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Justine Borer Headshot

Being Gay in Tel Aviv, the Manhattan of the Middle East

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My mom is a gay civil rights activist. Let's get down to it: The reason I support Israel is that I found a different cause from my mom's. Yet I remain deeply invested in gay civil rights. I cried when gay marriage was legalized in New York on June 24, 2011. New Yorkers, gay and straight, gathered in bars, waiting for Governor Cuomo to announce the legislature's decision. When he did, the audience cheered as if the Yankees had won the World Series.

The cotton anniversary of the legalization of gay marriage in New York coincided almost exactly with the June 26, 2013, Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor. The 5-4 decision held that married gay couples could not be denied a federal tax benefit (treating a gay spouse as a "surviving spouse" who may inherit property without tax penalties when the other spouse dies) available to married straight couples. Windsor levied a death knell for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that declared marriage as between a man and a woman.

Because I fundamentally care most about any Supreme Court decision that will make my life easier, as a New York family lawyer, I am grateful for Windsor. DOMA was a thorn in my side. Drafting divorce agreements for gay clients presented unique challenges. Pre-June 26, gay spouses had certain rights under New York law that they didn't have under federal law. In some instances federal law conflicted with or obfuscated New York law. A primary example is the maintenance (otherwise known as alimony) that one spouse may pay the other for a certain period after divorce. Maintenance has been tax deductible by the gay payor spouse under New York law since 2011, but was until Windsor not tax-deductible under federal law. Now, at least in theory, incongruence between state and federal law will not haunt the practices of New York matrimonial lawyers when they handle divorces for gay couples.

Though DOMA's impact is profound, it should not be overestimated. To be sure, all married gay couples in the U.S. can now file joint federal tax returns, and are eligible for Social Security surviving spouse benefits and health insurance benefits. Federal government employees in particular have gained many rights. According to New York attorney Teresa Calabrese, "Windsor is a huge victory with over a thousand real life benefits to same-sex marriages if the couple lives in a state that recognizes and respects same sex marriage." New York, 13 other states, and D.C. do. Yet the other states do not. Though gay couples married in a recognition state may file joint federal taxes even if they move to a non-recognition state, Windsor's impact on the non-recognition states is symbolic and vicarious in many respects.

In Israel, too, gay couples cannot marry. Relatedly, there are no civil marriages in Israel, only religious ones. However, as explained in "Marriage Equality Still Missing Here," a June 28, 2013, editorial in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "gay couples who were married abroad can register as married with the Population registrar in Israel."

In "A right to marriage," a June 7, 2013, op-ed in Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, gay Israeli Jonathan Danilowitz posits, "Acceptance is a badge of honor in Israel, and one of the reasons that the world's gay (and other) communities look upon Israel with admiration." Danilowitz's thesis is supported by the IDF's decision in 1993 to allow gay soldiers to serve in classified positions as well as non-classified ones.

Danilowitz notes the mismatch between the perpetual Jewish quest for safety, protection and acceptance, and Israel's stance on gay marriage. Danilowitz is a South African ex-pat who "came roaring out of the closet" (his words). In the 1960s he joined the Protection of Privacy organization, composed of gay members who did not wish to self-identify as gay. During the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, doctors from Israel's Kaplan Medical Center gathered at the home of Danilowitz and his long-term partner. Today, Danilowitz is the proud president of Israel's P-FLAG analog. (He does not have kids.) He was also the plaintiff in Danilowitz v. El Al, the Israeli Supreme Court decision that forbid Israeli airline El Al from extending a benefit (complimentary airline tickets) to the spouses of straight employees that the airline did not extend to gay spouses, such as Danilowitz's partner.

In the heart of a country that places a heavy emphasis on family, Tel Aviv is an entity unto itself. It is vaunted as a bastion of liberalism, and that liberalism ostensibly extends to acceptance of gay people. The anecdotal evidence I have collected in my conversations with Israeli friends has given me the impression that, in the aggregate, "macho" Israeli guys tend to be more accepting of gay men than are "macho" American guys. One straight Israeli friend argues that "accepting" is a misleading term. According to him, it's not so much that straight men accept gay men as that Israelis must focus on other things besides who is sleeping with whom. There is no room for petty infighting. And the presence of openly gay IDF soldiers bolsters the perception of gay Israelis as warriors.

All Israelis are "under the tent."

It would be naïve to extend this starry-eyed perception of Israeli gay-straight relations too far. Homophobia exists in Israel. Many Israelis have religious objections to homosexuality. Dr. Perry Halkitis, New York University professor, author of the just-released book The AIDS Generation, and my former elementary school science teacher, explains that:

Any Western country was "better" than the U.S. [in the recent past] because the populations of gay men are smaller, the viremic pool [of the AIDS virus] was less concentrated (meaning there was less virus floating around in the collective bloodstream), and people were still more closeted and not having anal sex, and thus fewer people were infected.

The bottom line: Dr. Halkitis doubts that "family and cultural norms of countries like Israel made being positive any easier." By extension, there are limits to the protection that "family and cultural norms" offer gay Israelis.

Required IDF service contributes to the status of Israelis, gay and straight, as warriors. The Israeli focus on family contributes to inclusion of gay people "under the tent." But gay people cannot marry in Israel. So despite its reputation as the Manhattan of the Middle East, Tel Aviv (and Israel) has a ways to go before it lives up to its name by legalizing gay marriage as has already been done in (the actual) Manhattan.