This is a story that has jolted Israel’s LGBT community. It’s a tragic tale, not only because of the human circumstances entailed, but also because it embodies the fears harbored by thousands of LGBT families that the state refuses to recognize and whose status it declines to regularize.
Yael Levi-Hazan was a lecturer, researcher and translator, a well-known figure in academia and in the LGBT community. She had lived in Be’er Sheva since 1998 and was one of the community’s founders in the southern part of the country. The home she shared with her partner, social worker and therapist Omra Levi-Hazan, was a magnet for every LGBT person who moved to the Negev and was seeking an adoptive family.
In October 2017, the couple moved to a new house in Be’er Sheva with their son, Ma’ayan, to whom Yael had given birth three-and-a-half years earlier. At the end of that month, Omra gave birth to their daughter, Nuri. On the night between November 30 and December 1, just five weeks after Nuri’s birth, Yael, 39, was killed in a car crash on Highway 431, while she was on the way to her mother’s house, in Tel Aviv. Omra was left with two small children and without the woman who had been her partner for the previous decade.
Already that night, shortly after Yael’s mother had to break the horrible news to Omra over the phone – something that would not have happened with a “regular” couple, in which case both a police officer and a social worker would have come to the survivor’s home – Omra, who is 35 today, made a resolution: “I looked hard at myself in the mirror and decided that I would go on living and that I would lift up the lives of these children and not let them crash. Because I knew how important they were to Yael.”
She prepared Ma’ayan’s nursery school lunchbox the next morning, adding the fruits, vegetables and other vegan items that she and Yael gave him every day. She took a picture of it, so that when Ma’ayan grows up she would be able to show it to him and relate how life went on despite the difficulty. She took little Nuri to be vaccinated on the day of Yael’s funeral. “I could absolutely hear Yael say: Yes, sweetie, I am no longer here, but Nuri needs the vaccination and you need to take care of it.”
This is a story about astonishing grit and about an amazing effort by the LGBT community, which has stood by Omra since the mourning corner was erected in her house, assisting her in looking after the children, caring for the dog, recruiting legal assistance and even by naming the city’s Pride House after Yael. But it’s also a story about the insensitivity of the state, which leaves LGBT family units in a legal lacuna, forces them to engage in Sisyphean court battles and piles up difficulties that make their lives an ordeal – even in a tragic situation such as that of Omra and her children.
But this is also a story about progress. Recently, the court accepted Omra’s request to have Nuri recognized as Yael’s daughter by means of a certificate of adoption. This is the first time in Israel that a lesbian has been officially recognized as a mother posthumously. Nuri is thus legally considered to be Yael’s daughter from the day she was born, as well as Omra’s daughter.
Yael Hazan and Omra Levi met 11 years ago at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Yael, then 29, was a lecturer, researcher and translator in the fields of literature and gender studies. She was a well-known activist in the local LGBT community and was involved in a longstanding relationship. Omra was 24 and did not yet know she was a lesbian. “I saw Yael at the university in my first year,” Omra recalls. “She really stood out – tall, short hair, a kind of masculine look. I was thrilled that there was a lesbian lecturer at the university, and the teaching method she used in her seminar class really fascinated me. I didn’t realize that I was actually in love with her.”
Omra began studying with Yael in her second year. Not long afterward, Omra recalls, Yael’s father died: “I went to the shivah with two other students. When she returned to the university we rolled a cigarette together and she told me that she and her partner had separated. ‘Don’t you see that I’m no longer wearing a ring?’ she asked me.” After the semester ended, the two remained close, and “We would talk all night long.”
Some months later, they became a couple. At first, Omra kept the relationship secret from her religiously traditional family, even though her sister had come out of the closet a few years earlier and lived with a female partner and their children.
Omra: “Yael was very well known in the community, and she was afraid I would return her to the closet. But I was so proud of her and of our relationship that I had no intention of doing that. In the end, a little after we’d moved in together, I told my mother. She took it very hard.”
Omra fought to maintain a good relationship with her mother, and they even underwent family therapy to that end. “Everyone who met Yael fell in love with her, and that’s what happened to my mother,” she says now.
At the memorial ceremony marking the first anniversary of Yael’s death, which was held in Be’er Sheva’s secular cemetery, one woman stood out among the LGBT people who had gathered. Wearing a knitted head covering, she stood next to the headstone, and after the ceremony kissed it and didn’t budge. It was Omra’s mother. Now, Omra says, after she has a new partner, it’s hard for her mother to see her with anyone else.
