

They work, play bridge with friends, go to the park, sip coffee in the city's sidewalk cafes. "We're just simple people doing the things almost everybody does," says Danilowitz.

Yet amid their ordinary lives, the pair stand out as historic players in the battle for gay rights in their country.

Several years ago, Danilowitz, a senior purser for El Al Airlines, sued the company in pursuit of benefits for his partner equal to those of heterosexual common-law spouses.

The case garnered major media attention and went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Justice Aharon Barak argued in his majority opinion that "the differentiation between partnership of two genders and partnership of one gender is explicit and bold discrimination."

The suit and subsequent media attention "was a little bit frightening, but it was empowering and a relief to fight for what I thought was right," says Danilowitz, 52, who is on a U.S. speaking tour.

On Sunday night, he will assess gay and lesbian rights in Israel at San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. Sponsoring his tour is the New Israel Fund, which hopes to rally support for such organizations as the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights, the umbrella organization for the country's gay and lesbian groups that aided Danilowitz in his legal battle.

A former South African who moved to Israel in 1971 and began working for El Al the following year, Danilowitz believes the 1994 high court decision has affected the democratic face of Israel, sending a message not only to gays and lesbians but to other minorities that there is legal recourse for discrimination.

Since the case, "so many other people have been able to stand up and say, `I deserve equality and I'm going to fight for it and I'm going to get it' and they have done so," says Danilowitz, who continues to work for El Al — "happily," he says.

Looking at the current general picture for gays and lesbians in Israel, he believes his compatriots lead a relatively hassle-free existence — at least on the surface.

Discrimination in housing or employment based on sexual orientation is illegal. A few years ago, the Knesset overturned anti-sodomy laws that had carried over from the British Mandate period.

Also in the last several years, the Israel Defense Force explicitly stated that it is illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the armed forces, enabling them to serve in any army unit, including those requiring the highest security.

"They won't ask and if you want to tell, you can tell and they won't do anything," Danilowitz says.

Still, he says, gays and lesbians have a major challenge on their hands with Israel's vocal, ultra-religious minority. In accordance with a Leviticus passage condemning homosexuality, that minority, Danilowitz says, regards being gay as an abomination and thus advocates limiting gay rights in such arenas as marriage and adoption.

That attitude, he adds, is not just limited to the ultra-religious.

"There's a lot to do in educating the man in the street, in saying to people, `What we do in the privacy of our bedrooms with consenting adults is nobody else's business. We pay our taxes, we serve in the army, we do our work. Let us get on with our lives.'"

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.