Israeli gays, lesbians march amid growing acceptance

TEL AVIV — Amid fluttering flags and a festive atmosphere, Or Marouani-Panner is barking orders through a megaphone to gay groups gathering at Tel Aviv's central square.

Marouani-Panner, a lesbian and a professional event organizer, is running Israel's first-ever gay and lesbian parade. The rainbow-colored flags and banners, international symbols of gay pride, may be familiar sights at similar events around the world. But participants said the June 26 march, which capped Israel's observance of gay pride week, was no ordinary display.

"This is a historic event," says Marouani-Panner. "People are willing to come out and march. We've had several victories in recent years and feel the time is right."

Marouani-Panner had estimated that about 1,000 Israeli homosexuals would attend the parade. Israeli news reports put the turnout as high as 3,000, a sign that Israeli gays are more self-confident then ever.

At the march, gay couples openly embraced and lesbians walked hand in hand, their fears of aversion to their lifestyle disappearing in the company of their peers.

They were joined by eight Knesset members, including Yael Dayan, the Labor lawmaker who has long lobbied for gay rights, and Modi Zanberg, from the Tsomet faction, who is believed to have become the first right-wing member of Knesset to attend a gay event.

"It's been a very good year for us," says Amnon Rahav, 35, a graphic designer.

"Dana International has created a very strong momentum," he says, referring to the transsexual Israeli singer who recently won the Eurovision international song contest on Israel's behalf and was given a heroine's welcome by Israel's secular activists upon her return.

Rahav says the current Israeli government, along with its outspoken fervently religious partners, has actually helped their cause. It has created sympathy for gays among heterosexuals who despise anti-gay statements from religious leaders and has prompted the homosexual community to stand up for its rights with more determination.

Also, several homosexuals at the parade say Israeli gays enjoy a more favorable status than might be expected in a country with such a strong religious presence in politics.

Steven, an immigrant from Hoboken, N.J., who has been a gay-rights activist both in Israel and the United States, confirms that "it's good to be gay in Israel."

"In many ways, Israel is way ahead of the U.S.," says Steven, who like many interviewed gave only his first name. "You cannot be refused for military service in Israel because you are gay, evicted from your home or fired from your job like in some places in America."

Indeed, the Israeli gay community has scored several victories in its struggle for equal rights in recent years.

In 1993, Israel's national labor court ruled that a gay El Al steward's significant other should receive free airline tickets granted to heterosexual spouses of El Al employees.

Last year, a Tel Aviv appeals court ruled that Adir Steiner, the partner of Col. Doron Maisel, an Israeli army officer who died of cancer at the age of 46, should be recognized as an army widower. Steiner won the right to pension benefits as well as non-financial benefits, such as the right to be invited to official memorial ceremonies. The case was considered a precedent for gay rights throughout the public sector.

Gay rights groups won another victory in 1997 when the Supreme Court ruled that Zevulun Hammer, then education minister, could not prevent the airing of an educational television program on homosexuality. The talk show for youngsters included a panel discussion of homosexual teenagers.

And Israeli homosexuals say progress is not only limited to laws ensuring their rights, but it extends to their acceptance in society — at least in Tel Aviv, where the fervently religious are not as powerful as they are in Jerusalem.

Einat, 34, and Roni, 40, a lesbian couple who arrived at the parade with their two daughters in a stroller, say they have been surprised by the openness of Israelis since they returned to the Jewish state from San Francisco, where they lived for several years.

"We came from the promised land to the promised land," jokes Einat, describing their return to Israel last year from the gay and lesbian mecca on the West Coast.

"We've had a surprisingly good reception, from heterosexual people we know — friends, family and even parents of other kids," says Roni.

But amid the festivities, not everyone was upbeat.

Before the parade, a man wearing a knitted black kippah was scouring the square for a banner he planned to march behind: Orthodox Gays and Lesbians.

The man is a gay Orthodox-ordained rabbi from New York who is living in Israel to do research for a book on homosexuality in Judaism.

While gays and lesbians danced through the streets, the small group of about five Orthodox homosexuals who joined the parade appeared tormented by the conflict between their sexuality, their love for the Torah and the intolerance they say exists toward gays within the Orthodox community.

"Reconciliation is the end of a process," says the rabbi, who demanded anonymity. "The beginning of the process is to say that existing in the Orthodox community are gay people, homosexuals and lesbians who are neither sick nor confused heterosexuals, but simply people with a different sexuality."