In the Name of 'Family Values,' an Israeli Coalition Is Trying to Derail Gay Rights and Gender Equality

Fifteen conservative groups headed mostly by religious men have jointly created the Forum of Organizations for the Family. Their agenda: to stop discrimination against men, education toward accepting the 'other' and any inroads by the ‘LGBTQ army.’ Their leader? A secular woman from Haifa

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An illustration showing a woman looking out through a window at a man with a kippa. A young girl is on his shoulders, waving an Israeli flag.
Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer

It was difficult to remain indifferent to the declarations by Likud MKs in October 2020, when the issue on the agenda was legislation to prevent economic violence in the family. “If a husband says to a wife, ‘Hand over your salary,’ then that is the situation between them,” Amit Halevi said. To which Ariel Kallner added, “Maybe she bought 10,000 shekels’ worth of clothes [$3,000] and bankrupted him.”

The lawmakers brought more than provocative comments to this meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. They were equipped with position papers and abundant data to explain why the proposed law, which aimed to help women who were controlled economically by their husbands, against their will, was misguided and “will drive families crazy and destroy them,” according to MK Shlomo Karhi.

The MKs’ information came from an organization founded that same month, called the Forum of Organizations for the Family. The Forum comprises 15 nonprofit organizations that banded together, among them: a Hardali (national-religious ultra-Orthodox) nonprofit that is fighting the draft of religiously observant women; a women’s group that rejects feminism because it “erases our feminine identity”; an organization of divorced fathers that warned against “wild incitement against men in the wake of the murder of Michal Sela” [whose husband stabbed her to death in 2019]; a group of intellectuals headed by a woman who claims that “LGBTQ people are performing conversion therapy on our children”; a self-described Jewish human rights organization that opposes animal rights; and also “Dror in Likud” – a group of activists who advocate a government with strong religious presence – of which Kallner, who is no longer in the Knesset, is one of the founders.

Though they ostensibly operate on different fronts and have diverse goals, these organizations turn out to have a common denominator: fear that the traditional institution of the family is disintegrating. From their perspective, government sponsorship of the Prevention of Economic Violence bill had to be blocked. Not only would any such law have brought about the intervention of the judicial system in family life, it would also have sparked an apocalyptic scenario.

The background information prepared for the Likud group by the Forum explained how these grim events would unfold: If passed, the proposed legislation would lead to a dramatic decrease in the marriage rate, thereby causing no less than demographic upheaval. Accordingly, a situation would arise of “fewer working hands – fewer revenues for the economy,” producing a rise in the cost of living. The result, according to the Forum would be a diminished ability to raise children. Ultimately, the process would bring about nothing less than a “national collapse, see under: ‘The Strange Death of Europe’” – a reference to the 2017 book by Douglas Murray.

Their campaign succeeded: The law against economic violence was blocked. And now members of the Forum are girding their loins and pooling their resources with the goal of realizing their full vision, on various fronts.

A document prepared by the Forum ahead of the last election, in March, spells out its aims. In the realm of education it is demanding a comprehensive revision of the curriculum in state-run secular and religious schools in order “to place family values at the center,” by means of “teaching the necessity and importance of forging a relationship with a member of the opposite sex.” In addition, the Forum is calling for an end to any involvement in the education system of organizations which, they claim, “blur the boundaries between the sexes and cultivate fear and rivalry between men and women.”

Republican cachet

In the realm of the family unit, the Forum seeks to change the concepts of “treatment of domestic violence” and “sexual assault” (quotation marks in the original) so that it will encompass appropriate treatment for all victims of violence – without the assault necessarily being linked to men. Institutionally, the Forum is calling for the establishment of an authority that will promote the family and a Knesset committee dedicated to enhancing the status of the family, “which will set as a goal an increase in the rate of marriage and in the birthrate in Israel, and a reduction in the divorce rate.” Also on the Forum’s agenda: abolition of the position of adviser on the status of women in local governments and its replacement by a unit “to promote the family in the community.”