On the evening of Thursday, November 30, 2017, Yael took part in a ceremony inaugurating Be’er Sheva’s Pride House, a cultural and counseling center, reading aloud a poem she had translated. She didn’t forgo the event, even though she planned to go to Tel Aviv that night to be with her mother, who had to undergo a medical test late that night. The festive event was important to her and Omra; they arrived with Ma’ayan and little Nuri in tow.
Did you try to persuade Yael not to drive to Tel Aviv?
Omra: “I was worried. I was uneasy about that trip. Yael’s mother, Zvia, also didn’t want her to go. She planned to accompany her mother to the test, sleep two hours at her mother’s place and then drive back to take Ma’ayan to preschool on Friday morning. What worried me wasn’t the trip there – I was worried about the way back. I told her to drop the idea, to leave me the car and take the train, and I would take Ma’ayan to school with Nuri. She said, ‘You’re going to drive with both a little baby and with Ma’ayan?’ The funny thing is that in the end what she really wanted to avoid is what became my routine.”
Omra finally came to terms with Yael’s plan. “I remember,” she says, “that as she was leaving she stood in the doorway and I kissed her, and just then our neighbor from upstairs passed by. Yael was a shy, easily embarrassed person, so she was a little flustered and wanted to move a way. ‘Just a minute,’ I told her. I waited until the neighbor passed and then I kissed her again. I was so happy I’d done that. And then I told her – the last words I ever spoke to her – ‘You’ll be missed tonight.’ It would have been more natural for me to say, ‘I’ll miss you,’ or something like that. But I told her, ‘You’ll be missed.’”
Omra recalls that Yael had told her not to do the dishes or touch the laundry – “‘I’ll fold it when I get back’” – but just to go to sleep. “I closed the door, and suddenly I got all this energy and decided I wanted to surprise her. She’d come back in the morning and I would have folded all the clothes and done all the dishes. I wanted to show her that she didn’t have to be responsible for everything. I wanted to protect her, the way we always protected each other. While I was washing the dishes and folding the laundry, I had this sort of premonition that Zvia was calling me, and I said to myself that if Zvia were to call me now I would be worried. And then I just dismissed it, absolutely removed it from my thoughts. Maybe that was the exact time of the accident.
“I began to sort the laundry on the changing table in our room. The phone was on vibrate and I felt a strong vibration. I thought: It’s Yael calling. And then I asked myself: But why would she call? She would think I was sleeping and would text me. And suddenly I saw ‘Zvia’ on the screen. My vision had come true.”
Zvia told Omra that Yael hadn’t arrived and wasn’t answering her phone. Omra searched the internet and found reports of an accident on Highway 431, near Rishon Letzion. She began to call around to area hospitals, to find out whether Yael had been involved, but no one had any information. Omra then called two friends and asked them to be with her. In the meantime, Zvia was in touch with the police in Tel Aviv to find out if they had news of her daughter and perhaps to file a missing-person’s complaint. Police in Be’er Sheva were also dispatched to Yael and Omra’s house, to take a similar complaint from Omra. “I waited with my friends,” Omra recalls. “We were in a good mood, knowing that Yael would return.”
But then the full impact of what was going on struck her: “Wait – what’s going on here, I said. I called the police again, to say, ‘Listen, my partner went out and didn’t reach her destination. Police officers arrived and took our details but they didn’t get back to me. I want to know what’s going on.’ I was referred to another department, and after a while someone answers and says I should call Yael’s mother. I was glad. I thought Yael had been found.”
Omra phoned Zvia, confident that the story would have a good ending. “I asked Zvia what was happening and where Yael was. She said she would call me from home. I said, ‘You won’t talk to me from home – talk to me now.’ She paused and then told me, ‘Yael is gone.’”
Zvia had been given the dreadful news by a casualty officer and a social worker, according to police protocol. She asked to be taken to Omra in Be’er Sheva, but was told that Omra had already filed a complaint and was trying to find out what happened, so she should apprise her of the situation before Omra heard it from a different source.
Later, says Omra, after the initial period of mourning, “I asked the casualty officer – a wonderful person who also called during the shivah – why they hadn’t come to tell me what happened,” Omra says. “If Yael had been a man, or if this were a normal country, then in the same way that an officer came to Zvia and informed her face to face, a casualty officer from the Southern District would have knocked on my door accompanied by a social worker, who would have advised me about how to break the news to Ma’ayan. The officer replied that Yael was listed as single in the Population Registry, so only her mother was informed. But we’re both listed as Ma’ayan’s mothers. Couldn’t they have made the connection?”
