A scientist and former army intelligence officer was sworn in Monday as the first openly gay lawmaker in Israel's parliament, despite protests from Orthodox legislators. Just before Uzi Even, a 62-year-old expert on nuclear weapons, addressed the parliament, ultra-Orthodox members walked out of the plenum. The veteran gay rights activist told parliament he would continue to fight for more tolerance in a society that is often strained by its sharp political, religious, and ethnic differences. "I am excited and proud," Even said from the podium, "because there were other days not so long ago when I was forced to leave my work as a scientist serving the country and my position in the army just because I wanted to live my life openly, without shame, to love the one who was close to my heart."
His speech went uninterrupted by hecklers, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who followed Even at the podium, said, "I wish you successful activity in parliament."
Even takes over from retired legislator Amnon Rubinstein for the dovish, secular Meretz Party. Many secular Israelis have become more tolerant toward gay men and lesbians in recent years. The annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv has become popular with thousands of young partygoers. Despite strong opposition from religious leaders, thousands joined the first gay pride parade in Jerusalem in June.
Orthodox leaders, who view homosexuality as a sin, sought to keep Even from taking a seat in parliament. Last month, after the announcement that Even would take the vacant Meretz seat, Nissim Zeev of Shas, the largest Orthodox Jewish party, said he would have difficulty sitting beside a man "whose way of life is repugnant and should be rejected with disgust."
Even fought in two wars and teaches chemistry at Tel Aviv University. In 1993 Even was dismissed from the military when it was discovered that he was living with a man. Later he was asked to address parliament on discrimination against gays in the army. Orthodox lawmakers walked out of that session too, and Even received death threats, but his campaign brought results. Within months, a regulation outlawing discrimination against gays in the armed forces was signed by the chief of the general staff, Ehud Barak, who later became prime minister. Even sued his university to get spousal rights for his partner, Amit Kama, a communications professor. The two were among the first gays to become foster parents in Israel when they adopted a 15-year-old who had been cast out of his own family for being gay. The social welfare authorities and the boy's biological parents approved the arrangement.
In his speech Monday, Even said he hopes his presence in Israel's parliament will encourage other gays and lesbians to feel less fear. He also addressed his absent foes. "I extend my hand to my colleagues who don't view my presence here as a good thing, even though they are not here," he said. "Why did you choose us as your enemy?"