Analysis: Quarter of a million people celebrate Tel Aviv Pride

An estimated 250,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv last Friday to celebrate the city’s 21st annual Pride parade.

The event is one of the few Pride events in the Middle East outside of Israel, and is the eighth largest in the world.

The parade marked the culmination of more than 45 events held across the city over the past two weeks, including the first National Conference on LGBTQ issues. Between 25,000 and 30,000 tourists are believed to have arrived from abroad to take part in Pride events. Children, the elderly and families were among the revellers.

Most of the streets in central Tel Aviv were closed throughout the day. Last year’s Israeli Eurovision song contest winner, Netta Barzilai, performed in the concert held at the end of the parade route at the seaside Charles Clore Park. The US actor Neil Patrick Harris attended as this year’s international pride ambassador.

President Reuven Rivlin sent a message of support. Among those participating in the parade were Israel’s first openly gay cabinet minister, justice secretary Amir Ohana, and a raft of opposition politicians. Among their number were Labor leadership candidates Stav Shaffir and Amir Peretz and the party’s former leader Shelly Yachimovich. The leader of the left-wing Meretz party, Tamar Zandberg, was in attendance, as were MKs from the opposition centrist Blue and White party, including former TV presenter Miki Haimovich and Idan Roll.

Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai said: “Tel Aviv, which has already been acknowledged as the world’s ‘most gay-friendly city’ and as a beacon for liberty, pluralism and tolerance is proud to be home to a large and diverse LGBTQ population.

“The Tel Aviv Pride parade is not just a celebration, but an important declaration of support and an opportunity to promote equal rights for all. We will continue to support and celebrate our local LGBTQ culture and act as a welcoming destination for the International gay community.”

The Pride celebrations underlined once again Israel’s reputation as a beacon for LGBTQ rights in the Middle East.

While Israel inherited Mandate-era laws banning same-sex relationships, there is no record that these were ever enforced after 1948.

Israel’s record on gay rights in fact compares favourably to Britain’s. In 1963, four years before homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, Israel’s attorney general formally announced that no action would be taken against consenting adults having gay sex. Discrimination in the workplace was banned in 1992 and the bar on gays serving in the military lifted in 1993. Similar measures weren’t introduced in Britain until 2003 and 2000 respectively. In Israel. same-sex partner benefits were recognised in the private sector in 1994 and public sector in 1997. Israel equalised the age of consent in 2000 – the same year as the UK. The ban on gay men giving blood – still only partially removed in the UK – was lifted in 2016.

This spring’s general election saw a record number of openly gay MKs – five in total – elected to the Knesset. It was subsequently announced that the Israeli parliament would amend “husband and wife” to “couple” on all its official documents, and would grant more rights to partners of LGBT legislators, such as permanent entry passes to the Knesset, authorization to drive Knesset-issued cars assigned to their partners, and invitations to all official ceremonies and events.

But, as Ohad Hizki, director of the LGBT rights organisation The Aguda, said, the Pride march wasn’t simply an apolitical party. Marchers, he argued, wanted “to bring about change in Israeli society and send a message that we need to end discrimination against the gay community and create an equal and tolerant society”. Prior to April’s general election four parties were designated as “really pro-LGBT rights” by Mr Hizki – Blue and White, Labor, Meretz and Kulanu (which has now merged with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party) – and there remains work to be done.

Gay Israelis do not, for instance, enjoy the same surrogacy rights as straight Israelis. Using surrogacy services outside of Israel is permitted and children brought to Israel, as a result of surrogacy, receive Israeli citizenship and are recognised as legal children to their parents.

Polls show overwhelming public support for some form of same-sex marriage (including majority support among religious Jews). However, Israel is yet to introduce gay marriage, with a bill introduced last year in the Knesset being defeated by a margin of three votes.

The issue is intimately related to, and complicated by, the lack of any form of civil marriage (for gay or straight couples) in Israel. In a system inherited from Ottoman times, people can only marry in Israel through their religious institutions: Jewish couples must marry through the Chief Rabbinate, which refuses to carry out same sex marriages, and Christians, Druze and Muslims all marry through their own state-sanctioned and publicly funded religious legal systems.

Nonetheless, Israel recognises same-sex marriages performed abroad and in 2014 announced that the Law of Return – by which any Jew in the world can emigrate to Israel – would apply equally to same-sex couples. Thus a non-Jewish partner of a Jew making Aliyah would be granted Israeli citizenship. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem also accept gay couples as legal familial units, while the country’s recognition of unregistered cohabitation (essentially common law marriage) provides important de facto rights for gay couples in terms of inheritance and pension rights.

The boycott movement, however, has made Israel’s strong record on LGBT rights a point of attack, repeatedly accusing the country of supposedly “pinkwashing” its mistreatment of the Palestinians behind a veneer of pro-gay liberalism.

Such charges are angrily denied by many LGBT Israelis, such as gay rights campaigner Shai DeLuca-Tamasi who wrote last week: “Our accomplishments as a country and as a community should be celebrated as successes in their own right. To infer that the accomplishments my community and LGBTQ+ allies have succeeded in is somehow a nefarious plot to deny the struggle of Palestinians is ludicrous and offensive. It attempts to erase what we’ve done in the name of progress and equality as a political smoke screen.

“Do we have much to be proud of? Yes. Do we still need to work towards a peaceful, sustainable solution between Israelis and Palestinians? Also yes. One does not negate the other nor does one cancel the other out.”