Participants in a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem – the legal status of gays in Israel has improved in recent years.Israel’s liberal policy towards rights for homosexuals received a boost recently when Jerusalem was chosen to host WorldPride 2005. WorldPride is an international parade for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT) first held in Rome, Italy in 2001.

The event is overseen by InterPride – The International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Pride Coordinators. The decision to hold the parade in Jerusalem was made in response to a bid submitted to InterPride by the Jerusalem Open House (JOH) which provides services for the local LGBT community. Jerusalem’s first local gay pride event was held successfully in 2002.

The choice of Jerusalem for the event reflects the coming-of-age of Israel’s gay community, which is manifesting itself in many forms.

The country’s two largest cities – Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – recently held Gay Pride parades which reflect the struggle that Israel, as a democratic society, is facing regarding recognition of gays.

Jerusalem’s third annual Gay Pride Parade, which was attended by approximately 1,500 revelrers, drew fire from the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, a leading mystic rabbi, and segments of the Jerusalem Municipality. By contrast, a half hour away in Tel Aviv, the seventh annual Gay Pride parade drew over 100,000 this past weekend, with music, balloons, rainbow flags, and no controversy at all.

“Love and pride to you all,” said Yael Dayan, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv in the opening of her speech. “I want to tell our American friends here [members of the US gay community took part in the parade] that Tel Aviv is more than San Francisco. Mayor Ron Huldai has made this city a home for everyone.”

So, while Israel is clearly light years ahead of the rest of the Middle East regarding acceptance of alternative lifestyles, what is the actual reality for gay people in Israel when compared with the rest of the Western world?

“The situation is somewhat complex,” JOH director Noa Sattat told ISRAEL21c. “You have laws passed by the Knesset, and there are decision made by the Supreme Court. Then you have party politics and municipal politics. They all come into play. The law against sexual relations between members of the same sex was rescinded in 1983. That’s quite late but there are some states in America that still outlaw homosexual relations. There is also a law, in this country, against sexual harassment and sexual discrimination at places of work. That law also covers homosexuals. That’s very progressive.”

According to JOH director and gay rights activist Hagai El-Ad, when the Jerusalem Open House was founded in 1999, he thought its purpose would be to bring gay rights issues back into the public arena. But instead, he said, the organization found itself taking on a larger role – changing attitudes and promoting tolerance in a city whose diverse population has led to a history of divisiveness.

“We wanted a center that is not only for the secular one-third of Israelis, but to really have a place that will affect the true underlying diversity of the city – a place that is not only gay-friendly, but also religious-friendly and Palestinian-friendly,” he told the Yale Daily News last year during a speaking tour.

Indeed, gay Palestinians from the West Bank are frequently forced to find refuge in Israeli frameworks like the JOH because they’re afraid to continue living in an intolerant Palestinian community.

Sattat notes that among other enlightened policies in Israel is one that allows lesbians access to the Israeli sperm bank. “There are several European countries that do not allow that. Israel also has the highest percentage of lesbian mothers in the world.”

Israel’s tolerance of gays also extends to the Israel Defense Forces, where since the early 1990s homosexuals and lesbians have been accepted for military service in the IDF.

“That is not the case in the United States or Britain,” says Sattat. “I feel that is particularly noteworthy considering the central role the IDF plays in people’s lives in Israel.”

However, on occasion, there is some discrepancy between official policy and the attitude of individuals to homosexual soldiers. “I think the system as a whole has no problem with gays in the army,” Sattat continues. “You have a number of high ranking homosexual officers in the IDF. But there have been cases of maltreatment, on an individual level. You are always going to find people with homophobic preconceptions.”

The legal status of homosexual couples has also improved over the years. The State Attorney recently issued a statement to the Supreme Court stipulating that homosexual couples are to be exempted from purchase and betterment taxes on their apartment, a benefit until now enjoyed only by heterosexual couples.

On the whole, Sattat feels Israel has made significant progress in terms of its acceptance of homosexuals and gays, although there is still some way to go.

“It depends on where you look. If you compare Israel to the United States, we’re doing very well. But Holland is way ahead of us. I think Israel treats gay individuals quite well, but there are more problems with homosexual couples. There is still a lot to be sorted out on that level.”

Shinui party Knesset Member Ronnie Brizon also feels headway has been made in Israel in recent years. “I don’t think, just a few years ago, you could have imagined a gay pride parade taking place in Tel Aviv attended by over 100,000 people. It hasn’t been easy but we have come a long way.” MK Brizon is also at the forefront of efforts to achieve official sanctioning of marriages between homosexuals. “It will take a long long time to get past this hurdle, for the country to even examine its attitude to this issue.”

Brizon is enthusiastic about InterPride’s selection of Jerusalem as the venue for WorldPride 2005. “There is no reason at all why the parade shouldn’t take place in Jerusalem. If there is any objection from the Jerusalem municipality or the police I’m sure the homosexual-lesbian community will apply to the courts and the courts will see to it the parade goes ahead.”

For its part, InterPride feels its acceptance of JOH’s bid to hold WorldPride 2005 has wider implications. “WorldPride in Jerusalem is important for the Pride movement,” said InterPride co-president Suzanne Girard. “We want to send a clear message out to the world that our struggle transcends borders and encompasses all faiths. Through this celebration, we wish to embrace all world communities in the search for recognition and acceptance.”