This interview was conducted as part of the interview series, LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
In 1993, almost a decade before Uzi Even would make history as the first openly gay person to serve in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, he took part in the first-ever Knesset meeting on the subject of queer people serving openly in the military.
This turned Even, who was dismissed from the Israel Defense Forces when they discovered that he was gay, into a national celebrity, and lead the government to change the laws to allow queer people to serve in the military.
From there, working diligently over the years, his marriage, the adoption of his son, and his eventual divorce, were all among the first to be legally recognized in Israel, setting a legal precedent for other queer couples in the country. Now 78, Even talked to The Advocate's LGBTQ&A podcast about his experience with conversion therapy, the ongoing battles for LGBTQ rights in Israel, and his hopes for the future of Israel.
Jeffrey Masters: Your activism began publicly in ’93 when you testified in front of the Israeli parliament. You were a lieutenant colonel who was dismissed and had your security clearance revoked for being gay.
Uzi Even: For being gay. That was the law in Israel at that time. And it took me 10 years before I had the chance to correct it.
That started, in my point of view, the whole gay revolution in Israel. That was the first public statement, the first realization that we are part of the society in Israel and should be considered as such.
JM: The country had never heard from an openly gay person at such a large scale before.
UE: That’s why it had such an impact. I was a person you couldn't marginalize easily. There were other gay figures in the newspapers, but they were mostly people that were difficult to identify with. They couldn't serve as a role model. The public image of being gay in Israel before that was, how should I put it? Criminal, doing things in the darkness, prostitution, child molester.
JM: Did you worry speaking at the Knesset would bring further harm to you?
UE: Yes. I was scared shitless. So much so that I forgot the prepared speech that I…the pages were lost, and I had to speak from memory. I didn't know how my colleagues would react, I didn't know how the newspapers would react, how the TV would cover it.
Because there was no precedent, I didn't know what to expect. I just described what happened to me, claimed that all we wanted was to serve like others, which was a big surprise for many people. It is a demand that you find is very difficult to object. That is why it took only four months after that for the military code to change.
JM: That's fast.
UE: That’s because the impact of my speech was so loud in the media. And because we didn't want any prerogatives; we just wanted to be like the others. That’s why it was easy to change.
JM: Did you become a well-known person after that?
UE: Immediately, yes. I was constantly harassed by the media. I was threatened many times in letters, in phone calls. I couldn't go out in the street because people would come to speak to me, even if I didn't want to. I became a public figure overnight. That's why it took me such a short time to get elected to the Knesset, from being just a professor.
JM: Do people leave you alone now?
UE: I am slowly being forgotten, yes. I retired from political life voluntarily after I achieved my goals, and people have a short memory.
JM: You were born before Israel became a country. What has it been like to watch the country grow up?
UE: In my lifetime, the population in Israel grew by a factor of ten, from half a million to five million or something like that. And that changes everything. When I was a boy, Israel was more-or-less empty and now it's highly congested.
JM: Are you surprised by the perception of Israel around the world?
UE: We create a lot of attention, much more than is proportional to our size or influence. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is against us, but everything we do here is like living under a magnifying glass.
I find it difficult to live under these conditions, because when I grew up in Israel, Israel was really threatened. We felt that our existence here is not ensured, and that we have to fight for that every day. So I was wholeheartedly involved in Israel's Defense Forces.
JM: So the early feeling of Israel was that it could be temporary?
UE: It was immediately after the Holocaust, so I agreed to do things that I now sometimes regret, but at the time I believed it was necessary.
JM: The majority of the time, when we hear about Israel in the U.S., it's only in regard to the conflict with Palestine. As you've gotten older, has your opinion about that changed?
UE: I don't see it as this conflict with the Palestinians. It's a conflict between what Israel represents and our neighborhood in the Middle East. We are very different from them, and they are different from us. We don't want to be like them, they don't want to be like us, so it's a conflict between cultures.
The Palestinians were just part of that culture, and because of the long interaction with us, they are changing much faster than their neighbors. Palestinians are not accepted easily in the other neighboring countries.
JM: How are they changing?
UE: Becoming more westernized because of the long interaction with us. When you hear an Arab Palestinian speaking, you'll find that in their language, they already incorporate many Hebrew words. They learned from us that society does not have to live according to their laws, and it is a long-term change that, in the end, will come.
And this is something that most people don't pay attention to, to my surprise. They like the same food that we do, they dress the same way we do, they talk in political terms in the same way that we do. That's why they are not popular in the Arab countries, they are considered an agent of change.
When Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait and then he was thrown out, the first thing that the Kuwaitis did was to exile all the Palestinians that were in Kuwait back to the West Bank. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people, immediately were kicked out because they supported Saddam Hussein, because they didn't like the regime in Kuwait.
JM: Last year, Israel passed The Nation State Law, which has been controversial. It said that only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel. It made Palestinians appear as second class citizens. Did you support that law?
UE: No, I think it doesn't serve any good purpose. It can only cause damage. We will be a Jewish state if we are a majority; as long as we are the majority this will be a Jewish state.
If for some reason we become a minority, then Israel will disappear completely. So what's the point? Yeah, it has alienated many people, including me. I find more common grounds with Arab Palestinians who live in Israel, than I find with the Hasidic Jews. Secular Arabs and Secular Israelis have much in common, while the religious fanatics on both sides, do not.
