IDF’s gays find friends at the top, lingering homophobia on the ground

The Israeli army, famous for its inclusion of women, is strikingly open to LGBT soldiers too — but the fight for tolerance is far from over

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Cap. (res) Gal Kali, a proud member of the gay community, in reserves several years ago (Photo credit: Courtesy: Gal Kali)
Cap. (res) Gal Kali, a proud member of the gay community, in reserves several years ago (Photo credit: Courtesy: Gal Kali)

Chen Peled, one of six brothers and son to a kibbutz-raised car mechanic, was coaxed out of the closet in tenth grade, at around the age the IDF first contacts Israeli teens. He was in art school, surrounded by girls, and had a boyfriend on the sly.

His mother invited him for a walk in the park. “A mother will always remain a mother,” she told him. He nodded. Then she added: “Even Yigal Amir’s mother will always remain his mother,” referring to the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“That was pretty much the worst thing she could have said,” recalled Peled, the marketing director at Hoshen: Education and Change, a volunteer organization that promotes tolerance and gay rights.

A few minutes later Peled’s mother spoke again. “Are you gay, Chen?” she asked.

He told her that he was. Soon afterward they told the rest of the family and, at home and at art school in Haifa, in a grade of 35 girls and five boys, he was easily accepted.

Then came his first summons to the army. They did not ask and he did not mention his sexual orientation. And despite the fact that he was overweight and opposed to virtually all sorts of outdoor exertion, the IDF gave him a perfect 97 profile, meaning he was eligible, and would likely be compelled, to serve in a field unit, in a combat position.

The forms, known to Israeli teens as “the manila,” came in the mail several months later and offered him, to his chagrin, positions ranging from the Paratroop Brigade to the Artillery Corps. The different units were listed vertically along the page and next to each was a horizontal line of boxes in which one is to mark their preference, from 1 — not interested — to five — very interested. Chen drew a new column, labeled it Zero, and checked it all the way down the page.

Chen Peled during his years in a combat unit (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Chen Peled during his years in a combat unit (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Several months later he found himself deep in the Negev desert, in a field intelligence unit, surrounded by 12 other men who “wanted more than anything to run around and shoot.” Uncomfortable in their presence, voluntarily stuffed back into the closet, he was miserable. As is every soldier’s right, he asked to meet with a mental health officer. In what he imagined was a dramatic confession, he told her that he was gay.

“So what?” she asked.

“I was shocked,” recalled Peled, who today does roughly 30 days of reserves a year. “I thought that was my ticket out of there.”

Instead the psychiatrist informed him that the IDF was perfectly happy with his sexual orientation and that, so long as he wasn’t being persecuted, he should pick up his rifle and get back to it.

After several more meetings with the mental health officer, his commanding officer approached him and asked if he could help. Sitting outside of his tent, Peled, certain that he would be tossed out of the unit as soon as he revealed the truth, told the officer that he was gay. The officer was less than flabbergasted, Peled said, and suggested that he tell the rest of the guys.

After four months of Basic Training; after hiding his secret from the men he lived with and showered with; after saying “ditto” rather than telling his boyfriend that he loved him too while speaking over the phone in their presence; he sat down with the rest of his platoon in a tent, in a U-shaped formation, and participated in what combat soldiers refer to as a misdar fuckim, where each soldier comes clean about his mistakes during the week and accepts his commander’s punishment, which is issued on the spot and can range from a delayed departure to a canceled leave. Once everyone was through, the platoon leader and the sergeants left the tent and ordered the soldiers to stay put.

Peled moved to their spot. The soldiers hissed at him to get out of the commanders’ seats before he, too, had his leave canceled, but he said that he had arranged it in advance and that he had something he needed to talk to them about.

“I’m gay,” he said.

One of the soldiers, N, a kibbutznik, ran out of the tent, hurling homophobic curses. The rest of them embraced him and ostracized N. “They’d say, ‘N, we’re going to the shower. Want to come?'” he recalled, his voice rising and falling in a sing-song.

N was eventually booted out of the unit and Peled went on to serve for six years as a non-commissioned officer, commanding 120 soldiers who conducted surveillance along Israel’s northeastern border.

The transition is not always this smooth. There are hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender soldiers in the IDF. Some hide their sexual preferences, terrified that it will be seen as a betrayal. Others are harassed and, in at least one case in recent years, put in life-threatening peril on account of sexual orientation. But the IDF, which once sentenced two male soldiers to prison for having consensual sex, is hailed today by gay rights groups as being not only the most gay-friendly army in the world, but also, in many instances, more progressive than the society it serves.

