Analysis |

LGBT Protest May Herald a Turning Point in Israel's History

In a country that has no categorically declared right to equality, where elective officials betray their mission, the LGBT protest may prove that the struggle for that right is not lost

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Demonstration in Tel Aviv by members of the LGBT community, holding signs reading "equality," in protest of what is seen as discriminatory surrogacy legislation, July 22, 2018.
LGBT demonstrators carrying signs reading "Equality," on Sunday in Tel Aviv. Their battle against discrimination, like other such battles, should be that of every decent individual. Credit: Moti Milrod

The popular protest over the damaging of LGBT rights just days after the Knesset passed the Nation-State Law could prove to be a turning point for Israel. Since the declaration of our independence, brandishing the flag of egalitarianism, Israel has suffered from an irregular situation with respect to the right to equality, at a constitutional level. To wit, among the rights mentioned in the Basic Law for Human Dignity and Liberty, which is the most important chapter in the country's constitution, the right to equality does not appear.

This was not an omission. It was the result of the need to reach a compromise with the religious parties about the wording of the law. To achieve this compromise, crucial basic rights became casualties, among them the right to equality, of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and also freedom to be free of religion. The religious parties were evidently worried that including the right to equality would dent their monopolistic status over religious affairs in Israel, and would – heaven forfend – demand equal treatment of members of non-Orthodox denominations – Conservative and Reform Judaism.

It's true that the Supreme Court interpreted the right to human dignity as encompassing the right to equality, or as including certain aspects of that right. However, the State of Israel is a stark exception among the family of constitutional democracies because it does not have a categorically declared right to equality.

Equality is not just another basic right. It is the basis of the concept and principle upon which the structure of democratic rule stands. That structure is based on the equal right of all citizens to participate, by means of their elected representatives, in determining the norms that apply to them, which are binding upon them.

A method of rule cannot be considered fair, even minimally, if it does not treat all citizens as being equal when it comes to their right to freedom and to human dignity. Nobody is willing to be discriminated against; nobody is willing to feel inferior. Discrimination against people, making them feel inferior, humiliates them. No woman or man agrees to be humiliated. That is why the law carries a prohibition, which many view as absolute, against treatment of others in a humiliating fashion.

Discrimination hurts the self-esteem of the group that suffers from it, with all the negative implications involved. Discrimination by the government reinforces prejudices in society and encourages manifestations of racism, including violence and murder.

The right to equality is not obvious in Israeli society. Not only is it not taken for granted: It is vehemently opposed. What the public may not realize is that a majority in the Knesset categorically refused to adopt MK Benny Begin’s proposal to incorporate a provision in the Nation-State Law committed to ensuring equality, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This fact did not prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his pseudo-Herzlian speech about the anti-Herzlian law, from relating to the right to equality as if it were included in the law.

Moreover, the underlying purpose of the Nation-State Law is to undermine the right to equality in the name of the state’s Jewishness. As long as the Knesset remains controlled by religious parties and nationalist parties competing with one another over the right-wing fringes, we cannot trust it to protect our basic rights.

The coalition is not governed by the greater good, but by self-preservation. Since our elected officials are betraying their fundamental mission, the people have no choice but to speak out. That is why Israeli society as a whole will yet thank the organizers of the LGBT protest, and its participants, and the people who stood with them – among them employers and Israel’s biggest labor union, the Histadrut.

Perhaps Jews find it easier to identify with the LBGT struggle for equality, because that community is part of us – of our family, friends, neighbors. But we must not make a distinction between one type of discrimination and another. All types are morally wrong.

From the strategic perspective, the various groups discriminated against in Israel (except women) are pretty small, but together they stand tall. Their battle should be that of every decent individual. There is no struggle that is more just. There is no struggle that is more important. If the people, including labor organizations and employers, cry out for equality, the government will have to relinquish its unenlightened positions.

It is said that politics has lost its ideological nature. That there are no more deep moral divides, rather disputes over how to achieve more or less shared goals, and over who should achieve them. But this is totally wrong. There is in Israel a deep moral divide between the national-religious worldview that opposes equality and the humanistic world-view that fundamentally acknowledges equality and seeks to translate it into social justice.

This, not the “Israel Hayom” law or the fate of public broadcasting, is a good reason to call for an election. The voters are entitled to know who, among the people seeking their support, is committed to liberty and equality, and who isn’t. Our most basic rights are at stake. We need to ensure that progress wins the day.

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