Israel's top LGBTQ+ advocacy group changes leadership after five years

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: Ohad Hezki reviews five years of building bridges in the LGBTQ community as head of The Aguda.

 FORMER AGUDA director-general Ohad Hezki. (photo credit: The Aguda/The Association for LGBTQ+ Equality in Israel)
FORMER AGUDA director-general Ohad Hezki.
(photo credit: The Aguda/The Association for LGBTQ+ Equality in Israel)

A historic era of The Aguda – The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel – has ended after five-and-a-half years. Ohad Hezki finished his tenure as director-general of the LGBTQ community’s umbrella organization.

“It was a very stormy and interesting period,” said Hezki to The Jerusalem Post. “Not just the Aguda, but all the organizations took a really significant part in positioning the LGBTQ+ struggle as one of the most significant and central struggles in Israeli discourse. There are no politicians today who aren’t challenged by the subject, who don’t deal with it.”

Hezki’s entrance to the position came at a time of uncertainty for the Aguda, as it marked 40 years since it was founded. “The Aguda was a very insignificant organization in the community.... There was a kind of identity crisis for the Aguda; it wasn’t so clear what its role was.”

While the Aguda was the central LGBTQ organization in Israel in the ’80s and ’90s, a number of other organizations sprouted up throughout the years, with each one taking on a role for a specific sector or purpose in the LGBTQ community.

Hezki had come out relatively late at the age of 27 and had worked previously in informal education with the Scouts, before applying for the position of director-general. “When I came out, I started to be more aware of LGBTQ+ issues, and I understood it wasn’t enough for me just to talk about education and change, and that I really wanted to take a part within the struggle.”

 HEZKI SPEAKS at a protest in Tel Aviv. (credit: OMRI SHAPIRA) HEZKI SPEAKS at a protest in Tel Aviv. (credit: OMRI SHAPIRA)

Although Hezki arrived without much experience, he quickly got to work.

Hezki entered the role in 2016, as the community was shaken by the murder of Shira Banki at the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance in 2015. He and the Aguda’s board led the organization to take on a number of central roles in the LGBTQ community, starting with building bridges between the 18 different organizations that make up the community.

The Aguda also began to take an active role in lobbying the government, both on the national and local level.

“Most of the cities didn’t deal with LGBTQ+ subjects,” explained Hezki. “This was something that we decided would be on the Aguda’s agenda, and in addition the Aguda would also promote the needs of the members of the community who are impacted by LGBTQ-phobia and inequality and hate.”

The organization is contacted about 6,000 times every year by people requiring services offered by the Aguda, including legal services, reporting LGBTQ-phobia, psychosocial services and projects for Arab society and LGBTQ refugees.

Hezki explained that the community felt abandoned after Banki’s murder. “It wasn’t enough to just be in a place where we ask for rights and do pride parades; we needed to be more political. We wanted to be more involved, to sit in places where decisions are made. We wanted there to be more LGBTQ+ elected officials in the local authorities and municipalities.”

HEZKI’S FIRST challenge came with the Tourism Ministry’s budget in 2016, which set aside NIS 11 million in order to advertise pride parades in Israel to draw in tourists. The move caused an uproar in the LGBTQ community, as, at the time, the State of Israel set aside only NIS 2.5m. for the needs of the community.

A protest was organized by the organizations of the community and the Tel Aviv Municipality, with threats to cancel the pride parade. The government acceded and began talks with the LGBTQ community, and eventually NIS 11m. was set aside for the needs of the community.

“This was the first time that there was an achievement in which the discourse wasn’t just about rights or High Court decisions. This was also the first time that the organizations succeeded in understanding that when we work together, we succeed in bringing results,” explained Hezki.

The next year brought a position taken by the Social Affairs Ministry stating that LGBTQ families are burdens for children and LGBTQ couples should not be able to adopt. The statement sparked uproar and protests, with the ministry eventually withdrawing its position and the government eventually committing to allow same-sex couples equal rights in adoption.

2018 brought a series of incidents, leading up to the failure to include same-sex couples and single fathers in an amendment to the Surrogacy Law, despite promises by members of the coalition. A stabbing of a trans woman in Tel Aviv at around the same time added to the uproar. The Aguda declared a strike in response to the failure to fix the Surrogacy Law.

