By Daniel Sokatch, NIF International CEO
When the first rally for gay rights was held in Tel Aviv in 1979, Israeli law still prohibited sodomy. And when, in 1989, NIF helped a gay El Al employee successfully file a lawsuit to challenge the company’s discrimination against his partner, Israel had yet to pass a law against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Such a law would be passed in 1992. NIF has been in the fight to support, protect, and defend Israel’s LGBTQ+ community for a long time. We funded the very beginning of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in Israel, as well as the very first Pride parades. And to be sure, Israel has come a long way in terms of recognizing LGBTQ+ people as equal members of society.
But we know that acceptance is the result of struggle and work. And that we can’t stop that work now, not with this current government and the profound threat it represents to the rights of so many- including members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Generations of activists gave of themselves so that the whole community could attain rights. Last year, over 35% of all Israeli municipalities hosted Pride events. Two years ago, Be’er Sheva, the capital of Israel’s south, held its first ever large Pride parade. In previous years, smaller parades had been held under duress or canceled due to the municipality’s unwillingness to support them. But today, the Be’er Sheva parade (which NIF supports), and others — including Jerusalem’s Pride parade — are becoming fixtures of the public calendar. In Jerusalem this year, thousands of people came out to the streets despite the fact that National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who was in charge of the police deployed to protect marchers, has been extremely vocal in the past protesting the parade. He has been known to call it a “moral massacre”, “a cancer”, and “an ugly, unprecedented crime.”
The ability of LGBTQ+ Israelis to march proudly in Israel’s streets was hard won — and we know that while the right to freely assemble should be a given, it’s a right that can be lost. And it’s worth pausing to note that many of the wins the LGBTQ+ community has experienced have come because an LGBTQ+ person sued in Israel’s Supreme Court and won.
This is why the fight against Israel’s judicial coup is integral to the fight for LGBTQ+ equality; it is why this community has been a driving force since the beginning of the pro-democracy protest movement.
Should the current Netanyahu government go through with its plan to eviscerate the Supreme Court, Israel’s LGBTQ+ community will lose the most important address in its struggle for rights. Instead, it would be subject to the whims of this far right and ultra-religious majoritarian government with almost no recourse. High ranking members of that government have long made it clear that they are homophobes who would like nothing better than to force LGBTQ+ Israelis back into the closet — or worse.
And it’s not just the judicial coup. Even without the laws that would eviscerate judicial review and undercut the remaining checks and balances in Israel’s constitutional system, things have gotten more dangerous for the LGBTQ+ community. According to reports, since this government took office, there has been a fivefold increase in attacks – verbal and physical – against LGBTQ+ Israelis. Homophobic rhetoric in the public sphere has been increasingly tolerated—due in large part to the hateful speech espoused by MKs and Ministers in this current government. Bezalel Smotrich famously declared himself a “proud homophobe” well before these elections. But recently, another member of his party, Orit Struck, told Kan public radio that “so long as there are enough other doctors to provide care,” religious healthcare providers should be able refuse to treat LGBTQ+ patients. And MK Simcha Rotman, also from Smotrich’s party and one of the architects of the judicial coup, said that private business owners like hoteliers, should be allowed to refuse service to LGBTQ+ people “if it harms their religious feelings.” This is a dangerous and slippery slope and we need to push back.
And there are other challenges as well – some of which will affect this community, even if this government’s first and primary targets are Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living in the West Bank. This week, a law (developed and promoted by Orit Struck, mentioned earlier) is beginning its journey through in the Knesset to expand the ability of admissions committees to decide who will be allowed to buy land and become a member of a particular community. The expansion of the law would mean that not just very small communities, but communities with up to 1,000 families could decide to reject applicants on the basis of whether or not they “suit the social fabric” of the community—that means Arabs, first and foremost, but it also means LGBTQ+ people. It means single-parent families. It means discrimination, period.
We will fight back, of course. The Association for CIvil Rights in Israel (ACRI), our flagship grantee, has been fighting against the Admissions Committee Law for decades, and they will continue working to end this unfair practice. And in this climate — with an embattled Supreme Court and a set of populist, racist, homophobic ministers all hankering for its demise — we will have to give it all we’ve got to keep and even win back some of the most deserved and hardest-won rights.
We won’t let the LGBTQ+ community — or any marginalized group in Israel — stand alone. You can be sure that NIF will stand beside them in Israel and the occupied territories, defending their human and civil rights, and helping to ensure that everyone, no matter their sexual orientation, can live in dignity and equality.