Obama Gay Marriage Remarks Spark Debate Among Israeli MKs, Ministers

Finance Minister says Israel unlikely to recognize gay marriage soon, while Yair Lapid and Shelly Yacimovich come out in support of same-sex marriage on Facebook; most U.S. Jewish groups praise Obama's stance.

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Comments by U.S. President Barack Obama in support of same-sex marriage in an ABC News interview on Wednesday have sparked debate in among Israeli ministers and MKs, and also among U.S. Jewish groups.

Speaking to a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group within the Likud party on Thursday, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Israel is unlikely to recognize same-sex marriage in the foreseeable future, but said that he was reconsidering his opposition to such a measure.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz speaking to the Likud LGBT group in Tel Aviv, May 11, 2012. Credit: Hadar Cohen

Steinitz said, referring to a possible move to support same-sex marriage here, "I don't see that happening in the State of Israel in the near future." He did, however, tell 25 members of the Likud LGBT group, established five months ago, that he was reconsidering his opposition to such a measure.

"Today, I understand that issue much more than in the past. I'm not totally against it like I used to, but I'm not saying I'm totally for it," he added.

When one participant asked Steinitz whether he would be the first Likud minister to come to Tel Aviv's annual gay pride parade the finance minister was visibly embarrassed. He told aides to note the date but made no promises.

He also refused to say whether the new unity government would advance gay rights issues, noting, "We have all kinds of coalition partners." Group members praised Steinitz for being the first minister to meet with them, and applauded his remarks several times during the gathering.

Speaking with Haaretz later on Thursday, Steinitz said that if he had to vote on the issue today, he would vote against same-sex marriage in Israel, adding that in Israel in general he was pro-marriage only through the rabbinate. He said, however, that he was ready to discuss the issue.

"Despite this," he said, "today I am ready to hear, I am I understand the complexity, I understand more the problems and the frustration that the gay community faces on this issue. I understand the need of people in the gay community to live together."

There is no civil marriage in Israel for Jews. The rabbinate, which has jurisdiction over the marriage and divorce of Jews, does not recognize gay marriage. The Interior Ministry, however, is required to register same-sex marriages performed abroad.

Agriculture Minister Orit Noked (Atzmaut) expressed support for the right of gays and lesbians to marry. She expressed the hope that gay marriages will soon be performed in Israel. She appealed a decision by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation that withheld government support for a bill that would enshrine a ban against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in law. The bill was sponsored by Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz.

Horowitz is set to bring the bill up for a vote in the Knesset next week. According to the bill, same-sex couples would also be able to marry in Israel.

"For the first time ever, an American president is supporting same-sex marriage. this already exists in dozens of countries. But not here [in Israel]," Horowitz wrote on his Facebook on Thursday.

"Here, there is no civil marriage here at all, and hundred of thousands of Israelis - not only gay men and lesbians - can not get married here because of the unbearable religious coercion. This can change."

"There are 120 votes in the Knesset. We will see how they vote," he wrote.

Opposition chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich expressed her support for the move on her Facebook page.

"I admit that I was a little surprised by the storm and the massive interest that Obama caused when he came out in support of same-sex marriage," Yacimovich wrote on Facebook. "It seems obvious to me that this would be his position."

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid told Haaretz in response to a query that he was in favor of it.

Noked has expressed an interest in having the ministerial committee revisit the issue and in mobilizing majority support for its passage. "Discrimination based on sexual orientation is identical in substance and in its consequences to any of the other forms of discrimination barred by law," she said, "and it has no place in the Israel of 2012. We will see to it that the phenomenon is rooted out, and we'll send an important educational message to all Israelis calling for tolerance and respect for the other."

Most cabinet members and aides declined requests for the ministers' position on gay marriage, or ignored inquiries from Haaretz.

Kadima leader and Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov and the minister for improvement of government services, Michael Eitan, refused to state their positions. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan did not respond to requests for comment from Haaretz.

A number of U.S. Jewish groups praised President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage, and an Orthodox group said it was "disappointed."

"History will regard his affirmation of this core right for the LGBT community as a key moment in the advance of civil rights in America," the Reform movement's Religious Action Center said in a statement Wednesday. "While the President has long publicly supported civil unions, these are distinct from full marriage rights."

The statement cited court precedents affirming marriage as a civil right.

"These rights are due no less to same-sex couples than heterosexual ones, as the President's comments today acknowledge," it said.

Also praising the president's endorsement made Wednesday in an interview with ABC were the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the National Jewish Democratic Council and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The Orthodox Union, however, said it was "disappointed."

"While Judaism also teaches respect for others and condemns discrimination we, as Orthodox Jewish leaders, oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions," it said in a statement.

However, the OU statement also "appreciated" Obama's support for laws that carefully protect institutions that dissent from same-sex marriage.

Agudath Israel of America, another Orthodox umbrella body, did not directly address Obama's statement, noting that it was a "personal feeling."

Obama did not accompany his endorsement with any legislative initiative, and he has said that the matter should be left up to the states.

However, Agudah blasted the National Jewish Democratic Council for describing Obama's statement as advancing "tikkun olam," or the Jewish imperative to make the world a better place.

"To imply that a religious value like 'tikkun olam' and by association, Judaism is somehow implicated in a position like the one the president articulated, is outrageous, offensive and wrong," Agudah said. "We hereby state, clearly and without qualification, that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony."

NJDC Chair Marc Stanley referenced Obama's "unmatched record of progress in favor of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans."

"President Obama has admirably continued to demonstrate the values of tikkun olam in his work to make America a better place for all Americans," Stanley said. "I am truly proud of President Obama and know that so many others in the Jewish community share my feelings.

The Republican Jewish Coalition highlighted the OU and Agudah views on Twitter. Pressed by a Democratic activist on Twitter, however, the RJC said it did not necessarily support the views, adding, "But we do acknowledge that Orthodox Jews and traditional Jewish views exist."



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