Fighting for its political survival, with the polls pointing to it precariously hovering around the 3.25% electoral threshold, the last thing Meretz needed last week was for Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi to alienate potential LGBT voters, one the key constituencies the candidate’s party represents.
For as long as Meretz has been in existence, the promotion of equal civil rights for all the country’s citizens regardless of race, religion or sexuality has been at the forefront of the party’s identity, alongside its consistent and vocal opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
In a car crash of a political interview, the number-four candidate on the Meretz slate told the Kul al-Arab website that while Meretz supports the right of every person to live as they please, she planned to take into account the society she comes from. Therefore, Rinawie-Zoabi said, out of consideration for religious sentiments in the Arab community, she would abstain from supporting a bill banning the use of the controversial “conversion therapy” that aims to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ people.
The bill, which has already passed its preliminary reading, is sponsored by Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, so Rinawie-Zoabi really doesn’t get top marks for her political smarts.
Rightly so, the party machinery cracked down hard on Rinawie-Zoabi. She was quickly forced to issue a clarification and immediately released a hostage-like video in which she reiterated her retraction and stressed her commitment to legislation on behalf of the LGBTQ community. To hammer home the point that Meretz was and is the most gay-friendly party in the Knesset, Horowitz filmed a tongue-in-cheek video of the joys of home life with his partner, Ido Riklin.
This little episode highlights one of the difficulties facing Meretz: the need to attract the votes of the supposedly more conservative-leaning (in terms of sexual politics) Arab electorate while spearheading the battle for LGBTQ rights across Israeli society. In this clash of values, though, there can be no compromise: Meretz must stand firmly behind the right to equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
Support though for Meretz has been steadily dropping. Some Meretz voters looking to vote strategically are tempted to cast their ballot in favor of Yesh Atid in the hope that this center party will bring about the end to Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu’s grip on power; others are tempted by the attractive feminist agenda of new Labor leader Meirav Michaeli.
MANY ON the Jewish Left, despondent at the failure of Meretz to make a mark on Israel’s mainstream political life since its mythical leader Shulamit Aloni was a cabinet minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s government, are tempted to turn this disillusionment into a vote for the Arab Joint List.
On many levels, such a move is understandable. The Joint List has shown an increasing desire to play an involved role in national, rather than just sectoral politics. Strong Jewish support would help further the aim of true Arab-Jewish solidarity and the building of a better society for all of Israel’s citizens. The Joint List has consistently polled stronger than Meretz in recent elections and is regarded by all, from Yair Lapid leftward, as potential coalition allies.
But the Joint List also has a homophobic skeleton hiding in its closet. Just as Rinawie-Zoabi initially justified her would-be abstention on the conversion therapy bill due to religious sensitivities in the Arab community, Joint List politicians are even more vehement in their anti-gay rhetoric as they seek to garner votes among Israel’s Arab citizens.
As journalist Akiva Novick pointed out, the Jewish Left’s favorite Arab politician, Ahmed Tibi is no friend of gay-friendly legislation.
“We are against the LGBTQ ‘phenomenon,’” Tibi was reported saying last week. “If there was a law regarding gay pride marches or promoting gay pride in schools, we would vote against it.” Unlike Rinawie-Zoabi, Tibi, who is regarded as a liberal, faced no calls to retract his remarks.
Jewish (and Arab voters for that matter) who pride themselves on their concern for the principle of equality, need to take careful stock of such comments and ask whether a vote for the Joint List really will promote an agenda of equality for all. Where is the condemnation of Tibi’s homophobic remarks by other leading Joint List politicians and supporters?
On the Meretz side, damage-containment done, the party can now concentrate on its most pressing need: ensuring it wins enough votes to make it into the next Knesset. The importance of Meretz cannot be overstated. Even if it only manages to squeeze past the threshold and bring four members into the Knesset, the presence of an anti-occupation, pro-equality (across all sectors and sexualities) Zionist party in Israel’s parliament is vital for the country’s democratic wellbeing.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.