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Israel's Parliament Awaits Its First Openly Gay Lawmaker

Politics: Uzi Even's upcoming entry into Knesset buoys activists, dismays ultra-Orthodox.

October 02, 2002|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — Few incoming members of Israel's parliament could match Uzi Even's credentials: combat veteran of two wars, professor of physical chemistry at Tel Aviv University, one of the nation's leading experts on nuclear weapons technology.

None of that, however, explains the stir that greeted his recent appointment to replace a departing member.

Even is about to become the first openly gay member of the parliament, or Knesset, whose substantial Orthodox Jewish minority views homosexuality as an abomination. His ascension is viewed with dismay from that quarter, even as it is hailed as a breakthrough by Israel's young gay rights movement.

"A great accomplishment," declared Michal Eden, a lesbian member of the Tel Aviv City Council.

"I don't think this brings too much honor to the Knesset," rued Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Ravitz said he hoped Even wouldn't have the chutzpah to talk about his sexual orientation on the Knesset floor.

Trouble is, he already has.

Even has been at the forefront of the gay rights movement in Israel since 1993, when he gave a speech before parliament that stunned the establishment and helped prompt the military to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

A respected researcher who had worked at the most sensitive levels of the defense establishment, Even proclaimed his homosexuality and said it had been used to ruin his military career. He had been demoted 10 years earlier when the army discovered he was living with a man.

The United States was struggling with the same issue then, and wound up with the compromise "don't ask, don't tell" doctrine.

In Israel, Even's efforts helped lead to a blanket declaration that there would be no discrimination against gay soldiers.

"It was achieved with no fuss at all," Even recalled, sitting in his modern Tel Aviv apartment, smiling in satisfaction. He is 62, balding, professorial, with a distinctively soft, low voice.

"Now, if you tell the military you're gay, the answer is, 'So what?' " he added.

Even has been a pioneer in opening other aspects of Israeli society to gays. He successfully sued his university to get spousal benefits extended to his partner, fellow academic Amit Kama. He and Kama became among the first gay foster parents in Israel, taking in a 15-year-old boy who had been kicked out of his parents' house for declaring that he was gay.

Even considers this last undertaking his greatest, and most satisfying, accomplishment.

The professor has been increasingly involved in politics since the 1993 speech, which he made at the urging of Yael Dayan, a left-wing Knesset member who is the daughter of the late Gen. Moshe Dayan, a legendary Israeli military leader.

Even was 13th on the leftist Meretz Party's list of candidates for 12 Knesset seats. When a party member recently announced his retirement, Even was automatically selected to fill the vacancy. He will take office this month.

It is not yet clear how he will be received. When he spoke to the Knesset in 1993, the Orthodox parties walked out. Now that he is a member, they may have no choice but to pay attention.

Members of Shas, the largest religious party in Israel, declined to talk about Even.

Ravitz, whose party is often aligned with Shas, said he will tolerate the professor, even respect his opinion on military and scientific matters.

Just not gay rights.

If Even pushes legislation "to make it even more legitimate [to be gay], of course he'll have to fight me over that," Ravitz said. "He can't force me in the name of liberalism to change my outlook of mankind, of the world."

Ravitz said he is convinced that homosexuality, beyond violating religious law, is a psychological disorder, treatable through therapy.

Even said he welcomes this argument. Formerly, he said, Orthodox opponents assailed him solely on the basis of biblical injunctions.

"I cannot argue with the commands of God," he said. "But I can argue with modern concepts of what is normal, what is psychologically healthy."

Anyway, he said, he's heard it all before.

As a young man in his 20s, he said, he told his parents about his homosexuality after a breakup with a boyfriend left him depressed. His mother sent him to a therapist.

After therapy, he said, "I told my mother, 'He cured my depression--but I'm still gay!' And she said, 'I knew he was a bad doctor.' "

He laughed. "Typical Jewish mother," he said.

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