Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for many years enjoyed contrasting Israel’s openness and tolerance for LGBTQ lifestyles with the harsh attitudes of its Middle Eastern neighbors.
In 2016, a month after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and on the day of the Jerusalem Gay Pride march, the Israeli leader posted a video in which he declared, in English, that “loving someone should never mean a life of fear or terror,” citing how Iran and ISIS brutally murdered members of the LGBTQ community.
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“Sadly,” he went on, “some elements of our society are still not ready the accept the LGBT community. My solemn promise to you today is to continue to foster respect for all of Israel’s citizens, without exception. ... I ask you to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community. We will not let hate drown out acceptance.”
On Wednesday, however, Netanyahu seemingly embraced elements of that very society when his Likud party signed a vote-sharing pact with a far-right religious party that is openly and proudly homophobic.
The two parties forged what is known in Israel as an excess vote agreement, which prevents a party’s votes “going to waste” if it doesn’t have enough to secure a full seat once it has passed the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. Its votes are then passed to the tally of the other party in the agreement; traditionally, the parties who pair up share similar ideologies.
The party Likud has agreed to share votes with is a three-faction, far-right mash-up called Religious Zionism, headed by Bezalel Smotrich from National Union. The other factions are the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, led by controversial attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the ultra-Orthodox and staunchly homophobic Noam, which was given the sixth seat on the party’s Knesset slate.
The far-right party is currently averaging at around four to five seats in polling ahead of the March 23 election.
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Noam hit the political scene in the summer of 2019, ahead of that September’s election. Its central tenet blames homosexuality for the deterioration and potential future destruction of the country.
Founded by the followers of Rabbi Tzvi Tau, the party calls to rid Israel of what it views as un-Jewish and “foreign” influences – which it blamed for the growing acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyles.
“Someone is trying to re-engineer us, to change our language, to erase our identity, blur our values; to erase our families and fill children’s heads with gender confusion,” the party stated on its website. It also circulated scathing online videos, accusing the Reform movement and New Israel Fund of being foreign infiltrators bent on eliminating traditional Jewish practice from Israel. Furthermore, it compared secular and pluralistic Judaism to Nazi Germany, specifically targeting the LGBTQ rights movement for “destruction of the family and the country’s birth rate.”
It has never come close to passing the 3.25 percent electoral threshold while running independently, but has a better chance of being represented in the Knesset now.
Neither of the other two factions in this far-right triumvirate have exactly been waving a rainbow flag either. As a young activist, Smotrich stridently fought the establishment of a Pride Parade in Jerusalem, declaring himself a “proud homophobe.” He organized the anti-LGBTQ “Beast Parade” in 2006, which featured goats and donkeys and was meant to pointedly satirize the celebration of “deviant acts.”
Smotrich subsequently set his sights higher and moved into mainstream politics and, while he never disavowed his disapproval of homosexuality, he increasingly downplayed it.
Similarly, the religious-Zionist extremist Ben-Gvir is no fan of LGBT life either. However, the Otzma Yehudit leader has expressed substantially greater outrage when it comes to Jews and Arabs of the opposite sex marrying and building a family together than same-sex Jews getting married.
Netanyahu’s vigorous encouragement of the Smotrich/Ben-Gvir alliance, with its implied acceptance of the latter’s Kahanist ideology, has been viewed as a sign of the lengths to which the prime minister is willing to leave his previous principles opposing racism behind in his fight for political survival.
With the signing of the agreement not only with Ben-Gvir but with Noam, he has made his readiness to cross any red line even clearer. (It is surely just a coincidence that the LGBTQ community has been a prominent presence at the protests outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem every Saturday night for the past nine or so months.)
Over the years, Netanyahu has tried to project a forward-thinking attitude toward LGBTQ Israelis, even as his utter dependence on ultra-Orthodox parties to help him form governments has tied his hands when it came to actually doing anything to lessen discrimination against the community.
At the behest of his “natural partners” in the Haredi parties, he stymied legislation that would create marriage equality or help LGBTQ couples build a family through adoption or surrogacy.
Still, within his party, he struck a different tone by appointing Amir Ohana – a close and loyal political ally who’s raising two children in Tel Aviv with his male partner – as Israel’s first openly gay government minister in 2019. He also encouraged Likud’s LGBTQ supporters to join the party ranks.
One wonders if now, after signing an agreement with a homophobic, far-right slate, he can still look those supporters in the eye.