A couple waves the pride flag on Jerusalem’s King David Street at the 2007 Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem.
A couple waves the pride flag on Jerusalem’s King David Street at the 2007 Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. (File photo)

Fight for LGBTQ Israelis, other minorities — and democracy

One of the most joyous and surprising features of modern Israeli society is its vibrant, visible and confident LGBTQ community. It spans all geographies, generations, ethnicities and religious affiliations, including a growing presence within Israel’s Modern Orthodox movement.

Over the past 30 years, it has become easier for LGBTQ Israelis to lead open lives, create families and serve their country. LGBTQ people are visible in prominent roles in Israeli business, culture, politics and academia. And Tel Aviv has become known as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world.

How has this happened in a Middle Eastern country with little separation of religion and state and several large minority groups deeply opposed to LGBTQ equality?

Let me suggest a few answers. Generations of activists and allies have stepped up to create some of the strongest and most important organizations in Israeli civil society, including Israel Gay Youth, Jerusalem Open House and the Agudah.

Another central element began in 1993, when LGBTQ soldiers were first allowed to serve openly in the Israeli army. For the past 30 years, young Israelis from all walks of life have had the chance to get to know LGBTQ people as partners in protecting their country — in some cases as their commanders and, in many cases, as their friends. This experience changes people, and it changes a country.

Yet for all this progress, Israel’s governing coalitions have, at best, been reluctant participants in this social evolution, and more often have been opponents. In 1992, the Knesset passed legislation banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Yet since that time, no significant legislation advancing LGBTQ rights has been approved. As recently as February 2016, the Knesset marked its first LGBTQ rights day, but the next day, the governing coalition led the charge to defeat bills designed to recognize bereaved same-sex widowers, ban conversion therapy, recognize same-sex marriage and train health professionals to deal with gender and sexual orientation issues.

Some progress on LGBTQ rights has continued to advance over the past few decades, but almost all of it has stemmed from decisions of Israel’s Supreme Court.

While same-sex marriages performed in Israel are not recognized, the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the marriages of same-sex Israeli couples performed abroad must be “registered” in Israel, though the court made a distinction between “registration” and “recognition.” That said, Israeli same-sex couples now routinely leave the country to be married so they can have their marriages registered upon their return home.

More recently, the Supreme Court has advanced LGBTQ rights in areas such as adoption and surrogacy. Almost all of these decisions were meant to reverse decisions or policies set by ministries of the government that promoted unequal treatment of Israel’s LGBTQ citizens and families.

This brings us to today, where it is no wonder that Israel’s LGBTQ community has been one of many groups joining hundreds of thousands of Israelis to protest the proposed “judicial reforms” that look more like an attempt to weaken or obliterate the one part of the Israeli government that has protected the rights of vulnerable minorities.

Frankly, there are women and minorities in Israel whose rights and protections may be even more at risk than those of the LGBTQ community, including Israel’s Arab citizens, immigrant communities, asylum seekers from Africa and its Jewish citizens who identify with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

This is the time for our North American Jewish organizations and specifically our Bay Area Jewish community to respond even more strongly to this struggle to preserve Israel’s democratic character. Sadly, for many years Israel has imported some of the worst of what America has to offer, from Kahanism to xenophobic populism to portraying the media as the enemy of the people.

Now we must offer them our best.

Our Israeli siblings have been on the streets week after week with remarkable courage and determination for what will surely be a long battle. If we want to see Israel’s democracy survive, we must march with them, whether in Israel or at one of the regular Bay Area protests organized by UnXeptable. The future of this country that we love hangs in the balance.

Arthur Slepian
Arthur Slepian

Arthur Slepian is a past president of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the founder of A Wider Bridge and current board chair of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.