In the morning, did Ma’ayan ask where Yael was?
“Of course. I told him that Mommy Yael had gone to take Grandma Zvia for a medical test, that she wanted to help her. That was all. I didn’t say that we would see her later or anything like that. I was very careful. And then I sat with him and sang him songs, all the while knowing what had happened.”
Did you feel pity for him?
“I don’t think it was pity. I felt a very powerful pain for him. Pain that he didn’t yet know what was coming. I think I felt more pain because I was sending him off with his thinking everything was all right.”
A feeling that you deceived him or had led him astray.
“In some part of my being, yes. Because we had always been meticulous about telling him the truth. We told him everything, even if in mediated form appropriate to his age. We never hid anything from him, so it felt strange to be sending him off like that, with me actually lying to him ... After Yael was killed, it was important for me that Ma’ayan should know before Nuri, because he’s the firstborn and he really remembers her. After I told him, I remember diapering [the infant] Nuri and saying to her, ‘Nuri, I want to tell you that Mommy Yael was killed.’ I told her that it grieves me deeply and how sad it is for me that Yael won’t have the chance to raise her as she would have wished – but that I would make ensure that Yael’s spirit and what she believed in and all the things she wanted for Nuri, would happen.”
‘Just in case...’
In what was a harrowing incident, in retrospect, two weeks before the tragedy, a National Insurance Institute clerk – to whom Omra had gone to collect her maternity allowance – had advised Yael to submit a formal request to adopt Nuri and to sign a common-law spousal agreement. The latter was essential, the clerk said, “just in case anything should happen to one of you.” Omra, who had officially adopted Ma’ayan just two years earlier, thought it would be no problem to have Yael do the same with Nuri. However, she discovered that, in addition to grappling with the shock and intense grief of her loss, she would have to cope with legal foot-dragging stemming from the fact that the state did not recognize family units of the sort she and Yael had created.
Why did you choose the adoption route for Ma’ayan? It’s considered outdated, complicated and inappropriate, as opposed to getting a court order recognizing the non-biological partner as a parent.
“We chose adoption mainly for economic reasons. We calculated our financial matters very carefully – in fact, we even figured out that after Yael got [academic] tenure, the children would be able to go to university for free. We were meticulous about every expense. The only thing we had to pay for in the adoption proceedings was opening the file. It was important for us to save the money we would have had to pay lawyers, etc., for the boy’s future. With Ma’ayan we had waited a little, because the process was annoying, but with Nuri I told Yael we shouldn’t delay. It was lucky she signed the adoption papers and also the common-law document a week and half before she was killed.”
Not long after the shivah, attorney Michal Eden, who specializes in LGBT issues, contacted Omra and proposed that she represent her pro bono. Eden, who has experience with the grueling campaign the state wages against LGBT families, knew what lay in store for the young widow: A lesbian had never been recognized as a mother posthumously.
“Michal submitted a parenthood request to the Family Court in Be’er Sheva,” Omra relates. “She took that route both because it’s the more appropriate procedure and also because she wanted to spare me a visit by a social worker. But the main reason Michal suggested a court order was to obtain retroactive recognition. It was important for us to get Nuri recognized as Yael’s daughter from the moment of her birth.”
Why is that important?
“First of all, in order for the outcome to fit reality: emotionally – when Nuri is older, she’ll know that her mother recognized her and wanted her – and also economically. Yael didn’t get around to updating her pension plans, the advanced-study fund, etc., to the effect that there was now another child, so in practice only Ma’ayan and I would be the beneficiaries. If Nuri isn’t legally registered as Yael’s child, she’s not considered her heir under the law.”
It goes almost without saying, but Omra would not have had to endure this whole legal ordeal if she were a member of a heterosexual family unit (“In that case, even if Yael had been killed while I was pregnant, Nuri would have been legally recognized as her daughter immediately”), or if the state allowed non-biological lesbian mothers to be recognized during pregnancy, so that the process of registration could take place at the hospital immediately after a child is born (a process the state objects to and which is currently being deliberated in the courts).
