A photo by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) showing two gay soldiers holding hands has gone viral on Facebook.
The official image has generated over 10,000 likes, 8,000 shares and a range of comments from the supportive to the comic and from the anti-Israeli to the homophobic.
The IDF posted the picture on the social networking site with the caption: ‘It’s Pride Month. Did you know that the IDF treats all of its soldiers equally? Let’s see how many shares you can get for this photo.’
From the outset, it created a huge response.
Eyal Resh commented: ‘As a solider I must say it is true! The IDF does treat its soldiers equally!’
While S Asher Gelman said: ‘Awesome photo! Reminds me of when my husband and I were in the army.’
Other comments were even jocular.
‘Gays with guns. I am all for it,’ said Christopher Riess.
But while most messages were positive, others were even homophobic.
Raymond Cisnero said: ‘Then the end of the world really is coming, if this is really happening in Israel, God’s favorite country. Then we are doomed, it’s gonna be Sodom and Gomorrah once again. All I know is, I’ll be going to heaven, don’t know about you guys.’
And Graeme Harrison raised the issue of Israel’s military power being abused: ‘Is this before or after they’ve shot some Palestinian children?’ he asked.
John Bobian, meanwhile, was one of those on Facebook to question whether it was a genuinely gay image at all: ‘Isn’t holding hands over there considered normal? I don’t see two gay men, I see two bro’s chillin’ through the burbs’,’ he said.
But the Jerusalem Post confirmed with IDF officials that the picture was gay, deliberately posted for Pride Month in Israel and had official backing from senior officers as a pro-LGBT publicity stunt.
‘This is definitely a huge success,’ one officer said. ‘It tells a different story of the IDF, which is important to share with the world.’
Israel’s military was comparatively early in allowing openly gay people to serve. While initial policy tended to view homosexuality as a mental illness, this was changed in 1993.
Discrimination against gay and lesbian soldiers in recruitment, placement and promotion is banned and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation can be prosecuted. Gays even serve in special forces roles.
And the IDF recognize same-sex couples, including widows and widowers of servicepeople and soldiers are allowed to take part in gay pride marches.
However the Israel Gay Youth Movement (IGY) published a survey of openly LGBT soldiers in January which revealed out troops are often victims of verbal and physical violence and commanders frequently ignore the problems.
The Jerusalem Post reports that the IGY have met with a senior officer to discuss this.
‘Our study shows that there is still difficulty within the army with homosexuals and accepting them, although I am happy to say that the intention among the top brass is to change that,’ IGY head Avner Dafni said.
UPDATE: Times of Israel now claims the two soldiers in the photo are not a couple, only one of the two is gay, and both the soldiers serve in the IDF Spokesperson’s Office. The IDF declined to comment this but did say the photo reflects their open attitude towards gay soldiers.