The sight of tens of thousands of Israelis, maybe as many as 100,000, rallying in Tel Aviv on Sunday night must have been heartening for anyone who thinks Israel is sliding into a cesspool of hyper-nationalism, various phobias and illiberal democracy.
Formally, the protest was over a seemingly marginal issue: that gay males were excluded from entitlement to government aid to cover the cost of a surrogate pregnancy.
The fact is that surrogacy is not a widespread phenomenon. In 2016 only 72 surrogacy procedures were approved in Israel by the Health Ministry; more surrogate pregnancies were arranged overseas, but even these amounted to just 126 in 2012 (the last year for which I could find figures).
The Knesset should have included everyone in the amended surrogacy law, and its exclusion of gay couples was presented as a fundamental setback for equality and LGBT rights. It would be more accurate to call it the absence of a minor advance.
Remarks like this were typical of the tone of the protests: “This struggle is not only about the rights of the [LGBT] community but about the image of the country. This is the 21st century. People are not seated at the back of the bus because of the color of their skin and they will not be deprived of the right to be parents due to their [sexual] orientation.”
When Itzik Shmuli, the openly gay Zionist Union Knesset member who said the above, concluded that “Netanyahu has sold the most important thing to us as a society to an extremist minority in his government for extraneous political interests, the value of equality," he got it all wrong.
A Walla! poll released on Sunday showed that 57% of the public support amending the surrogacy to include gays, but there’s no sign that they see gay rights and surrogacy as the thin wedge of a broader social agenda that will bring them out onto the streets. Indeed, poll after poll show those same voters will gladly in the next election give Netanyahu and his rightest coalition the same secure majority it enjoys now.
The exclusion of men from the law struck a nerve with Israelis, but probably not the nerve Shmueli and the organizers of the protest thought. More likely, the majority of Israelis see gay entitlement to surrogacy through the lens of family and children, a value held so highly that Israeli women produce babies at ever-higher rates, in contrast to the falling birth-rate in the rest of the developed world.
That’s one reason that the broader social-political agenda of the LGBT Sunday’s protests isn’t going to catch on as many hope. The bigger reason is that many Israelis may be unhappy with the direction the country is taking, but at the end of the day they vote with their pocketbooks.
Culture wars can sway voters even when they center on symbolic issues like surrogacy (note the role of gun rights in America and veils for Muslim women in Europe), but the subtext for these kind of political conflicts is usually economic.
Most voters don't look for a cause to be angry over if they feel their jobs and personal finances are secure, and that their children have a future.
In the United States and Europe, the trauma of the Great Recession of 2008 and stagnation of incomes for all but the wealthiest over decades have produced a wave of populism, and distrust in the elites (that many voters hold responsible for the recession).
Economics is a complicated business, even for economists. Causes and effects are hard to detect. They develop over years, if not decades. Voters can feel the effect of a declining salary in real terms but don't know why that is happening or even less, what to do to solve it. So they focus their rage on extraneous issues (like immigrants taking away their jobs) or the people they hold personally responsible (faceless European Union bureaucrats).
And there lies the problem of Israel’s left. Activists and politicians alike are convinced that deep down, everyone shares with them what they regard as “the most important thing to us as a society.” But not everyone does.
Israelis have no burning reason to seek change. Israel had no Great Recession. The economy has been growing with virtually no interruption for 15 years, unemployment is at record lows, wages are rising and the rate of poverty is falling. Even the rising price of homes – the biggest gripe among middle class consumers – is largely the unfortunate consequence of a thriving economy.
Observers of the Israeli political scene would have looked at Monday’s Haaretz print edition, seen a front-page news story, three commentaries and an editorial on the LGBT strike and concluded something big is happening in Israel. They probably didn’t notice the brief that appeared on page 7 where Moody’s, the international credit rating agency, said it was raising Israel’s outlook to Positive and sang the praises of its high-tech economy.
The Moody’s report with all its boring figures and intelligible economic jargon tell you a lot more about the state of Israel than the tens of thousands gathered on Sunday at Rabin Square.
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