Some of the Forum’s member organizations are of recent vintage; others have been active for years. The messages they are sounding are also not all new. However, the cumulative power derived from joining forces and creating a coalition signals a new stance, which plays up “family values” with a conservative-Republican cachet. On top of which, the entire collective of groups is being led by women. What remains now is to see whether they will be able to accumulate sufficient power and influence to achieve their goals.

Not surprisingly, the tone at the Forum of Organizations for the Family is being set by Hardali groups that are typically under the intense influence of rabbis and include activists from among the evacuees of the Gaza Strip settlements in 2005. One of them is the Achva Center, whose “Choosing Family” program recently produced a pamphlet titled “What the LGBTQ people are hiding from you.” The flyer purports “to provide the public with reliable information about the causes of homosexuality and the treatment possibilities” – information that can “save precious lives from the abyss of darkness.”

Former MK Ariel Kallner. One of the founders of Dror in Likud. Credit: Sharon Gabay

The leader of the project is Michael Puah, one of the Forum’s most prominent figures. A founder of the Jewish Leadership faction in Likud and member of the party’s central committee, Puah has distributed a book put out recently by Choosing Family, entitled “Everyone and His Fake Family,” which criticizes families with same-sex parents or single parents, and families that are half-Jewish. A few years ago Puah published an article called “Abuse of the aged due to the LGBTQ agenda,” in which he argued that holding public discourse in favor of rights for the gay community is “a deliberate move toward dismantling the natural family, one that is starting to blow up in our face” – as manifested by what he cited as older members of the family being shunted into assisted-living facilities, where they suffer abuse at the hands of caregivers.

Another key figure in the Forum is his son, Yehuda Puah, chairman of Btsalmo, which terms itself a “human rights organization in the Jewish spirit.” Recently Puah and his father petitioned the High Court of Justice to ban anonymous sperm donations. “That process is undermining the institution of the family, is harmful to children, erases the biological parents and affects the children’s natural right to parents of their own,” Yehuda explained in a recent interview.

Another Hardali nonprofit in the Forum is Chotam, which seeks to end service by religious women in the Israel Defense Forces. An animated video it recently circulated shows a young religiously observant female soldier who’s totally occupied with doing paperwork and becomes a target of sexual harassment. Chotam’s president is Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, recipient of the 2020 Israel Prize for Torah Literature. The choice of Ariel to receive the country’s highest honor drew protests because of comments he has made, according to which gays "are disabled people who suffer from a genuine problem,” and “It’s best not to rent an apartment to a lesbian couple.”

Though they ostensibly operate on different fronts and have diverse goals, these organizations turn out to have a common denominator: fear that the traditional institution of the family is disintegrating.

Fathers for Justice – whose goals include “eradicating the discrimination, violence and suppression of fathers and promoting equality between the sexes” – is another group in the Forum. This organization, which has many religious members, wants to eliminate early-childhood custody going to the mother by default, and claims that “domestic violence is symmetrical between the members of the couple.” The organization has been involved in trying to prevent the release of Erica Frishkin, who is serving a life sentence for the 2003 murder of her husband, who abused her for years. The group opposed legislation intended to deny custodianship to a parent who has been accused (but not convicted) of the murder or attempted murder of their partner, or of raping children.

Yonadav Stern, head of Father for Justice, acts as a sort of operations officer for the Forum of the Organizations for the Family, being in charge of coordinating between the different groups and assigning missions to the activists.

Women out front

Even though most of the Forum’s organizations are headed by religious men, the male presence there is played down. The Forum highlights the women involved in it in the media and elsewhere, and indeed they effectively spearhead its public activity. The fact that women are in the forefront of this conservative enterprise is a new development; in the past “women’s organizations” were typically the preserve of more liberal lobbying and pressure groups identified with the values of feminism.

