We’ve had a lively debate in this blog over the past week or so about the issue of how homosexuality is perceived in Israel. The discussion coincidentally coincided with the horrific killings at the Tel Aviv gay suppport center which still, almost inexplicably, remain unsolved.
Several of my more pro-Israel readers have chafed at my description of Israel as a largely conservative, traditionalist (not just in a religious sense) society which frowns on homosexuality (among other modern phenomena). One reader claimed that the fact that Israel permitted gays to serve in the military meant that Israel had quite a progressive approach to gays. Another pointed to a survey in Wikipedia which ranked countries by their tolerance of homosexuality.
As far as I’m concerned, the truth has been laid out in a survey reported by Haaretz which found that 46% of Israelis believe that being gay is a “perversion:”
Almost half of the Israeli population believes that homosexuality is a perversion. A Haaretz-Dialog poll, conducted under Prof. Camil Fuchs finds that 46 percent of the people surveyed answered the question “Do you see homosexuality as a perversion?” in the affirmative, while 42 percent answered that it was not a perversion. Twelve percent said they did not know.
The survey also finds that 71 percent of the ultra-Orthodox population believe homosexuality is a perversion. So do 67 percent of the religious (Orthodox), 64 percent of the Arabs, 57 percent of the Russian-speaking immigrants, 44 percent of the observant (traditional) Jews and 24 percent of the secular population…
An international survey conducted in 2007 revealed that the positions regarding homosexuality in Israel were less liberal than in other Western countries, but more liberal than in Russia, Ukraine and South Korea. The level of homophobia in Israel is close to the level in Bulgaria, he said.
This comparative ranking is NOT something to write home about.
Nevertheless, an Israeli gay leader did try to look on the bright side and you’ve got to admire him for trying:
Yaniv Weizman, head of Tel Aviv’s gay youth organization, said “It comes as no surprise to me that almost half the public thinks I’m mentally ill and should be imprisoned, treated or killed. However, I feel we’ve made some progress. If 26 percent of the religious and 27 percent of the Arabs say we’re not perverts, you can say we’ve achieved something.”
Undoubtedly these attitudes will further liberalize over time as they are here in the U.S. and in other western countries. But to claim that Israel is an oasis of tolerance in the Middle East or to claim as the Israeli foreign ministry and the hardline pro-Israel group StandWithUs does, that gays should rally in Israel’s favor and against Iran because of the intolerance with which they are treated in the latter country–is entirely bogus.
In truth, Israel has much more work to do before it can be recognized as a tolerant society. And the tolerance is called for not just regarding gays, but regarding ALL minorities including the country’s Palestinian citizens.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.