For Right-wing LGBT Israelis, There Are Two Closets to Come Out Of

Right-wingers say it’s still difficult to talk with peers about their political views, even though Israel's LGBT community may not be as overwhelmingly progressive as was commonly assumed

Michael Dempster
Michael Dempster
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Misha Rozhkovksy (L) and Oded Schwartzberg
Misha Rozhkovksy (L) and Oded SchwartzbergCredit: Or Rajuan, Gregory Mestas
Michael Dempster
Michael Dempster

A week before Israel’s March election, 40-year-old chef Simon Barel decided it was finally time to come out. Again.

Barel, who told his family and friends he was gay at age 12, revealed to a Facebook group for gay Israelis that he planned to vote for a far-right political party. The disclosure proved controversial, eliciting its fair share of the disgust and disapproval Barel had anticipated. But it was also met with support from a vocal minority.

LGBT voters are often assumed to be overwhelmingly leftist, and research in various countries seems to confirm this. Gay and lesbian political preferences were first monitored in the United States via exit polls during the 1988 presidential primaries, and have remained solidly left-wing ever since. The Williams Institute published a study in October 2019, indicating that 50 percent of U.S. LGBT voters are registered as Democrats, compared to 15 percent registered as Republicans.

Similarly comprehensive studies have yet to be conducted in Israel, where differing sociocultural circumstances may yield different results. Yet in an era of razor-thin governing coalition margins, LGBT votes can tip the scales in Israeli elections – and these voters could be less entrenched than they are Stateside.

State of integration

Barel was raised in a left-wing household, and as a teenager volunteered with Meretz. His worldview began to change during his time in the army – an apparent leitmotif for right-wing LGBT Israelis – and afterward he started voting for centrist parties. He later gravitated toward Likud, and in the most recent election moved further right to Yamina, which he identifies with because of its economic and security stances.

“We live in a dangerous neighborhood,” Barel says. “I’m 40 years old and I’ve witnessed six or seven wars, including one which I fought and was injured in – the Second Lebanon War. So I think gay Israelis are more likely to vote right wing than gay people in other countries.”

Members of Israel's LGBTQ community protest law on surrogacy rights that excludes gay men, Tel Aviv, Israel, January 31, 2018. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

This shift hasn’t endeared him to all of his peers, but it’s hardly anomalous – and may become more and more visible as LGBT Israelis integrate into the broader, more politically heterogeneous society.

Gilly Hartal, a lecturer in the gender studies program at Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University, has studied Israel’s LGBT community for a decade and has observed a “coming out” of right-wingers in that time. She attributes this to a phenomenon Hartal and her colleagues refer to as “homonationalism.” This is basically the integration of LGBT people into broader society, and their subsequent identification with nationalist, neoliberal values.

She identifies a few factors driving the trend in Israel, including Israeli consumption of LGBT culture; the acceptance of LGBT people into national institutions like the military; and the trend toward child-rearing in the LGBT community.

A participant holding an anti-annexation sign during Tel Aviv's annual Pride Parade, June 2020.Credit: AFP

“Our society is very consumerist, it’s very militaristic and it’s very familial. So, participating in these processes enables LGBT people to be part of the normative society in Israel, and to think of citizenship in Republican terms: ‘I’m giving to the state and the state should give back to me.’ This creates homonationalism. LGBT people now find themselves identifying more with the state, its major values, common goals and understandings, whereas once they may have found themselves outside that framework.”

The state LGBT Israelis are integrating into has undeniably become more right wing in recent decades, and studies indicate that this trend will continue.

Tom Einhorn is a founding member of the Labor Party’s LGBT caucus and a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia. He believes Israel’s rightward drift affects both everyday LGBT members and the major organizations that represent community interests – such as the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel (known locally as the Aguda).

“Previously, organizations and activists were very dismissive of right-wing politicians and right-wing voters, and I think maybe they were smacked in the face by the fact that there actually are right-wing LGBT people,” Einhorn says. “But I think today, more so than in the past, organizations are more sensitive to the fact that there are right-wing LGBTQ people – for practical reasons, if nothing else. The right wing has been in power in Israel for a long time, and many organizations feel it’s to their advantage to at least have some bridges to those parties if needed.”

Right-wing community members like Barel nonetheless perceive Israel’s LGBT establishment as being out of touch with, and exclusionary toward, those with divergent political viewpoints.

“I don’t like what’s going on in the gay and lesbian community,” Barel says. “I think they’re very judgmental and only willing to accept those that meet their criteria, their opinions. But if your opinions are slightly different? Slightly out of the mainstream? They have difficulty accepting that. So I try to keep away, because in my community I get bad reviews.”