One leading Forum activist is Naama Zarbiv, who in 2018 founded an antifeminist organization called Shovrot Shivyon (deriving from the Hebrew term “tie breakers,” used in tennis – but here more literally meaning “equality breakers”), intended for “women who want to strengthen femininity, motherhood and family.” Zarbiv, who was the secretary general of Katif, a former Gaza Strip settlement, and has also managed a Haredi nonprofit, was given an unrealistic slot on the right-wing Yamina party’s slate in 2019, as the representative of the National Union faction.

Zarbiv claims that “there is no salary discrimination” between men and women in Israel, objects to encouraging women to work and criticizes the flexibility being manifested by the IDF vis-a-vis gender issues. She has been giving frequent interviews lately, talking about “femininity” issues currently on the agenda: She rejects expansion of the pilot program to recruit female tank crew members, supports gender separation in higher education and clashed with MK Yair Golan (Meretz) who stated in a post that Zarbiv and her colleagues are out to send women back to “biblical times.”

Yet another leading personality in the Forum is Dalit Laub Souter, aka Gali Bat Horin (“Gali daughter of freedom,” aka GBH), chairwoman of the Café Shapira Forum, an organization whose members are intellectuals and professionals. Literary editor, publicist and social activist Laub Souter identifies herself as “the daughter of a communist father, a member of Hashomer Hatzair [left-wing youth movement] and an automatic Meretz voter.” During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, in 2014, she published a post lauding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his management of the campaign, which drew hostile responses from her friends. She then underwent an accelerated process of shaking off her roots, and her status on the right soared.

In 2016, she organized a meeting in Café Shapira, in Tel Aviv, with like-minded people who live in left-wing surroundings and are afraid to come out of the closet as right-wingers. Her organization was established three years later; its Facebook group now numbers more than 10,000 members. Its offices in Ramat Gan are the venue for weekly lectures and gatherings with the participation of journalists, educators, jurists and politicians. The group also conducts workshops whose goal is “to acquaint participants with content that affects the institution of the family, LGBTQ people, radical feminism, hatred of males and more.” Those were also the values in the name of which the Café Shapira Forum joined the coalition of organizations for the family last fall.

Naama ZarbivCredit: Ilan Assayag

“The Café Shapira Forum has made its motto restoration of a sensible discourse,” Laub Souter explained in a telephone interview last month. “And because the entire progressive offensive is an assault on good sense and harms the institution of the family, we speak the same language.” Not only does she live in harmony with the militant men’s rights organizations that cooperate with her organization, but in her view they are not militant enough. “If they shout so loudly, it must be because someone is standing on their foot,” she says. “Things may seem to give off a bad smell, but when you open the lid of the sewer, you discover that it’s only an image that’s been created from progressive ideology.”

The influence of gay organizations in schools is a “disaster,” Laub Souter believes, who is enraged over the ostensible encouragement the education system gives to trans youth. “Little kids come and are told, ‘If you sometimes feel not right about yourself, maybe you’re going through something, maybe you’re actually boys, not girls,’” she says.

The worst thing, from her point of view, are the lessons about gender issues. “They talk with 10-year-olds about ‘toxic masculinity,’” she continues. “The feminist organizations have succeeded in instilling the assumption that every boy is a budding patriarchy and a potential rapist, while every girl is a wretched victim and helpless. The operating assumption is that women are always humiliated. Exactly the opposite of women’s empowerment.”

Ex-secularist at the helm

What’s especially surprising is that the Forum of Organizations for the Family is headed by a woman – one who in the past called herself an “avowed secularist.” She’s Naama Sela, 57, a Haifa lawyer who specializes in property cases and who is married and has four children. Sela embarked on her public path as a social activist in Ramat Begin, the Haifa neighborhood where she lives, and as head of the parents committee in her children’s school. Residents had known her as a popular, accepted figure, so they were surprised when, in 2019, she joined a number of religious activists in the city in organizing a “family procession” to protest the municipality’s participation in funding a Gay Pride parade in the city.

In the procession, which drew about 400 participants, Sela was the center of attraction. “Today the conservatives are waking up and saying to the LGBTQs, ‘No more,’” she declared in her speech there, in which she also called on the Education Ministry to bar gay organizations from the schools. “We want life, and we, the conservatives, must put a stop to the progressive madness.”

