Amid war, Israel expands military bereavement policy to include same-sex partners

JERUSALEM (RNS) — The same-sex partners of fallen Israeli soldiers will now be recognized as widows or widowers after a legislative change approved by lawmakers. The development comes as more than 360,000 post-army reservists have been called up to fight in the ongoing war with Hamas.

Israel’s Knesset voted Nov. 6 to expand the Families of Fallen Soldiers Law to include the common-law partners of LGBTQ members of the Israel Defense Forces. Previously, the law had included partners within opposite-sex common-law marriages as well as those in religiously recognized marriages. The amendment removes gender designations. 

The vote came nearly a month after Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel and murdered an estimated 1,200 civilians and soldiers, and kidnapped 240 others. The attack prompted Israel to mobilize hundreds of thousands of military reservists as they prepared for a retaliatory ground invasion into the Gaza Strip.

The ensuing war — which has claimed the lives of at least 46 Israeli soldiers since the ground attack began in Gaza, in addition to those killed in the initial Hamas attack, according to IDF, and more than 11,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry — has shown little sign of stopping and the reservists have been given few indications of when they may return to normal life. 

Many career soldiers and reservists are in their 30s or 40s and have families, and though the IDF accepts openly gay and lesbian soldiers, there had previously been no legal requirement for the country to extend war-related survivor benefits to a bereaved partner in a same-sex common-law marriage.

The change was prompted, in part, after the death of Sagi Golan, a gay IDF military reservist who was killed the day of the Hamas attacks while defending Be’eri, a kibbutz in southern Israel. He was scheduled to marry his fiancé and common-law partner, Omer Ohana, less than a week later. 

Prior to the amendment, only women or men whose marriages were recognized in Israel, and whose spouses died in combat, were eligible for bereavement benefits. Had the law not been changed, Ohana and other LGBTQ partners would have been ineligible for war-related survivor benefits. 

Common-law marriages in Israel are generally determined by whether a couple is living together in a joint household and sharing financial responsibilities. 

In Israel, people are free to openly identify as LGBTQ and to be in same-sex partnerships, but there is no legal way for the couples to be married. Israel has no civil marriage, and state-supported religious authorities do not recognize gay and lesbian marriages. Common-law marriages provide most but not all the benefits afforded to legally married couples.

Ohana, who previously would not have been eligible to receive bereavement benefits, attended the vote at the Knesset. In a Facebook post afterward, Ohana wrote: “From today I am an IDF widower. A description that I would give anything in the world to give up, a title that I never thought I would hold. Six days before we were to marry, you ran out to save lives and rescue families in [Kibbutz] Be’eri and were killed in battle against the evil terrorists. You fought for a country that would not allow you to marry and have children.

“We are now recognized in death. Now we must continue the fight to be recognized in life too.”

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