This look at the complexities of homosexual, bisexual and transgender service in the IDF comes amid dramatic developments in an August 2009 double-murder case at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv and in advance of the perennially controversial gay pride march in Jerusalem on August 1.

The evolution of tolerance

The IDF appeals court, in 1956, heard the case of two soldiers, male privates, who had been sentenced to a year in prison for consensual sex. At the time there was no mention of homosexuality in any of the General Staff’s orders but the civilian law deemed “relations not in the usual way” to be a criminal offense. A psychologist, Dr. Skali Avraham, testified before the court that homosexual behavior was deviant rather than criminal and that punishment would be of little value. The court accepted this argument and sentenced one of the soldiers to a day in prison and the other, ruled to have instigated the affair, to 70 days behind bars.

Twenty-one years later, in 1977, the Military Advocate General, Brig. Gen. Zvi Inbar, issued a set of directives to all military prosecutors entitled “The Trying of Homosexual Soldiers.” Inbar ordered prosecutors to file charges against soldiers who broke the civilian law — which decriminalized homosexual acts only in 1988 — solely in instances where: one of those involved was a minor; the sex was not consensual; one of the parties was unconscious; the sex was conducted in public; one of the soldiers was under the command of the other.

Soldiers at the funeral of Nir Katz, one of two people killed at the Israel Gay Youth club in August 2009 (Photo credit: Jorge Novominsky/ Flash 90)
Soldiers at the funeral of Nir Katz, one of two people killed at the Israel gay youth club in August 2009. (photo credit: Jorge Novominsky/Flash 90)

In 1993, “out of recognition that homosexuals are worthy of military service like all others,” the IDF, some 18 years before the US Armed Forces, formally opened the draft to all, regardless of sexual orientation. Five years later, the army cut the linkage between sexual orientation and security clearances and rescinded a standing order that required all commanding officers to report gay soldiers to military intelligence’s field security unit for further inquiry.

Today there are gay, bisexual and transgender soldiers in every part of the army and their rights are protected by an IDF order that prohibits degradation or harassment of any kind based on a soldier’s sexuality, “including sexual orientation.”

They are also eligible for rights that stretch beyond the civilian norms. The life partners of gay and lesbian career soldiers are entitled to 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave and an additional 12 weeks of unpaid leave, regardless of who the biological father is (so long as the other man has not also taken leave); their children are eligible for scholarships and nursery school subsidies, even if the career soldier is not the biological parent; and the life partner of a same-sex couple is recognized by the army as a wife or husband, entitling them to extensive subsidies on an array of purchases and, in the event that the officer dies, to a widow’s pension from the Defense Ministry.

The army weekly magazine Bamachaneh, distributed throughout the military and edited by the openly gay Maj. Yoni Shenfeld, has advocated for many of the changes and highlighted them as they’ve developed. In June, the magazine, which in 2001 was shut down for two weeks for running a cover story about a reserves colonel’s coming-out story, featured a career officer and his male partner — Lt. Col. Eitan Shatmer, the head of information systems in the IDF’s manpower department, and his partner Amir — who wanted to have a baby together with the help of a surrogate mother. The law in Israel, however, allows only married, heterosexual couples to pursue surrogacy. And so the two, after a long process, which could have cost Shatmer his job in many civilian companies, found a woman willing to carry the baby in the United States. “As part of the process we spent many weeks abroad, in a quantity that can no longer be considered vacation days,” Lt. Col. Shatmer said. “As far as the army was concerned, they were recognized as ‘fertility treatments,’ which allowed me to be absent without losing my job.”

To an extent that leniency extends to transgender soldiers, who by definition put the army to a series of tests: what sort of uniform should they receive, male or female? Where should they be housed, in the male or female quarters? And how long should they serve, 24 months or 36? These questions, some of which were raised by Adar Zarum, a former combat soldier and active reservist who runs Hoshen’s outreach program with the IDF, are just some of the dilemmas that the IDF and transgender soldiers must confront, and which are complicated by the fact that a teenager in Israel, Zarum noted, can only begin sex-change treatments at age 18, precisely when one is drafted to the military.

In the past, the army has allowed — already in 1999 — a male soldier to wear a women’s uniform, ruling, according to Bamachaneh, that the male soldier was “in every way a woman, excluding the body.”

