'They're Scared': LGBTQ Rights Divide Israel's Arab Lawmakers

Three Joint List legislators, all from the communist Hadash faction, supported a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy, toeing the line between their conservative political partners and a progressive agenda

Judy Maltz
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Hundreds of LGBTQ members and supporters attending a Pride rally in Tel Aviv, June 28, 2020.
Hundreds of LGBTQ members and supporters attending a Pride rally in Tel Aviv, June 28, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani
Judy Maltz

In Israel’s last election, the vast majority of Arab citizens voted for the Arab-led Joint List – an eclectic mix of four parties that includes secularists, communists, Palestinian nationalists and Islamic lawmakers.

Despite the diversity of opinions within the slate, which won 15 seats in March, Joint List members tend to vote as a bloc on most issues and speak as one voice, more or less.

Indeed, it is extremely rare for members of the Joint List to split their vote. But it happened in the Knesset on Wednesday, and it was not the first time in recent weeks that one issue in particular has succeeded in driving a wedge among Israel’s Arab lawmakers: LGBTQ rights.

On Wednesday, three members of the Joint List – all from the communist Hadash faction, one of them Jewish – supported a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy, which aims to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ people but is widely discredited by experts as ineffectual and harmful. 

Four members of the Joint List – all from the Islamic United Arab List – voted against the bill, while the remaining members chose to sit it out. Among the three who supported the bill, and by far the big surprise, was Ayman Odeh, the Joint List leader who has hitherto kept his opinions on LGBTQ rights largely to himself.

Ayman Odeh attening an anti-Netanyahu protest in Jerusalem, July 2020.
Ayman Odeh attening an anti-Netanyahu protest in Jerusalem, July 2020.Credit: AFP

The bill received preliminary approval after Kahol Lavan broke ranks with the governing coalition and voted with many of the opposition members. There is a long road ahead, however, until it is passed into legislation.

After the vote, Odeh said in a television interview that his support for the bill “is based on a value system that respects every human being for who he or she is.”

Representing the opposition forces within the Joint List, Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamic faction, told a radio interviewer that his views regarding LGBTQ rights were based on Sharia (Islamic law) and reflected the views of the majority of Arab society in Israel.

“Frankly, I was shocked that Odeh came out in support of this bill,” says Muhammad Zoabi, a prominent Arab-Israeli gay rights activist. “But I wouldn’t mind being shocked like this many more times. For the head of the Joint List to vote to take such a pro-LGBTQ stance is huge.”

The split among members of the Joint List on the issue, he says, reflects the larger conflict playing out in the Arab community – “between those who want to create a civil society in which there’s inclusivity and a space for everyone and those who don’t.”

Muhammad Zoabi. “For the head of the Joint List to vote to take such a pro-LGBTQ stance is huge.”
Muhammad Zoabi. “For the head of the Joint List to vote to take such a pro-LGBTQ stance is huge.”

The storm that erupted three weeks ago when an Arab-owned tahini company donated money to set up a special hotline for Arab members of the LGBTQ community was further evidence of this growing rift. Many Arab-owned supermarkets and grocery stores responded by announcing they would boycott Al Arz, the popular Nazareth-based tahini company, sparking in turn a counter-boycott.

Only one lawmaker from the Joint List – Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of the communist faction – came out publicly in support of Al Arz owner Julia Zaher and the LGBTQ community. Others either refused to comment or, like Odeh, tried to toe the line.

“Odeh said he’s against boycotts and doesn’t understand why people are boycotting this Arab-owned tahini company but have no problem supporting Jewish companies that promote the occupation,” notes Zoabi, 22. “But not once did he refer to the LGBTQ community in his remarks. So how does that help us? It’s as if he wanted to put us back into the closet.”

‘Real struggle’

Zoabi was recently recruited for a newly created position: head of the “Arab desk” at Jewish Pluralism Watch, an organization run by the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel dedicated to promoting religious pluralism and religious freedom. Founded seven years ago, Jewish Pluralism Watch keeps tabs on how Israeli lawmakers vote and what views they express on matters of religion and state.

Julia Zaher, president of the Al Arz tahini company in Nazareth.
Julia Zaher, president of the Al Arz tahini company in Nazareth.Credit: Rami Shllush

That mostly includes issues like prayer at the Western Wall, laws pertaining to Shabbat observance and kashrut, and state recognition of the non-Orthodox movements. Most of its attention, quite naturally then, has been focused on Jewish parliamentarians.

LGBTQ rights is different. It is the rare example of a religion-and-state issue – after all, much of the opposition to LGBTQ rights is rooted in religious beliefs – that is relevant to both Jews and Arabs in Israel. With this in mind, says Nerya Knafo, director of Jewish Pluralism Watch, he recently decided it was time to start devoting attention to Arab lawmakers.

“We came to the realization that because of language barriers, we don’t know enough about the very exciting developments taking place in Arab society in this regard and that there’s a real struggle going on there that isn’t getting the coverage it deserves,” Knafo says.

As part of his new job, Zoabi has been tasked with monitoring how Arab lawmakers vote and express themselves when it comes to religion-and-state matters, with special focus on LGBTQ rights.

When necessary, he says, he also resorts to “shaming” them on social media about inconsistencies in their words and actions. Zoabi would like to believe that some of his provocative and widely shared social media posts in the days leading up to the Knesset vote helped influence Odeh’s decision.

Zoabi, who grew up in the mixed city of Nof Hagalil (formerly known as Upper Nazareth), has gone against the grain in Arab society not only in his gay activism: He served in the Israeli military – Arab citizens, unlike Jewish citizens, are not required to – and as a teenager was a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s a period of his life, he says now, he would rather forget. He won’t say which party he voted for in the past year’s election rounds, but is willing to provide some hints. “I would never vote for a party with homophobes on its slate,” he says. “Nor would I vote for a party that’s scared to talk about Arabs, or one that wants me to say thanks for allowing me to live in this country. So I guess that doesn’t leave many options.”

This week’s vote would not be the first in which member of the communist faction in the Joint List supported LGBTQ rights. In June 2018, a bill prohibiting discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identification received preliminary approval in the Knesset (it never reached the final stages of legislation). The bill won the support of all the communist members serving at the time.

The other members of the Joint List chose not to participate in the vote, so, contrary to what transpired with the conversion therapy bill, it was not a case of the vote being split.

Zoabi says he didn’t expect lawmakers from the Islamic party to support the ban on conversion therapy. He was, however, disappointed in other members of the Joint List who in the past had expressed support for the LGBTQ community. That would include Sami Abu Shehadeh from the Balad faction, who explained his no-show by telling Haaretz’s Nir Gontarz: “This is not the time.”

It would also include veteran Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, head of the Ta’al faction, and Sondos Saleh, a new lawmaker from the same faction, who in her inaugural Knesset speech spoke out against discrimination on the basis of “nationality, gender or sexual orientation.”

“I believe they’re scared,” says Zoabi, when asked to explain the absence of these Joint List members at this week’s vote. “There is certainly more inclusivity in Arab society today, but we’re still not there. There are still many extremists, many homophobes and many hateful people out there.”

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