Yonatan Danilovich, Pioneer Israeli LGBTQ Rights Champion, Dies at 77

Danilovich's legal victory in a workplace discrimination lawsuit against El Al in 1988 represented a landmark ruling in the history of Israel's LGBTQ community

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Yonatan Danilovich.
Yonatan Danilovich.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Yonatan Danilovich, one of the pioneering activists in the fight for equal rights for Israel's LGBTQ community, died Friday at the age of 77.

Danilovich was born in 1945 in South Africa. In 1978, when many of the community's members were still closeted, Danilovich became the head of The Aguda – the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, with his home serving at times as the organization's headquarters.

In 1979, he organized the first LGBTQ demonstration in Israel, and later founded the organization Tehila, which provides support to parents of children who are part of the community.

Danilovich made history in 1988, when he filed a lawsuit against his workplace, El Al Airlines, for refusing to issue free plane tickets for his partner – contrary to the practice towards partners of El Al heterosexual employees. A Regional Labor Court ruled in Danilovich's favor, stating that this constituted prohibited workplace discrimination.

El Al appealed the ruling at the National Labor Court, but the appeal was rejected. The airline later file a petition with the High Court of Justice, which was denied in 1994.

Tel Aviv Pride parade, in May.Credit: Hadas Parush

Former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who was part of the judging panel, explained the ruling: "It is clear to me that denying this benefit to a spouse of the same sex constitutes discrimination and a violation of equality... Is parting from a spouse of the same sex easier than parting from a spouse of the opposite sex? Is the shared life between members of the same sex different, in terms of the closeness and comradery and ongoing social life, from the shared life between partners of a different sex?"

Danilovich was informed of his victory via phone call from his partner while preparing for the flight back to Israel. "I handed passengers newspapers with my face on them," he said. "The passengers immediately recognized me and congratulated me. It was a very pleasant flight."

Addressing his legal battle with El Al in an interview with The Marker in 2008, Danilovich said: "When I started this struggle... I wanted to get the plane ticket I thought I deserved. I was not fighting for social justice yet, I aspired to eliminate the discrimination against me," he said. "I am originally from South Africa, and I'm familiar with the issue of discrimination and its manifestations very well."

For Danilovich the trial magnified the importance of the fight to end discrimination in general, and against homosexuals in particular. "I learned how much discriminatory treatment infuriates me and the mental toll it has on me," he said. "I wish I would have become a lawyer and could correct more injustices." After working as a flight attendant for 30 years, he retired from El Al in 2001.

Danilovich's victory is to this day the basis of virtually every legal struggle related to the LGBTQ community. It changed the way Israeli courts viewed and treated same-sex relationships, and paved the way for a long series of legal and public precedents.

Ira Hadar, an expert attorney on gay and lesbian legal rights, said: "The verdict in the Danilovich case is a wonderful example of how the determined fight of one brave man, for a benefit that seems marginal and of little value, leads to a real revolution in the rights of an entire community.

Also eulogizing him, the LGBTQ Association said that "We are saying goodbye to one of the pioneers of the gay struggle for equality in Israel."

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