NEW YORK – Some 30 members of the Israeli LGBT community protested in Times Square on Saturday after the Knesset voted last week to exclude same-sex couples from a law expanding surrogacy rights in Israel.
The demonstration was a show of support for the major strike planned in Israel on Sunday.
“We’re all far from what is happening in Israel and thinking about how we can help our friends who are fighting for their rights,” the invite to the protest read.
Holding "Mother and Mother" and "Father and Father" signs in Hebrew with Israeli and Pride flags, the protesters chanted: “We are all equal.”
Others in attendance included the U.S. nonprofit A Wider Bridge, the Italian LGBT advocacy group MDKI and Dayenu, a Jewish LGBT group based in Sydney, Australia.
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Protesters warned that a major consequence of the new legislation – which amends the existing law to allow only heterosexual couples and single women to be eligible for surrogacy – is a potential brain drain of young gay professionals, some of whom have already relocated from Israel for personal, career or academic reasons and may now feel more alienated from their homeland.
“We don’t want to completely immigrate from Israel – and perhaps that’s the tragedy of it all,” said Assaf Weiss, 34, a lawyer and activist who organized the Times Square gathering.
He has been living with his partner in New York for the past two years. They had hoped to eventually return to Israel and be with their families, but say they now fear they won’t be able to afford it.
Since adoption is also not an option for them in Israel, Weiss said, a $130,000 to $160,000 surrogacy process in the United States is their only hope for a family. This is more than twice the average price for the process in Israel.
“We understood that only by staying in the United States [where they can earn more] will we be able to finance such a process – especially including the unpredictability of medical bills in surrogacy,” Weiss explained.
The paradox is clear: Same-sex couples stay in the United States to work and try to afford the surrogacy process but pay a heavy price away from families and friends, and even a potential loss of social benefits in Israel.
Yonatan Verjovsky, 28, was born in Mexico City and immigrated with his family to Israel at age 6. He calls Israel his home and was an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, completing his military service as deputy head of the army’s discharge unit. He moved to New York City a year ago to study for his master’s at Columbia University.
“When I first learned about this new surrogacy bill, I felt sad that the country I love doesn’t seem to love me back,” he said, adding that he feels betrayed and “stabbed in the back.”
Verjovsky wants to return to the place where he grew up, to his home and friends. However, he said the new bill left him wondering “what kind of life can I have in a place that does everything possible to show me they don’t want me? And that I don’t deserve equal rights? What kind of life would my children have there one day? I left Israel to study and acquire my master’s degree with the thought that once I’m done, I’ll go back. But now I am not sure of that,” he added.
The discrimination found in the surrogacy law is also present in areas such as marriage, forcing same-sex couples to travel abroad to get married. “Instead of having a big wedding in Israel, with family and friends, we had to travel with a small group of friends and family” to Denmark, Weiss said – a wedding that meant many relatives were reluctantly excluded.
Tal, 35, and his partner Nimrod, 33, moved to the United States in 2014 after also getting married in Denmark. (Tal and Nimrod requested that their surnames not be published.) “The legislation last week didn’t catch us by surprise, but we are furious,” Tal said from their new home in Philadelphia, after recently moving from New York.
“It’s been 10 years since the beginning of the fight for the right of same-sex couples to surrogacy, and we now get this painful slap in the face,” Tal said. “They went through the entire effort of changing it and didn’t see fit to fix this wrongdoing in the law,” added Nimrod.
The couple recently started the surrogacy process in the United States and had decided to stay, for reasons both financial and concerning equal rights.
“It feels like in Israel the public supports us and there’s a growing acceptance of gay people across the country, but the state is completely unsupportive,” said Nimrod. “It’s such a frustrating feeling that at some point you say, ‘Enough,’” he added.
For those who feel an emotional connection to their country, as so many Israelis also do, immigrating is a complex and difficult decision.
“Our heart is still there,” Tal sighed, “but the current situation and trend doesn’t prompt us to return to Israel and willingly turn ourselves into second-class citizens in our own country.”
“It is unacceptable that in 2018 we are moving backward instead of forward,” said Verjovsky. “I don’t want any special treatment. I want the same treatment that every other citizen gets, for good and for bad. I’m not asking for more, but I will not settle for less.”