Last week, a photo was published that showed two male Israeli soldiers, in uniform, holding hands. The picture was taken from behind, thus the viewer only sees their backs. But the two look very comfortable together.
It quickly came out that the photo was staged. One of the men was gay, the other was not. Both men, it was revealed, worked in the IDF’s spokesperson’s office. The picture was then posted by that office onto its Facebook page.
The IDF has not only tolerated, but has been open and accepting of gays and lesbians serving in their ranks, for many years. Gay and lesbian soldiers can serve openly–without fear of censure or persecution–at all levels of the Israeli military. There is nothing shocking about a gay Israeli soldier.
Many years ago, I met an Israeli who had defected from the military. He told me that he had attempted to avoid military service altogether by telling the military that he was gay (he was not). Until recently, this tactic would have kept an American from serving his country. But Israel is a people’s army, with a draft that applies to both men and women (the only such draft in the world), and it is unwilling to allow sexual orientation to come between a soldier and their time in uniform. They informed this Israeli that it was “no problem,” and that they would afford him a “separate shower time.” This was deep in the heart of America’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era, and his anecdote always stood out to me as something fascinating–and defining–about the Jewish State.
The photograph has been both praised and attacked. There are those who say that Israel is attempting to deflect attention from the conflict; that this was a cheap stunt to gain good will and to demonstrate the liberal nature of Israeli society. As Roee Ruttenberg at +972 Magazine points out, the picture was only posted to the English-language Facebook page of the IDF and not to the Hebrew page. This picture was not taken to show to Israelis but rather to Americans. What exactly does that say about Israeli’s views of American’s views of the LGBT standing in US society?
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was recently overturned, and President Obama just made history by becoming the first sitting president to come out in favor of gay marriage. The American population also seems to be rounding a corner towards acceptance of gay marriage and equality. Even as states continue to pass amendments and laws against gay marriage, the tides of American public opinion are turning. The Pew Research Center recently published a poll that showed that a majority of Americans now support gay marriage.
But this is hardly a rallying cry for the average American. This is still clearly not an issue that will bring people to the ballot box in November (at least not for those favoring gay marriage–so far every state, including California, that has voted on legalizing gay marriage has pushed this right further away).
Yet, Israel seems to think that it can garner goodwill from Americans by highlighting its tolerance of gay soldiers within its own military. And bear in mind that this is not an IDF currently answering to a Labor, or even a Kadima, government. The Likud currently holds the largest plurality of seats in an Israeli Knesset in history. While Benyamin Netanyahu is no right-wing ideologue, he is also no lefty. Imagine if a spokesman, rogue or sanctioned, for the American military had released such a picture under President George W. Bush. Real or staged, it is hard not to imagine President Bush rebuking the image as out of line with American values. Even today, in a post-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell world, with a President who has come forward in favor of gay rights, this hypothetical photo would likely cause intense reactions. And yet Israel is attempting to gain friends and acceptance in the West by promoting their tolerance and respect of gays in the military.
If they could only have found an actual gay couple, they might have avoided all of this controversy.
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