Despite the tragic circumstances and the fact that the Levi-Hazan family is known to the welfare authorities and the Family Court in the wake of Ma’ayan’s adoption, the state opposed a parenthood order in Nuri’s case, in part because Yael had already signed adoption papers. Another reason for the state’s refusal is that “an adoption procedure involving the deceased was already carried out in the past, as distinct from a parenthood order involving a deceased individual, with respect to whom the respondent [the state] has no experience.” Because Omra wanted to conclude the procedure as quickly as possible, attorney Eden suggested a retroactive adoption decree – and the state agreed.
Omra: “At the first hearing I was really excited. I remember telling friends that today Nuri was going to be recognized as Yael’s child, we’d celebrate, at last it was going to happen. And then suddenly the judge says, ‘We are creating parental relations here. I want to know what Yael’s parents think.’ I told him that her father was no longer alive and that her mother views Nuri as a granddaughter in every respect – she’d even opened a savings plan for her after she was born. We visit her every two weeks, and she has an amazing relationship with the baby. But he insisted on Zvia’s agreement and wanted her to appear in court. When I told him that poor health prevented her from going out, he told us to bring an affidavit. The thought of going to Zvia, after all she’d been through and with her state of health, was very upsetting for me. The judge said that my objections were making him think there was something to hide.”
Eden got Zvia to sign an affidavit, but even then Omra had to wait for a judgment and an adoption order – which is usually issued on the spot – because according to the judge, this was a singular case. The certificate was issued in July – more than seven months after Yael’s death and about half a year after the request had been submitted to the court for a parenthood order.
Another obstacle encountered by Omra and attorney Eden was the ban on publicizing news of the adoption – usually a standard procedure when a child is taken from one family and placed in another, hence the secrecy. This issue proves again how little the regular adoption format is suited to a family unit of lesbians and gays.
“We wanted to make the situation public, to come out with it, because it was something that was meaningful for us and also involved terribly hard work,” Omra notes. “This is one more failure to recognize reality. ... Because Yael was an out-of-the-closet person in every fiber of her body. She was a lecturer, an activist, everyone knew who she was, knew about her way of life.”
After the adoption was approved, Omra ran into another problem with the inheritance issue, which also was related to the nature of the family involved: “The registrar of inheritances in the Southern District said no legislation exists that addresses the case of a family unit created by two women, so it would be best to refer the case back to the Family Court. In short, Yael had been dead for a year and a month, and I still had no inheritance declaration.”
What is the significance of this situation?
“All of Yael’s pension plans and advanced-study funds are locked up. Without a succession order, I can’t withdraw the funds from the joint account I had with Yael, only my relative part. We had savings plans, and I could only access those too in part. Yael was the chief provider in the house; a social worker doesn’t earn much, unfortunately. She worked very hard and taught in many different places. I was supposed to go back to a full-time position after maternity leave. But after what happened, I had to cut back to halftime, to raise the children. It was a severe blow, an economic one on top of the emotional and family blow.”
How have you managed?
“After Yael was killed, donations were collected for us at the university, and that really helped. With the donations, plus a savings plan I opened and compensation from the insurance company, I was able to buy a car to replace the one that was totaled in the accident.”
Omra is currently employed as a social worker at the Be’er Sheva Pride House, and is studying to become a couples and family therapist. “ Of late she has even found a new love, Chani, who was also a student of Yael’s and part of her vast circle of friends.
How are the children responding to her?
“Ma’ayan is in love with her and is really attached to her. But it’s not as though Chani came into our lives and that’s it – no more Mommy Yael. We mention her, talk about her. Shortly before the one-year memorial ceremony, we went to the grave by ourselves. A while ago, when Chani and I went abroad, Ma’ayan went to my cousin. I had made him an album in advance, and he showed it to her children. They pointed to a picture of Chani and asked if that was Yael. He said, ‘No, Mommy Yael died. This is Chani, I have three mothers.’”
Shortly before this article was published in Hebrew, two weeks ago, the court approved the issuing of the succession order (inheritance decree), at the request of Omra’s brother, attorney Kobi Levi. It will give Omra complete access to her and Yael’s joint savings and allow her to provide for the children’s future. The document was signed on December 20.
A week later, Yael’s mother, Zvia Hazan, died, after a long illness.
The tremendous difficulties Omra Levi-Hazan encountered, which forced her to cope with her loss at the same time she had to fight the courts for recognition of Yael’s parenthood of their daughter, would have been minimized if the state taken action to regularize parental status in lesbian and gay households.