The Tel Aviv gay pride parade was off limits to soldiers, even out of uniform, until 2003 (Photo credit: Roni Schutzer/ Flash 90)
The Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade was off-limits to soldiers, even out of uniform, until 2003. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Most transgender individuals, seeking to change their sex, are exempted from service at their own request. Corporal M, though, a woman looking to become a man, did not mention his intention during his initial army screenings. Only four months into his service did he tell his commanding officer that he wanted to begin sex change treatments.

Serving at the Ground Troops headquarters in Ze’elim, the corporal was not cleared to speak with The Times of Israel. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, however, checked with the medical corps and relayed that, as a general rule, the army differentiates between essential procedures and personal procedures — funding the former and not the latter — and that a sex change is considered essential by the IDF. The procedure takes years, however, and the army, which pays for the medications and consultations, has never had a soldier go through the entire process, including the operation, while in uniform.

And yet, despite these norms, acceptance is still far from unanimous. The Israel Gay Youth organization polled hundreds of gay soldiers in 2011 and found, in an online survey, that 40 percent of all gay soldiers said they have been verbally harassed for their sexual orientation, 20 percent had been sexually harassed and 4 percent said they had been physically assaulted. In one instance, two gay soldiers manning a roadblock near the refugee camp of Shu’afat were abandoned by a group of soldiers, who were supposed to provide perimeter security, once it became known that they were gay. The two came under attack by an angry mob at the roadblock — a young girl had been killed and the locals blamed the army for the death — and the two gay privates were cursed and physically assaulted when they again approached the soldiers and asked for help. Instead, the two threatened the mob with their weapons and managed to call Avner Dafni, the head of the Israel Gay Youth, organization on the phone. Dafni reach the battalion commander, who resolved the issue and punished the other soldiers.

“There is a gap between the rules and the day-to-day reality,” said Alice Marcu, a former officer and current activist with the Jerusalem Open House who runs bi-monthly seminars with IDF career sergeants.

Her peer, Zarum, the former combat soldier with the Kfir Brigade who today heads Hoshen’s IDF liaison unit, said that there is constant tension between the inherently macho and homophobic military and the progressive laws written from up high in the chain of command. “In the military and the civilian world the acceptance of LGBTs worked differently,” he said. “In the civilian world the pressure came from the grassroots and it influenced the Supreme Court. In the military it was top-down.”

Marcu, a lesbian who has run the Jerusalem Open House Lecture Service since 2002, has been working with the IDF for seven years. She meets with groups from the career sergeant course, conducting 12-18 seminars a year. “The army approached us,” she said, noting that the seminars are free but are contingent on the army’s willingness to bring the soldiers to the downtown Jerusalem offices of the center, which are adorned with a row of rainbow flags.

“They come in and are very stiff,” she said. “They won’t make eye contact.”

Marcu then tells them her story: how she thought she was “just picky” and simply liked the company of boys as friends. And of how later on she figured she simply had an emotional block, which prevented her from opening up to boys, until one day, during officer’s school, she met a girl. “I thought she was amazing,” she said, “and all of a sudden I felt myself counting the minutes until I could see her again.”

The thumping in her chest, the turbulence in the stomach, she realized, was love.

And yet she felt surrounded by homophobia. The walls of her mixed-gender office were coated in posters of scantily clad women and the conversations were laced with misogyny.

She tells the career sergeants — a particularly tough breed of soldier — how she felt forced to hide her sexual orientation and the burgeoning relationship but said her story rarely evokes much in the way of sympathy. “We get what you’re saying, we just don’t accept it,” is a common refrain, she said.  “These are some of the most challenging meetings I’ve ever had,” she continued, “they say straight to your face — this is not natural. It’s against the Torah.”

The remarks about being gay, she said, don’t faze her; it’s the comments about her Judaism — the Jerusalem Open House has holy books on its shelves — that cut the deepest. “I once had someone say, ‘but you’re not really Jewish.’ And he winked at me, like we both know.”

Marcu called the comment “the most hurtful thing anyone’s ever said.”

Noa Halevi, a drummer and gay reserves officer who last served during Operation Pillar of Defense in November, suggested that, despite those comments, female gay soldiers often have an easier time of it in the army.

Halevi went in to the army without any notion of being gay. She was raised in Kiryat Gat in a traditional home and compared her knowledge of homosexuality as a teenager to her familiarity “with life on Mars.” Only after “an insanely dramatic kiss” in officer’s school did she fall head over heels in love with a woman. The two of them kept the affair a jealously guarded secret. But in March 2003, before Purim, the soldiers were asked to cast votes in advance of a party. One of the questions was ‘who would make the best couple on the base?’ The answers were never read in public because the US invasion of Iraq canceled the party. But Halevi, a logistics officer who had the keys to most of the rooms on the base and the ballot box, opened up the box several days later and was surprised to learn that a large majority of the soldiers on the base ranked her and her girlfriend as the most likely couple.

