LGBT rights: The government must seize the moment

Just this week the coalition found yet another loophole around sincerely supporting the LGBT community.

Gay rights balloon rainbow 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Gay rights balloon rainbow 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Now might be one of the most exciting times in Israeli history vis-à-vis gay rights. The Israeli public is more supportive of LGBT equality than ever before, and the country is touted as a gay mecca in the Middle East. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s admit that it only might be an exciting time. Though the conditions have never been more apt for change, little has advanced in the way of actual legislation. What has made it into law has largely been the result of progressive Supreme Court rulings. The Knesset itself has passed only minimal pro-equality legislation, and MKs could continue their habit of equivocation on most of the bills currently up for debate.
So far, the media have extensively commented on the current coalition’s viability in the face of disagreement on social issues. But framing it in these terms alone ignores the breadth of the legislation in question. So let’s take a look at what issues have arisen in the Knesset in just the past few weeks. It reads like a big gay laundry list.
Some of these are the usuals: recognizing same-sex unions; equal housing rights for LGBT individuals; and an amendment to an anti-discrimination law that would add LGBT people to its list of protected groups. The latter even passed its first round with large support from Likud leadership. Another batch of bills are particularly salient in an Israeli context, like making same-sex families eligible to receive benefits designated for families of soldiers who died in combat. There’s proposed legislation to ban employment discrimination and to correct all government forms to say “parent 1” and “parent 2,” rather than specifying father and mother. And amongst many more, there’s a bill to protect LGBT students from discrimination in schools.
Most of these bills have sprung from the usual lefty wellspring: Labor, Meretz, or Hadash. But the number of pro-LGBT bills coming from the centrist Yesh Atid party is astonishing. Even more striking is the widespread Likud support for much of this proposed legislation. Still, few of these bills are likely to pass in the end. Even in the case of those bills that have passed, years may lapse before they become law outright, if at all.
Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz pointed out this week that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has no qualms about playing the gay card in the English-language press, as an overture to the progressive American Jewish community. Yet in practice, his government has done nothing to assertively advance LGBT equality.
Even the most basic political analysis illustrates that much of the obstruction in this government has come from Habayit Hayehudi, the national-religious party in the current coalition. Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, maintains that he does not support changing the status quo on the issue of gay rights. Yet in 2012, he accused Palestinian leaders in the Gaza strip of turning the territory into a Taliban state with no rights for women and homosexuals. It’s a move straight out of Bibi’s playbook: vaunting gay rights when it’s politically opportune, yet skirting the issue when it’s not.
Just this week the coalition found yet another loophole around sincerely supporting the LGBT community. On Wednesday, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi reached an agreement to allow the preliminary passage of a bill giving tax breaks to same-sex couples. But the agreement hinged on the fact that in the end, this bill will almost definitely not become law. If same-sex couples get new tax breaks, they will come in the form of Finance Ministry parameters, rather than actual legislation. Yesh Atid can now say it included the gay community and Habayit Hayehudi can say it prevented the government from ultimately recognizing same-sex couples. The coalition punted. This is no victory for progress or compromise, despite the spin. This is a victory only for Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, while the LGBT community continues to be left on the sidelines.
Now is the time for the current government to change course. Not only is it a question of right and wrong, it’s a matter of democracy. According to a Haaretz poll published last week, 70 percent of the Israeli public supports full equality for the gay community. 82 percent of Israelis said they would hire a gay employee and 66 percent said they believe gays should have the right to adopt. Overwhelming majorities such as these are hard to imagine even in the United States, where some protections for the LGBT community have already made it on the books.
In other words, supporting gay rights is a smart political move, but you would never know it from the way the current Knesset is dragging its feet. Moreover, if Bibi wants to make good on his oblique promise to American Jewry—of whom 82 percent believe homosexuality should be accepted in society—he has to start taking the lead on this.
Gay rights are no longer a fringe issue of the Left. If right wing parties like Likud are supporting legislation, and if the centrist coalition party Yesh Atid is championing LGBT equality, it’s clear that something has changed in Israeli political discourse. The current coalition government is predicated on seizing this rare moment as an opportunity for making necessary changes in Israeli society. It is hard to imagine a change more necessary than the cumulative effect of the bills currently before the Knesset in favor of LGBT equality.
Matthew Green is a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, where he is also an activist with the Jerusalem Open House, the city's LGBT center.