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Ambassador Oren boasts Israel's record on gay rights - but gets facts wrong

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren claims “Israel fought for gay rights even before 1967.” Problem is, homosexuality was illegal until 1988.

Michael Oren, the American Jew turned Israeli ambassador to the US, is apparently not content with embarrassing himself about Israel’s record regarding its Christian citizens. In an interview with the Philadelphia newspaper Metro, Oren said that “Israel was fighting for gay rights before the 1967 war. Even when terrorists were blowing up our buses and cafes, there was equality for gays.”

Leaving aside the second and particularly ignorant part of this statement – what the hell is the connection between terror attacks and gay rights? Does Oren consider the gay community responsible for those attacks, such that Israel ought to consider withholding some of their rights? – the real problem is with the first part, which is simply false.

Israeli law, much of which is based on Mandatory British law which was endorsed pretty much en bloc, considered homosexuality to be a felony since the country’s inception in 1948. The Knesset re-asserted the law in 1977, but after a long battle simply abolished it in 1988. Until the early 1990s, homosexuality was considered by the IDF to be grounds for denying security clearances and the IDF considered homosexuality to be a mental illness until the late 1980s (Hebrew). By contrast, England and Wales – on which Israeli law is based – abolished their anti-gay laws in 1967, i.e 20 years and more before Israel did.

Admittedly, while homosexuality was considered a felony, one of the first Government’s Counsels, the most humane jurist Haim Cohen (later a Supreme Court judge) ordered the prosecution in the early 1950s to cease prosecution for homosexuality. So criminal prosecution was not a problem – but harassment by the police certainly was, and for several years after the law was abolished in 1988, gays were often arrested for acts such as kissing in public.

Israel is so much on the frontier of gay rights, they cannot marry in it – but, then again, neither can a Jew and a non-Jew. Its police is so vigilant in protecting their rights, it frequently tries to cancel (sometimes successfully) the Jerusalem gay pride marches. The public sector shows its support for them by employing at public expense rabbis who call, directly or indirectly, for either classifying homosexuality as a mental illness or for simply killing them.

Is Oren so blind to all this? Maybe he is. After all, he is an immigrant who doesn’t know the country well. Then again, he may simply be pulling the wool over the eyes of Americans. This, after all, is what “hasbara” is all about.

Related posts:
Ambassador Oren speaks at gay rights forum featuring Israel
Israel’s ‘pinkwash’ makes cynical use of gays and gay rights
Omissions, half truths and lies: Review of Ambassador Oren’s foreign policy piece


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    1. Sinjim

      I think the law banning homosexuality is kind of useless as a rhetorical point. Even if the state hadn’t decided to not prosecute people for it, it mostly involves private behavior that takes place in a bedroom, where there usually aren’t any witnesses. So these laws are impractical to begin with.
      More relevant is whether queer people had rights to equality in opportunity, access to state services, and the like, as well as social attitudes towards the people themselves. On these issues, it’s clear that Israel did not afford these rights in the time frame that Oren is speaking of.
      And even up to this day, the rights are limited and only applied to queer folks of one ethnicity.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Dan

      I think it’s unfair to say that gay rights in Israel is as bad as you make out.

      Yes, perhaps in the past it was difficult – where wasn’t it? – but, for the sake of decent journalism -, the positives and advances of the LGBT movement, both politically and socially, really should be included in this article.

      Where is the mention of recognition of same-sex marriages performed abroad? Or same-sex adoption rights? Or the increased visibility and acceptance of non-heterosexuality in the major cities (perhaps excluding Jerusalem) during the 51 weeks of the year when Gay Pride doesn’t take over?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Caro

      He gave up his US citizenship he is an Israeli! He is one of the best historians with a huge breadth of knowledge and love of the country which you lot would do well to emulate!

      Reply to Comment
    4. A few additional points to consider on this front:

      1. Israel has no (or next to no) legislation granting equality to LGBT folk. Even the abolishing in 1988 of the clause prohibiting homosexual sex was done by trickery (an aide from the opposition “accidentally on purpose” dropped the relevant clause from the bill before the 3rd reading of the law, and it passed without it, an act that could not realistically be undone.

      2. Thus, the vast majority of LGBT rights have been granted by the courts, not the state. As a matter of fact, in many seminal court cases the state was the oppositional party to the suit.

