Gay advocate reveals a changing Israel during visit here

Last November, a Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party resigned and Uzi Even was sworn in to fill the vacated seat. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon forms his new government, Even will no longer be in the Israeli government.

"I didn't accomplish anything of substance," he said on a recent visit to the Bay Area. "It was only a symbolic gesture. But don't underrate the symbolic."

The reason it was so symbolic, as well as historical, is that Even is gay, the first openly gay legislator in the Israeli parliament.

Soon, the professor of chemistry will retire from politics to return to his job at Tel Aviv University. But this does not mean leaving the spotlight. Because at 62, Even has been at the forefront of the gay rights movement in Israel for the past 20 years, and that is unlikely to change.

Even spoke to many groups during his Bay Area tour, including engagements in San Francisco at the Jewish Community Federation, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav and the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, as well as Temple Sinai in Oakland and area universities.

His story as a gay activist begins in 1983. Even worked 20 years on a secretive research and development project for the Israeli military. When the time came for him to begin working in an even higher classified area, the military did the requisite background checks and learned that he was living with another man.

They stripped him of his military rank and downgraded him to a clerical job. "I was banned from many activities," he said. "It was a slap in the face because I really feel that I contributed a lot to my country."

In 1988, Israel's sodomy laws were revoked, but this did nothing to change the situation of gays serving in the Israel Defense Force. The general rule was that if you were gay, you were kicked out of the army.

In 1993, Knesset member Yael Dayan asked Even to be the spokesperson to challenge the law. He was then chair of the chemistry department at the university, and his coming out made all the newspapers. Three days later, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called him to his office.

Rabin was ready to reinstate Even's position with the military, but Even refused. Rather, he said "I want you to change the law that enabled [my getting fired] to happen." After a month of negotiations, an agreement was reached that the IDF would not discriminate against gays and lesbians in recruitment, placement or advancement. It was signed by then-IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, and the Knesset appointed a committee to ensure it was implemented.

"It's been very successful as not only did the military do this but society has changed as well. The foreign ministry is now sending same-sex couples abroad," Even said. The police and Shin Bet have also followed suit.

Next, Even took on Tel Aviv University, suing for partnership rights for his partner of 17 years. The case was about to go to court in 1994 when the university gave up and signed an agreement, which was then extended to all gay men and lesbians employed there. When Even asked the administration how many couples had signed up after him, someone told him, "After 10 we stopped counting."

The next law Even challenged was the one banning gay and lesbian couples from becoming foster parents. A colleague of Even's came to him seeking advice when his 15-year-old son came out. Even offered it to him, but the father of the boy could not come to terms with his son's orientation. Even offered his home to the boy, and the father gave his permission.

"I became a Jewish mother," Even chuckled.

Now 24, his adoptive son served in the army and is working in an advertising agency. To show how much things have changed in the army, Even said his son's commanding officer offered to set him up with another soldier.

Even headed a gay caucus formed by the Meretz Party, which is how he ended up in the Knesset. The caucus' first achievement was getting Michal Eden, a lesbian, elected to the Tel Aviv City Council. Even's appointment to the Knesset was next. "I consider it breaking the glass ceiling," he said, adding it made the news from Chile to Tokyo.

His speaking engagement in California (he also spoke at UCLA) was sponsored by the foreign ministry — "It shows how much they've changed," he said — to show another side of Israel.

When asked about the future of Meretz, as it took such a beating in the Jan. 28 elections, Even said many Israelis have moved to the right. "They are afraid and want revenge," he said. "They've been under constant terrorist attacks, so people changed their mind.

"Sharon has been successful in reducing the violence on the Israeli side, at the cost of creating havoc on the Palestinian side," he continued. "We are isolated. People are disgusted with what we're doing in the occupied territories, but we all know it will end some day. The violence has to end."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."