Openly gay Knesset member ripples the establishment

Uzi Even, soon to be the Knesset's first openly gay member, averts his eyes when discussing the subject of the Knesset's "closet" homosexuals. It's a topic that's gotten him in trouble, ever since he told a regional weekly newspaper a couple of years ago that once he entered the Knesset, he would "out" all the secretly gay Knesset members who opposed his attempts to liberalize laws affecting homosexuals. He's since retracted the threat, repeatedly.

Sitting in his airy north Tel Aviv apartment, dominated by books, art and the congratulatory flowers and plants sent by gay activists, Even treats the issue of closet gay Knesset members gingerly, naming no names, but one gets the impression he'd like to say more.

"There have been many [closet gay Knesset members] in every one of Israel's 15 Knessets, from all over the political spectrum," says Even, 62, who "came out" 35 years ago.

How does he know?

"I've met a number of them. We [Israeli homosexuals] were an underground community over the years — there were personal encounters [with closet gay Knesset members], stories, gossip. Everyone more or less knew who they were."

He will continue to make the case that "life out of the closet is better than in the closet," but promises not to "out" anyone for any reason, saying he doesn't want to cause a furor or strike fear into any of his new colleagues.

Even, a highly accomplished chemistry professor at Tel Aviv University, will be sworn in during the first week of November, when he takes the place of veteran Meretz Knesset member Amnon Rubinstein, who is retiring. The only other known homosexual to have served in the Knesset is Berkeley's Marcia Freedman, a member of Meretz's predecessor, the Citizen's Rights Movement, during the early 1980s, who came out publicly as a lesbian after leaving office, and who has since returned to the United States.

Naturally, Even's entry to the Knesset, announced at the end of last week, has drawn some angry reactions from haredi Knesset members. Shas's Nissim Ze'ev was the harshest, saying Even "symbolized the bestialization of humanity," adding that he should be "hidden under the carpet" and banned from entering the Knesset.

Even laughed drily at Ze'ev's remarks, calling him "the famous mohel;" Ze'ev once accidentally mutilated an infant's penis in a ritual circumcision.

But Shas's Yair Peretz said he would have no problem with Even in the Knesset as long as he didn't make homosexual rights his "banner." Even called this "a major improvement" over past haredi approaches to gays, noting that former Shas Knesset member Moshe Maya once stood at the Knesset podium and quoted the Torah's injunction that homosexuals "will surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them."

Even says the haredim have toned down their attacks on homosexuals because they've realized that all their threats and fury were futile.

"Instead of saying that we should be stoned to death, I'm happy to report that the haredim have now caught up with the 19th century, and now they're calling it a sickness, saying we need psychiatric help, that we can be cured," says a bemused Even as his partner of the last 16 years, Dr. Amit Kama, moves about the apartment.

It appears that Peretz and other "moderate" haredim who are prepared to give Even a slight benefit of the doubt are about to be rudely disappointed; for the incoming Knesset member, homosexual rights are definitely his banner. He revels in shattering the "glass ceiling" for homosexuals in Israeli politics. It's something he's been doing ever since entering the spotlight during the breakthrough event for Israel's homosexual community, which came in early 1993.

Knesset member Yael Dayan invited some 100 gays and lesbians to her subcommittee on gender equality, marking the first time a delegation of homosexuals came to the Knesset. Haredim weren't the only people outraged. "This isn't San Francisco," groused then-Likud Knesset member Ron Nachman in the Knesset hallway.

Among those present, Even pretty much stole the show, telling how the Shin Bet's discovery of his homosexuality ended his years of work at the highest levels of Israeli defense research.

"I was on the team that built the nuclear center in Dimona," he notes.

He was a reserve IDF major and defense intelligence analyst with the highest security clearance. As his clearance hadn't been checked in quite a while, and he was about to be appointed to a new defense posting, the Shin Bet ran a fresh check on Even. An agent asked a downstairs neighbor in his Tel Aviv apartment building about his habits, and the woman revealed that Even was living with a male partner.

"She came crying to me later that she was pressured into saying what she did," Even says.

He was stripped in rank to sergeant, taken off all research projects and assigned a new reserve duty — filing and cleaning up at an IDF administrative office. He complained to the IDF ombudsman, former chief of General Staff Haim Laskov, a long-time friend of Even's family, but Laskov determined that Even's demotion did not violate IDF General Staff regulations.

"He was right," Even notes. "The General Staff's regulations were that homosexuals could not serve in intelligence or any other sensitive post, the rationale being that they might be subject to blackmail. I was openly gay, but it didn't matter to them."

That was the story Even told at Dayan's committee hearing, and he immediately found himself in the media limelight. He met with Eitan Haber, then aide to Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"Haber said they wanted to fully reinstate me, but I told him what I wanted was for them to change the law discriminating against gays in the IDF."

Even got his wish. The IDF appointed a committee that rewrote the General Staff regulations barring discrimination against homosexuals; it was signed by then-Chief of General Staff Ehud Barak, and then it won approval in the Knesset — all in the space of three months.

At the urging of Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, Even, who had been a party member, took a more active role in Meretz politics, mainly in recruiting homosexuals to the party's ranks. He finished 13th in the 1999 party primaries.

But his most important political work was carried out not through the party, but through his own efforts putting himself forward as a test case to change laws, as he had done with the army.

His "proudest achievement" came after listening to the laments of an employee in the TAU School of Chemistry, who sought Even's advice on what to do about his 15-year-old son, who'd told him he was gay.

"I told the man to help the boy, that he was suffering, but evidently it didn't do any good because things just got worse until the boy left home," Even relates.

He met with the boy — "a skinny little kid with freckles, crying" — and a solution was found: with the approval of the boy's parents, and of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, Even and Kama became the boy's foster parents — the first Israeli gay couple allowed such a privilege.

"I've always been a part of the establishment, and I've always worked through the establishment, not like the gay-rights movement in the U.S., which tends to favor the 'in your face' approach," says Even.

He has an ambitious agenda for the Knesset. While gays are protected under law against discrimination and defamation, they still don't have the "family" rights they feel entitled to, he says. Even wants to enable Israeli homosexuals to adopt children.

He also wants to change the wording of some 60 laws so that gay partners get the same spousal rights to social benefits as do husbands and wives. As it now stands, for instance, a homosexual cannot receive National Insurance Institute payments upon the death of his or her live-in partner, as a husband or wife can. An Israeli homosexual with a live-in partner can only qualify for the lesser mortgages available to unmarried people.

But when asked if he expects to pass his agenda in the current Knesset term, which runs out in a year — unless new elections are called sooner — Even replies, "Definitely not." The votes aren't there, certainly not for a social upheaval like gay adoptions. But he'll try to make piecemeal changes — quietly, in the hope that anti-gay Knesset members, such as the large haredi contingent, won't notice.

"The law barring defamation of homosexuals was slipped in without anybody noticing. A lot of votes pass in the Knesset because people aren't paying attention," he points out.

Even acknowledges that his main achievement in this term will come on his first day in office — when he brings an openly gay presence into the Knesset, setting a precedent that, he hopes, will be followed by future gay politicos.

"Look," he says, "somebody has to be the first, right?"