JM: Many of the rights for gay and lesbian people in your country have been won through the Supreme Court and not through laws and legislation that have been passed. Is that because of these ultra-religious groups?
UE: Yes, the population of Israel contains about 20 percent of religious Jews, about 20 percent of religious Muslims — that's already 40 percent. They are very, very slowly changing, much more slowly than I would like.
I did change some laws, and some laws were passed in the Knesset, like non-discrimination law in the workplace, like equal-rights to the spouse. But you are right, most of the steps were legitimized by the Supreme Court and by the military and not by the political system, the Knesset.
JM: All of the openly gay people serving have been gay men, not women. There was one but she came out after she served. Is there a bias towards queer women, or is that due to just sexism in general?
UE: No, I don't think there is a bias against lesbians, any more than in the general population. Women always claim that they are discriminated against; they were for a long time. Now, there is no barrier. When I talk to my lesbian friends, they claim that the economic situation, because they earn less, does not allow them to participate in politics. So, maybe we have to wait for economic equality before we can see more political representation?
JM: In terms of queer acceptance in Israel, is it at the point of acceptance yet or is it just a tolerance?
UE: It depends on where you are in Israel. I feel quite different in Jerusalem than I feel in Tel Aviv. In Tel Aviv you can do whatever you want, nobody even looks at you if you kiss in the street. In Jerusalem that is not the case because of the difference in the composition of the population.
So, where is the rest of the country? When we run a survey on gay marriage, we find 60 percent support, which is a lot. Does a Jewish mother enjoy having a gay child? No, she doesn't. But more and more stories I hear, about acceptance in the family, as part of the family and less and less stories about people being evicted or…
JM: Or fired from the military, like you?
UE: That is a thing of the past, now the Chief Prosecutor of the army, is openly gay.
JM: How did they find out you were gay while you were serving?
UE: They found out after I left. Why did they find out? Because they had to renew my security clearance. At that time I was living with a partner, so it doesn't take much to find out, "Yes, there is one bedroom. Yes, they’ve lived together for so long."
JM: The year you testified in front of the Knesset, there was the first Pride in Israel. Did you go?
UE: I established it, I went and organized the first one. That was '93.
JM: What was the first Pride like?
UE: We assembled in a small park where the municipality allocated this small section of the park to us. There were some speeches, not many. And there was a big closet and people could come out of it. There were not many people who came out at that time, but that changed so quickly. People are not afraid.
JM: Where is the acceptance for trans people at in relation to queer people?
UE: They are still complaining that they’re not accepted, and that they are marginalized and pushed into prostitution. Being trans is very difficult. Some say that they are even fired, so there's now a law that will prohibit firing in the working place. They need extra protection, especially young ones.
JM: What is the next big hurdle for LGBTQ people in Israel?
UE: We are now fighting about adoption and surrogacy. But you know, also in my adoption case, we adopted a boy and it was the first time that it was recognized by the courts. And now I am legally his father. Gay couples can be adoptive parents. So that was also a big step forward.
JM: The current battles are all family-based?
UE: Yes, I set the tone for that many years ago. I decided that there were two options for us: either to segregate like it is in the U.S., or to try to assimilate. My claim that we will have much better results, much faster, if we emphasize the common grounds and not the differences. I'm glad that my way was adopted because it gave us all these benefits in a very short time.
JM: And from your perspective, in the U.S. you see that we are not trying to assimilate?
UE: You created ghettos, you created a culture which is opposing to mainstream culture. You refuse to participate in the political campaigns of the establishment.
JM: And often we're very proud of that too.
UE: It's counterproductive, it creates conflicts and friction. I believe your leadership chose a way that emphasizes the differences, instead of emphasizing the common grounds. How can you oppose somebody who says, "Let me have a child, I want to be like you." How can you say no?
JM: In America, feeling like an outsider is a large part of the queer experience. Is that the case in Israel?
UE: Do I feel outsider? No.
JM: You don't?
UE: No, we are part of society. We want to be part of what is going on here; we don't want to be different.
JM: Where do you think that comes from?
UE: Jewish family, you cannot run away from your family here. There is nowhere to go.
JM: And you're all starting with the same set of values, coming from Judaism?
UE: Yes, and the structure of society here is very different from the one in the U.S. It's based on the family, always. You cannot, not consider your family, even if you are gay. This is such a small, closely-knit society. Everybody, in every family, I know somebody who is gay, so you cannot develop this stereotype, this hateful image of gays. It doesn't work.
Even in the religious circles, now I hear more and more cases of acceptance after some period of adjustment, gay, religious, young guys are accepted in their families.
JM: How did your family take it when you came out?
UE: Horribly, psychiatric treatment.
JM: Conversion therapy?
UE: Well, they didn't have that name then, but yeah, they were sure that once I get treated I would be normal again. In fact, I was treated for depression at that time, and the doctor told me, "You are not depressed anymore. The treatment is over. You will be gay the rest of your life."
So I went to my mother, who financed the doctor, and told her that the treatment is finished, and what he said. And you know what her reaction was? "I told you he was a bad doctor, you need another one."
This interview is the second interview in LGBTQ&A's four-part series exploring queerness and Jewish life. Click here to listen to Rabbi Denise Eger discuss coming out of the closet during the early days of the AIDS crisis.