How immigrants paved the way for Israel's LGBTQ+ acceptance

For 45 years, olim have led the way in Israel’s LGBTQ+ community via the Agudah

FIRST UNMASKED gay protest in Tel Aviv, 1979.
On November 14, 1975, more than 10 years before homosexuality became legal in the State of Israel, a small ad appeared in the personal ad section of The Jerusalem Post reading, “If you are interested in chaniging (sic) the legal status of Homosexuals, in Israel, contact: S.I.R. (Society for Individual Rights).”
 THE FIRST advertisement by the Agudah in ‘The Jerusalem Post’ on November 14, 1975. (Photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
THE FIRST advertisement by the Agudah in ‘The Jerusalem Post’ on November 14, 1975. (Photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
The ad marked the first publication of what is now known as The Agudah – The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel. The association was founded during a meeting of gay men and one woman, including new immigrants and Holocaust survivors, in 1975 in Tel Aviv.
Jonathan Danilowitz, an oleh from South Africa who served as chairman of the Agudah from 1985 to 1986, had his first encounter with the association in 1975 with that ad in the Post.
“I didn’t think, or I wasn’t willing to admit to myself, that I was gay, but the wording of the ad was okay for me because it said if you want to ‘help’ homosexuals, so for me it was like helping ‘them’ and not myself,” said Danilowitz.
“Everybody was in the closet,” explained Danilowitz. “Everybody was afraid of being gay or rather didn’t want to be known as gay. The Agudah’s original name did not have the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ or anything similar to that in it because most of us would not have become members of an organization that had a frightening name.”
UNTIL 1988 homosexuality was illegal in Israel. While the law was never enforced due to a decision by the attorney-general, gay men and women were occasionally harassed by police and few were willing to be publicly out of the closet.
While there were some native Israelis among the first LGBTQ+ activists in Israel, most of the more active and public activists and leaders who formed the Agudah and other initiatives were new immigrants who, in a pre-Internet era didn’t have to worry about being outed to their families or communities back in the Diaspora.
“The key players in establishing the Agudah were newcomers from North America and Western Europe where things started to move forward while Israel was left behind in many ways,” explained Dan Yanovich, a volunteer coordinating the archive project. Yanovich stressed that the establishment of the Agudah came six years after the Stonewall Riots in New York largely launched the Pride movement in the US and two years after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from a manual on mental disorders.
“This is Israel, the land of the Bible. Whereas in all countries homosexuality was looked down upon, it was particularly looked down up here by the religious authorities,” said Danilowitz. “Israelis were petrified of being gay. Nice Jewish boys were not gay. It didn’t work that way. So, they stayed in the closet.”
Yanovich explained that even the activists in the community were mostly in the closet. The protocol of the first meeting of the Agudah listed only the first names of the members. In 1976, a number of homosexual Israelis were interviewed on a show called The Third Hour, but only Avi Angel, an immigrant from the US who served then as the executive-director of the Agudah, agreed to be interviewed with his real name and without his voice being distorted.
At first the Agudah was mostly a social organization, dealing little with activism. It held lectures and workshops on LGBTQ+ topics and organized parties and social events for the gay community.
In the 1970s, Danilowitz worked for El Al. While traveling, he visited Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a gay synagogue in New York.
“I wasn’t religious by that time,” said Danilowitz. “I had been brought up in an Orthodox family but I’d dropped it all. So, I went one night. It was a frightening experience for me to go, but I found it was a great experience to meet normal gay people.”
While in the US, Danilowitz heard about an international conference of gay Jewish organizations which was held in cities around the world but not in Israel, so he persuaded the organizations to hold the 1979 conference in Israel.
“We had endless trouble. Whenever anybody discovered that we were having a conference, they immediately pulled out of the contracts that we’d signed for places to stay and facilities,” said Danilowitz. They finally managed to pull it off by pretending to be travel agents holding a conference.
“It enraged the people who attended here and it enraged us, the Israelis, how badly we were being treated and that we could do nothing about it,” added Danilowitz. “That perhaps was the start of people understanding that we had to do something about the laws and the way we were being treated here.”
During the conference, the first unmasked gay protest was held in what is now known as Rabin Square and was covered by Channel 1 news. While it took time for the community to begin taking further action, the conversation on the need for change had received the boost it needed.
WHILE ACTIVISM was boosted by the conference in 1979, it declined in the 1980s due to the AIDS crisis, as the community tried to separate itself from being associated with the disease, explained Yanovich. Much of the community went underground. The Agudah went several years without a chairperson.
Amid the AIDS crisis, Danny Kent, an immigrant from the US, helped lead the fight against AIDS and education efforts in Israel. After working with the Israel AIDS Task Force upon arriving in Israel, Kent helped organize a version of The Names Project in Israel in the early 1990s.
The Names Project was first carried out in the US in the mid-1980s to commemorate those lost to AIDS with a patchwork of quilts made by their friends and family. Kent brought the idea to Israel and organized the creation of quilt panels by the friends and families of Israelis who died due to AIDS. The quilt panels were displayed in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth, Nazareth Illit and Jerusalem in the project’s first tour in 1990 and were later displayed in locations across the world.
