Opinion

Israel’s LGBT Justice Chief Is No Cause for Great Pride

Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv, February 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The jeers at Amir Ohana during the Jerusalem Pride Parade breathed new life into one of the right’s old arguments: LGBT protests against Ohana are homophobic. The argument goes like this: Ohana may be gay, but criticizing him for his appalling voting record on this subject is akin to reducing him to his sexual orientation.

Such chutzpah: The people who crowned avowed homophobes as Likud’s natural partners are explaining to LGBT people what homophobia is. Such are the times we live in. This argument is an effective smokescreen precisely because it’s so infuriating. It’s worth analyzing because it sheds light on the character of our newly appointed justice minister.

>> Read more: Netanyahu’s justice minister pick is an obscene act | Opinion 

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For years, I handled hundreds of calls from LGBT people and heard too many of them talking about suicide. For them, the word “homophobia” is not to be taken lightly. The fight is not for any given law, but for legitimacy — to be able to walk in the street hand in hand without fear, to know you’ll be able to go to school and come home safe and sound, the right to tell your family the truth without spending angst-ridden months over the price this truth may exact.

Ohana’s voting record is one thing; his bowing to every homophobe is another thing entirely. Life has led him to some awful compromises. His coalition is built on far-rightist Bezalel Smotrich and ultra-Orthodox leaders Yaakov Litzman and Arye Dery. But even from someone as flexible as him, we could have expected to hear at least a peep of protest about Benjamin Netanyahu’s courting of far-rightists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel.

Ohana didn’t have to sit smiling at Netanyahu’s press conference with “Captain George,” the person behind the nasty online account who proudly used homophobic slurs against Benny Gantz. Ohana knows how to be absent when he wants to be. Instead, he showed up with his bodyguards at the pride parade, where he announced, "It isn’t certain that we have the characteristics of a community.”

Natan Eshel, the prime minister’s go-to guy for dirty work, is also known for trying to photograph under women’s skirts, and Netanyahu kept a lid on him in the past. But Eshel finally shed even this last bit of shame and was recently quoted saying: “The next justice minister will hold the key to the fate of the prime minister and his family.”

Eshel denies it, of course. But there’s no denying that the current justice minister proved in his years as a legislator that he’s Netanyahu’s man in the Knesset much more than he’s a representative of the community from which he comes. It’s convenient for Netanyahu’s people to have us quibbling over what constitutes homophobia — a lot more convenient than a genuine discussion about the warning lights set off by this appointment.

In his first speech as justice minister, Ohana justified the hopes that the prime minister and his family pinned on him. “One thing I’ve never seen is judges who were elected by the public,” Ohana said, explaining that, therefore, "the judicial branch is the least democratic of the three branches of government."

Judges are selected by a committee headed by the justice minister, a committee that includes a number of Knesset members. Ohana, however, was selected by the prime minister alone, in a government that didn’t even win the trust of the Knesset. And his first speech was composed entirely of hollow phrases meant to whitewash Netanyahu’s attempt to evade prison.

The appointment of Israel’s first gay minister is an important event that gives the stamp of institutional recognition to hundreds of young people who need all the legitimacy they can get.

But we can’t ignore the context of this appointment: It’s a temporary one for which the prime minister hastened to apologize to the ultra-Orthodox, and an appointment meant to help undo the damage caused by Smotrich’s comments about how Israel should operate according to biblical law. And of course it’s a move to put in the Justice Ministry an amenable partner for a prime minister facing potential criminal charges.

We deserve more. Israel’s LGBT community surely deserves better, as do all Israelis.