Activist discusses state of LGBT rights in Israel

Israeli LGBT activist Etai Pinkas spoke at Washington University on Monday during an event sponsored by Hillel at Wash. U and other student groups.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A prominent Israeli activist on LGBT issues, named one of the 100 most influential people in Jewish State, spoke to about 50 community members at Washington University to cap a day spent with students and others on the campus.

Etai Pinkas shared a history of Tel Aviv and his own experiences fighting for gay rights in Israel. “I came to tell my personal story along with the story of Tel Aviv and the LGBT community in Israel — how it developed, what we achieved and where we are still going,” he said.

Pinkas and his partner have become notable for advancing issues related to marriage equality and the right to have children through surrogacy, eventually taking both matters before the Israeli Supreme Court. 

He started his slideshow with a 1909 photo of a gathering of the founders of Tel Aviv.

“This is the lottery they made to determine who gets which lot to put their homes on,” he said. “They put numbers on seashells and each family took a shell and the number sent them to their future home.”


He said that, from the beginning, there were laws against male homosexuality although they were sometimes not enforced strictly.

“There were not laws against lesbian relations among women because we inherited the British Common Law,” he said. “According to legend, when the sodomy laws were written, Queen Victoria, when she was advised to create laws against relations between women, she said, ‘No, it is impossible.’”

A 1974 photo showed the earliest stirrings of a movement to change the law.

“That’s the first-ever demonstration for gay rights in Israel,” he said. “Many of them were Jewish people emigrating from Anglo-Saxon countries, mostly from the U.S., and had been affected by the Stonewall event here.”

He was referring to the 1969 protests and riots that took place at a gay bar in New York, which are considered the basis for the equal rights movement by LGBT activists.

Although advocacy organizations began to form in the mid-70s, Pinkas said sodomy laws were not repealed in Israel until 1988. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, workplace equality issues came to the fore thanks in part to a legal battle waged by a flight attendant for El Al, the national airline of Israel.

Today, Tel Aviv is considered a very gay-friendly city and there is even an LGBT center in town.

“It is the only one in the world, up to this day, that is not only financed completely by the city but is also a part of the city. People who work there are city employees,” he said noting how the request was made of the mayor. “We asked him, ‘If we supply the people with hospitals and schools and pavement why can’t we give this service which is necessary?’”

Government also supports the gay pride parade there financially.

“That’s why you almost don’t see any commercial [advertising or logos] because they are not dependent on corporate contributions,” Pinkas said.

Still, problems persist. He noted that anti-gay violence has occurred, including a deadly 2009 shooting at the center in Tel Aviv, a crime for which no one was ever convicted.

“There is still hatred and homophobia but we believe we are marching in the right direction,” he said.

Pinkas said that he and his partner went before the nation’s highest court in an attempt to gain the right to have a child through surrogacy. They eventually went to India to go through the process.

“We personally didn’t want to wait and get old while the Supreme Court is thinking about our request,” he said.

Gay people can theoretically adopt, he added, though it isn’t common.

“The problem — and maybe it is a good problem — is that there are very few babies up for adoption in Israel,” Pinkas said. “People don’t tend to give up their children even if they are in trouble.”

Same-sex marriage is not illegal in Israel. But since the Israeli system delegates such matters to the rabbinical establishment, homosexual couples face the same problem as other groups that are not recognized by that establishment as marriageable, he said. A common solution is for gay couples to marry in other countries and then come back to Israel to have their union registered.

“The second option is to simply have a household and live together. It is recognized by the state in quite a few aspects,” he said.

Partway through the presentation, about a dozen individuals in the audience stood and turned their backs to Pinkas in an act of coordinated protest. Wearing tape over their mouths, they filed silently out holding hand-lettered signs reading, “No pride in apartheid.” 

The protesters were not disruptive and the demonstration did not interfere with the proceedings.

During a later question-and-answer session, Pinkas addressed the controversy surrounding Israel’s geopolitical situation. As a member of the political left, he said there was room for criticism of the nation but that such complaints should not be regarded as justifications for undermining the legitimacy of any nation.

“My message is that a country can be both right and wrong at the same time,” he said. “Most countries tend to be both – not all bad and not all good.”

Rachel Katzin, a 19-year-old sophomore political science and psychology major at Wash U, said she enjoyed listening to Pinkas and found the program’s timeline of events in the LGBT movement to be highly informative.

“I’m someone who views history through a legal perspective and it was interesting to see how to culturally integrate a progressive movement through social action and awareness-raising,” she said.

Jackie Levey, executive director of Hillel at Washington University, said her group was happy to be one of several sponsoring the Pinkas visit. He held three campus programs and met with more than 100 people in the university community.

“He’s an amazing human being and we were glad to have this opportunity to share his story,” she said.