Israelis Don’t Ask. They Tell

Moment Magazine, November 2010. 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…

Moment Magazine, November 2010.

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-IDF 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 Ariel 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. As a conscription army, the IDF theoretically mirrors Israeli society at large, but being that most Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews are excluded from the draft, progressives may be over-represented. America’s volunteer army, on the other hand, draws significantly on poorer economic classes. As a result, middle-class Americans come out while they are in college, while middle-class Israelis come out during military service.

I did not come out until my IDF service (between 1998-2001), despite having spent several years earning my degree at Tel Aviv University. When I became an officer in the navy headquarters, my peers, friends and even commanders helped me gradually step out of the closet. Unlike the American army, the Israeli army pushes its soldiers to shape it in their own image.

In 2002, the IDF’s reputation for diversity was bolstered by the film Yossi and Jagger, which recounted a love story between two male soldiers. But one should not mistake Israel’s progress with perfection. Homophobia and discrimination are still a challenge; we do not always hear about the privates who are bullied in non-elite units. Despite these imperfections, however, the United States can learn from Israel’s experience that inclusion serves both the army and society. Exclusionary policies make it difficult to recruit new soldiers and preserve valuable individuals. DADT, for example, has forced the dismissal of 700 people with “mission critical skills” like Arab linguists in the midst of two wars.

Proponents of DADT in the U.S. insist that Israel’s experience is not relevant because of organizational and cultural differences between the two armies, such as mandatory conscription. Study after study proves that these differences are irrelevant. Of the 25 countries that now have open military policies toward gays, not a single one has experienced the dreaded loss of morale or unit cohesion conjured by anti-gay politicians in America.

Yet emotionally-driven issues such as the common shower (that universal test of unit cohesion) preoccupy Americans. Federal Judge Virginia Phillips’s September 9th court ruling that DADT is unconstitutional cites, among other things, the fact that communal showers are increasingly rare in the American army. Israelis have a different perspective. Avner Even-Zohar, a retired IDF captain who lectures extensively on LGBT issues, says that “in officers’ training in the Israeli army they told us that real soldiers hardly shower at all.”

Yoav Sivan is an Israeli journalist living in New York.

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