Analysis: LGBT rights thrive in Israel, albeit with further advances needed

Israel is undoubtedly a pioneer in the region of LGBT rights in the region with leading LGBT members of the Knesset such as Labor’s Itzik Shmuli playing a prominent role in public life. Similarly, Tel Aviv pride, which takes place this week, has grown from a few dozen protesters to a quarter of a million participants parading in the Middle East’s largest pride.

As important, is the growth of LGBT activism outside of the secular Tel Aviv core, with LGBT prides developing in areas from Haifa to Beer Sheva. Haaretz reports that 2019 will see gay pride events in a dozen towns and cities that have never previously had any such events. Last week, the country saw the appointment of its first openly gay cabinet minister, Amir Ohana, as justice minister.  Before the April 2019 election Netanyahu met LGBT activists and stated “I hear you, I will work for you”.

In 2016, 23rd February was officially declared to be LGBT day in Israel. Israel has legal rights against discrimination for LGBT individuals, in the workplace and in access to healthcare, as well as being able to openly serve in the military. Israel also recognises ‘unregistered cohabitation’ (essentially common-law marriage) for all couples, which provides important de facto rights for LGBT couples in terms of inheritance and pension rights. Israel also recognises same-sex marriages conducted abroad and has equal rights for LGBT couples in terms of surrogacy and the adoption of children.

Tel Aviv’s vibrant LGBT scene is renowned across the globe, with Newsweek stating that it’s Hilton beach is the most ‘gay-friendly’ in the world, while the city as a whole was named the world’s best gay city in 2012. Haaretz reports that Tel Aviv will host over 40 pride events over June 2019, as the city basks in the afterglow of the Eurovision festivities last month.

However, LGBT equality still has some way to go, with Netanyahu’s warm words often unmatched by action on his part; the Times of Israel noted that his meeting with LGBT activists earlier this year was his first engagement with an LGBT group in a decade. Labor dismissed the meeting as mere election spin.

A central issue regarding advancing LGBT rights, lies within the realm of marriage. In Israel there is no civil marriage for either heterosexual or homosexual couples; all marriages must be officiated by religious authorities, who refuse to conduct marriages for LGBT couples.

The movement for civil marriage has been supported by Labor, Green and the centrist Yesh Atid party, with Labor MK Stav Staffir introducing a bill to the Knesset, in 2018, to legislative for same-sex civil unions. However, any attempt to institute civil marriage has been fiercely opposed by the religious right-wing parties such as Shas and UTJ. These parties often also take a far frostier approach towards advancing LGBT rights, as shown by  an MK from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party being pressured by his party to resign from the Knesset, after it emerged that he attended his nephew’s same-sex marriage. Hence, the struggle over civil marriage, including marriage for LGBT couples, strikes at a deeper cleavage within Israeli society and politics between secular and religious Israelis.

In addition, Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, despite Likud winning fewer seats than Kadima, with the help of those smaller religious parties who oppose any changes to the status quo. Hence, the leverage of the religious parties, facilitated by the electoral system, has prevented same-sex marriage being allowed under this current government. With Israel once again going to the polls, it remains to be seen whether the results will lead to further victories for LGBT rights.

Daniel Katz