Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recently boasted about Israel’s record on gay rights - however the LGBT community in Jerusalem has faced repeated intolerance and push back from the government. A proposal to be presented this Sunday to extend protection from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation will be the real test of its commitment to gay rights.
By Elinor Sidi
“In Israel, LGBT rights is not an issue that divides us, it is a vision that unites us,” said Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, in Philadelphia two weeks ago. In his keynote, Oren took pride in the achievements of the LGBT community in Israel and claimed them as achievements of the Israeli government. “The pressures to cancel the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem were immense, but the authorities held firm,” continued the ambassador, sailing in his imagination. “Protected by police and security guards, the parade was held and was hugely successful”. The heroic fairy tale about the only gay paradise in the Middle East, the liberal state rushing to embrace its gays and protect them from their harm seekers, moved me. That is, until I remembered the harsh reality.
The rigid firmness of the Israeli authorities – as experienced in the real Jerusalem, the one outside Oren’s fairy tale – took shape in the headstrong and cruel struggle against, and not for, the LGBT community. It was not rare to hear ministers and Knesset members articulating horrific homophobia. Not only Shas Knesset members made statements about gay people being more toxic than bird flu, but also figures such as President Shimon Peres, whose assertion that “the gays crossed the line” decorated the city streets in giant wall posters inciting against the Jerusalemite LGBT community. To the de-legitimation of the Jerusalem Pride added former Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lopolianski’s quotes against it, and also wild incitement to murder in the shape of a bounty on the heads of gays and lesbians in Jerusalem.
It was the determination of the LGBT Jerusalemite community alone that stood for gay rights in a hostile environment. The security guards Ambassador Oren spoke of were not supplied by the authorities, but rather hired and funded by the Jerusalem Open House (the city’s grassroots LGBT organization). The police officers who protected Pride did not do so out of the kindness of their hearts but did so only after repeated petitions submitted by JOH to the Supreme Court. No less than 10 petitions were submitted in the last decade, on average- one court case per year. Petitions were not only submitted against the un-willing Jerusalem Municipality, but also against the Israeli Police and Minister of Interior. It was neither the Israeli government nor the Knesset who stood to our protection, but our determination and successful work done in Supreme Court. To this very day JOH is forced to provide ushers for Pride, who are the community members themselves who volunteer year after year in order to prevent Pride from being canceled.
This Sunday (May 20) Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz will propose to the Ministerial Committee of Legislation an amendment to the Interpretation Act. The Interpretation Act is a law that tells us how to read and “interpret” other laws in cases of lack of clarity. What MK Horowitz is suggesting is that whenever there is a law that prohibits discrimination of any kind (for example, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity in cases of job interviews, apartment hunting or even nightclub selection) – that law will be interpreted as providing the same protection in cases of sexual orientation or gender identity. Thus, instead of amending one law at a time to improve the lives of LGBT people (i.e. adding sexual orientation and gender identity to each and every law that prohibits one of these kinds of discrimination), this bill offers one single amendment that will affect them all. Therefore, in every case where a law provides protection against discrimination, it will now offer the same protection in cases of sexual orientation and gender identity. With just one amendment it will be able to apply many protections, in more than one law, against many kinds of discrimination. A kind of an Iron Dome, if you will, but in rainbow colors.
This proposal was raised before and tossed away. Its resubmission this Sunday will be the real test of the Israeli claim that it is a “gay paradise in the Middle East.” The government’s ability (and willingness) to rally behind it will be tested. There is extensive significance to a law being supported by the government, obligated to by the coalition, as opposed to being pushed by a single dedicated Knesset member. Apart from having a better chance of passing, there is a declarative significance to the fact the government is interested in promoting this agenda.
On Sunday the LGBT community, in Israel and abroad, will see if the Israeli government is serious about the “vision that unites us all” or is it just using us for propaganda; if there are actions behinds declarations or whether they are just PR fairy tales. I call for our community members to write letters to the members of Ministerial Committee of Legislation, to use this weekend to write emails to Prime Minister Netanyahu or simply do what experience tells us will be more useful then all of the above: Volunteer to usher at the next Jerusalem Pride this August.
Elinor Sidi is the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, local grassroots organization for LGBT Jerusalemites. To volunteer, contact JOH at community@JOH.org.il.