She called male homosexuality “a taboo” but said that for lesbians the army can be a more welcoming place. “The army is really macho. But for girls that are more masculine? It’s a perfect fit,” she said, adding that the male fighter is the “essence of the army” and that, in the end, the armed forces “is not a ballet troupe.”

Noa Halevi, a drummer, runs Beat4it, a percussion group that works with children and adults (Photo credit: Courtesy: Noa Halevi/ Facebook)
Noa Halevi, a drummer, runs Beat4it, a percussion group that works with children and adults (Photo credit: Courtesy: Noa Halevi/ Facebook)

In November, in the staging ground outside Gaza, she said that when it became clear that the IDF would not launch a ground operation she heard a group of soldiers carrying on, saying, “‘The IDF is so gay.’ I was like one second away from ripping into them,” she recalled.

For gay men, some units are considered quite accommodating. When speaking of Unit 8200, the IDF branch that deals with signal intelligence — a unit that drafts from the intellectual and socioeconomic elite — Chen Peled referred to the base as Gay-lilot, a play off the real name, Glilot.

Earlier this month the unit was given the IDF chief of the General Staff’s award of appreciation for the first time. “I asked to come here today to express my thanks and appreciation to N [the outgoing commander of the unit]… and especially to you, the officers and soldiers of 8200,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said during a July 7 visit.

But the very heart of the army, the tip of the spear for which all other sections labor, are the combat units and they can be a daunting challenge for a homosexual male soldier.

One gay Special Forces officer, who has participated in dozens of combat missions and who serves in reserves every year as a platoon commander, detailed for The Times of Israel his experiences in and out of the closet in a closely knit combat unit.

Captain (res) Gal Kali, today a fourth-year medical school student at Tel Aviv University, grew up believing that homosexuality was somewhere between a curse and a disease. And yet he knew, from junior high on, that he was unlike the other boys in his class: he thought about boys.

The popular young adult magazine, Maariv La’noar, a sort of Seventeen for both genders, instructed him not to be alarmed and that such feelings were natural and would naturally subside. “I didn’t want to deal with it,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t like everybody else but I thought I was basically normal.”

He was accepted to Maglan, a Special Forces unit that focuses on forward air control and other missions behind enemy lines. The soldiers lived in tents together, showered together, were frequently naked together and grew to know one another, at that point in their lives, better than anyone else on earth. They knew to recognize fear and incomprehension and mirth on each others’ faces at a glance. But they did not recognize that Kali, a very competent soldier and a leader among them, was harboring “a terrible secret” that he already feared was a fact.

For Kali, with whom this reporter has served in reserves, the matter of his sexual orientation was complicated by the fact that the central ethos of all elite units in the IDF is a complete and unswerving devotion to the truth. A simple lie, after months of grueling physical tests, is grounds for immediate dismissal.

In order to deal with his lie of omission, Kali, who felt more certain of his sexual preferences as his time among his fellow male soldiers increased, convinced himself that he was “capable of loving girls” and sat quietly, on the periphery of the pack, while the discussions inevitably swirled around sex.

Kali, right, with two soldiers from the platoon, preparing a navigational route (Photo credit: Courtesy: Gal Kali)
Gal Kali, right, with two soldiers from the platoon, preparing a navigational route. (photo credit: Courtesy Gal Kali)

A serious soldier, with a formal sort of diction, he was equipped with a handy disguise: a girlfriend. In fact he had had girlfriends all through junior high and high school and during the early stages of the army.  But once he’d completed the 18-month training period and was selected, as an outstanding soldier, to serve as a drill sergeant for an incoming class of soldiers, he sensed an already undeniable change. He was not merely invested in schooling the soldiers in the dark arts of infantry warfare but was attracted to them and even felt himself falling in love with one of them.  “I felt I was looking at them in a different way. In a sexual way,” he admitted, “and there was one soldier that l liked more than the others.”

Kali kept his infatuation under wraps. He told no one how he felt about the soldier or about men in general, fearing that despite all of his accomplishments such an admission would be grounds for immediate dismissal. “I was sure that if I told anyone how I felt they would say “Bye, see you around.”

As he advanced from sergeant to the position of commander of a platoon of his own — a somewhat rare promotion given to a soldier who had not been to officer’s school — he began to feel lonely, frazzled and scared, both of being found out to be gay and of embracing homosexuality and “the awful life” he believed it dictated.

