LGBTQ+ has become a campaign sleeper issue in Israel's election

Despite being a relatively progressive country in terms of LGBTQ+ issues, LGBTQ-phobia is still strong in Israel, and LGBTQ+ civil rights are still lacking.

A PRIDE EVENT held under coronavirus restrictions in Tel Aviv, last June. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
A PRIDE EVENT held under coronavirus restrictions in Tel Aviv, last June.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
In election cycles dominated by security issues, health pandemics and political corruption trials, the LGBTQ+ issue has never been much on the agenda in Israel.
But in this fourth election in less than two years, politicians from across the political spectrum have rushed to present their positions both in support of and against the LGBTQ+ community in recent months, creating a storm in Israeli media and presenting LGBTQ+ voters and allies with more options than ever before.
However, some Israeli politicians seem to be suffering from cognitive dissonance on the topic. Politicians on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum seem to be stuck between speaking supportively to the LGBTQ+ community, while also trying to draw in anti-LGBTQ voters.
Some members of the right-wing bloc have been working to at least somewhat improve the LGBTQ+ community’s view of the more conservative parties. The further right parties, such as Yamina and the Religious Zionist Party, have presented a sort of “live and let live” position, while the New Hope Party has expressed more of an interest in promoting actual legislation. The Likud has remained relatively silent on the issue.
Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party platform states that it will work to find a solution to officially recognize LGBTQ+ couples and grant them equal rights, and will work to provide a solution for surrogacy and adoption for LGBTQ+ couples. The platform also states that the party will ban conversion therapy for minors and advance education for tolerance.
Meanwhile, Yamina head Naftali Bennett stated during an interview on Instagram that he “loves the LGBTQ+ community” and that “LGBTQ+ people need to receive all rights, just like any other person in the State of Israel. I’m sorry it’s been set up as if I have an issue.”
However, just days later, Bennett stressed to Army Radio that he “never said [he] would advance any legislation.
“I said I respect LGBTQ+ people and they deserve civil rights,” said Bennett.
It is unclear how LGBTQ+ people would be privy to equal civil rights if no legislation is passed to assure this.
Orit Struck, No. 5 on the Religious Zionist list, told the Knesset Channel earlier this month that she “never, ever had any negative sentiments toward private people” who are LGBTQ+. “They’re not to blame for their situation. There is absolutely no reason to reject them, to kick them, to hurt them or to discriminate against them or anything like this. For sure, for sure, this is not our way; it never was our way.”
Struck stressed, however, that the party is “obviously against the flood of demands for legitimation and the pride parades.
“To say ‘we don’t have any problem with LGBTQ+ people’ is irrelevant. We don’t see any progress there,” said Ohad Hizki, director-general of The Aguda – The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, to The Jerusalem Post. “I don’t need anyone to tell me if they have or don’t have a problem with me. I need politicians to take responsibility for the situation of society in Israel.”
It seems even the Religious Zionist Party has realized that the Israeli public at large, including those who vote for them, want to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. About 54% of religious Israelis stated that they supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, in a poll by Hiddush in 2019, and 81% of religious Israelis stated that they would not change how they relate to their children if they came out, in a poll by Arutz Sheva in 2020.
Hizki stressed that The Aguda estimates that the number of voters taking LGBTQ+ issues into consideration when deciding whom to vote for amounts to about 10 seats’ worth of voters.
DESPITE BEING a relatively progressive country in terms of LGBTQ+ issues, LGBTQ-phobia is still strong in Israel, and LGBTQ+ civil rights are still lacking.
Hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people have been on the rise for years, with LGBTQ-phobic cases reported once every three hours in 2020 in Israel, a 27% increase compared to 2019.
Conversion therapy is still legal in Israel, and Jewish conversion therapy organizations from the US have found refuge in Israel.
Same-sex couples still can’t marry, adopt or have children through surrogacy within Israel, and have to go through court rulings and expensive and complicated bureaucracy to achieve these basic parts of establishing a marriage and a family.
Demands by some right-wing politicians to place limits on the Supreme Court’s power over Knesset legislation have also caused concern among the LGBTQ+ community, as much of Israel’s pro-LGBTQ+ policy has come from the judicial system and not the Knesset. This includes the requirement for the surrogacy law to include same-sex couples and single fathers in order to be constitutional and registration of LGBTQ+ couples as parents of their children, as well as a variety of rulings against discrimination toward LGBTQ+ people.
One of the central voices in the field of LGBTQ-phobia is the Noam Party, which has conducted a widespread campaign against things it deems as “not normal,” such as LGBTQ+ people and the Reform movement.
Avi Maoz, the head of the party and No. 6 on the Religious Zionist list, told Makor Rishon that he intends to promote anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in terms of the public sphere, but has no intention of interfering in the private life of citizens.
In answer to a question on how he would react if one of his children came out, Maoz stressed that he would “love him with the love of the soul.” Whether that love would include sending him to conversion therapy remained unanswered.