Activism began to reawaken in the late 1980s with the establishment of Klaf, a feminist lesbian organization, and Otzma, a political activism group for the LGBTQ+ community.
Even more dramatic change began with a legal battle against El Al involving Danilowitz that started in 1989 and continued until 1994. Before the Danilowitz case, media representation of LGBTQ+ people largely focused on AIDS, sexual assault and marginal figures. Danilowitz’s case and the press’s attention on it provided one of the first instances of a “normative” white homosexual citizen in the media spotlight on the topic of homosexuality.
Danilowitz began the battle after El Al refused to treat him and his partner, with whom he was in a common law relationship, like other common law couples employed at the company.
The dispute between Danilowitz and El Al went back and forth until the refusal was “so obviously discriminatory and unfair” that Danilowitz and his partner decided to see what could be done about the matter in a legal sense, leading to a suit against El Al in the Tel Aviv Labor Court.
The lawyer representing Danilowitz told him that there was “no way” that the district labor court would agree with their side and that the national court would also not agree with them if they appealed, but that maybe by the time the case reached the Supreme Court they “might have a chance.”
In the end, the district court agreed that El Al’s refusal was discriminatory. After the company filed an appeal to the national court, it agreed as well. El Al then appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the decision, but lost again, leading to the matter becoming a Supreme Court precedent. In any similar cases in the future, judges would need to take the Supreme Court’s decision into account.
“We were very surprised. Thrilled, but surprised,” said Danilowitz.
The decision affected not just gay couples, but other minorities and discriminated groups, including women, explained Danilowitz. Others followed suit, went to court on similar issues and succeeded as well.
ANOTHER MILESTONE occurred in 1998 when Dana International, an Israeli transgender signer, won the Eurovision Song Contest, raising public interest about transgender and LGBTQ+ people. The first pride parade was held in Tel Aviv in June of that year, with an unprecedented crowd of 3,000 people. While the number may seem small compared to the 250,000 who attended Tel Aviv pride in 2019, it was well above what was expected at the time, explained Yanovich.
IMAGE FROM Israeli newspaper covering the first Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, 1998. (Photo credit: The Agudah – The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel)
IMAGE FROM Israeli newspaper covering the first Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, 1998. (Photo credit: The Agudah – The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel)
In 1989, Danilowitz founded Tehila, a support group for parents of LGBTQ+ children. The group started with one small group in Tel Aviv but now has branches across Israel.
In the 45 years since that small meeting in a Tel Aviv apartment, the status of LGBTQ+ people here has radically changed. Pride parades are held in dozens of cities around Israel every year and there are many LGBTQ+ Israeli celebrities and Knesset members.
“In 1971, The Jerusalem Post would not have interviewed me on a subject like this,” said Danilowitz, adding that there is now “endless” and mostly positive media attention on the LGBTQ+ community.
Workplace discrimination laws have also advanced, thanks, at least in part, to the lawsuit carried out by Danilowitz. Gay couples and couples who can’t get married in the state can get married abroad and have their marriages recognized in Israel. Gay couples can also adopt and have children through surrogacy abroad and have their parenthood recognized. Cities have begun recognizing gay marriages for municipal rights – including Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut and Rishon Lezion.
“Life is completely different,” stressed Danilowitz.
DESPITE THE advances made in the past four decades, the Agudah and gay community still have a long way to go, activists stressed, citing issues concerning marriage, adoption, surrogacy, divorce and more. Yanovich stressed that while the trends provide grounds for optimism, the situation wasn’t always as good as it is now and can improve even further.
“It depends on people to make the change. It doesn’t just happen,” said Yanovich, pointing to the importance of activism in the major changes that have occurred so far.
To mark the 45-year anniversary of the Agudah’s establishment, the association has launched a project to establish an archive of LGBTQ+ history in Israel, as many of the community’s founders grow older and many documents and artifacts remain inaccessible by the general public.
The project is split into two phases. In the first phase, the association aims to collect, organize and publish an accessible archive of press documents, academic papers, interviews and documents from LGBTQ+ organizations, among other content. In the second phase, the association hopes to establish a “virtual museum” of articles on a variety of subjects and create an interface that will allow visitors to easily access the information gathered in the archive.
The Agudah has also begun recruiting dozens of Jewish LGBTQ+ “ambassadors” from 30 countries to help promote LGBTQ+ rights and create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, as part of the activities to mark 45 years since the association’s establishment.
Ambassadors in Brazil, Australia, the US, the UK, France, Germany and other countries will support LGBTQ+ communities in their Jewish communities and serve as a bridge between their communities and the LGBTQ+ communities in Israel.
The ambassadors project will also help LGBTQ+ immigrants integrate in Israel.
“This is an exciting closure for the LGBTQ+ community in Israel with Diaspora Jewry, from which many people who founded the pride struggle in Israel came,” said Agudah chairwoman Hila Farr. “This is a struggle for equality across continents, countries and sectors. The ambassadors will help build a bridge and a direct interface between the community in Israel with LGBTQ+ people around the world so that everyone can be who they are everywhere.” 