Many Israeli Cities Are Ahead of State Government on LGBTQ Rights

Unisex bathrooms, designated social workers, gender education, even civil marriage: Tel Aviv isn't the only municipality leading the way

Participants march in Jerusalem Pride Parade, June 6, 2019.
Emil Salman

While the national government does not permit gay marriage in Israel and is not meeting a promise to the High Court of Justice on adoptions by same-sex couples, Israeli cities are increasingly leading the fight for LGBT rights.

Six cities — Modi’in, Ramat Gan, Rishon Letzion, Ramat Hasharon, Kfar Sava and Herzliya — have created an LGBTQ rights adviser this year. Tel Aviv, Haifa and Givatayim have had such positions for years.

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Tel Aviv and Haifa are considering some form of civil marriage for LGBTQ couples. Givatayim, Haifa and Modi’in are changing the wording of forms, replacing "Mother" and "Father" name fields with “Parent 1” and Parent 2.”

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Among the issues being taken on by these LGBTQ-forward cities are unisex public bathrooms, social workers assigned specifically to the community and funds earmarked for helping transgender individuals. Other ideas under consideration include teaching units on gender for preschool and school and the creation of an LGBTQ city council. This month 12 cities, including Beit Shemesh, Tiberias and Hadera, will hold pride events.

Last month, 40 mayors signed a statement committing their cities to act on behalf of the LGBTQ community, an initiative proposed by Tel Aviv. They called on all mayors to “conduct a process of dialogue and learning about the needs of the gay community in their towns, including all the different groups that compose it … To develop specific and tailored solutions for their needs; to create a space that enables and respects and to relate in an equal manner to every man and woman without relation to their sexual preferences and/or gender identity.”

Many of the mayors who signed the statement come from local governments without pride portfolios, including Netivot, Acre, Be’er Sheva, Hadera, Tiberias, Carmiel, Arad, Metula, Shoham, Eilat, Ra’anana, Kiryat Ono, Hod Hasharon and Zarzir.

The Federation of Local Authorities in Israel said it supports the trend and called on mayors to “continue to show leadership of inclusion and tolerance and to provide expression to the LGBT population that wants to feel it belongs to the community and town where they live.”

Tel Aviv was the first city in Israel to appoint someone to head a pride department in city hall, back in 2005. The position is still held by city council member Etai Pinkas-Arad, of Meretz. He has served as the head of The Aguda – Israel’s LGBTQ Task Force and as Mayor Ron Huldai’s adviser on LGBTQ affairs. For decades Tel Aviv has had a policy of equality in such matters, and is now planning new steps for the coming years.

The city is now examining the possibility of allowing city hall to conduct civil marriages, as in many places around the world. “If we manage to find a way to act on the matter, Tel Aviv will be the pioneer, the beacon on the issue,” said Pinkas-Arad. But he said the municipal recognition of marriage is a complex legal issue relating to the question of the status of local governments and the central government, and also to a certain extent on a political level, he says. It will require a long process, alongside other issues such as opening businesses and running public transportation on the Sabbath. “The Tel Aviv municipality believes that it is proper to transfer as much civil authority as possible to the responsibility of the local government, but we live in a country of law and the transfer of authority is not subject to the discretion of the local government,” he added.

In something that is subject to its discretion, Tel Aviv is examining establishing another LGBTQ center in the southeast of the city, and wants to open it within three years. The first such center in Tel Aviv opened a decade ago and serves as a community center that provides medical and employment services, funded by the city. The need for another center is because the community has not lived only in the center of the city for a long time, and the existing center is too far away for many of those living in the south and east of the city, said Pinkas-Arad. In addition, the new center will provide services the present center does not have room for. The city has also decided to allocate about 30 million shekels ($8.4 million) to demolish and rebuild the existing LGBTQ center in a much larger building.

Givatayim is promoting mostly educational initiatives. Deputy mayor and lieutenant colonel in the reserves Or-Ly Niv is in charge of LGBTQ matters. The city recently held meetings in educational institutions in the city to explain about LGBTQ issues, including for preschool staff. Givatayim has also studied the question of conducting civil municipal marriages, but told Haaretz that it received a legal opinion on the matter saying the city did not have the authority to do so. But a sworn statement from a lawyer testifying to a couple having established a recognized joint household is accepted by all municipal authorities, said the city.

Haifa has had an LGBTQ portfolio for four years, and city council member Tavor Lahat of Meretz, who is responsible for such matters said Haifa has done a lot in recent years: It has funded a gay pride march, cooperated with LGBTQ community projects, established a group of young people from the Israel Gay Youth movement who are doing a year of communal service before the army and have conducted educational activities in schools. A city council member submitted a proposal a few weeks ago to allow the city to conduct same-sex marriages, in which the mayor or other senior official will conduct the wedding and the city will issue the marriage certificate, along with all the benefits provided to married couples. Haifa has also changed the wording on its forms, such as for preschool registration. Another project is to establish a home for transgender people in Haifa, who usually suffer from discrimination and even hostility more than other members of the LGBTQ community, he said.

Rishon Letzion is establishing its first LGBTQ center, similar to the one in Tel Aviv. Ilanit Harush, a city council member and the leader of Meretz in the council who holds the LGBTQ affairs portfolio, said that while the establishment of the center has been met “opposition from a handful of vocal groups, mostly from the Haredi community, I will not let them take away the rights of the community I represent.”

Modi’in city council member Shachar Mai On of Yesh Atid is the first to be put in charge of LGBTQ affairs. A municipal committee on matters concerning the gay community was recently established, two new positions of coordinators for the LGBTQ community were recently filled and a budget of 9 million shekels was approved for activities. Among the new initiatives Mai On plans are education programs in schools, request that LGBTQ youths do national service in the city and live there. One of his first steps is to change the wording on official forms, as the IDF has done in the past year, he says.