TEL AVIV (JTA) — One month after his fiancee was killed in the Israeli military’s Oct. 7 battle against Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri, Omer Ohana received a small bit of solace: His government passed a bill granting recognition to same-sex partners of fallen soldiers.
“My love! From this day forward I am an IDF widower,” he wrote from the Knesset gallery, where he witnessed the passage of the bill, for which he had campaigned.
“It is a description I would give anything in the world to give up, a title that in my life I never thought I would receive six days before we were supposed to get married, when you left to save lives and rescue families held captive in Be’eri,” wrote Ohana, to his fiance, Sagi Golan. “You fell in battle against cruel terrorists and today, in your honor, we received equality in death. Now we will continue to demand equality also in life.”
That sentiment has become a rallying cry among Israel’s LGBTQ soldiers, many of whom feel the war has placed their status in stark relief: They have been called to risk their lives on the front lines in Gaza but are denied rights afforded to heterosexual couples at home — including the right to wed in Israel. Opposition to same-sex marriage comes in large part from religious political parties, many of whose haredi Orthodox constituents do not serve in the military.
One call for LGBTQ rights in Israel went viral in November, when IDF soldier Yoav Atzmoni posted a photo of himself in uniform in Gaza, holding a Pride flag inscribed with the words “In the name of love” in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Atzmoni hoped “to show the Israeli community that we are equal in the way we pay our debts, and I hope after the war we receive our rights,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“There are those in the governing coalition whose kids are in yeshiva or in Miami,” he added, referring to the haredi parties as well as Yair Netanyahu, the son of the prime minister, who recently returned from Florida. “While those from the opposition who support LGBTQ civil rights are sending their kids to Gaza.”
Atzmoni also hoped to convey the message that the IDF “is the only army in the Middle East in which we can live outside of the closet.” That’s been the case since 1993, when Israel began allowing openly gay and lesbian soldiers to serve.
Homophobia is still an issue in the IDF — a 2017 survey by an Israeli LGBTQ youth group found that 95% of LGBTQ soldiers it polled had encountered discrimination while serving. But a report by the Aguda, Israel’s leading LGBTQ organization, found that only 1% of the reported incidents of homophobia it tallied in 2021 occurred in the military.
And barriers continue to fall: The first Israeli transgender woman soldier to fight in Gaza was recently interviewed by Channel 13, a major network.
“There is no doubt that the IDF is one of the more progressive organizations in Israel regarding their acceptance of LGBTQ people, but even in progressive places there are still cases of discrimination,” said Hila Peer, the Aguda’s chairwoman. “I do not expect them to be perfect in spite of all the work that has been done to be more inclusive.”
She added that prior to the November passage of the law granting equal rights to LGBTQ military widows, “there was a de facto policy in the army to recognize such partners in practice and I think that this says a lot.”
Polls show that a majority of Israelis favor affording LGBTQ citizens with fully equal treatment, but Israel’s Orthodox political parties, which are allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have consistently opposed efforts to expand LGBTQ rights, citing prohibitions on same-sex relations in traditional Jewish law. In an interview in June, months before the current war broke out, haredi lawmaker Yitzhak Pindrus said the LGBTQ community is “the most dangerous thing for the State of Israel, more than ISIS and Hezbollah.”
LGBTQ Israelis have achieved victories in the courts. Like others who are unable to legally wed in Israel, they can get married abroad and have those marriages recognized by the government. Last year, due to another court ruling, same-sex couples and single men became able to have children via surrogacy in Israel — something Ohana and Golan had hoped to do. And last week, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that same-sex adoption must be allowed. But Peer believes it should not be up to the courts to make such changes.
“The adoption law could have been fixed legislatively, as the only problem was with the language of the law, [which said] ‘a man and his wife,’” she said. “The government did not agree to amend the law so we had to appeal to the High Court and wait for it to fix the law, which happened last week, but these are processes that take many years.”
In the context of that debate, Asaf, a reservist who serves in a unit focused on Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, felt gratified to see Atzmoni wave the pride flag in the context of an Israeli war.
“It was very exciting and heartwarming I have to say,” said Asaf, who gave only his first name, citing military regulations. During Israel’s last ground invasion of Gaza, in 2014, he said, “it was not as visible… He sent the message that I am fighting in Gaza, and I am gay, and I can wave the Pride flag like the flag of Israel.”
