Israeli corporations were falling over themselves itself on Thursday issuing press releases announcing they would let their employees participate in Sunday’s strike, called to protest the exclusion of gay men from the new surrogacy law. It started with ad agencies and public relations firms, then spread to high-tech firms and then to the rest of the business establishment and the labor unions.
It seemed almost no one was left out of what became as much a merit badge for a company’s “social” credentials, along with a show of force by the good, progressive Israel, as it was a strike.
One of the basic pieces of equipment in a journalist’s toolkit is suspicion, doubt and even cynicism, most of it borne of bitter experience. So I can’t help but ask some uncomfortable questions.
Have these companies, some of whom were tagged as villains in the 2011 social-justice protests, now found a cause the public likes? Could it be they think there is some generalized public anger and prefer that it be channeled behind something like LGBT rights rather than against them?
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Did they support the strike because they reason that the minimal loss to business would be nothing compared to the positive public relations they’d receive? After all, the strike was on the Tisha B’Av fast day when much of the economy goes into low gear.
Businesses are traditionally on the other side of the picket line, trying to end a strike instead of supporting it. And then there’s the question about why the issue of LGBT rights, or more specifically the right of men to get the same surrogacy services from the state as everyone else, is a cause that unites so many businesses. The Israeli corporate world has never shown any deep interest in LGBT rights. Could Sunday’s strike simply have been a clever PR exercise?
Or could it reflect the economic and media power of Israel’s LGBT community?
No matter, what we saw on Sunday was an unusual, surprising case of business supporting a mass street protest. There was already a signal of something changing, at least in the high-tech sector, when Barak Eilam announced last month that his company would no longer fly El Al because the airline surrendered to pressure not to seat Haredi men next to women.
What the El Al and surrogacy controversies have in common is that they are evidence of the power of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
These aren’t isolated incidents either: They follow the Haredi draft legislation, the battles over Shabbat in Ashdod and on the railroads and the continued monopoly on the Chief Rabbinate over kashrut. They signal to large sections of the Israeli population that they are being strangled – and not just the secular left.
Add in the corruption of the current government and the power struggle between the new and old elites, and you see all the ingredients coming together to create a mass anxiety that even touches the business sector.
Still, Israeli business leaders hesitated. Their media advisers urged them to get on board, saying the LGBT issue cut across the normal left-right divisions of Israeli society. Even so, many top executives reportedly asked whether once they declare their support for one social justice cause, won’t they have to declare it for others?
They have reason to be worried. While Sunday’s protests were about the surrogacy law, there’s every reason to assume it will lead to wider protests on other issues. The 2011 protests began over housing costs and mushroomed into a generalized demand for social justice. You can’t know where the energy generated from protests will go.
As a rule, business avoids politics. It can only hurt companies that have to deal with politicians and regulations and is bound to alienate one class of consumers or another.
The question now is whether we are now at the dawn of a new era of corporate responsibility. Today, corporate responsibility means making charitable donations and sending employees from time to time to volunteer.
But supporting LGBT rights or resisting religious coercion is another matter: It risks bringing business into conflict with politicians and with segments of society, which demands a lot of courage. That could explain why Nice, a high-tech company, was a pioneer. It does almost no business in the local market and doesn’t care what Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox consumers think.
Already many advertising and PR agencies are planning other protests that will encompass issues like the growing influence of religion on public life. The protest of a single company last month and the dozens on Sunday may be the start of something much bigger.