Human Rights Are Part of the Fight for Gay Rights

Many politicians in Israel are trying to appear progressive and capitalize on the popularity of LGBT rights, while maintaining conservative positions on other issues.

Aeyal Gross
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Aeyal Gross

Israel already has anti-discrimination clauses in many laws that are already on the books. They prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, in the retail and service industries, and in access to entertainment and other public spaces. In other places, like students’ rights laws, there is no explicit ban on such discrimination. If it passes in the Knesset plenum, a bill approved on Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation could make a ban on discrimination apply to those cases as well.

The bill, if passed, would also add explicit prohibitions on discrimination based on gender identity to all existing anti-discrimination laws, a move that would strengthen legal protection for transgender people. Israeli courts have shown openness to the argument that discrimination against transgender individuals is illegal based on current prohibitions on sex and sexual orientation-based discrimination. However, there has not been any concrete judgment on the point to date, and the proposed legislation will be the first specifically aimed at barring discrimination against them.

Such a change in legislation would bolster lawsuits against work places, entertainment venues, schools or other institution that discriminate. A specific law addressing transgender people would be valuable as declaration, even if it would have no legal effect on various areas like marriage and parenting where discrimination is common. The bill would not be part of a general prohibition of discrimination, but rather a specific, targeted law that forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and covers various aspects of day-to-day life, which are covered by specific anti-discrimination statutes

The topic of LGBT rights is currently making headlines due to several legislative initiatives by coalition partner Yesh Atid. Most of the bills for equal rights for same-sex couples or for equal taxation benefits have been encountering opposition within the government from right-wing factions Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Care should be taken when bringing forth legislation only as a public relations stunt or only for declarative reasons. Such efforts should be differentiated from the more serious initiatives. The health minister has a proposal worth supporting. She suggests changing the surrogacy law so that same-sex couples are not discriminated against, giving them equal access to services. This too may be brought down from within the coalition. Activists in the gay community are voicing their frustration through a Facebook campaign and a demonstration that took place on Saturday night.

Here is a coalition that even without the ultra-Orthodox has still failed to advance legislation in this area until the recent decision on Sunday. Gay activists have lashed out at Habayit Hayehudi MKs, but they are also appealing to the party to reconsider its opposition to legislative changes. Television personality Assi Azar announced he will meet with Habayit Hayedi leader Naftali Bennett to try and convince him that he and his partner deserve equal rights and that Bennett should not stand in their way. Journalist Gal Okhovski wrote Bennett a letter, in which he praised him as a pragmatist, but then went on to ask why he insists on being the darkest force in the country.

It’s important to stand up to those who oppose progressive legislation on equality, but also to keep in mind that on many human rights issues, there is no difference between right-wing Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu, and MKs who have expressed support for the gay community. For example, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who is supportive of the gay community, advanced legislation that allows the imprisonment without trial of asylum seekers. Yesh Atid supported this law without any reservations. There is no better illustration than when the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved in one session both an anti-democratic bill that would hamper human rights organizations by putting an excessive tax on donations, and a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Likud and Yesh Atid are part of a government that carries on with its anti-democratic policies even as it votes for equal rights for the LGBT community. If tomorrow Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and even Uri Ariel were to convert, joining their colleagues Gideon Sa’ar and Miri Regev in liking and supporting gay people, would this make them any less anti-democratic? What is the message to Bennett and his type: if you love us we will accept you even though you oppress Arabs, refugees and other groups?

In an invitation to an emergency meeting of the gay community last Friday it said that a government without the ultra-Orthodox is turning out to be a bigger and more sophisticated enemy. “There is no Shas, but young MKs and cabinet ministers. Supposedly progressive and enlightened, they are pushing us aside and harming us.” But who are those perceived as “supposedly progressive and enlightened?” Does the fact that they are not ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Jews from Shas but secular Ashkenazi Jews or religious Zionists make Sa’ar who supports gays and Bennett who opposes them “progressive and enlightened?” Sa’ar, as Interior Minister, is advancing policies directed at asylum seekers that are no less horrific than his predecessor Eli Yishai from Shas, who was vilified as “primitive” and “racist.” Yet Sa’ar is perceived as “enlightened.” Bennett, as an up-to-date and modern Orthodox Jew, is also seen by some as potentially progressive - as if we could make him such by only extracting his hatred of homosexuals, forgetting the rights of other groups.

Calling out this attitude, there is a campaign that criticizes “gay men who think the occupation is okay, who are silent when refugees are jailed, who don’t care about lesbians, bisexuals or trans-genders, but who are amazed when they are not allowed to marry.” Gay rights issues are often leveraged for nationalist propaganda purposes, as when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wields Israel’s record to criticize Iran, all the while doing nothing for the LGBT community in his own backyard. Many in the gay community oppose this misuse, and wish to engage in a struggle that includes the rights of other groups.

There now needs to be a struggle for full and equal rights for the LGBT community, a sentiment shared by a large majority of Israelis, according to a recent Haaretz poll. In any case, such a push would be justified because pursuing equal rights should never be contingent on majority opinion. It should be noted who stood with equal rights before it became popular and who can always be counted on. These are the ones for whom this struggle is part of a general agenda for equality. This is in contrast to others who use the issue as a fig leaf when it’s convenient to do so.

It is legitimate to enlist anyone for the struggle. The fight should be not only for equal rights for same sex partners, but also for support for youth that is at risk because of sexual orientation and gender identity, and for more open policies towards transgender people at the Interior and Health Ministries. But anyone who cares not only about the rights of the LGBT community but about equality for all groups should beware of discourse around LGBT rights that does not critically assess whose support is being enlisted.

Jerusalem gay pride parade.Credit: Michal Fattal

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