The situation of lesbian families resembles that in which a man and a woman who want to have a baby must resort to a sperm bank due to a medical problem. But whereas straight couples are eligible, and rightly so, to be defined as parents during a straightforward legal procedure after their child’s birth in the hospital – lesbian and gay couples are sent to court and forced to waste time and money dealing with a grinding bureaucracy. The case of the Levi-Hazan family, in which the firstborn child had already been adopted by one of the mothers – meaning that the family was already recognized as a family unit by the state and the court system – shows how important recognition of parenthood is as soon as possible after birth, and how detrimental the absence of such recognition is to the child’s welfare.
Last month, the Lod District Court overturned five rulings handed down by the Family Court, which had determined that parenthood declarations can be issued during pregnancy and that non-biological mothers can be registered as parents immediately after the birth. The district court asserted that the parenthood decree is not just recognition of an existing parental relationship but is actually what establishes that relationship, and that such documentation cannot be issued vis-a-vis fetuses. The court, that is, effectively accepted the position of the state, which completely rejects the procedure in question. Haaretz has reported that Interior Ministry officials have been instructed not to carry out parental registration processes of this kind, despite court orders.
It’s difficult to understand the state’s determination to torpedo regularization of the status of non-biological parents, who are recognized as parents by their children all their lives, when ultimately that status is in any case approved. That’s because the LGBT couples have no difficulty proving that they are family units in every respect and have no intention of engaging in commerce with the children (which is one of the most outrageous arguments voiced in the courts).
The state has repeatedly told the courts that legal adoption is the “main road” for forging non-biological parenthood. However, over the years the state, too, has realized that the adoption process, which entails input from a social worker and is basically intended to remove a child from one family (the biological one) and transfer him to a different family (the adoptive one), is simply not appropriate when it comes to LGBT families.
In 2015, the office of the attorney general, in response to a pending case, issued directives that make it possible to obtain a court order that establishes parenthood, which is an easier process than adoption, in order to formalize non-biological parental relations. The directives drew on a bill submitted by MK Merav Michaeli (Labor), which won general ministerial consent but failed in the wake of an appeal lodged by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi). The directives were a step forward compared to the existing adoption process, but included discriminatory demands that no one would dream of making in the case of heterosexual parents, such as the presentation of a parenthood agreement and proof that the relationship had lasted for at least 18 months before it was drawn up, or humiliating demands such as a declaration by the woman making the request that she is not a sex offender.
“The moment we started to apply the directives we saw that they were divorced from reality,” says a source who is involved in dealing with the subject. “No one met the criterion of having a parenthood agreement 18 months before the birth. And rightly so, from their perspective. How can a parenthood agreement be drawn up when the couple hasn’t yet started trying to have children? From our accumulated experience – hundreds if not thousands of cases – we told the policymakers: This is amazing parenthood; these children are looked after and cultivated in the most extraordinary way. You need to make things easier for them.”
In the wake of the disconnect between policy and reality, and under the pressure of the state’s representatives in the courts, who found themselves defending outmoded positions, Mendelblit asked the minister of social affairs to establish a special committee to deal with parenthood declarations. The panel was created last May under Dr. Tali Burla, a national inspector in the ministry’s child welfare service unit, and included social-welfare officials as well as representatives from the Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry and others. The committee concluded its work last October and submitted its conclusions to the relevant ministers.
The committee, according to one source close to the subject, “sought to simplify processes and ease the way so that the couple would not require lawyers. The goal was first of all to coordinate policy, because at present every court rules differently. The Tel Aviv Family Court is a separate state in its own right, which makes things easier for gay and lesbian couples there, but elsewhere the courts rule differently. Second, we wanted to simplify matters, so that the couple would know: From this day on you need to do this and this. Do 1, 2, 3, and you will get a response directly without going through all the procedures. The committee addressed professional considerations. But the attorney general’s directive, when it’s issued, will have to take political considerations into account.”
That is the sticking point. Haaretz has obtained documents suggesting that the state is asking the courts for extensions and delays when it comes to making decisions about specific cases involving LGBT couples – in light of the fact that the committee’s conclusions, which are meant to guide the attorney general, are still pending. At the same time, no one is certain when the conclusions will be implemented, if at all. In the meantime, the LGBT family units continue to suffer.
The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry stated: “The conclusions of the inter-ministerial committee will be examined and made public soon.”
A spokesperson for the justice minister’s bureau stated: “Ministry officials are currently working on questions and matters requiring clarification with the parties concerned.”