Israel has boasted of its LGBTQ soldiers, with an official social media account sharing a photo of a gay soldier getting engaged last month. But critics of Israel have said that the country’s trumpeting of its LGBTQ freedoms amounts to “pinkwashing,” a tactic to distract from the country’s human rights record and mistreatment of Palestinians.
While Israeli Jews broadly support the war effort, some members of Israel’s LGBTQ community echoed that critique, and said they did not appreciate seeing the Pride flag on the battlefield.
“In the name of love we shell, dehydrate and starve the people of Gaza; in the name of love one and half million people are uprooted… In the name of love more than 10,000 civilians, among them thousands of children, are dying,” Israeli trans activist Tamar Ben David wrote in a Facebook post that received a stream of comments that were also critical of Atzmoni’s photo.
Other LGBTQ Israelis say that they haven’t focused on their battle for civil rights during wartime. On Israel’s northern border, where Israel is bracing itself for a wider conflict with the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, Carmel, an IDF medic, says he is “very much in my service.”
“Here in the north, there are a lot of explosions, anti-tank missiles, and combat from the air,” he said. “We are trying to take care of ourselves and guard the kibbutz that was evacuated, and protect the country.”
Before the war broke out, LGBTQ rights were at the heart of fierce debate over the government’s campaign to weaken Israel’s courts. Asaf, the IDF soldier, fears that once the war ends, anti-LGBTQ attitudes will again prevail among the country’s leadership.
“Slowly we are seeing changes happen, even in the state, as people understand we are one community, but I am not optimistic because I see what is happening in the government, with people who do not support the community,” he said. “I want to believe that one day it will happen because it is the right thing to do, and it is a shame that some changes had to occur as a result of tragedy and war.”
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Major Israeli Tech Entrepreneur Gil Shwed Retires
Gil Shwed, one of Israel’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, announced his retirement on Tuesday, bringing an end to his 30-year tenure as CEO of Check Point, an Israeli software firm.
“This year Check Point celebrated 30 years since its establishment, in which we managed to generate growth and reached a peak in almost every parameter. I feel that this is the right time for me to focus on Check Point’s next leap,” Shwed, 56, said. “We are now looking for a replacement for the position of CEO. It’s a process that will take time and even when it ends I will remain involved. I want to focus less on the daily work, and more on the future of the company.”
Check Point was founded in 1993 by Shwed, Shlomo Kramer, and Marius Nacht. Shwed and Kramer were friends from their time together in Israel’s elite cyber unit 8200.
The company provides AI-powered advanced software and hardware for cyber security to more than 100,000 customers globally, bringing in more than $2 billion per year in revenue.
Headquartered in Tel Aviv and publicly traded on the NASDAQ, Check Point has a market cap of more than $19 billion dollars, making it Israel’s second most valuable company, $2 billion less than automobile giant Mobileye Eye. Shwed’s role as CEO has allowed him to amass a fortune of $4.4 billion due to his 20% share ownership in the company.
Shwed is also a recipient of the Israel Prize, an annual award given to Israelis who have shown a high level of excellence in their specific fields. Shwed was given the first award in the technology field when it was introduced in 2018.
Israel’s Leading Hotel Chain Expands Internationally
Israel’s leading hotel chain Isrotel has announced the opening of their first hotel outside of the country.
The brand, under a new division called ALUMA, meaning “ray of light” in Hebrew, will open its Skylark Hotel in Athens, Greece next month.
“We succeeded in doing the best in Israel, creating a culture that people love, so if you know Isrotel you will want to visit,” Benny Levy, the VP of sales and marketing at Isrotel, told The Algemeiner.
Levy says just because they are expanding outside of the Jewish state, “We aren’t stopping opening in Israel … Outside of Israel the potential is endless, it is a significant opportunity.”
Lior Raviv, CEO of Isrotel, added, “ALUMA is an international chain of hotels that will benefit from Isrotel’s longstanding experience and uncompromising standards of excellence, offering global travelers a wide range of city hotels and leisure resorts to choose from, and providing unique hospitality experiences. As a sister company of Isrotel, ALUMA is guided by our approach to hospitality as a way of life.”
