An estimated 100,000 Israelis took to the streets in protest on Sunday, July 22, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration blocked an amendment to a law that would have extended surrogacy rights to same-sex couples. The law allows single women to have children through surrogates via the national healthcare plan—but the exclusion of gay men was greeted with outrage from Israel’s LGBT community.
Netanyahu initially signaled his support for the amendment on July 16, but reversed course two days later, reportedly under pressure from Orthodox Jewish coalition partners who oppose any legislation that condones homosexuality. Israel has increasingly supported LGBT rights, but the ultra-Orthodox contingent still holds considerable power.
Out lesbian Rabbi Denise Eger, founding rabbi of congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, told the Los Angeles Blade: “Time and again, those of us who are to the center and to the left are constantly fighting against the encroaching right-wing Orthodox power. These are fundamentalist Jewish parties. They are reading their Bible—their Torah—with a strict and narrow viewpoint.”
Eger believes Netanyahu is perhaps not personally anti-LGBTQ, but rather may be siding against Israel’s LGBTQ communities because it is politically expedient.
On Sunday, the beginning of Israel’s work week, gay rights groups called a strike with the support of major companies and the national labor movement. Protests clogged the streets leading to Tel Aviv, whose City Hall was illuminated by the Star of David and colors of the rainbow. Straight allies joined the LGBT demonstrators, in many cases to voice their opposition to other recently enacted conservative policies.
Among its other provisions, the widely-criticized “nation state” bill that was recently passed by Israel’s Parliament, removes Arabic from the official languages, alongside Hebrew, that are recognized in the country.
“Those of us who are connected to Israel,” Eger said, “and are Zionists, as I am, are appalled at the ‘nation state’ bill.”
Another incendiary development happened on Friday, July 20, Eger said, when an Orthodox rabbinist called the police to arrest a conservative rabbi for performing a commitment ceremony (of opposite-sex partners). In Israel, where civil marriage does not exist, only imams, priests, and Orthodox rabbis are permitted to ordain weddings and funerals.
“The interests of the national religious and ultra-Orthodox factions, pose a significant threat to Israeli democracy and push us far from democracy in the direction of theocracy, as witnessed by the interrogation of a Conservative Rabbi for the absurd transgression of performing a wedding ceremony,” wrote leading Reform Rabbi Meir Azari in an email to members of a progressive Jewish organization.
Reaction to Friday’s arrest coalesced with opposition to the “nation state” legislation and outrage against Netanyahu’s volte-face on including gay men in the surrogacy law. Considering that Israel’s total population is roughly equivalent to Virginia’s, the number of protestors who turned out Sunday in cities from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beersheba is remarkable, Eger said. “It’s a wonderful, important, and incredible exercise of democracy.”
The demonstrators are impassioned, as the subject of family planning is deeply personal, and the exclusion of same-sex couples will, in many cases, force gay men to travel outside the country to find surrogates. Many say the process can cost upward of $100,000.
“Look me in the eyes and tell me I don’t deserve to be a father,” a protestor shouted near Netanyahu’s residence before he was detained by Israeli police, which has arrested and released three people so far in protests in Jerusalem, according to The Times of Israel.
“Both reform and conservative Jews here in America have supported the protests of the LGBTQ community [in Israel],” Eger said. And LGBTQ people are completely integrated in Israeli society, she explained. “There’s no division; no dividing line.”
Several of the country’s major gay rights groups have circulated petitions on social media that call for supporters to join what they call the Global Strike for LGBTQ Rights in Israel. At the same time, Havruta, an Israeli LGBT organization of religiously-inclined Jewish people—which aims to promote tolerance and understanding in the Orthodox community—shared a post on Facebook that reads, in part, “I do not know what a right to parenthood is. I do not think that surrogacy for same-sex couples is a cause for celebration, but I know that we have the strength to heal this rift, and therefore we must heal it…I have no intention of striking Sunday.”
Members of Havruta feel that intimate behavior between people of the same sex is immoral.
“There are always people who are LGBTQ Jews who struggle because they came from or live in the Orthodox world,” Eger explained. “These people are far, far right in the religious world.”
She compared these groups to movements in Catholicism that preach acceptance of LGBTQ congregants while maintaining that same-sex behavior is verboten. “
They are struggling,” Eger said, “because they want to stay in that very far-right world and they’re struggling with their homosexuality.” By contrast, “The majority of the LGBTQ organizations in Israel work to try to help LGBTQ people be proud of who they are and live full, healthy lives—including in their intimate lives.”
The American Jewish Committee endorsed the strike. But major Jewish and LGBT organizations based in the United States, including the Human Rights Campaign, have not yet issued statements on social media that concern the protests in Israel.
Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke before the Christians United for Israel in Washington, DC and apparently did not mention the strike.