Hilton Beach at Tel Aviv Pride, Tel Aviv Israel 1640001 > Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tel Aviv Pride celebrated its 23rd birthday on Saturday as 170,000 Israelis took to the streets of the city in a joyous celebration which saw the number of participants close to pre-pandemic levels.

The parade took place amid several steps forward over the past year for the LGBTQ community in Israel – the most liberal state in the Middle East – as well as a backlash from right-wing extremists who have attempted to disrupt Pride events elsewhere in the country.

What happened

  • Cabinet ministers, drag queens and thousands of other party-goers turned out in Tel Aviv on Saturday, joining a parade which took seven hours to snake through the north of the city.
  • Addressing the crowds, Labor leader Merav Michaeli celebrated the return of Pride after its cancellation in 2020 and a scaled-back event in 2021. “Here we are, returning to march in pride,” she declared. “Nothing can beat that.” However, Michaeli, who serves as transportation secretary in the cabinet, also added: “There are those who aren’t here with us because others are still trying to intimidate them and speak ill of them. But we won’t let them! We simply won’t let them! Freedom, freedom of choice and the freedom to choose love – we will never give that up.”
  • Foreign minister Yair Lapid, who heads the centre-left Yesh Atid party and is slated to become prime minister next autumn under the coalition agreement, promised attendees: “We are winning the fight for the [LGBTQ] community but it is not over, we must continue to lead it because as long as there is one LGBT child in the periphery who needs our protection, we will march in their honour.”
  • Lapid, who ordered the Foreign Ministry to fly the Pride flag soon after taking office last June, recalled how far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir sent a letter to the attorney general demanding that the flag be taken down. “My response was ‘Who asked you?’” Lapid joked.
  • The attendance of cabinet ministers at both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Pride highlighted the pro-LGBT stance of many members of the coalition government which ousted Benjamin Netanyahu from power last summer.
  • The popular mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, joined the social equality minister, Yesh Atid’s Meirav Cohen, at the beginning of the parade. “We won’t let anyone feel afraid in our country, we will always provide protection to the people living in this country,” Cohen said. “We won’t cave in to people threatening violence and terror, every such threat will be met with more budgets and investment.”
  • Cohen’s comments referenced threats of violence and disruption aimed at Jerusalem Pride and the cancellation of pride events in the southern city of Netivot last month.
  • Pride parades will be held in Beersheba, Ramat Gan and Kfar Saba later this week, and in Haifa on 24 June.

“A breakthrough that will save lives”

The coalition’s wafer-thin majority and ideologically eclectic nature has made advancing the LGBTQ agenda through the Knesset problematic. However, the government has a number of achievements to its name, many of them driven by health minister Nitzan Horowitz, the leader of Meretz and the country’s most senior gay politician.

Perhaps most significantly, Horowitz’s Health Ministry issued a circular in February which banned medical professionals from engaging in conversion therapy. Defying the order is likely to lead to therapists having their license revoked. Horowitz claims that, since the ban, the number of victims of conversion therapy – which is most likely to be practised in highly religious communities – has fallen sharply. The move was welcomed by the Israel Gay Youth organisation, which labelled it a “breakthrough that will save lives, families and future of hundreds of teenage boys and girls in Israel”.

Making progress

LGBTQ activists acknowledge other positive developments over the last year. These include:

  • In January, same-sex couples, single men and transgender people became eligible to parent children through surrogacy. The government directive followed a ruling by the High Court last July – the culmination of an 11-year-battle by gay couple Etai Pinkas Arad and Yoav Arad Pinkas – which overturned legislation denying surrogacy to same-sex couples and single men. In hearings before the court, Horowitz effectively invited the court to act by warning that “for now it’s not feasible” that the Knesset would be able to do so.
  • Last August, the Health Ministry unveiled plans to cut the waiting time for those seeking gender reassignment surgery and to cut the bureaucratic process involved. The ministry has also pressed for health insurance coverage to be expanded to include special treatments required by transgender people.
  • Also in August, Horowitz announced that the Health Ministry was scrapping the ban on gay men giving blood. “The ban was left over from an old stereotype that belongs in history,” he suggested.
  • Horowitz is open about his desire to use his portfolio to rectify injustices faced by LGBTQ Israelis. “Previously, there were ministers here who, in my opinion, weren’t even familiar with the words, didn’t know the meaning of transgender, didn’t know what PRP [a treatment to prevent HIV infection] is,” he told Haaretz last weekend. “They certainly didn’t adapt or deal with these things, so I deal with them. It’s about time.”
  • Other ministries, including the Justice and Social Equality ministries, have also helped advance the rights of the LGBTQ community. Cohen used her Social Equality Ministry coffers to provide the largest-ever budget allocation to the LGBTQ community. Among the benefits of the $26.7m spend are funding for 70 LGBTQ centres around the country.

Unfinished business in the Knesset …

Despite progress, gay rights activists are concerned about the presence of a small but vocal contingent of far-right anti-gay members of the Knesset. The six-member Religious Zionism alliance includes the Noam party, whose leader, Avi Moaz, has campaigned in recent elections under the slogan “a normal people within our land”.

While Religious Zionism now forms part of the pro-Netanyahu right-wing bloc, the governing coalition includes the mainly Israeli-Arab Ra’am party. It has vigorously opposed gay rights legislation; in a July 2020 vote on banning conversion therapy, it said such a law “spread obscenity and homosexuality” and was a “crime against religion and society”. The more liberal-leaning Israeli-Arab Joint List currently sits in the opposition and has taken a less hardline approach on LGBTQ issues.

Nonetheless, these voices shouldn’t be exaggerated, suggests Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer. “There remains a long uphill fight for acceptance of LGBTQ people in the more conservative of Israel’s Jewish and Muslim communities. But in mainstream Israeli society, it has already been won,” he wrote last week. Indeed, in a country where 79 percent of voters support gay marriage and civil partnerships, such politicians seem to out of step with the broad mass of public opinion.

… and on the streets

Challenges remain for the community, especially in more religious areas beyond the liberal metropolis of Tel Aviv and other left-leaning urban areas.

  • In May, a Pride march in Netivot was cancelled when a bullet was sent to the organiser’s mother. The march had been opposed by the city’s mayor and prominent local rabbis, one of whom had warned that holding the event would “distress” God and lead to rocket attacks on the country and “terrible terror attacks in every city”.
  • However, a heavy police presence allowed Jerusalem’s Pride march to pass off without incident earlier this month. The event – which has seen two stabbing attacks, one fatal, in the past 15 years – has been targeted by religious-right extremists in the largely conservative city.
  • Cohen and her cabinet colleague, Labor public security minister Omar Barlev, joined the Jerusalem event to show their solidarity. Marchers were also addressed for the first time by the speaker of the Knesset. The current holder of the post, Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy, said he was “shocked to the depths of my soul” over the threats of violence. “So I came today to stand against this evil spectre,” Levy said. “You are entitled to love who you want, you are entitled to marry who you love, you are entitled to raise a family like anyone else. These are not privileges, these are basic rights for every citizen in the country,”
  • 2021 saw a 10 percent increase in homophobic incidents, monitoring by gay rights group Aguda reported in February. Nearly half of those incidents occurred within families, with a 41 percent increase in young people leaving their homes and moving to LGBTQ-friendly hostels.

A pink oasis

Israel might not yet be a “pink heaven”, Horowitz suggested at the weekend, but it remains a pink oasis for LGBTQ people in the region. According to the Equaldex website, it scores 74 out of 100 points (the UK received 82), compared to 24 for Jordan, 12 for Egypt and six for Iran.