January 10, 2007

The IDF provides an encouraging lesson in what might happen if the US lifted its ban.In 1993, Congress banned known homosexuals from the military, convinced their presence could undermine morale and discipline. That year, Israel took exactly the opposite approach.

All restrictions on gay and lesbian soldiers were dropped. Homosexuals in the Israel Defense Forces could join close-knit combat units or serve in sensitive intelligence posts. They were eligible for promotion to the highest ranks.

Fourteen years later, Israelis are convinced they made the right decision.

“It’s a non-issue,” said David Saranga, a former IDF officer and now Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in New York. “There is not a problem with your sexual tendency. You can be a very good officer, a creative one, a brave one and be gay at the same time.”

Israel is among 24 countries that permit known gays to serve in the military, and its experience is giving fodder to opponents of the United States’ controversial “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that admitting gays had not hurt the IDF or any of the 23 other foreign militaries. With troops stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States should drop its ban on known gay service members after the new Congress has time to seriously consider the issue, Shalikashvili wrote.

The retired general’s view has drawn wide attention because he supported “don’t ask, don’t tell” when President Clinton devised it in 1993 as a compromise to the tough law Congress passed that year. Acknowledging that the issue still stirs “passionate feelings” on both sides, Shalikashvili said the debate about gays in the military “must also consider the evidence that has emerged over the last 14 years” – including that in Israel.

As a country almost continuously at war, the Jewish state has always had mandatory conscription although known homosexuals were usually discharged before 1980. The IDF’s first official statement on the matter, in 1983, allowed gays to serve but banned them from intelligence and top-secret positions.

Opposition to the policy came to a head 10 years later when the chairman of the Tel Aviv University’s chemistry department revealed the IDF had stripped him of his officer rank and barred him from sensitive research solely because he was gay. His testimony before a parliamentary committee created a public storm and forced the IDF to drop all restrictions on homosexuals.

Since then, researchers have found, Israel’s armed forces have seen no decline in morale, performance, readiness or cohesion.

“In this security-conscious country, where the military is considered to be essential to the continued existence of the nation, the decision to include sexual minorities has not harmed IDF effectiveness,” wrote Aaron Belkin and Melissa Levitt of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A brigadier general quoted in the pair’s study said Israelis show a “great tolerance” for homosexual soldiers. One lesbian soldier said she was amazed that “people either thought my sexual orientation was cool or were indifferent to it.”

The California study also cited a survey of 17 heterosexual soldiers, two of whom said they would have a problem serving under a gay commander and three expressing concern about showering with a gay colleague. None, though, objected to gay soldiers in general, and as one officer put it, “They’re citizens of Israel, like you and me. The sexual orientation of the workers around me doesn’t bother me.”

As in the United States, though, many Israeli gays, including those in the military, are reluctant to come out of the closet until they think it is safe to do so.

“All available evidence suggests that the IDF continues to be a place where many homosexual soldiers choose not to disclose their sexual orientation,” the researchers found, noting that a psychiatrist said soldiers in her care still “suspect that if they come out they won’t get a good position.”

Publicly, the IDF says that gay soldiers – estimated to be about 2 percent of the force – are screened the same as heterosexuals for promotions and sensitive positions. One officer said she had no problems rising through the ranks as an open lesbian.

Despite obvious differences between the two countries, Israel’s experience provides a relevant and encouraging lesson in what might happen if the United States lifted its ban on known gays in the services, the California researchers concluded. Not everyone agrees.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Michigan-based Center for Military Readiness, notes that American troops, unlike Israelis, are often deployed for long periods thousands of miles from home.

“People who live in conditions of forced intimacy should not have to expose themselves to persons who might be sexually attracted to them,” Donnelly said. “We respect that desire for human modesty and we respect the power of human sexuality.”

However, a recent poll of US soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan found that 75 percent said they would feel comfortable serving with gays. Of those who knew they had a gay colleague, two-thirds said it had no impact on their unit or personal morale.

Americans in general are far more amenable to gays in the military since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was adopted in 1993. Polls in the last few years have shown at least 58 percent and as much as 70 percent favor repealing the ban on known homosexuals.

“Of the minority of the public that still support the policy, that support is not about anything other than simple moral discomfort,” said Belkin, director of Santa Barbara’s Michael D. Palm Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military.

“It’s really about morality and religion and politics, and it’s not about what’s good for the military at this point.”

(Reprinted with permission from the St. Petersburg Times)

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Jason Harris

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