“[This was] the first time that a strike was declared in Israel not by a professional union,” said Hezki to the Post, adding that while it is true that it did not bring about an immediate change in the law, the strike and protests were very significant, and the law has since been fixed by the High Court and the Health Ministry. “Public awareness changed in all parts of Israeli society [in 2018].”

In 2019, as Israel entered what ended up being a series of three Knesset elections and one round of local elections, the Aguda released a platform of positions that they encouraged parties to adopt concerning LGBTQ issues. It was called the Pride Platform. The organization met with most of the parties that ran for Knesset.

In the local elections, the Aguda managed to get over 200 parties to sign that they would commit to the needs of the LGBTQ community in their cities. As of this year, the Aguda works with 17 local councils on LGBTQ topics.

The year 2020 saw the discussion about the LGBTQ community blow up in the Arab-Israeli community, as the Aguda founded a hotline for Arab society with the support of Al Arz Tahini.

“From that moment, the discourse in Arab society changed concerning the LGBTQ+ community,” said Hezki to the Post. “It wasn’t more positive, but it was on the table more. In the past they would just ignore it. Today it is discussed in elections, television and radio. There’s a lot of work still to do, but it is a start.”

In 2021, despite the continuing coronavirus outbreak, over 50 pride events were held throughout Israel.

“It was a proof that the LGBTQ+ community isn’t just a so-called detached Tel Aviv community, but it is in every place in Israel, the settlements, haredi society, Arab society, the periphery and the Center,” said Hezki.

The former director-general stressed that what made all these different events and developments special is that they were accomplished by the community and organizations working together.

Besides building bridges within Israel, Hezki and the Aguda also worked to build bridges with the Diaspora.

In the past two years, the Aguda has opened up a section to handle olim and help LGBTQ people with the immigration and absorption process.

The organization has also worked to expand its Pride in the Living Room project, which creates spaces for the LGBTQ community to meet with the rest of society, from Israel to the Diaspora. In 2020, the project held events in 40 locations, mostly over Zoom, and this year the project is continuing throughout the Diaspora again.

“We invite the Jewish communities in the world to be part of this big event and to hold a conversation on what it means to be a LGBTQ+ Jew, how those two identities connect, and how the Jewish community and Jewish LGBTQ+ community can work more together. This creates a form of networking of LGBTQ+ Jews who work together and help each other,” said Hezki. “It’s part of the understanding that this is a bigger story; things don’t just happen in our bubble, but these are larger processes.”

DESPITE THE progress made, Hezki pointed out that there is still much work to be done. “We see a responsibility for LGBTQ+ subjects in the Jewish world, not just Israel. It’s clearly a two-way road. Each one affects the other.”

“The LGBTQ+ community is seen as a strong community in Israeli society; but along with that, every three hours on average there is an LGBTQ-phobic incident in Israel,” said Hezki. “While we see very strong representation, there is still very difficult violence against the community. The trans community deals with very difficult discrimination, including with accessibility of healthcare and suicide risk. The shelters are still completely full. There are still people thrown to the street. It’s important to look at the positive things, but alongside that to understand that there is still a lot more work to do.”

As Hezki moves on from the Aguda, he plans to start working on wider issues in Israeli society and having a wider impact to promote the rights of all citizens of Israel.

Looking forward for the LGBTQ+ community, Hezki told the Post that he believes that there are many opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community right now and stressed that the more the community works together, the more successes it will have.

The former director-general added that the trans community and Arab LGBTQ+ community need to receive more attention and support.

Hezki also stressed that the organizations of the LGBTQ+ community need to consider internal developments within the community, not just subjects that affect the community from the outside.

“There is a lot deterioration to extreme points, whether it’s concerning employment or addiction or sexual offenses within the community.

“I think the community is already stronger than it was, and we can say we’re still working with external issues, but we need to look at ourselves internally as well for a moment and to deal with trends within the community,” said Hezki.

“I’m very optimistic,” added the former director-general. “They say that ‘nothing lasts forever’ and ‘everything that goes forward can go backward’.... It’s not that there needs to be complacency, but I think the acceptance in Israeli society is slowly being translated in the Knesset and government, and this is an opening to many opportunities.”

The new director-general of the Aguda is Ran Shalhavi, who began his career as a volunteer at the Aguda five years ago. Shalhavi managed and established the organization’s digital department on a voluntary basis and for the past two years has served as the association’s vice president and led the organization’s individual services.