Over the past decade, the Netanyahu government has neglected civil equality. Increased religious influence and the exclusion of women, with both the active and passive support of the government, has damaged many parts of society. But the demand for equality when dealing with government institutions has never disappeared, and the justified pressure for change now finds a welcome response in local government.
City council members in charge of LGBT issues have been appointed in Modi’in, Ramat Gan, Rishon Letzion, Kfar Sava and Herzliya. They join the municipalities of Tel Aviv, Givatayim and Haifa, where this role has existed for a number of years.
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Also, the Tel Aviv municipality is considering allowing civil marriage for everyone in its jurisdiction, and Haifa is looking into the possibility of celebrating same-sex unions at the municipality and giving these couples a marriage certificate to be recognized by municipal institutions, with all the implications.
In the midst of this awakening at the local level, the approach of Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama Hacohen is particularly welcome. A number of incidents have highlighted Ramat Gan as an arena of struggle between Orthodox and secular residents, and Shama Hacohen, a Likud member, is being touted as its hero. He has been harshly criticized by the right wing for his approach; the Orthodox media has even dubbed him “Erdogan from Ramat Gan.”
Still, Shama Hacohen is leading an approach of zero tolerance for calls in his city to infringe on the rights of others. Before Ramat Gan’s first-ever LGBT pride event this month, two flags and a street sign were vandalized. In response, Shama Hacohen ordered a dozen flags to be hung for every one vandalized. Also, last week a department head at the municipality was removed from his post for involvement in an incident where a 17-year-old girl was silenced on stage on Independence Day out of concern for the sensitivities of the Orthodox.
Ramat Gan recently launched a ride service to entertainment spots in Tel Aviv on the Sabbath, and people protested against it. On the morning of the demonstration, signs were posted in the city stating: “Short and tight clothing cause people to sin and shorten life.” The signs were removed by order of the municipality.
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The power of municipalities is limited; on their own they can’t fill the vacuum left by the government. But their willingness to make these efforts for their residents is encouraging and gives hope to secular people on both the right and the left. Unlike recent governments that were obligated by coalition agreements to adhere to the interests of the ultra-Orthodox, the municipalities can lead true change.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.