Some 60,000 people attended a rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Sunday evening, according to police estimates, capping a day of demonstrations and a partial strike around the country in support of equal rights for Israel's LGBT population.
The strike call and demonstrations were sparked by the amendment to the surrogacy law and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions — saying Monday that he supports surrogacy for single fathers, but voting Wednesday against an amendment that would have done that. But the wave of protest, gained momentum over the past few days, appears to go far beyond opposition to a specific law, relating more generally to what the protesters say is a deprivation of the rights of LGBT individuals in many aspects of life.
Addressing the Tel Aviv rally, Zionist Union Knesset member Itzik Shmuli, who is gay, said: "We will no longer be silent. This struggle is not only about the rights of the [LGBT] community but on the image of the country. This is the 21st century. People are not seated at the back of the bus because of the color of their skin and they will not be deprived of the right to be parents due to their [sexual] orientation. Netanyahu has sold the most important thing to us as a society to an extremist minority in his government for extraneous political interests, the value of equality."
Actress Gila Almagor, who attended the rally in Tel Aviv, told Haaretz: “The lack of equality cries out to the heavens. I am proud and straight, but why yes for single women and no for a father?” Is it all just politics and not morality, she asked? “What happened her is unprecedented.”
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Speaking at the rally in Tel Aviv, Chen Arieli, co-chairwoman of The Aguda, Israel’s National LGBT Task Force, called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “look at this square, there is a grievance here that demands action and not press releases. Now it is our turn, Mr. Prime Minister, to tell you no. No to empty statements, no to PR meetings empty of content, we demand actions. Come with me, Mr. Prime Minister, to meet your people,” Arieli said.
Earlier in Tel Aviv, protesters briefly blocked the southbound lanes of the Ayalon Highway. Two protesters were arrested in Jerusalem after they disrupted traffic in the city center. Protesters also briefly blocked main roads in Haifa and in Be’er Sheva. In the northern city of Afula, 200 people demonstrated.
The Israeli army said soldiers taking part in the protests around the country would not be punished, contrary to a prior statement in which the army said it prohibited soldiers from participating. "Since the demonstration is ostensibly political, it is forbidden to take part in the demonstration," the statement said.
The workers' committee of the Foreign Ministry expressed its support for the LGBT community: "We want to express our solidarity with the ministry's employees who are working in Israel and abroad, who are often exposed to insults and contempt based on their sexual orientation."
Some protesters also set up a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Protesters shouted slogans against the government and in support of the LGBT fight for equal rights. “If anyone tries to stop our fight for equality, they’ll find out that we’ll stop this whole country," they chanted.
Meretz party chairwoman Tamar Zandberg addressed the Rothschild protests, saying: "This week the government voted against the Israeli citizens and today we are showing them that Israel is stronger and more determined than the government."
"Equality rights are a basic aspect of democracy and we will continue to be here and everywhere to support equality," Zandberg added
Hundreds of protesters also demonstrated near the government offices in Haifa, and blocked Haatzmaut Street in the lower part of town carrying rainbow flags and banners reading "there is no equality there is discrimination, bring down the government!" and "we won't surrender, we will win." Demonstrators also chanted slogans against Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett and the government.
Sympathy for the protest was exceptionally widespread. Hundreds of employers announced that they would allow employees to observe the strike without penalty. The Histadrut labor federation expressed its support, and various companies published advertisements in support.
“I believe that this struggle is receiving so much support because it touches many people on a personal level,” LGBT rights Knesset lobbyist Oded Frid said: “LGBT people, their families, their friends and the entire public that really supports the community’s rights and has difficulty accepting the lack of equality and clear discrimination.”
One such person is Gilad Ben Ari, of Tel Aviv. His daughter, Gal, 24, lives with her partner in Nahariya, and he believes the rights of the gay community are connected to the rights of all people in modern society. “The basic right to be who you are, the basic right to be a parent,” he says. “As the father of a lesbian daughter, I feel more obligation to fight for the right to live quietly and securely,” he said.
Even before the surrogacy law, Ben Ari stood by his daughter at every opportunity, but now he feels the fight needs to be taken up a notch. “Fighting also means speaking everywhere and in every conversation about human rights and against the ignorant societies in the world we live in, of the danger to a society that can agree to such outright discrimination.”
Other issues that made headlines over the past several days also related to how government policy affects specific groups. It began with the detention of a Conservative rabbi who presided over a marriage outside the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate and continued with the nation-state law, which states that the right to national self-determination in Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people. Although it states that it does not affect the status of Arabic, it defines Hebrew as the country's official lanuage whereas Arabic is accorded "special status. But those issues did not ignite anger like the surrogacy law.
“Struggles over identity of certain groups or ... involving only weaker groups, are mistakenly seen as irrelevant to the public, and so people remains indifferent,” MK Shmuli said speaking earlier. When a struggle also involves the middle class, there is more of a chance for a mass protest, he claimed.
The current LGBT protest is such a struggle, said Shmuli, who was a leader of the social protest in the summer of 2011. The economic obstacle of surrogacy — the cost is between $120,000 to $130,000 — is very relevant to the middle class, Shmuli explained, adding that the protest is about discrimination that affects many people, he says.
Omer and Almog Bar-Lev Shiloah have been together for seven years. Two years ago they decided to expand their family. They had only one possibility: surrogacy in the United States. Not only was it expensive, but it took an emotional toll. “This is such a significant process in our lives and we had to do it from a distance of a 15-hour flight,” Omer told Haaretz. “When there are difficulties in the pregnancy, you can’t just pop over for reassurance. You can’t feel the babies during the pregnancy.” The couple’s twins, a girl and a boy, were born in January. Any desire they may have to give their children siblings remains only that, a desire, considering the difficulties the state puts in their way, Omer says.
The road to surrogacy for gay men is not completely closed off. The High Court of Justice is now hearing a petition by Itay and Yoav Pinkas-Arad, which was filed before the law was passed. The court would not hear the case as long as the legislation was pending, but now that phase is past. “Having filed the petition almost nine years ago, we’re disappointed at the Knesset’s disgraceful decision,“ Itay Pinkas told Haaretz. But he said he was “encouraged and proud” that the protest had extended to so many parts of society.
Hagai Kalai, a lawyer who represents the LGBT community in most of its High Court petitions, says that many people “feel the direct connection between discrimination against the LGBT community and other infringements on the liberal lifestyle, like separating men and women in public spaces enforcing modesty rules,” he says.
The head of the Reform Movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv also identifies with this aspect. “Most of the Israeli public does not want Israel to be a paradise for extremists, but to be a place that encourages tolerance, equality and acceptance. After a week in which MKs failed to understand this fact, the protest of the gay community that is sweeping up the public reminds us that the Israeli future will be decided not in the legislature, but in the kindergartens, the neighborhood parks, streets and squares and by the will of the Israeli public to stand up against zealotry and intolerance.”