Sela can perhaps be seen as a local version of Phyllis Schlafly, the American lawyer known for her uncompromising battle against feminism and against the Equal Rights Amendment in the '70s.

Asked, in an interview on the Mako website, why she has gotten herself so worked up over the LGBTQ issue, she replied, “It bothers me exactly the way I am bothered when I go outside and see garbage strewn around, so I pick it up and throw it in the bin.” That was no slip of the tongue. She expressed herself similarly about the 2019 Pride parade (“If I would disrobe in public, you know, I’d be taken to a mental hospital”), what she perceives as exaggerated media coverage of the LGBTQ community (“They are apparently in the saddle, they control the media”) and surrogacy for gay people (“I don’t think a group like the LGBTQ people should be allowed… to say that there are children who don’t deserve a mother”).

Local parents didn’t like what the head of the PTA was saying and showed their displeasure. “Our neighborhood is very liberal and pluralistic, and we couldn’t accept a woman who espouses such extreme views as our representative,” one resident told Haaretz. However, their objections didn’t deter Sela – on the contrary.

Although Sela declined to be interviewed for this article, her views were published in April in an article titled “The Damage of Radical Feminism,” which she published on Mida, a website “that aims to present the public with information and opinions not common in the Israeli media,” according to its mission statement (in English). In the item, Sela maintains that women are not a discriminated group and are in fact privileged compared to men. The salary gaps between men and women are due to “false consciousness” (as per Karl Marx), because they stem not from discrimination but from “substantive differentiation” between the sexes. She also writes that “the number of women agunot in Israel is lower than the number of male agunim” – meaning, there are more men who are stuck in marriages because their wife won’t divorce them than women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish bill of divorce. Women’s organizations, Sela asserts, seek to bring about “ideological, progressivist and feminist engineering of all the country’s governmental systems.”

As she sees it, because of this “obstruction of consciousness [the government] allocates tens of millions of shekels a year to dealing with the problem of ‘violence against women,’ whereas the problem of ‘violence against men’ by their wives is excluded from public discourse.” This state of affairs creates a “consciousness of fear” among women, even though “Israel is one of the safest countries in the world for women.”

Sela concludes her article by criticizing the choice of Shira Isakov – whose husband attempted to murder her – to light a torch in the traditional eve of Independence Day ceremony last April. “Have we as a society reached a level where victims become cultural heroes?” she asks, and continues, “Will Shira Isakov eventually become a symbol, even though she did nothing of benefit to the people of Israel?”

Naama SelaCredit: Fathers for Justice website

Sela can perhaps be seen as a local, pared-down version of Phyllis Schlafly, the American lawyer who in the 1970s campaigned to strengthen traditional family values, gathered a coalition of conservative and religious organizations around her and was known for her uncompromising battle against feminism and against the Equal Rights Amendment. She was recently portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the miniseries “Mrs. America,” in which a subplot deals with the difficulty Schlafly had in accepting her gay son – another similarity to Sela’s story.

Sela’s 24-year-old daughter came out of the closet six years ago, to the chagrin of her parents. An attempt to placate them by means of a meeting with the daughter’s partner did not go well. Persons close to the family say that Sela always espoused relatively conservative views, but don’t understand why she has started to express them in such an extreme and destructive manner. They wonder why she has chosen to carve out her public path by means of vicious attacks on the LGBTQ community.

“For us it’s a riddle,” a person close to the family says. “She must have told herself a story to the effect that through her public activity she is helping or ‘saving’ her daughter.”

The tension with her daughter morphed into a serious rift after Sela organized the anti-LGBTQ rally two years ago. “She confronted her mother and said, ‘How can you demonstrate against your daughter? You are actually acting against me, against my rights, against my having a family,’” the confidant relates. “Naama said that there was no connection between the things and that she would stand by her daughter if she should need help. She added with half a wink that there are all kinds of ways to change sexual tendencies.” Following that confrontation, the daughter and her parents weren’t in touch for a year; the daughter is now living abroad and maintains minimal relations with her mother.

