The cast of the hit movie ‘The Bubble’ which delves into contemporary gay culture in Tel Aviv.One might get an idea from reading recent headlines in Israel about the controversy over World Pride – the international gay and lesbian week which is taking place this week in Jerusalem – that the country has not yet entered the modern world pertaining to gay rights. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“There is no better place than Israel in the world to be gay,” says Gal Uchovsky, producer and co-author of the current hit film The Bubble – the story of a group of straight and gay friends in liberal Tel Aviv whose lives become complicated when one of them gets romantically involved with a young Palestinian.

A collaboration with his film and life partner Eytan Fox (whose credits include Walk On Water and Yossi and Jagger, the film – which portray same-sex scenes – has been viewed by more than 60,000 Israelis in mainstream theaters around the country since its release in July, an impressive number representing almost a percent of the country’s population.

“Gay culture in Israel is not a subculture,” explained Uchovsky to ISRAEl21c. “Gay culture in Israel is not ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ the way it is in New York, for instance. Instead, in places in the country where we are integrated, we are fully integrated members of Israeli society.”

The signs of that integration is everywhere. Where else do you see same-sex couples walking down the street, holding hands and kissing? What other country in the region has spawned a huge, nation-wide network of support and advocacy for the LGBT community? Where else can you go to a convenience store and pick up one of 20,000 copies of the gay community’s monthly journal Pink Time?

Uchovsky theorizes that the gay culture that has developed in Israel is a byproduct of living under the constant threat of terror.

“In Israel, where anyone can be killed at any moment, and where we are faced with life and death on a daily basis, all other issues – including those pertaining to sexuality – take proportion. Israel is not traditional in the sense that everything is negotiable and debatable and there is nothing that is taboo,” he said.

Nowhere is this truer than in the legal arena, where the Israeli justice system has marked victory after victory for gay rights.

“Although Israel seems to be a conservative and religious country, it is actually one of the most advanced when it comes to gay rights,” says Shai Doitsh, from the Aguda (the Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexuals and Transgenders in Israel), which celebrated its 31st anniversary this year. “It is very, very advanced here.”

Despite that advancement, there was vociferous opposition to the World Pride march and events. In June, Muslim leader and MK Sheik Ibrahim Sarsur threatened gays not to approach the Temple Mount during the march “over our dead bodies.” In early July, hundreds of leaflets were distributed by an organization called ‘Red Arm for Salvation’ to homes in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods offering a bounty to anyone who would kill one of “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah” at the march. Even Jerusalem’s Mayor Uri Lupolianski filed a petition to prevent this years’ event from taking place.

About half of the Knesset’s 120 legislatures signed a petition against holding a homosexual parade in Jerusalem, but at the same time, Israel’s coalition government recently defeated a no-confidence motion brought by two Orthodox political parties, condemning the Knesset for not blocking the World Pride event.

Jerusalem World Pride, dubbed ‘Love Without Borders’, is the second such international event initiated by Interpride, an association of 150-odd organizations worldwide that operate or produce pride events. The first World Pride event took place in 2000 in Rome, where it attracted over a quarter of a million supporters.

Although the big march has been canceled – not over the opposition – but due to sensitivities regarding celebrations during the war in the North, the Jerusalem Open House (JOH), which is one of the organizing bodies, will continue to run subsidiary events as planned, for the participants who are expected to come from around the world. From August 6-12, World Pride events – including a multi-faith LGBT Clergy Conference, an LGBT Health Day, an International LGBT Youth conference, and an LGBT Film Festival – are taking place as scheduled.

According to Danny Savitch, co-founder and legal advisor to JOH, the controversy over World Pride detracts from the true picture, where Israel remains an oasis for gays in the Middle East and beyond, a shining example of Israel’s democracy and human rights.

“I am extremely proud of Israel’s legal system. Our Supreme Court is the best in the world,” he told ISRAEL21c.

The story of gay rights in Israel began with the founding a non-profit organization in 1975 called the Aguda, dedicated to furthering the rights of the LGBT community. The Aguda has grown into a huge, nation-wide network of centers enlisting the services of more than 500 volunteers who offer outreach programs for troubled populations including religious, youth, soldiers, and new immigrants; social and legal aid; support groups and counseling; activities and events; and all other means of assistance to Israel’s gay community.

Among its achievements:

** Repealing the law from the British Mandate period against sodomy – which made male homosexuality illegal.

** Revising the Equal Employment Opportunity Act to state that discrimination in employment relations on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status was explicitly prohibited.

“Israel was one of the first countries to do this,” says Uzi Even, former Meretz MK, and the first openly gay Member of Parliament in Israel.

Even is almost single-handedly responsible for the next major change to Israeli law, which did away with discrimination based on sexual orientation in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). Even, who served as a reserve major and defense intelligence analyst with the highest security clearance, was stripped in rank to sergeant, taken off all research projects and assigned a new reserve duty – filing and cleaning up at an IDF administrative office – when the Israel Secret Services discovered that he was gay in 1993.

When then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin found out, he immediately offered Even to be reinstated to his former position. Instead, Even requested that the IDF appoint a committee to rewrite the General Staff regulations, barring discrimination against homosexuals vis-à-vis recruitment, placement, and advancement in the IDF. It was signed by then chief of general staff Ehud Barak, and then it won approval in the Knesset – all in the space of three months.

“We were one of the first countries in the world to fully accept gays in the military,” says Even, who notes that to this day, the United States military upholds the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. “This was the first major step.”

