In Israeli Army, Gays Are 'No Big Deal'

JERUSALEM (Feb. 2) When Eli Kaplan had his initial psychological assessment when being inducted into the Israeli military eight years ago, he wasn't asked about his sexual orientation, but he told the interviewer anyway that he was openly gay. In Israel, it wasn't a problem then nor is it now.

"The army practices an inclusionary policy," said Yagil Levy, an expert on the army and society and a professor at the Open University. "It doesn't have any options to exclude any Jewish group that wishes to join."

Once Kaplan was accepted into the Israeli navy, he faced a further interview to determine his security clearance level. "The interviewer started asking me a lot of questions about whether I had come out to my family and friends," he said. "He basically wanted to know if my being gay was something that could be used to blackmail me. But it really wasn't such a big deal."

Nasser Ishtayeh, AP
Israel's military has acknowledged openly gay members in its ranks since 1993. "I think Israeli society is much less homophobic than other countries," said Eli Kaplan, who was open about his homosexuality during his time in the service.

Kaplan ended up in one of the navy's most elite units, where he served as a drill sergeant for incoming mechanics. He said that while he was a little less open about his sexual orientation with recruits than he was with his commanders, he never encountered homophobia during his three years in the Israeli military .

In light of that experience, Kaplan, who now works in theater design in New York, finds the current U.S. policy of "don't ask, don't tell" ridiculous.

"It's a reminder of how America still has so many racial and other issues going on," he said in a phone interview. "It makes me really proud of Israel. I think Israeli society is much less homophobic than other countries."

The right to be openly gay has been acknowledged in the Israeli military since 1993, and there is little evidence that policy has caused any problems. Even beyond the army, Israeli law is generally progressive on issues of sexual orientation. Even though marriage is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment, Israeli authorities recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad, and same-sex partners receive the same economic benefits as married couples.

"Out" magazine has named Tel Aviv the gay capital of the Middle East in acknowledgment of its thriving gay culture.

Military expert Levy said the editor of the primary army newspaper, Bamachane, is openly gay. He estimates the percentage of gay soldiers at 10 percent in general and somewhat less in field units.

Former soldier Kaplan said certain intelligence and naval units were known for having a large proportion of gay soldiers.
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To read about Britain's policy on gays in the military, click here.
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