They said most of the workers will be Israelis, ensuring the culture of the brand remains. “Israeli tourists, and especially loyal guests of Isrotel, who return to us time and again due to our hospitality experience and high standard of service, will find those same qualities and sense of a ‘home away from home’ at ALUMA, backed by the international standards of perfection and excellence,” added Raviv.
According to Isrotel, the Skylark hotel will be followed by the Anise Hotel, also in Athens, a month later. An additional hotel in Athens and one in Thessaloniki will open by the end of 2024. They said the total investment in the project is 70 million euros, with plans to expand elsewhere in Europe in the future.
Isrotel has 23 hotels across Israel, including eight in the resort town of Eilat in the south of Israel. Their international move comes as Israel’s National Planning and Construction Council announced this week the changes to the city’s height limitations for hotels, allowing up to 20 floors from the previously permitted eight floors.
Tourism Minister Haim Katz praised the move, saying, “We are bringing good news to Eilat. Hundreds and even thousands of rooms will be added in the city. The move will encourage competition, remove excess bureaucracy for a hotel that wants to renew itself, and allow entrepreneurs who have not yet built to increase supply.”
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Investment Firm Announces Recommendations for Preventing Corporate Anti-Israel Bias
Morningstar, Inc., a Chicago based investment firm managing over $250 billion in assets, has issued a report including several recommendations for reducing anti-Israel bias in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings its Sustainalytics subsidiary assigns to corporations.
For several years, Sustainalytics gave poor ESG ratings to Israel affiliated companies, a practice that led Jewish civil rights groups and lawmakers to suspect that the company was violating state laws against engaging in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate and weaken the Jewish state.
The firm denied the allegations, but a review of the its ratings by JLens, a leading Jewish investor network, found that Sustainalytics created “BDS blacklists” and used in its internal reports “politicized anti-Israel language” to describe Israel. JLens’ work, which was the first to raise alarms about the issue, led to Morningstar’s cracking down on the practices and adopting policies for ensuring that Sustainalytics does not become a BDS collaborator.
Released on Jan. 31, Morningstar’s new report builds on that commitment, outlining several policy changes, including: eliminating a designation which identified companies as being involved in “occupied territories/disputed region,” quashing reliance on disinformative media reports aimed at distorting a company’s ESG rating, and appointing legal experts to examine matters relevant to international human rights law.
“We welcome Morningstar’s commitment to eliminate anti-Israel bias in Sustainalytics research products,” Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement on Wednesday. “We look forward to ongoing engagement with Morningstar to ensure the expert recommendations are fully and effectively implemented.”
The ADL took a leading role in combating anti-Israel bias in ESG ratings, incorporating JLens in Nov. 2022. ADL noted at the time that BDS activists target firms managing ESG rated funds, which attracted over $500 billion in investments in 2021, a 55% increase from the previous year, according to JP Morgan. During 2022’s proxy season, a time when publicly traded companies hold annual meetings to assess performance and weigh suggestions from shareholders, Israel was named in eight of 20 resolutions targeting foreign governments, “making the country only second to China.”
Morningstar’s recommendations will shield ESG from political bias and increase its reliability, Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law founder and chairman Kenneth L. Marcus explained in a statement applauding the report.
“Anti-Israel external forces are doing everything they can to infiltrate campuses, boardrooms, the [United Nations]., sports leagues, and the securities industry,” he said. “We commend Morningstar for engaging with us, examining their ESG product, and committing to make the changes necessary to ensure that their rating system is apolitical, objective, and honest. We believe that implementing the experts’ report is critical to achieving this goal.”
Ari Hoffnung, managing director of JLens, added that “investor are entitled to research that is both objective and devoid of any anti-Israel bias.”
Last July, Morningstar removed 109 negative “controversy ratings” that Sustainalytics subsidiary had given to companies operating in Israel. The firm has also stopped referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’ or ‘occupied territory” and committed to educating its employees about antisemitism and amassing information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from “independent, recognized experts.”
Morningstar, however, has repeatedly denied that it ever supported BDS. In June 2022, Morningstar CEO Kunal Kapoor issued a statement arguing that an external review of Sustainalytics found no evidence that it “encouraged divestment from Israel” but acknowledged that at least one of its departments singled out businesses “linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “sometimes used inflammatory language and failed to provide sourcing attribution clearly and consistently.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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