      3. The whole rhetoric represented by the Oren interview and keynote speech at the Philadelphia convention is part of a purposefully conceived plan called PINKWASHING. The gov’t doesn’t call it that, but what it includes is certainly purposeful (one of the architects of the policy, David Saranga, actually presented this policy as a case study in an Internet marketing course I attended, and bragged about it).

      Pinkwashing is the policy of highlighting Israel’s relatively positive record on LGBT rights to deflect attention from more problematic issues — like the occupation.

      When Oren conflates terrorism or Arab-Israeli wars with gay rights, he is unintentionally (or intentionally? Hard to keep track) forgetting to keep this strategy secret.

      4. Given the above (and below), it is rather ridiculous for this particular government to be brandishing about gay rights, which they have basically done nothing to promote or ensure. But the 1967/1988 untruth is hardly his most egregious. He claimed in his interview that Palestinian LGBT folk are so persecuted in their own community, that Israel must give them shelter.

      This is such a blatant lie I actually lose my breath writing about it. Israel has NEVER granted a Palestinian LGBT person shelter. EVER. (Just like they have NEVER granted refugee status to African refugees, but that doesn’t prevent them for taking humanitarian credit…). Oren also claims that the proof of this claim is that Palestinian queer groups like alQaws operate OUT OF ISRAEL. Though of course, if you ask alQaws they are operating out of Palestine (in east Jerusalem).

      5. I wouldn’t put aside so easily the claims of “Israel fought for gay rights…” as the less important aspect of Oren’s statements. This type of statement emphasizes all that is wrong and twisted in what our representatives’ thinking: Israel is THE STATE. The sovereign. If Israel wanted gays to have rights THEY WOULD GRANT THOSE RIGHTS. Who exactly does a sovereign state need to “fight” for gay rights? The Arabs? In 1967? And what’s the connection to blowing up cafes and buses? Is that also before 1967? Or has he now moved to the post-Oslo spate of attacks of 10-12 years ago (which sounds more like it)? So did Israel always have gay rights? Or were they fighting for those rights?

      There is no consistency or logic in any of this — just an attempt to paint Israel as constantly under attack, as the brave fighter for justice, and as the liberal protector of rights, all at the same time. And facts be damned.

      6. Finally, Oren was on his way to give a keynote speech at an *LGBTQ* conference. His constant reference to “gay rights” shows how shallow and limited his understanding is of the very issue he supposedly champions, because seriously, no one who understands ANYTHING about queer or LGBT issues says “gay rights”. “Gay rights” are hardly the issue.

      (Yossi, I’m sending you a meme and post I made on this topic that has gone rather viral on twitter and FB, don’t know what your links policy here is…)

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mitchell Cohen

      “After all, he is an immigrant who doesn’t know the country well.” [End of Quote]

      Whatever you think of Oren’s politics and stances, he made aliyah 33 years ago and served in the IDF as a paratrooper (including in the Lebanon War, where most of his unit was wounded). I think he is qualified as knowing the country quite well. Certainly more so than some of the columnists who have been in Israel less than ten years, but because their views jive with 972’s you don’t seem to have a problem with them advertising themselves as “Israeli journalists” (as if they are not “immigrants”).

      Reply to Comment
    6. occupier1967

      “After all, he is an immigrant.” Ah, the tolerant left. I thought you loved immigrants. It’s the height of irony to hear all my leftist friends say things like: “What does Lieberman know? He’s just a dirty immigrant!”

      Reply to Comment
    7. Rafael Frankel

      As three previous readers have pointed out, your comment “After all, he is an immigrant wo doesn’t know the country well” is really over the line. Having made aliyah in the late 1970s, he the Ambassador has lived in this country as an adult longer than you have!

      He fought in the Lebanon War in Beirut in a unit that took heavy casualties. He raised his children here. Aside from a coule years spent in the US pursuing his Ph.D. and now as ambassador, he has lived here ever since making aliyah. And, yes, he gave up his American citizenship to serve as ambassador.

      If that doesn’t make him “Israeli” enough, then what would??

      You may not like what he writes or says, or the “hasbara” he does on behalf of the government–fair enough. But criticizing him for being an immigrant?? In a country of immigrants, are you freakin’ kidding me?? The tolerant left, indeed.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Jack

      If this is the best hasbara-artist there is in america, world has nothing to fear.

      Reply to Comment