Thousands of Israelis walked out of their workplaces and took to the streets Sunday, to protest the government’s denial of gay men’s rights to have children through surrogacy.
The protest over the legislation highlights how in a country where marriage is governed by religious authorities, parenthood is seen as the key to equality.
The new legislation loosened surrogacy regulations in Israel, giving single women and women unable to become pregnant for medical reasons the right to apply for state support for surrogacy. However, an additional clause that would have granted the same rights to single fathers – and, by extension, gay couples – was nixed.
What sparked the protest?
Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stunned and infuriated the LGBT community with a dramatic flip-flop on a commitment that would legalize supporting surrogate births for single people in Israel. Netanyahu promised, but then withdrew, his support for a clause that would allow single men, as well as women, to access surrogacy.
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Until last week, eligibility for legal surrogacy services in Israel was only available to “a man and woman who are a couple.” The bill brought to the Knesset by the country’s Health Ministry proposed also giving the same right to single women who wished to have children.
All attempts to explicitly make single-sex couples eligible were rejected early on in the legislative process.
The LGBT community rallied behind a widely supported effort to also allow single men – whether heterosexual or homosexual – to be allowed to father children using a surrogate under the new law. Early last week, the prime minister pledged he would back such a change, even making a video declaring his support.
But at the last minute he reversed his position in the face of opposition from ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties, who threatened to withhold their support for the Jewish nation-state bill – a top priority for Netanyahu – and threatened the stability of his governing coalition.
Netanyahu defended his decision, saying he did so in order not to derail the entire bill and deprive single women from accessing the right to surrogates. He promised that if a separate bill extending rights to men was proposed, he would support it.
Wait, didn’t Israel just have a massive Gay Pride Month? Is it LGBT-friendly or not?
Israel has made tremendous inroads when it comes to public acceptance of LGBT lifestyles in recent decades. Homosexuality is not only accepted in liberal left-wing circles, but a leading member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, MK Amir Ohana, is also openly gay. In fact, it was Ohana who proposed the clause on the Health Ministry’s bill that would allow for the inclusion of single men.
Tel Aviv in particular has a thriving LGBT culture: it was recently named the world’s leading gay travel destination.
Openly gay and lesbian individuals can also be found in leading roles in the business community – hence the unusually high levels of corporate support for Sunday’s protest, particularly in the high-tech community.
For a time, Israel led the way among Western nations when it came to legally establishing equality for gay partners on financial rights, particularly the Tel Aviv Municipality. The Israeli army has also pioneered the creation of guidelines for both gay and transgender soldiers, due to the fact that the country’s universal draft brings these populations into the military at a far higher rate than armies that rely solely on volunteers.
But when it comes to matters of personal and family status, the LGBT community hits a glass ceiling: All matters of marriage, divorce and the status of children are either completely controlled or heavily influenced by the ultra-Orthodox parties, who push back against any legislation condoning homosexuality – which in their eyes contravenes Jewish law.
There’s no same-sex marriage in Israel. Why is this anger over surrogacy and not marriage rights?
The inability of gay couples to legally marry in Israel is indeed frustrating and infuriating for the growing number of same-sex couples, who must marry abroad for their status to be officially recognized in Israel or hold alternative ceremonies in Israel that don’t carry legal weight. The idea of legalizing same-sex marriage enjoys widespread public support.
But in this struggle, the LGBT community understands that its problem is part of a much larger issue: There are many groups who are unable to legally marry in Israel due to the absence of any form of civil marriage.
Because of the stranglehold of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel on marriage, there is no framework that allows two individuals of different religions to legally marry. Furthermore, Jewish citizens are often required to go through agonizing efforts to “prove” their Jewishness before the state will agree to marry them as Jews.
Within the Jewish population, there are other groups forbidden to marry, such as divorced women who wish to wed a Cohen (people with the surname Cohen are descendants of the priests on the Temple 2,000 years ago, according to Jewish tradition), or those who are considered mamzers (certain illegitimate children under Jewish religious law).
Repeated efforts to introduce legislation that would establish civil marriage have failed. So LGBT couples are not alone in their fight for marriage equality. And like the other groups who are discriminated against in marriage, their weddings abroad are legal: they have been recognized as such since 2006.
However, when it comes to having children – in both the case of adoption and now in surrogacy – the LGBT community is the sole target of what it views as a violation of a basic right.
What makes this protest uniquely Israeli?
Whether it is embedded in Jewish DNA or the scars of losses in the Holocaust, Israel is an unusually child-centric country, with a culture and social norms that emphasize and revolve heavily around family life.
This is borne out in the country’s fertility rates. Israel is an outlier in the Western world when it comes to the number of children per family: Its rate of fertility has been rising, not falling.
Even when one excludes the two populations with the largest families – the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities – the Jewish state stands out compared to the rest of the developed world when it comes to its enthusiasm for being fruitful and multiplying.
Since the establishment of the state 70 years ago, Israeli government policies have been explicitly pro-family. In recent years, this has been evident in the accessibility and affordability of IVF for couples and single women facing infertility issues. Fertility treatments take place in Israel at 13 times the level of the United States on a per-capita basis.
In Israeli society, bearing and raising children is viewed as a basic right. And LGBT culture has been singled out for how central a role child-rearing has played in it.
Part of the success in penetrating the Israeli cultural mainstream has been that, for the most part, gay men and lesbians have been deeply interested in settling down and establishing families. Over the past decade, Israel has seen a baby boom among both gay men and lesbians. But due to biology, only gay men have been forced to invest tens of thousands of dollars and face years of bureaucratic hurdles in the efforts to realize their dream of becoming fathers.