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Gay Pride, Gay Marriage, and Israel: A Tale of Two Cities

For a country with heavily religion-infused politics, gay couples in Israel enjoy an impressive number of legal rights.

by
Stephanie L. Freid

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July 3, 2009 - 12:00 am
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President Obama’s recent signing of the memorandum extending benefits to same-sex federal workers was designed to placate those pushing for gay marriage — and it was carefully timed to take place during Gay Pride Month.

While most Americans are familiar with the gay marriage debate within the U.S., the controversy has reached across the world to the Middle East.

In Israel, Gay Pride Month’s main attraction was an unprecedented and provocative public marriage ceremony joining five same-sex couples in civil matrimony.

The atmosphere at the ceremony was festive and traditionally Jewish: there was a chuppah and glasses were crunched underfoot. But it was completely symbolic. Civil marriages performed within the country’s borders, even for heterosexuals, are not recognized.

The Jewish nation has no separation of church — or synagogue, or mosque — and state. Only weddings performed by clergy, or those legally performed overseas, are recognized. Traditionally, Israeli couples who do not want an Orthodox rabbi presiding at their nuptials have headed for a variety of locations, from nearby Cyprus to far-away Vegas.

But for the increasingly outspoken Israeli gay community the symbolic event was a first step toward receiving the social benefits and tax breaks that their counterparts in the U.S. are also fighting for. The community has traveled a long distance in a short time. A mere fifteen years ago, gays in Israel were subject to random arrests on trumped prostitution charges and couples were ridiculed or physically assaulted for holding hands or for any other displays of public affection.

Israel is a constant clash of religions, ideas, and politics. A running joke in the country is that the one thing Christian, Jewish, and Islamic leaders agree upon is their abhorrence of homosexuality.

And yet, this year’s Gay Pride Month wedding drew scant protest. A meager show of protesters made an appearance at the parade, but there was no violence. There was, naturally, Deputy Prime Minister/Shas MK Eli Yishai publicly demanding the event be canceled. But he was doing his political duty. He is, after all, representing a party originally coined the “Sephardic Keepers of the Torah.”

His call went unheeded.

Why did it go so smoothly, with nary a demonstration or a mention in the international news? It’s all about location. “Only in Tel Aviv,” the Jerusalem Post headlined the wedding.

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