Lauding ‘irregularities’

Last March, the Forum of Organizations for the Family held a Zoom meeting ahead of the election. The meeting, which can be viewed on YouTube, provides a fascinating glimpse of the group’s modus operandi as it seeks to become an influential pressure group.

The main speaker was Naama Sela. In a flat, analytical tone, she began with an anecdote from a visit she made to the school of her youngest son. “I expected to see the national flag and the Declaration of Independence at the entrance,” she related. “What I saw was a huge painting of Winnie the Pooh holding a balloon, with the caption: “The things that make me different are the things that make me.” It’s from there that “all the problems” start, Sela noted. “Children,” she said, “are getting obsessive guidance and brainwashing in school about accepting the ‘other.’ Children learn that the more irregular a child is – and the irregularity can take all kinds of forms – the more laudable it is.” Accordingly, the schools should “stop cultivating the value of accepting the ‘other’ and start educating people to establish a family. They should not transform irregularity into an object of admiration.”

The online Forum gathering was emceed by Michael Puah, of the Choosing Family program, which is responsible for some of the most extreme anti-LGBTQ content that has been disseminated lately in the media. Puah began by saying that he was thrilled that 88 people “who place family at the top of the agenda” were in attendance. That may not sound like a very impressive number, but Puah knows that the fact that they represent 15 organizations added up to a broad, powerful coalition. Indeed, he repeated the message that they need “to create force multipliers.”

How to do that? In this case, the small size of the Forum is an advantage. Each activist will be assigned one or two MKs to contact, in order to provide them with information regarding the preferred family values. “Prepare the material, make your pitch like good salespeople, push your ideas so that the person you’re talking to will have to come up with answers,” Puah explained.

The Café Shapira Forum received a donation from the Central Fund of Israel, a clandestine channel for donations from the U.S. to right-wing Israeli groups. Perhaps that's why one key member likened the group's activity to the Tea Party.

In conversations with MKs who may be potential allies, Puah said, the activists should present themselves as undecided voters (“otherwise you’re burnt matches”) and thereby give the politicians an incentive to feel free about expressing commitment to the Forum’s agenda. “If you manage to record or film the conversation and you succeeded in eliciting a significant statement, forward it to us and we will see that it is disseminated.”

Nor did Puah ignore representatives of the other political camp, those who will never identify with his values. “Good material comes out of conversations with them. These people launch public offensives against the Forum. I’m just waiting for a good offensive, because that’s one of the ways that strengthen [us] most and generate an audience that is suddenly exposed [to these ideas]. If we really bug [Labor Party leader] Merav Michaeli or [Meretz leader] Nitzan Horowitz or Adi Roll [MK Idan Roll from Yesh Atid], then a lot of people say: Wow, if they’re managing to get to them, it must be something serious that’s worth joining.”

The gay pride parade in the Tel Aviv, this past June.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Indeed, the bulk of the Forum’s activity seems to be focused on trying to create media buzz. According to a news item in March, the Forum “demanded” that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi restore the use of “father” and “mother” to army forms (instead of “parent 1” and “parent 2”). The Forum announced that it had also “adopted” a letter from rabbis deploring the state’s “twisted” intention to change official government forms in the same way.

The Forum has devoted special attention to the use of a diacritical sign in the form of a dot or slash, in print, to express an egalitarian approach – in Hebrew, a typographical way of indicating that a word refers to both women and men. They fired off angry letters to organizations that have adopted this form of address, including health maintenance organizations and the Education Ministry, arguing that “the aim of this so-called a-gendered language is to enable various sexual and personal identities that are not only male and female.” The Meuhedet HMO and the state-religious directorate in the Education Ministry acceded and ceased using the diacritical signs.

The Forum also published a statement in support of Roni Marom, the head of the Mitzpe Ramon local council, who objected in June to the holding of a Gay Pride parade in town and issued an anti-LGBTQ manifesto in which he recommended that locals not join forces with the “LGBTQ army.”

