'We Are Facing a Wave of Intolerance': An Interview With Israel's Only Openly Gay MK

A poll released points to racist trends in Israel, as considerable number of respondents said they don't want to bestow rights upon those who are unlike them - particularly not to Arabs, and also other minority groups.

A poll released yesterday points to racist trends in Israel, as a considerable number of respondents said they don't want to live next to, deal with in any way, or bestow rights upon those who are unlike them - particularly not to Arabs, and also not to immigrants from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia, the ultra-Orthodox, and other minority groups.

Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz is an openly declared homosexual and a member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Nitzan Horowitz - Ofer Vaknin
Ofer Vaknin

A quarter of the population does not want to live next to homosexuals. Do you feel that hostility in your daily life?

Yes, I really feel it every day in the Knesset. There is a huge gap between the support avowed by the public and by public servants for democratic principles, and the way that support translates into daily behavior. This latest survey shows that the majority supports democracy, but in practice more and more racist, hurtful and discriminatory laws are being proposed.

Do you feel this in your personal life as well?

No, I can't say this about myself personally, but that really isn't saying much - I am a Knesset member, and I live in a specific environment... There are whole sectors in Israeli society - perhaps even among the majority of that society - in which there is a young man or woman who encounters tremendous difficulties because of his or her sexual preference or gender identity. This include threats, violence, being thrown out of a house, ostracism, trouble finding work.

What about among adults?

Certainly. I know of many cases that have reached the point of death threats being made, and also extremely violent acts being carried out.

Is there a connection between discrimination against the gay community and racism against Arabs and other groups?

This is all part of a very big picture. The moment there is extreme intolerance in society toward what is called the "other," someone unlike yourself, that leads to such [discriminatory] behavior.

Many say they would rather live next to homosexuals than Arabs.

It's not just homosexuals. The survey also related to Ethiopians, new immigrants, ultra-Orthodox, people with physical or emotional disabilities. It's worth noting that such racist phenomena is also widespread among minority groups themselves, in their members' attitudes toward others. For instance, among Arabs there is a trend of extreme intolerance toward the gay community, and other groups. And this does not happen by accident, or in a vacuum. There are political, economic and social forces that erode solidarity in Israeli society.

What forces, exactly?

From the Yisrael Beiteinu party to the Islamic movement, a huge wave is hitting us. You can take a look at the bills that reach the Knesset, and examine who is supporting them; it's not just one or two bodies.

Are there Knesset members not infected by this attitude? Are there enough MKs to stem the tide?

Of course, there are Knesset member who uphold genuine democratic beliefs. They belong to all sorts of parties, and that is fortunate.

However, I think the problem is not the group of MKs [who are behind the bills], but rather the general view that guides government in Israel; not just those in the cabinet, but a number of elements and groups that hold the reins of power, and promote an undemocratic world view. I'm talking about private companies, economic elements.

You can't look at this through the narrow prism of racism. You have to understand that this is a general erosion of the democratic fabric. The democratic order includes not only constitutional rights for the individual citizen, but also economic and social rights. These rights are challenged the moment admissions committees are set up on communal settlements, and other similar projects go into effect - and some people are disqualified because of the color of their skin, or because they belong to a lower socioeconomic class, or because they are handicapped, or because they are homosexuals. All of this is a function of a [certain] world view."

How exactly do you connect money to this? After all, anyone can earn money.

A large part of the problem is that, in Israeli society, we have ever-expanding gaps in the population - and you can't look at these things solely from the standpoint of classic civil rights. There is a socioeconomic dimension that is no less important.

For instance, a large majority of respondents to this survey feel preference in resource allocation should go to Jewish, not Arab, communities and authorities... If you're talking about access to jobs, land, economic initiatives, then the economic dimension and the issue of racism overlap, totally.

Still, there is a difference in terms of the discrimination shown toward Arabs as compared to gays. The incitement toward Arabs is influenced by their being associated with the enemy, and the perception that they're a security threat, etc., while it appears there is much more openness today toward the gay community. Is it easier today to come out of the closet?

In some population sectors, and in some places, yes. In other places, no. The state of Israel is, in fact, an amalgam of several states. Among the secular population, in the big cities, and perhaps in more affluent areas, there has definitely been a big change in recent years. But in the Arab sector, and among ultra-Orthodox, new immigrants, settlers and other population groups, the difficulties continue to be daunting.

That is to say, there is discrimination in some of these sectors, but it's accompanied by expressions in favor of social solidarity?

That is a familiar and difficult issue. Everyone wants to join the anti-racism festivities - which might include sitting alongside an Arab MK and preaching against racism and discrimination - but when the topic of the gay community comes up, the same people will say something like "those things don't happen in our society."

Such comments are completely disconnected from reality, and reflect truly disturbing levels of insensitivity and lack of thought.

I know that you justifiably don't want to connect the topic of homophobia with a discussion on HIV/AIDS, but as it is World AIDS Day, I want to ask about newly released data that shows an increase in the incidence of HIV among homosexuals.

There needs to be much more dissemination of information about the need for preventive behavior. We know that places where such campaigns have been launched have seen a dramatic decrease in the incidence of HIV/AIDS. It is mainly an issue of awareness.

Is the problem in Israel awareness or apathy? Is it possible that people believe there is some easy remedy out there and everything will work out okay?

I think that people don't understand that, even if there is some sort of treatment, that doesn't solve the problem at all. [This increase in the number of HIV cases] is very worrisome, but it can be solved. The amount allocated to educational and informational initiatives to increase awareness [of HIV] is very small compared with the standard seen in developed countries, and that, I think, is the main cause of the problem.