Israelis Don't Ask. They Tell: The Story of How the Israeli Army Opened Up to Gays and Lesbians in Less Than Two Decades Exemplifies How This Seemingly Rigid Institution Serves as an Unlikely Agent of Progress

Article excerpt

America's controversial Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy has led to the dismissal of 13,500 uniformed men and women since 1993. Although the policy seems destined to change, myriad political obstacles remain.

The United States could learn from Israel's experience as one of the first countries to integrate gays into the military. If you tried to enact a law like DADT in Israel today, you'd be laughed out of the Knesset. Whether or not they're asked, Israelis tell. But it hasn't always been that way. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had to go through its own "coming out" process.

While gays and lesbians have doubtless served in the IDF since its founding, they generally flew under the radar. Homosexuality was frowned upon in Israeli society and seldom discussed in the state's earlier days. Although there was no specific prohibition against serving, soldiers discovered to be gay were usually discharged. Starting in 1983, they were allowed to serve but were required to undergo psychiatric evaluations and denied security clearances. These rules were implemented arbitrarily and inconsistently.

When the media released a photograph of a soldier--wearing his uniform--literally coming out of a closet constructed for Israel's first gay pride event in 1993, the soldier was tried in a military court and forced to leave his unit. In February of that year, things began to change. The Knesset held its first hearing on gays in the military, where Uzi Even, the chairman of Tel Aviv University's chemistry department, testified that he had been fired from his top secret position in Israel's nuclear facilities because he was openly living with a man. The fact that he was dismissed after 15 years of service created a national outcry and inspired Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin to rethink the policy. Within three months, then IDE chief of staff Ehud Barak signed the command banning military discrimination based on sexual orientation into law.

The next milestone came in 1998, a result of Adir Steiner's battle for recognition as the widower of Colonel Doron Maisel. Maisel, who became a commander in the medical corps despite his sexuality, had died in 1991. Steiner's lengthy legal campaign forced authorities to ascribe him status in official commemoration of his late partner and to endow him with substantial financial benefits and pension rights. The Steiner case cemented the army's commitment to gays in two sensitive areas: memory and money.

The speed at which the policy has changed indicates that constantly embattled Israelis feel as if they have bigger fish to fry than squabbling over gays in the military. When then-editor of The Forward Seth Lipsky asked Ariel Sharon, a former general and minister of defense, for his take on gays in the army in the early 1990s, the question brought a "quizzical look to his face," Lipsky wrote. Sharon had to ask an aide, "What is our policy on gays?" The aide didn't know either. When Uzi Even was sworn in as the first openly gay member of the Knesset almost a decade later, the prime minister who warmly welcomed him was Arid Sharon,

Indeed, the story of how the Israeli army opened up to gays and lesbians in less than two decades exemplifies how this seemingly rigid institution serves as an unlikely agent of progress. …