In a particularly provocative text, the Forum also addressed the murder of women in the country. The group tweeted photographs of 16 women who had been murdered until that point this year and circled in red the faces of the 11 Arab women among them, declaring, “This is a problem of community, not of gender.”

Such ploys were clearly calculated to draw attention, but does the Forum wield concrete influence? A source knowledgeable about the group’s activity believes that there has been much ado about nothing. “It’s a fiction,” the source says. “They’re taking something from this nonprofit and something from that nonprofit, and creating a semblance of a large, influential umbrella organization.”

This is apparent, for example, in the multiple roles assumed by the Forum’s leaders. Sela, for example, wears four hats. In addition to her founding the Forum, she is also listed as a member of the Café Shapira Forum, as being active in Shovrot Shivyon and as legal adviser to Fathers for Social Justice. Others are also members of two or more of the nonprofits that make up the larger coalition.

Most of the groups that comprise the Forum do not enjoy a significant budget. They depend on private donations, with their annual turnover ranging between zero and a few hundred thousand shekels. The exception is Btsalmo, whose budget surged by a multiple of 36 in one year and stood at 4.2 million shekels (about $1.2 million) in 2020.

The Café Shapira Forum received a donation recently from the Central Fund of Israel, a clandestine channel for donations from the United States to right-wing organizations in Israel. Perhaps that is why one of the key individuals in the local group likened its activity to the Tea Party – the militant, libertarian movement that was established in the United States to combat President Barack Obama’s economic policies. Other figures in the Forum, including those from the Hardali fringes, have also adopted conservative American rhetoric, iterating concepts such as the “silent majority.” That notion is identified with U.S. President Richard Nixon, who famously invoked it to indicate that his policies had the support of the majority of America’s citizens.

But not everyone sees the Forum as a paper tiger. “The dangerous concepts propounded by the new pro-family groups, and their efforts to undermine the struggle for women’s rights were felt clearly in the parliamentary discussions about the bill against economic violence,” says Hagit Peer, president of the Naamat women’s organization. “MKs who sided with the ‘family organizations’ expressed at best ignorance and in the worst case misogyny and total disdain for women who live in the shadow of physical and economic violence.”

The Democratic Bloc, a civil society platform that is “working to research, expose, and shame extremist organizations,” according to its website (in English), has also been monitoring the Forum’s activity and does not make light of its impact, noting also its affinity with the Kohelet Policy Forum. Kohelet, a powerful conservative think tank, has been consolidating its influence among decision-making centers in Israel for the past decade, and is casting a net of right-wing organizations over civil society, based on the American conservative model.

The association between the Forum and Kohelet is seen in the fact that two Forum leaders, Sela and Zarbiv, are graduates of a program about government run by the Civil Society Forum, the foundational arm of the Kohelet Forum. The program “Recipe for Influence” equips its graduates with tools to deal with lawmakers. In addition, the founding meeting of Shovrot Shivyon was held in Kohelet’s offices in Jerusalem, as was one of the nonprofit’s recent annual conferences.

In response to a query from Haaretz, Kohelet stated that it has not been involved in establishing pro-family organizations, adding, “These are independent organizations which occasionally enjoy training sessions and the infrastructure at Kohelet, like dozens of other nonprofits.” Adi Arbel, head of the program attended by Sela and Zarbiv, noted likewise, but added that he generally provides free strategic consultancy to graduates of the program who are engaged in launching new projects.

The Forum of Organizations for the Family stated in response: “The fact that Haaretz is devoting considerable resources to monitoring the Forum shows that its work is important and successful. This is indeed a very large group of activists from 15 civil society organizations, which are working determinedly and openly to promote the institution of the family in Israel, and participating in the struggle against serious discrimination against men in Israel. As [described] in the book ‘The Strange Death of Europe,’ similar trends exist in Israel as well (because of the assimilation of progressive processes), which constitute an existential danger. Our activity raises the public’s awareness concerning the importance of the subject and generates disapproval of those who harm the institution of the family.”

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