Israel presents itself as the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East, and Tel Aviv frequently appears on lists of the best places in the world to be gay.
But homophobia does exist in Israel, and life can be trying for same-sex families, said Israeli developmental psychologist Tirtsa Joels during a recent visit to Montreal.
Joels, who is with the University of Haifa’s Centre for the Study of Child Development, recently spoke to a small gathering at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom hosted by Israeli Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman in collaboration with the Montreal LGBTQ Jewish group Ga’ava.
Although same-sex marriages are not legal in Israel, gay and lesbian couples with children are increasingly common there, Joels said. But the country’s judicial system is not always prepared to deal with the complicated cases involving such families, she added.
Joels is frequently called upon as a specialist in divorce and other family law cases. Matters can get quite complex when such couples separate or divorce, she said, and questions arise as to what is best for their children.
“There’s an open-minded attitude [to homosexuality] in Israel, but if you dig deep, you will find a lot of homophobia. Research has found that 25 per cent of Israelis would not live next door to a gay family.”
Same-sex couples can have what is called “known in public” legal recognition, which allows them some of the rights accorded to married people, she said, such as inheritance. It does not extend to them such common economic rights as taking out a mortgage jointly or taking advantage of tax benefits accorded people who are legally wed, Joels said.
At the municipal level, however, same-sex households generally enjoy the same benefits as others.
She noted that it was only in 1988 that homosexuality ceased to be illegal in Israel. In 2005, lesbians were given the right to adopt children, but gay men still must go abroad to do so, Joels said.
Surrogacy is legal in Israel, but only for heterosexual couples. Gay men who want a biological child must find a surrogate mother outside Israel, often in a poor country, which raises the questions of morality, she said.
Lesbians can, of course, become pregnant through a sperm bank but, unlike in North America, the father is not necessarily anonymous and does not have to renounce his parenthood, she continued.
This is not theoretical, since more and more frequently, these donors are in the family picture and want their rights, she said.
There are cases where the sperm of the same donor impregnates both partners, Joels said, which is fine, unless those partners decide to split.
Things get really perplexing after one or more spouses in what was a legal marriage leaves that union to form a new family in a same-sex relationship, she said.
The result is that kids are under the shared custody of three and even four households, spending time with each. This is likely not in the children’s best interest, but the gay rights movement is strong in Israel, Joels said, and courts are reluctant to make judgments that it will oppose.
Israeli law still holds that in the case of marriage breakdown, children under age six are automatically placed in the custody of the mother, said Joels, who sits on a government committee trying to make parenting more equitable.