A different Pride movement

Oded Schwartzberg is no stranger to bad reviews from the LGBT community either. As chairman of Likud Pride, one of his objectives is to convince more Likud members to back pro-LGBT legislation – support that jeopardizes Likud’s traditional political alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties. At the same time, Schwartzberg has to deflect a steady stream of criticism from left-wing LGBT voices that brand him as a turncoat. He tells Haaretz he doesn’t understand all the flak.

Likud Pride Chairman Oded Schwartzberg.Credit: Gregory Mestas

“For me, there was never any internal conflict between my sexual orientation and my political orientation. Quite the opposite,” Schwartzberg says. “I think the right wing has the most tolerant ideology toward LGBT people. We want a state that doesn’t interfere in our lives unless it’s absolutely necessary. There’s more of a conflict in ideologies that want a state that heavily interferes in education, the economy, and all these different fields, but then says: ‘Wait, but we don’t want you to interfere in our bedroom.’ That’s a conflict.”

Schwartzberg was speaking to Haaretz on the day of the Knesset’s preliminary hearing for two bills limiting the use of so-called conversion therapy. Out of 36 Likud lawmakers, only one, Likud Pride co-founder Amir Ohana – now a high-profile member of the government – voted in favor of both bills.

Likud Pride itself has been criticized for its inefficacy in moving the needle toward marriage equality, surrogacy rights and against conversion therapy. But Schwartzberg is quick to cite the group’s achievements in lower-profile fights, including extending privileges and protections to LGBT couples in criminal testimony and immigration; easing bureaucratic hurdles for those wishing to legally change their gender; and driving record funding levels for LGBT NGOs.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana holding a press conference, July 2020. The first openly gay right-wing lawmaker, Ohana has often proved a divisive figure in the LGBT community.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Our top priority is to ultimately become irrelevant; to work from the bottom up and reach sectors that have less exposure to LGBT people, so that one day groups like Likud Pride will no longer be necessary,” Schwartzberg says.

Though Likud Pride has generated varying degrees of skepticism within the LGBT community since its inception in 2011, experts credit it with creating a space for LGBT right-wingers to express their political views more openly.

“The LGBT rights movement in Israel emerged from the political left in the 1970s, and it really wasn’t possible for right-wing LGBT Israelis to marry their queerness and political activism together before the current decade,” Einhorn says.

“Many of the right-wing LGBT people I talk to say that before Likud Pride, there wasn’t a way for them to be both activists and LGBT because they didn’t have a platform to do it from,” he says. “But maybe as time goes on, we might see more centrist and right-wing activists ascending to more prominent positions in the organized LGBT community.”

A protest against Amir Ohana outside his apartment block in Tel Aviv, July 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s unclear to what extent Likud Pride has drawn new LGBT voters to Likud since its establishment and, according to Schwartzberg, Likud has not conducted internal research to find out. He declines to discuss Likud Pride’s past or current membership levels, but former members and community analysts have observed a decrease in activity since its apex in 2015 – when Ohana became the first openly gay lawmaker to represent a right-wing party.

Waning enthusiasm may be a matter of optics: Ohana’s status within Likud has clearly advanced; the status of his core supporters has not. For nearly a decade, Ohana and Likud Pride have been the most visible symbols of Israel’s newfound union between the LGBT community and the right. But any disillusionment with the coalition may present an opportunity for hawkish LGBT votes to be scooped up by other right-wing parties.

‘Few options’

Yisrael Beiteinu has historically relied on support from Russian-speaking immigrants since its foundation in 1999. But as these communities have assimilated into broader Israeli society and the level of immigration from the former Soviet Union has abated, the party’s number of Knesset seats has fallen.

The party is now looking to rebrand itself as a secular, nationalist alternative to Likud and attempting to pick up new votes from corners of Israeli society it previously ignored.

At an event sponsored by the Aguda and Tel Aviv City Hall last September, Yisrael Beiteinu MK Eli Avidar announced that the party planned to form its own internal LGBT caucus, similar to Likud Pride. A party spokesman declined to respond to questions concerning the group’s progress since then, instead simply stating that “Yisrael Beiteinu supports equal rights for everyone.”

Schwartzberg, for one, remains skeptical. “Any political party can start an LGBT caucus or say that they’ll start one,” he says. “But what kind of influence will the caucus really have? A party like Yisrael Beiteinu isn’t very democratic because, unlike Likud, there are no primaries. A similar caucus within Yisrael Beiteinu might look good and sound good, but it would effectively be irrelevant, because it won’t have the power to influence internally.”

