Gay Marriage in Israel? Unlikely, but It's a Hot Topic in the 2015 Election Campaign

From street demonstrations to online campaigns, LGBT activists – and the issues that concern them – are playing a larger role in Israeli politics than ever before.

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Revelers wave rainbow flags during the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv June 13, 2014. Credit: Reuters

It’s a simple but powerful political viral video campaign.

“Mama, do you remember me?” a young woman plaintively asks, looking directly into the camera. She is followed by a young soldier addressing his army commander: “Sir, do you remember me?” And then a series of young people asking, “Teacher, do you remember me?”; “Grandma, do you remember me?”; “Hey, brother, do you remember me?”

The young people are asking to be “remembered” by their family, friends and acquaintances when they enter the voting booth in the Israeli general election on March 17.

The video's tagline reads “In the upcoming elections, ONLY vote for parties that support full rights for all,” as a rainbow flag flies.

While so much of the 2015 Israeli election campaign feels like a rerun from the last contest two years ago, one clear change is in the air.

The issue of LGBT rights, once marginal, has moved firmly and permanently into the mainstream political discourse. The visibility and voices of the gay and lesbian community this time around are far louder and insistent; the political parties are more responsive, and, in some cases, they are actively courting and competing for the community’s support.

Why? Much of it is related to the dramatic march forward of LGBT rights in the rest of the world. In the United States, gay marriage is becoming a reality in state after state, and the Supreme Court appears to be gearing up for a historic ruling in its favor.

In Israel, however, the power of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox political parties and their control of the Chief Rabbinate leaves the possibility of state-sanctioned same-sex unions in the Jewish state a distant dream.

While it is true that Israel’s laws against discrimination in the military and the workplace have been trailblazing and strong, and socially it is a gay-friendly country, the rapid advances in Europe and the United States lead many in Israel to feel left behind and have awakened a spirit of protest.

Most of that protest has been aimed against the right-wing religious Habayit Hayehudi party led by Naftali Bennett. Since taking over the party, Bennett has been walking a tightrope of bringing the young, hip and secular into his party together with the religious-Zionist establishment that forms the core of their party.

That core religious support stands firmly – and outspokenly – opposed to sanctioning homosexuality in any way, viewing it as contravening Jewish law.

The attitudes of the party’s candidates hit the spotlight during the primaries, when a religious website conducted video interviews with the candidates, and put together a montage of their – mostly negative – positions on gay rights.

The video sparked an angry reaction and opened a Pandora’s Box of attention for the party. This continued after the primaries when party member Bezalel Smotrich, who organized a countermarch to a Gay Pride Parade in 2006 and has dubbed himself a “proud homophobe,” said that gays should limit their “abnormal behavior” to their homes.

Another candidate, Yehudit Shilat, said in a radio interview that sanctioning homosexuality was tantamount to suicide.

Party leader Bennett has maintained his trademark “no apologies” stance, saying, “Of course we oppose single-sex marriages. It goes against Judaism.”

And so LGBT activists have been making a point of showing at Habayit Hayehudi events. At one, they were attacked when they flew a rainbow Pride flag during a Bennett speech in Haifa, and they made a similar demonstration at an appearance by Ronen Shoval in Tel Aviv.

In one high-profile incident at a prestigious high school, a student who is the child of a gay couple confronted Bennett wearing the T-shirt, “I have two mothers and I’m not apologizing for it.”

The activism also entered the virtual realm, with Bennett’s Facebook page bombarded with photos of two male actors playing gay IDF soldiers in the film “Yossi & Jagger” as they embraced in the snow.

If Habayit Hayehudi is the party the LGBT community wants people to “remember” not to vote for – who do they support?

Historically in Israel, gay rights and far left-wing political positions have been inseparable. The first two openly gay members of Knesset – Uzi Even and Nitzan Horowitz – were both members of the Meretz party. As more and more gay people have left the closet, however, it has become increasingly clear that their views unrelated to LGBT rights span the political spectrum.

There is a small but active gay wing in the rightist Likud party, and its leader, Amir Ohana, won the Tel Aviv district in the Likud primary. As number 32 on the Likud list, he won’t make it into the Knesset, but the influence of gay Likudniks is increasing.

Recently, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud) spoke out in favor of gay marriage, calling marriage “every person's human right, without regard to race, sex, or sexual orientation."

Yair Lapid has been actively campaigning for LGBT votes. His party, Yesh Atid, which stakes out a centrist position, has made a direct appeal to the LGBT community, pointing out that Health Minister Yael German in the previous government took an active role against job discrimination and helping same-sex couples pursue having children through surrogacy, and that Lapid, as finance minister, helped same-sex parents gain tax credits for their children.

The center-left Labor Party – now part of the Zionist Union – has had to struggle with the topic being something of a hot potato, after a gay activist tried to put pressure on party leader Isaac Herzog to “out” a high-ranking member of the party who is in the closet. While many know privately of the party member’s sexual orientation, he does not discuss it publicly.

But the big problem for the Zionist Union in trumpeting support for gay marriage is the prospect of post-election coalition-building mathematics. In order for leader Isaac Herzog to stand a chance at competing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in forming a government, he will likely need to include the ultra-Orthodox parties, which look even less kindly on homosexuality than the much-maligned Habayit Hayehudi.

As inspiring as the newly invigorated LGBT activism is, with Netanyahu and Herzog both courting the ultra-Orthodox parties, the prospect that their new assertiveness will result in any concrete political gains – at least in the next few years – is unlikely.