Opinion |

Why Israel's LGBT Protest Is Soaring, While Other Liberal Causes Crash and Burn

Gay people are the symbol of secular Israel in the 21st century

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Credit: Oded Balilty/אי־פי
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Two weeks ago, a demonstration was held in Tel Aviv in opposition to the nation-state bill. It was an urgent protest intended to prevent the passage of a Basic Law that touches on almost every aspect of life in Israel and discriminates against one-fifth of the country’s citizens. Still, only about 1,000 people took part in the event, which left almost no mark on the public debate.

A week later, a demonstration was held in Tel Aviv about one of the most marginal issues imaginable: the right of same-sex parents to surrogacy. We have to remember that only a few dozen surrogate births a year take place in Israel – less than 0.1 percent of all births. Yet tens of thousands of people turned out for the demonstration, marking the high point of a protest movement that preoccupied the media for days.

What accounts for the disparity between the two demonstrations? The feebleness of the protest against the nation-state bill isn’t surprising. For years, demonstrations on behalf of Palestinian rights – whether in the territories or in Israel – haven’t interested more than a few thousand people and have been treated suspiciously by the media.

More intriguing is the explanation for the huge popularity of the LGBT community. In recent years, LGBT demonstrations and pride parades have become the largest mass events in Tel Aviv. Pride Week has become the city’s national holiday, with rainbow flags adorning every avenue and almost every café, store and the like. Nationally, LGBT events are comparable in size only to the demonstrations of the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem.

Apparently, equality for the LGBT community is the current flagship struggle of Israel’s liberal-secular camp. So thoroughly has it taken over that group’s agenda that it’s now possible to talk about the LGBT-ing of Israel’s secular identity.

What’s the secret of success of the LGBT struggle, at a time when other liberal causes are at a standstill or moribund? How does this particular struggle muster such broad support at a time when many journalists and artists are afraid to express an opinion on controversial issues? There are several possible answers.

Even ultra-Orthodox legislators are wary

To begin with, Israelis have a high regard for forcefulness and shamelessness, two areas where LGBT politics excels. The community’s organizations never suffice with their gains, but are constantly expanding their demands. Like the settlers, LGBT leaders are extremely adept at creating disproportional panic over imagined injustices in order to shift the consensus in their direction. A decade ago, hardly anyone talked about same-sex marriages in Israel. Today, if a Knesset backbencher expresses opposition to gay marriage, he’s hit with a traumatizing media assault. Even ultra-Orthodox politicians now hesitate to voice sharply anti-gay opinions.

Second, the LGBT agenda is no longer identified with the old and despised form of left-wing politics. LGBT people aren’t old elites and aren’t regressing. On the contrary, theirs is an up-to-date identity with young and dynamic brand values. It’s attractive mainly among the young generation, whose support for the left is nonexistent. It’s an aesthetic politics that requires no concessions. The demand to end the occupation, or demands put forward by feminists and socialists, call for significant concessions by the possessors of power and resources. The LGBT demand for equality requires nothing in return.

Third, this agenda has the enthusiastic support of the business sector, which was threatened by the social protest of 2011 and engineered its demise at a certain stage. The LGBT protest learned its lesson and recruited the business community to its side. It also invented something that’s all but unprecedented: a strike that takes place under the patronage of the employers. In this way the business sector can show its strength and thus warn the nationalist and insular forces in the government not to stretch the rope too much.

Fourth, the surrogacy protest ingratiates itself with the way of life of the straight majority. Gay politics in Israel is anti-sexual. The more the LGBT community has extended its rights and its public representation, the more puritan it has become, by degrees purging itself of the advocacy of free sexuality that in the past marked gay culture.

In other countries, LGBT people are fighting to lower the cost of PrEP – the drug that can prevent HIV infection. In practice, PrEP allows for unprotected sex with a low risk of infection. Many gay men in Israel take PrEP, but the subject is buried deep down on the community’s political agenda. What brings thousands to the demonstrations is the sacred family. Effectively, the subliminal message of support for the surrogacy protest is, “let’s let gay guys have children so they’ll stop having sex.”

And fifth, paradoxically, the protest is effective precisely because it addresses an issue that doesn't directly affect many people. Politics in our time has gone into a tailspin. Refugees aren’t really the main danger facing Europe, yet the opposition to immigration is toppling governments and threatening to blow apart the European Union. The Iranian danger is also largely imaginary, yet leaders like Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are changing the global order to combat it. The LGBT protest is a camp event, a performance. And that’s what makes it attractive.

Pink, not golden, calves

It’s not surprising that the LGBT protest has become a phenomenon that reaches far beyond the gay community. Not that a genuine political promise underlies it. The notion that the protest is the start of a new civil revolution is unconvincing. But the protest does possess importance as a cultural phenomenon. It’s positioning gay people as the frontline fighters of Israel’s secular-liberal camp. If the kibbutzniks personified the ideal of socialist Israel, and the settlers are the avant-garde of Likudnik Israel, gay people are the symbol of secular Israel in the 21st century.

When Jeroboam split the kingdom and founded the Kingdom of Israel, he prepared two golden calves and placed them in Bethel and Dan as an alternative to the Temple of the Kingdom of Judah. From certain points of view, the secular kingdom of Tel Aviv is also splitting away from the Jewish nation-state whose capital is Jerusalem. It has its own leaders and rituals.

But in its main public space, Rabin Square – formerly called Kings of Israel Square – stands a stage on which are two gay priests of fertility, walking talismans of the god of familial secularity.

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