In 1995, Yonathan Danilowitz, won a Supreme Court case against his employer, the national airline El Al, which initially refused to acknowledge Danilowitz’s same-sex partner (since 1979) as his common-law spouse when it came to their policy of granting an annual free ticket to employees’ partners.

The following year, in 1996, the Aguda held the first ever gay pride parade in the Middle East, which took place in Tel Aviv. “It was literally a few cars with a few flags,” says Doitsh. The annual event has grown into one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, and draws an average of 100,000 participants.

In November 2002, Even, a professor of chemistry at Tel Aviv University, was sworn in as an MK. He entered politics to serve as the voice of the gay community. “As the first openly gay MK I was the focal point of vehement rhetoric by the religious MKs in the Knesset,” Even told ISRAEL21c. “But I was not discriminated against. On the contrary, I was treated very well throughout my term.”

In 2004, the Nazareth District Court ruled that same-sex couples have the same inheritance rights as married couples. And in 2005, a groundbreaking Supreme Court decision ruled that a lesbian spouse could officially adopt a child born to her current partner, by artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor. Before that, gay partners of parents were only granted guardianship over their partner’s children. Following the ruling, the first lesbian couple in Israel adopted each other’s biological children on February 12, 2006.

Only a few legal issues remain to be changed. Gay male couples still cannot legally adopt. To date, Israeli law does not recognize same-sex marriages. At least three LGBT couples who were wed in Canada, have petitioned the Supreme Court to recognize their marriages. One of these is Even and his partner Dr. Amit Kamah, a professor of Media at Emek Israel College. The couple was married in Toronto in August 2004, and are currently under consideration for recognition by the Ministry of Interior.

“This will be an historical leap,” says Kamah. “The official recognition of couplehood is the single most urgent issue facing gays in Israel.”

“I think people realize the importance of this issue as precedent-setting,” says Even. Although he thinks gay marriage in Israel is still a long way away – given that marriage, like all life-cycle events, falls under the exclusive jurisdication of the Rabbinate – recognition of a gay marriage that has taken place outside the country, is a forseeable goal.

Israel and Turkey are the only countries in the Middle East where homosexuality between consenting adults in private is neither illegal nor persecuted by the authorities. As a condition of joining the European Union, Cyprus is being forced to follow suit. In most other Middle Eastern countries, homosexuality is illegal, and is more often than not punishable by death.

Laws and mores in the Palestinian Authority are equally strict, which explains why so many gay Palestinians have fled to Israel for help and sexual freedom – in part the subject of The Bubble. The Aguda runs a rescue project aimed at saving the lives of gays persecuted in areas under the PA by providing the necessary bureaucratic and legal aid to achieve refugee status or otherwise prevent the deportation of gay Palestinians from Israel back to the Palestinian territories.

“Even in Morocco, gays know we are the address for help,” says Doitsch. So far this year, 364 Arabs from around the world have contacted the Aguda for help. “They will get killed if it is discovered that they are gay, so we try to get them shelter in other countries,” he says. “We are here to help gays wherever they are.”

The JOH also runs special programs for gay Israeli Arabs, the most problematic gay demographic in Israel’s population. Although they are protected under Israel law, the law does not protect them from the omnipresent social stigma and culturally condoned punishments for being gay, in Arab society.

“Out of fear most of them stay in the closet, get married and have children, in accordance with the status quo,” says Haneen Maikey, Coordinator for the Palestinian Project at the JOH.

The Palestinian Project’s most successful initiative to date is its Arabic language website. The discussion forum has attracted more than 300 members since it was launched less than a year ago. The JOH also runs an Arabic language hotline, which takes calls for help from across the Arab world.

“We are the only Arabic-speaking country in the Middle East that offers help and a forum for gays,” says Savitch.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish gays face issues similar to those of gays in the Arab world. ?If you come from a religious background, you will be severely punished if you declare yourself to be gay,” says Savitch. Both the JOH and the Aguda run special programs for this exceedingly troubled gay demographic, as well. Says Savitch, “Their situation is very, very difficult to deal with.”

It is the concentration of these two uncompromising populations in parts of Israel, in addition to the infancy of gay community infrastructure, which makes gay life in the periphery a challenge. It goes without saying that the hub of gay life in Israel is in Tel Aviv. However, with the opening of Aguda chapters in the periphery, liberal centers are rapidly beginning to develop in Eilat (which is quickly becoming the international ‘Pink Holiday Resort Town’), Beersheva, and Kiryat Shmona.

“The Aguda is working with all communities across Israel, and in the periphery we are really seeing changes, day by day,” says Doitsch, 27, who grew up in Beersheva long before there was an Aguda office there.

“It used to be that the only place to live if you were gay was in Tel Aviv,” says Caspi. “This is no longer the case.”

This is precisely the rationale behind the gay community’s insistence on holding World Pride in Jerusalem, despite dissention from the Orthodox religious sector.

“I was born and raised in Jerusalem. It’s my city. I don’t want to leave here and I don’t want to have to hide here,” says Savitch, who notes that whether the Orthodox establishment is willing to accept it or not, the fact remains that 8-10% of Jerusalem’s population is gay.

“It’s something that traverses the religious and political spectrum,” says Savitch. “We are part of Jerusalem society, and we deserve the same rights and respect as all other citizens of Jerusalem.”

“I am proud of being an Israeli because Israel is a free and democratic society,” says Doitsch. “Our capital should reflect these values.”

“Jerusalem is my capital,” adds Caspi. “I see the freedom to hold World Pride there as a reflection of the whole country’s regard for the value of freedom.”