'Everyone Is Dissatisfied' as Israeli Arab Lawmakers Try to Cover Split on LGBTQ Rights

Vote to ban so-called conversion therapy laid bare a range of attitudes within the Joint List. But the most prominent one? To avoid an official stance

Jack Khoury
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הפגנת להט"ב בחברה הערבית בחיפה, בשנה שעברה
A Palestinian-organized protest in support of gay rights in Haifa, 2019. Credit: Amir Levy
Jack Khoury

Lawmakers from the Joint List alliance of four predominantly-Arab parties have been in the eye of a storm after last week’s preliminary vote on a bill to bar psychologists from practicing so-called conversion therapy. Their voting record on the draft law reflects disagreement within Israel’s Arab community over how, or even if, to relate to the LGBTQ community.

Three of the five Hadash party MKs – Ayman Odeh, Aida Touma-Sliman and Ofer Cassif – voted for the ban. The four MKs from the United Arab List, which is identified with the Islamic Movement, voted against it. The eight remaining Joint List MKs were not present for the vote. A Joint List caucus after the vote deteriorated into an argument about the damage the split vote caused the alliance.

The Joint List admitted this week there had been no in-depth discussion of how to deal with the bill before the vote. The alliance presumably thought the vote would be overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis. In fact, the bill’s passage in its preliminary reading received much attention in the Arab community and the MKs are aware that they cannot evade the question of how to relate to the LGBTQ community for long.

Furthermore, members of the community refused to let the subject drop from the agenda, and staged a protest in Haifa on Wednesday, organized by the alQaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. "Discussions exploring sexual and gender diversity have spread broadly and can no longer be ignored or denied ... These discussions have stormed our homes, our workplaces, and even our political and social spaces, making this one of the most controversial questions in Palestine," they wrote in a statement, "The era of polite societal denial of our existence is ending."  

Joint List lawmakers Mtanes Shehadeh (R) and Mansour Abbas at the Knesset in Jerusalem, 2019.
Joint List lawmakers Mtanes Shehadeh (R) and Mansour Abbas at the Knesset in Jerusalem, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

Still, the alliance seems primarily concerned with the electoral impact of the voting and are refusing to discuss the deeper questions behind it.

“The Joint List won’t break up, but what is certain is that this dispute and the way it was handled won’t bring us votes,” a Joint List MK told Haaretz, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Everyone emerged dissatisfied; there are those who are angry at the conservative Islamic stream and those angry at the liberals and those angry at those who didn’t take a stand. Naturally there are those who are taking advantage of the situation to criticize us in every possible forum.”

Another MK added, “We may have lost a seat because of this conduct, and what’s important now is damage control. The plan is to lower the flames, not the opposite.”

After the vote, Balad party chairman Mtanes Shehadeh said in a statement that his party was wrong not to announce its position on the bill in advance. “We are against harming basic rights due to nationality, religion or gender, but we decided to [be absent from the vote] because on these issues our position has always been to absent ourselves from the vote,” he wrote. “Part of the crisis that resulted stemmed from attempts by others on the list to present an extreme position and to censure their partners because of pressures in their public.”

Shehadeh’s statement reflected power struggles in each of the Joint List’s component parties and the pressures exerted on them before the vote. The leaders of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, led by Sheikhs Raed Salah and Kamal Khatib, used every available forum this week to attack the Joint List on that grounds that it doesn’t represent the interests of Arab society.

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg in the Knesset, Jerusalem,May 7, 2020
Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg in the Knesset, Jerusalem,May 7, 2020Credit: Adina Wallman / Knesset speaker's office

At the same time, feminist activist Samah Salaimeh told Haaretz the Arab public is very disappointed by Balad, which calls itself a liberal, democratic and secular party, but “chose to hide in the closet of ‘peace in the Joint List and the will of the people.’” She called the Balad MKs’ absence from the vote “an act of poor leadership that stems from future fear. The four components of the Joint List came to the debate without a clear position, precisely when the public debate emerged from liberal circles and moved to social media, where it met the harsh reality.”

Arab LGBTQ activist who spoke with Haaretz also expressed disappointment that so many of the list’s MK avoided the vote. “I don’t think acceptance of the community in Arab society will come from the Knesset and from the Joint List, and in any case laws on this issue will not pass or fall on their votes,” said Nasreen Mazawi, a founder of the Palestinian feminist-queer advocacy organization Aswat. Nevertheless, she said the fact that there was no serious discussion of the issues before the vote and that some Joint List MKs did not vote was “disappointing. Instead of initiating, most of them were spooked by the extremist voices in Arab society.”

Joint List activists said discussions among the MKs focused on criticism of how the vote was handled and the failure to predict the response and the criticism. This, even though earlier this month, when it became known that the owner and CEO of the Al Arz tahini manufacturer, Julia Zaher, had donated to a hotline for Arab members of the LGBTQ community, business owners in Arab towns were called on to remove its products from their shelves. Touma-Sliman and Odeh were the only Joint List MKs to speak out against boycotting the company. “It’s clear that there’s a hot potato and a mine here that must be dealt with and not run away from,” said a senior Hadash activist.

Despite the disagreements and mutual recriminations during the caucus, the MKS stressed they would continue to cooperate. They agreed that before any future votes on LGBTQ issues, a caucus would be held at which the lawmakers would come to an agreement on a position, while permitting absences and divergent votes under certain circumstances. Joint List MKs and activists told Haaretz that disagreement among the components of the alliance was natural and that the decision on how to vote would consider the positions of Arab voters.

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