After a successful period as a platoon commander, serving under company commander Naftali Bennett, now the economy and trade minister, he was encouraged to attend officer’s school and continue higher up the chain of command. But at age 22, he said, he felt he had to step outside of the army. “I couldn’t breathe. I felt trapped,” he recalled.

Safely ensconced in the civilian world, he typed the word “gay” into one of the early search engines, chatted anonymously online, fretted endlessly, and finally went out on his first male date, after which they went to bed, he said, and all of the uncertainty melted away.

And yet he was unable to tell his army buddies. They were still a tight group, serving together in reserves and in constant contact. At one point they traveled to the Sinai Peninsula together. Kali saw “a very pretty” man one hut over from them on the beach and “here I was, lying next to Ehud, one of my closest friends in the world, a guy I love like a brother, someone who knows everything about me, and I’m scared. I’m scared, because — you know.”

Kali felt that despite all that they had been through together in uniform some of the guys would cut him off, never speak with him again, if he revealed the truth.

But when a platoon mate named Shimon mentioned to him that he had a friend who had recently come out of the closet, he realized that it was safe. He met up with him again and told him the truth. Shimon hugged him and poured them both a few fingers of whiskey for a toast. “He was the one who showed me that it was an option for life,” Kali said.

After that, the guys who were in the know clamored to come along and document the reactions as Kali made the rounds, telling everyone individually.

One of the most daunting stops was at the Tel Aviv home of his former commanding officer, O, a veteran of Sayeret Matkal and a charismatic figure whom the soldiers still, with practiced nonchalance, somewhat revere. O lived several blocks away. To Kali’s relief, O, today a Lt. Col. in reserves and the commander of the Special Forces unit Kali serves in, said “What do you think? That we won’t hug you in the camouflage shelters when it’s cold?”

Since then, as a commander, Kali has generally been embraced as an out-of-the-closet gay officer. In March 2002, when the team was called up in an emergency draft and sent to fight in the West Bank, Kali was the deputy commander of the platoon. A cerebral and able commander, he found himself assigning chores to his old company commander, Bennett, who had rushed back from his high-tech endeavors in the US and joined the team as a simple soldier despite his officer’s rank. “His constituents today do not accept it,” Kali said of his gay lifestyle. “And he [Bennett] joked about it.” While on the campaign trail, at a meeting with students at Bar-Ilan University in December 2012, he mentioned Kali, saying he had a soldier who came out of the closet and that he doesn’t care what soldiers’ sexual preferences are but that the state “cannot digest or officially contain the recognition of same-sex marriage.” And yet the two have served together, in close quarters, for years.

During the Second Lebanon War, as the team endured several tense days of starts and stops before they were finally deployed into Lebanon, many of the soldiers snuck their wives into the base southeast of Haifa. Kali did the same with his boyfriend. “He was from Argentina,” Kali said, “as far as he was concerned the army is an organization that shackles people up in rooms” — which perhaps only heightened the boyfriend’s surprise when the guys greeted him and gave the two of them their space in a separate tent for the night.

Several years later, in a vote of confidence, Lt. Col. O used his authority to grant Kali officer’s rank, even though he had not been to officer’s school.

And yet the tests keep on coming. Whenever new soldiers join the team — reserves service being a bit of a merry-go-round — he has to come out of the closet again. “It’s always difficult,” he said. “The soldiers are always testing you. It’s a testosterone-filled environment.”

Kali, who for a time commanded a religious soldier who worked with the settlement movement in David’s City in east Jerusalem and currently serves alongside a religious platoon commander who lives in an unrecognized outpost in the northern West Bank, among others, sleeps with the guys in the same tent. He is exposed to nudity. In the field, lying side by side for days, the soldiers urinate into a bottle without being able to do more than roll to the side. In the communal showers he often waits till most are done but said he will not tie himself up in knots over it. Generally speaking, he is quite capable of self-ridicule and manages to maintain a healthy balance between openness and an insistence on being respected.

But that has not always come easily. In 2011, when one of the platoon commanders reached retirement age, his platoon was slated to merge with Kali’s. Some of the soldiers — almost all secular, for what it’s worth — quietly refused to serve under an openly gay officer.  At least five of them said there was no way they would serve under a — insert slew of homophobic curses here — officer.

Kali was not aware of this case specifically. But he is keenly aware of the issue. “I’m not willing to hide,” he said. “I put everything up front. I’m not willing even for a second for someone to look at me in a lesser way. If they are uncomfortable — they can go to hell.”

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