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A Gay Soldier

Captain Avner Even-Zohar
Israeli Defense Forces

by Denny Meyer

Looking at the title of this article, I suddenly realized that if it stood alone, without another word, it would say a great deal all by itself.  A Captain in the toughest fighting force on earth is gay.  If a gay person can serve with distinction in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) then all arguments against the character and fitness of homosexuals serving in any armed force become moot.

Gay Israeli citizens, and nearly all other Israelis, have always been required to serve in the IDF; being gay is no excuse, everyone is needed in the armed forces of a nation surrounded by countries sworn to destroy it and its people.  In 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin enabled gay service members to serve without discrimination; thus carrying out a democratic policy of equality, in a religious and masculine dominated nation, that has yet to be enacted in the United States.

According to Capt. Even-Zohar, gay service members were considered a security risk during the 1980s due to the concern that they could be blackmailed; so the policy at that time limited them to lower rank and security clearances during their mandatory service.  In 1993, amidst parliamentary hearings on gay rights, poignant testimony was heard from a former officer and research scientist who had been a principle contributor in Israel's most top secret national security project.  Under suspicion of homosexuality, he'd been demoted to sergeant and his security clearance was revoked.  Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin realized the absurdity of dishonoring one of the nation's heroes. He essentially ordered an end to the policy telling his top military commanders that if  they could not bring themselves to follow orders to fully integrate openly homosexual service members,  he'd find others who would.  
Rabin had been the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army during the Six-Day War and was previously the Commander of Israel's elite Northern Command; and thus the commanders of Israel's military had to respect his authority and carry out the change.  It was noted that Israel was able to make this transition despite being a conservative country where religion and state are interlaced, with a battle-hardened military responsible for guarding a nation under constant attack.

Avner Even-Zohar was born to a secular Israeli parents in Tel Aviv in 1969.  Even in Israel, this was the dawn of the gay rights era.  Hence it was not unusual for him to consciously realize that he was gay at the age of 13, in the early 1980s, when it was common for even straight secular boys in Israel to wear earrings and rave about Freddy Mercury of England's "Queen."

As he approached the age of 18, there was no thought of not entering the military; nearly everyone goes; its the second rite of passage in Israel for Jewish boys and girls, straight and gay, Sabra or immigrant, of  European or Middle Eastern descent.  He eagerly wanted to serve.  He'd been president of the student government in his high school and was considered a good prospect to be an officer.  Nevertheless, as a young gay man, he had dreaded the prospect of group showers and worried about what he would do if his peers found out about him.  As it turned out, there was not much of a problem.

 Although he'd been unaware of it when he entered service, Israel had begun to change its policy regarding gays in the military in 1983 (just about the time he was coming out to himself, coincidentally).  Everyone served, but prior to 1983 each commander more or less decided how to handle gay service members under his command.  The new rules sought to standardize procedures so that each case was carefully examined and assured that there would be no harassment.  Israel's primary concern, above all else, is security; everything else is more or less irrelevant.  Hence, the main issue regarding gay people was their military security clearance due to apprehension that they could be blackmailed.  It took government rule makers another decade to have the epiphany that if you are open about who you are, you can't be blackmailed.

In 1987 during the first Intifada, his first assignment was in a communications unit in the Southern Command, near Beersheva.  He then transferred to an education unit and served as a sergeant educating Israeli troops serving in Lebanon.  He became an officer after having graduated as a cadet with the highest honors.

He had volunteered for Lebanon duty in 1988, operating out of a headquarters base in Kiryat Shmona, to provide ongoing education to troops, stationed over the border, about issues such as The Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Holocaust, the population of Lebanon and its civil war, and relations between Israel and Syria.  His duties also included providing recreational reading matter, newspapers, and videos.  He was to go into Lebanon two times per week, but ended up staying with his troops there 4 to 5 days at a time.  Wearing the Israeli winter high altitude snow uniform seen in the film Yossi and Jager, he arrived in an armored minivan equipped with a TV and VCR (the VCR had to be acquired by the process that sergeants the world over know as "relocation").  The most important aspect of his work there evolved into counseling troops to alleviate combat stress.  In the IDF, even an educator is armed; and he fought alongside his troops in firefights when his weekly convoys in and out of Lebanon were ambushed and attacked by Hezbolah irregulars.

During most of his active service, he frankly admits, he was not out as a gay man; not even to himself.  He knew, but suppressed his self-awareness simply by avoiding the issue and focusing on his work.  His work as a leader, was incredibly exciting and rewarding because it allowed him, as an educator, to try to bring people together and increase interaction and understanding.  As the Commander of a small education unit in the upper Galilee, where Jews and Arabs often lived in close proximity, he conceived the idea that the region was a "human mosaic" and developed a program of going into villages and meeting with mayors.  He took Israeli troops to visit a museum of Palestinian Heritage and to meet with community leaders.  Rather than dealing with his own personal issues of being different, he focused his efforts on "making the world a better place" through evoking understanding amid human diversity.  Daring to 
attempt this in an area where ethnic groups are resolutely determined to remain separate from one another earned him the respect of all he met, particularly his military superiors.  And yet, as his leadership training stressed, to be a fully effective role model, a professional leader has to be self-aware and confident in his own identity.  How much more he might have done had he been able to feel secure about being open about who he was.  Just as patriotic LGBT American service members continue to do to this day, he sacrificed his personal needs for the task of doing his duty to his country to the absolute best of his ability.

As an openly gay man, his success currently as an educator, demonstrates how honest self awareness and openness contribute to highly effective communication and leadership ability.

As it turned out, he wryly noted, his own troops were more aware and accepting of his being gay than he was himself.  He had called a meeting of officers and NCOs under his command to give a somewhat overly harsh critical speech about performance of duty.  After he stormed out of the room, from the other side of the door he'd slammed behind him, he overheard them commenting, "We have to find him a boyfriend...."  Oy vey.  Needless to say, they admired him enough to be concerned about his well being.

After discrimination against gays in the Israeli Defense Force was prohibited in 1993, people began to come out because they knew they were protected.  The army had created channels to report rights violations.  Affirmative action programs were established, such as sensitivity training in the national police department, and a special pre-military service training program that stresses affirmation and rights.

America and Israel have been staunch allies since the birth of that brave nation.  If Israel, under siege, can affirm its LGBT citizen soldiers, America can easily honor its own patriotic volunteers.

  2008  Gay Military Signal