National Insurance Institute of Israel (NII) Director General Esther Dominici urged all widowed gay spouses to act on the precedent set by Ella Bar-Ilan, who successfully claimed a dependents' pension from the NII after her partner died, and assert their rights.
Ella Bar-Ilan's story was published in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Wednesday. The 64-year-old had been living with her partner Roberta Saltonick for 22 years, and after her recent death, Bar-Ilan asked the National Insurance Institute to recognize her as Saltonick's widow. The NII agreed, awarding her the monthly dependents' pension guaranteed to widowed spouses by law.
"The National Insurance Institute is very much aware of the changes in society and the fact that today's families have a different makeup than before: Same-sex couple, single parents, surrogacy and adoptions have created all sorts of family units," Dominici told Ynet.
"In keeping up with the times, we in the NII definitely think we should be granting social provisions for all these new engagements. After forming a committee which reviewed the different kinds of benefits, we looked into what could be applied to these new entities and into where we had leeway to interpret the law.
"We are all for granting all family units rights they may not have had access to in the past. I call on all those who believe they are eligible to file the proper claims," she said.
"'Widow' is not exactly a pleasing title, but the fact that we were recognized as a couple is most definitely pleasing," Bar-Ilan told Ynet.
"We were really something special. I met Roberta when I was sent to the US as a Jewish Agency emissary and we became inseparable. She died after suffering a stroke last October and my world came to an end. This isn’t about pride, this is about justice – these few hundred shekels a month were never the point. The point was to be recognized, just like any other couple."
Bar-Ilan sought the help of New Family, an organization dedicated to advancing family rights and the rights of individuals within families, and Attorney Irit Rosenblum, who heads the organization, guided her through the NII's bureaucracy.
Something special. Ella Bar-Ilan (R) and Roberta Saltonick
"We are a couple just like any other, so why shouldn’t we have the same rights? To be honest, I was prepared for a fight, but I found that we actually do live in a modern country," said Bar-Ilan.
"When I first applied for benefits I was turned down, but two days after that letter arrived, I got a call asking me to ignore it, and that they were considering recognizing me as Roberta's common-law wife.
"They called me in for an interview and I was surprised by the respect and the efficiency. They wanted to ascertain that we were actually a common-law couple who ran a household. One week after that I received a letter saying they would be recognizing me as her spouse."
Attorney Irit Rosenblum believes the National Insurance Institute's decision to award Bar-Ilan a dependents' pension is a substantial step towards equal rights.
"Ella's story set a precedent. This is really a huge thing. This is the culmination of a process which began 20 years ado, but was only recently expedited. We have been able to set one precedent after another.
"Overall, and compared to the rest of the world, Israel
is at a very good place as far as gay rights are concerned. We are right up there with Canada and the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden and Denmark) that just realized that people should be allowed to live their lives."
Nevertheless, Rosenblum knows that there is a long way to go. Every precedent, she said, is the result of court interpretation of existing laws, which are applied to same-sex couples despite their explicit definition of a couple constituting "man and wife."
"Unfortunately, I can't see any of these precedents maturing into independent laws," she said. "The legislation itself is devoid tolerance, and the current government, which is more traditional by nature, tends to undermine these achievements. The religious parties would like to pass laws explicitly prohibiting awarding the gay community any rights."