But Yisrael Beiteinu has backed up its overtures to the community: Five of its seven lawmakers voted recently in favor of the law that would restrict conversion therapy – to the delight of LGBT constituents like Misha Rozhkovsky of Rosh Ha’ayin.

Like Barel, Rozhkovsky’s national security views moved rightward during his military service, when he was stationed in Jenin and Gaza as part of the Nahal Infantry Brigade.

Though he was born in Odessa, Rozhkovsky, 39, emphasizes that he was drawn to Yisrael Beiteinu because it combines a conservative approach to national defense with support for secular policy, and not because of its historical association with Israel’s Russian-speaking community.

Yisrael Beiteinu voter Misha Rozhkovksy in his hometown of Rosh Ha'ayin, central Israel.Credit: Or Rajuan

“I think Likud lost the trust of the liberal, nonreligious right, so it leaves us with relatively few options,” Rozhkovsky says. “I went to a Q&A with [party leader] Avigdor Lieberman one time, and I liked his answers to my questions about gay rights. He said, ‘I don’t care whom you marry; you can go to a court of law and sign papers with whomever you want. I don’t need to be pro-gay as long as I’m not anti-gay.’ And as a gay man, I don’t want special treatment. I don’t want gay pubs or gay streets. I want being gay not to be special but normal.”

Outwardly embracing LGBT rights may have once alienated Yisrael Beiteinu’s socially conservative base, but Rozhkovsky has seen significant evolution in the Russian-speaking community’s views – starting with his parents. “My father was very, very Soviet. Very ‘Gays are bad. Gays are wrong. Gays are a mistake of nature,’” he recalls. “At age 24, I got married and moved in with my husband. My parents never came to visit me, and we tried not to speak of it. But after about five years my father called me and said: ‘We want you to come for dinner.’ But he used the Hebrew plural for ‘you,’ meaning ‘We want you and your husband to come to dinner.’”

A pre-sales manager at a high-tech company by day, in his spare time Rozhkovsky performs with a well-known Russian-language Israeli comedic group, which in recent years has incorporated more and more gay content into its act.

He says he feels more accepted by mainstream, straight Israeli society today than by the mainstream LGBT community. “I think the strangest thing about most LGBT people is that they say ‘We love everybody; we hug everybody; we’re inclusive.’ Until you say: ‘Well, I’m right wing.’ And then they hate you, and they don’t hug you, and they don’t include you. I feel that this way of thinking is way more drastic on the left than it is with those of us on the right.”

Unique challenges

There appears to be a significant gap in the way right-wing LGBT people feel they’re treated in the community and the official positions of political neutrality from Israel’s most influential LGBT organizations. Aguda spokesman Amir Moshe, for instance, says his organization has a working relationship with almost every secular political party in Israel’s Knesset.

“The LGBT rights struggle is not the domain of one specific group in society; it belongs to LGBT people who are right wing, left wing, religious, secular, Arab, and Jewish,” Moshe says. “Our goal is to represent and advance beneficial policies for the general LGBT public in all sectors, regardless of their political identity.”

Pride House Be’er Sheva, one of the few organizations serving a peripheral LGBT community, adopts a similar position of neutrality and encourages community members to vote for parties, right or left wing, who have included LGBT rights in their platforms.

Over 75 percent of Be’er Sheva’s residents voted for right-wing parties in March, but Pride House has not conducted research to determine if its LGBT community is similarly right-leaning, stating: “There is no index that indicates unequivocally that there are more right-wing LGBT voters in Be’er Sheva [relative to Tel Aviv, long recognized as Israel’s “LGBT capital”]. But it would be worth conducting a survey to find out.”

Accurately surveying the LGBT community presents unique challenges to researchers, as many Israelis are still reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, and the community’s true size and scope is difficult to ascertain. This has led to a noticeable gap in LGBT-related content produced by major Israeli research bodies like the Israel Democracy Institute, which studies virtually every other facet of Israeli politics.

Still, an in-depth look at the community’s political and ideological diversity could motivate LGBT-curious parties on the right to accelerate their support for the equality of sexual and gender minorities, and may also indicate that right-wing LGBT voters are less ostracized today than they may think.

For now, Barel still feels like an outsider among what is supposed to be his own community, though he says he’s come to terms with it. “I’ve had guys come over to my apartment on dates, but after they saw my [war] injury, they just left. I used to think there was something wrong with me. Then after a few years I went to treatment, and I learned that if they’re not going to accept it, it’s their problem and not mine. The way they react to my scars from the war is the same as the way they react to my politics. There’s no difference at all.”

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