If Benjamin Netanyahu truly cares about Israel’s LGBT community, he must turn his usual sloganeering into action. On Thursday, 25,000 marched in the Jerusalem pride parade, the largest in the city’s history. In his video address to the parade, Netanyahu declared that the LGBT community is an inseparable part of today’s society. “We are all Israelis, we are all citizens of the state, we are one people”.
Netanyahu also marked the tragic death of Shira Banki, the 16-year-old who was brutally stabbed to death at last year’s parade. “Shira was murdered because she supported the simple idea that we are all equal, we are all one,” he continued. “The participants in the gay pride parade will march for one principle: All human beings are equal, all human beings were created in the image of God, all human beings, male and female, have the right to live their lives along their own path with dignity and safety.”
Netanyahu’s words are important, but it his is lack of action defending LGBT rights that is deeply concerning.
Just two days before the parade, Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich stated on Israeli radio that homosexuality is “dangerous and destructive to [Israeli] society.” Smotrich in part of a list of homophobic Jewish Home MKs.
“This [homosexuality] is a recipe for the end of our people,” said Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan. “Homosexuality is worthy of our pity, not encouragement,” declared MK Moti Yogev and party Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu stated that“we need to cure this disease.”
Yet at the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu tells the Jerusalem pride parade that his government treats all human beings equal.
It’s time for a reality check. Israel has a serious problem when it comes to LGBT rights.
Let’s look at the events of the past week.
Be’er Sheva police decided to divert the Be’er Sheva pride parade from the city’s main road, Rager Boulevard, a decision that was later upheld by the high court. The police gave two reasons for the diversion. First, they said there were threats to the participants’ safety. An interesting excuse from a police force that’s purpose is to ensure public safety. The second is because the parade could “deeply hurt religious sentiment.”
The Deputy Mayor of Be’er Sheva praised the decision saying, “There is no place in Beer Sheva for extremism.” He continued by saying, “Everyone generally understands that extremism doesn’t fly in a city like Be’er Sheva, which is so gentle and tolerant.” For a city that is so gentle and tolerant, it is deeply concerning that its deputy mayor considers homosexuality to be extremism.
How can an Israeli police force of a major city divert a pride parade from major streets – ones that are not solely a religious neighborhood – because of religious sensitivities? Why was the police department arresting LGBT activists instead of investigating the security threats that led to the actual cancellation of the parade? These are questions that must be addressed.
In reaction to the decision, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said, “In 2016, it is not logical to relegate the gay community to a pride parade on a side route and not on the city’s main streets.” That is not the only thing that isn’t logical.
Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, a head of a leading pre-military academy, made headlines last week when he criticized the IDF for educating soldiers to “accept gay perverts.”
He continued to describe the gay community as “an insane movement whose members have lost the normalcy of life. This group makes the country mad and has now penetrated the IDF in full force – and no one dares voice an opinion and mock it.”
A Walla News poll found that 71% of Israelis disagree with Levenstein’s remarks and only 19% agree, but that didn’t stop 300 national religious rabbis from signing a letter in support of his comments.
Israel is 8,019 square miles in size. The LGBT community must feel safe beyond the 20 square mile bubble of Tel-Aviv. If Israel wants to continue to market itself as the only place where the LGBT community can feel safe in the Middle East, it needs to make real policy changes to protect the rights of its LGBT community throughout the country.
LGBT youth are still being targeted in Israeli schools. A 2012 survey found that 52% of LGBT youth in Israel have dealt with hate speech, while 84% have reported anti-gay slurs, leading to an important 2014 court ruling that banned discrimination against LGBT students.
It is important to note that Israel is light-years ahead of every other country in the Middle East when it comes to LGBT rights. A 2016 Hiddush survey found that 76% of the Israeli public support same-sex marriage, but as long as the Chief Rabbinate oversees marriage laws don’t expect this to change.
Still, at the very least, we should demand Benjamin Netanyahu practice what he preaches and protect Israel’s LGBT community. He must demand answers about Be’er Sheva, ensure Rabbi Levenstein has no access to future IDF soldiers, and demand action against MKs who spew hate toward the LGBT community. If Israel wants to continue to call itself a leader when it comes to LGBT rights, it must support its claims with action.