In an interview with the Knesset Channel, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana (Likud), who is gay, stated that it was unrealistic to think that a coalition could be formed without at least one anti-LGBTQ+ party, after he was asked if he would object to the Likud Party sitting with the Religious Zionist Party in a coalition.
Hizki and many others in the LGBTQ+ community expressed shock at Ohana’s continuing support of the Likud, even after the party signed a surplus vote sharing agreement with the Religious Zionist Party.
“I would have stood up and left. I understand there are political considerations and such, but at the end of the day, these are people who want to keep rights from Ohana himself and even roll back progress already made,” said Hizki. “I don’t relate to the statement that it’s impossible; I think this is incorrect. These are statements that come more to justify actions that the Likud is doing.”
The director-general expressed concerns at agreements by the Likud that could help the largely anti-LGBTQ+ Religious Zionist list enter the next coalition.
Among the left-wing side of the spectrum, which has generally been supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, the picture has perhaps become more complex than it ever has been.
The Joint List, for example, is often identified with the left wing, although much of the list is actually quite conservative on a variety of subjects. This distinction becomes even more confusing as MKs will sometimes present different positions to Arabic media than they do to Hebrew media.
A number of significant events occurred in the Arab-Israeli LGBTQ+ community in 2019-2020, including the stabbing attack at the Beit Dror shelter; the cooperation between The Aguda and the Al Arz Tahini company; the historic first demonstration of the Palestinian queer community, with the participation of MK Aida Touma-Sliman; and the divide in the Joint List created by the Conversion Therapy Bill when the list’s constituent parties did not all vote the same.
In July, the Joint List was fractured by internal conflict after some its members, including the list’s chairman, Ayman Odeh, voted in favor of a bill to ban psychologists from performing conversion therapy.
Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am Party, which was part of the Joint List at the time, expressed opposition to the MKs who voted for the law, stating that the list’s voters were angry at the decision.
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi stirred up controversy as well after stating recently that his party is “against promoting the phenomenon” of being LGBTQ+, and that he would vote against pro-LGBTQ+ legislation, in an interview with Arab media. In January, Tibi told KAN News that his party abstained from the vote on the conversion therapy law because it wasn’t relevant to the Arab sector and was a Jewish issue.
Even Meretz, the flagship left-wing party, which is led by a gay man, has stirred controversy recently concerning the LGBTQ+ community, after Arab candidate Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, No. 4 on the party’s list, stated that she would abstain from voting on a bill against conversion therapy and even expressed opposition to the decision by some members of the Joint List to vote in favor of the bill. Zoabi later stated that her statements were misconstrued and that she would support pro-LGBTQ+ legislation.
In their statements on the issue, Abbas, Tibi and Zoabi made references to the Arab sector being largely traditional and conservative, stressing that they were simply representing their communities and ideologies.
Concerning Zoabi’s statements, Hizki stated that the LGBTQ+ community found this unacceptable. “We don’t have the privilege. It’s not like we’re in some intellectual discussion on TV if we’re for or against. At the end of the day, this is about the lives of people, [and] statements like these harm them personally and the way they live their lives and their ability to live securely.”
“Unfortunately, they’re still a little afraid of taking responsibility and speak in Hebrew in one language and in Arabic in another, but we are seeing changes that are taking place in the discourse of politicians in Israel,” said Hizki. “The Arab parties that talk about equality and human rights find themselves in embarrassment because in Arabic it’s difficult for them to make clear, responsible statements, and in Hebrew the public does expect something specific, so they make softer statements that are more in the middle or near issues.”
Hizki stressed that “the fact that they’re even talking about the issue is good. This is the first time that the LGBTQ+ issue is even in the discussions of Arab parties, and Arabic media are asking questions and are interested and speak about this. This is a step forward. We still have a lot of work to do.”
The nature of Israel’s parliamentary system makes the situation more complex, as even if a majority of the parties in the government coalition support LGBTQ+ rights, one party with enough MKs to topple the government could theoretically thwart any legislation.
This has caused a number of issues in recent years, including the failure to include same-sex couples and single fathers in an amendment to the surrogacy law, after reported threats by haredi parties to topple the government if such legislation passed.
Even with parties on both sides of the spectrum supporting LGBTQ+ rights, progress on the issue may still be halted by even relatively small parties.
HIZKI TOLD the Post that The Aguda is seeing “all sorts of changes” in light of the increased discourse on LGBTQ+ topics, with people moving to different parties as more alternatives appear.
Politicians seem to be understanding that the LGBTQ+ community includes people from all sectors and all sides of the political spectrum, added Hizki. Parties across the board seem to be realizing that it’s time to recognize that reality, and that it may even draw voters.
This fourth round of elections has presented LGBTQ+ people and allies with more choices than ever before, but, at the end of the day, only time will tell whether words – and which words – will turn into action.