(JTA) — The minister holding the country’s purse strings calls himself a “proud homophobe.” Another minister says Pride parades are “vulgar,” while a deputy minister who wants to cancel them was just given power over some aspects of what schoolchildren are taught. And then there are the lawmakers who want doctors to be able to decline medical care to LGBTQ people.
These are all members of the new Israeli government helmed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and their extreme anti-LGBTQ sentiment has unnerved LGBTQ Israelis and their allies at home and overseas.
The politicians’ positions are not new, but their positions of power and leverage within the government are. Plus, the new government’s push toward a judicial overhaul that would give lawmakers the right to overrule the Supreme Court adds vulnerability to legal precedents that have protected LGBTQ Israelis.
“The majority of the gay community in Israel is feeling very unsafe,” said Hila Peer, the chairwoman of Aguda-The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel. “You have at least an intention to legislate laws that are dire for the gay community.”
Could Israel cease to be a haven for LGBTQ people in a hostile region? Netanyahu and others in his coalition say they are committed to protecting gay rights, but the volatile political situation means the future is hard to predict. Here’s what you need to know.
Where did LGBTQ Israelis stand before this government?
Israel is known as a gay haven in the Middle East, and Tel Aviv is frequently cited as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, with a Pride parade that draws hundreds of thousands of revelers from Israel and abroad. But the full picture is more complicated.
Same-sex marriage is not legal in Israel. Still, like other couples not recognized by the country’s religious establishment, LGBTQ couples can access the legal benefits of marriage.
Israel’s religious institutions control marriage for each of its constituent faiths, and the Jewish rabbinate hews to Orthodoxy. That means a slew of couples cannot marry in the country: interfaith couples; marriages between Jews in which one of the couple is not recognized as Jewish under Orthodox precepts; marriages between a man and a woman who was not divorced under religious law; marriages between a “Cohen,” or descendant of a Jewish high priest, and a divorced woman; and LGBTQ couples.
Under Israeli law, those relationships are nonetheless recognized as legal for the purposes of benefits, inheritance, parenting, adoption and other rights, if the couple is wed abroad, or in certain cases if the couple can simply prove a longstanding common-law relationship.
Israel’s Supreme Court has been essential to extending marriage rights to LGBTQ couples. In 2006, the court ruled that the country must recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad. In 2021, the court extended the right to same-sex couples to have children via surrogates, and last year, a lower court recognized marriages carried out remotely, which effectively allows same-sex marriages in which the couple, if not the officiant, is in Israel.
Other protections have come through the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, though less so in recent years. A rarely enforced ban on homosexual relations was taken off the books in 1988, and the army began allowing openly gay service members in 1993 — the same year the U.S. armed forces adopted a policy permitting gay service members only if they remained closeted.
In 1992, the Knesset passed a law banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, with some religious exceptions. In 1997, the Knesset extended to the LGBTQ community protections from defamatory language that are available to other communities. And in 2000, it passed the Prohibition of Discrimination in Products, Services and Entry into Places of Entertainment and Public Places Law, which forbids the denial of services to any class of people, including based on sexual orientation.
Despite the legal protections, LGBTQ Israelis have long faced opposition from within the haredi Orthodox sector, where rabbis inveigh against homosexuality and politicians have vowed to run the country according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. Jerusalem’s smaller Pride parade has frequently attracted extremist protesters from the sector, some of them violent. One teenage participant was murdered in 2015.
What changes do members of the current government want to make?
Politicians from the religious parties in the new government have floated multiple changes to laws and regulations that would diminish the status of LGBTQ Israelis.
The Religious Zionist Party, one of three in the Religious Zionist Bloc, is led by Bezalel Smotrich, who has called himself a “proud homophobe” and has envisioned Israel as a theocracy. At least two members of the bloc, including Orit Strok, say a proposed law would allow service providers, including physicians, to decline treatment to LGBTQ people.
Another party in the bloc, Noam, is led by Avi Maoz, who wants to cancel Pride parades. He also advocates for conversion therapy, a practice shown to increase the risk of suicide for LGBTQ people who experience it. Maoz, who was given a new role in charge of “Jewish identity,” was confirmed on Sunday to a Ministry of Education position with authority over external programming in schools.
Even the minister responsible for maintaining relations with Diaspora Jews has expressed anti-LGBTQ sentiment. Amichai Chikli favors recognition of same-sex relationships but derides LGBTQ “pride,” says he finds the annual pride parade to be “vulgar” and believes that sexual expression should be “subdued.” He has also said that the LGBTQ rainbow flag is an antisemitic symbol.
For now, these proposals and ideas exist in the realm of rhetoric. But the deal between Netanyahu’s party, Likud, and United Torah Judaism, the haredi Orthodox bloc, spells out that the 2000 prohibition-of-discrimination law will be amended “in a way that will prevent any harm to a private business that withholds services or products based on religious belief, as long as the product or service is not unique and a similar product or service is available nearby geographically and for a similar price.”
Both opponents and defenders of the change say it echoes recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have allowed evangelical Christian wedding retailers to decline services to same-sex couples.
That’s a license to discriminate, said Peer. “The Discrimination Act amendment will actually state that any person in Israel can be discriminated against based on ‘belief’ and that is simply a horrible situation for us to be in,” she said.
Is Netanyahu on board with anti-LGBTQ proposals?
Not directly. Netanyahu has never made anti-LGBTQ sentiment core to his governance, and he has been critical of anti-LGBTQ expressions by his coalition partners this month. He called the idea of letting medical providers deny care to LGBTQ patients “unacceptable” and has appointed a close ally who is gay, Amir Ohana, as Knesset speaker. (Some haredi lawmakers refused to look at Ohana, and a leading rabbi affiliated with Shas, one of the coalition partners, said Ohana was infected with a “disease.”) Netanyahu also opposed Maoz’s call to cancel the Jerusalem Pride parade.
Netanyahu has pointed to LGBTQ rights when insisting — as he has done frequently — that he is in control of his government, despite the prominent positions awarded to its extremist members.
“This Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law,” he told opinion journalist Bari Weiss. “We’re not going to ban LGBT forums. As you know, my view on that is sharply different, to put it mildly. We’re going to remain a country of laws. I govern through the principles that I believe in.”
But Netanyahu’s concessions to the far-right parties made to smooth his path back into power have his critics concerned that he may not keep his word on LGBTQ rights. The coalition agreement about the discrimination law, while not binding, indicates that he is willing to compromise.
Peer said Netanyahu’s signed pledge to the Religious Zionist bloc held more water with her than his protestations afterward.
“Why give the man the keys if you’re not going to let him drive the car?” she said.
Furthermore, even if Netanyahu prevents anti-LGBTQ laws from reaching the books, he backs proposed changes to the judiciary that would make vulnerable protections obtained through the courts.
How does the controversial judiciary overhaul proposal factor in?
The main action taken so far by Netanyahu’s new government relates to the country’s judiciary. His new justice minister, Yariv Levin, has proposed letting a Knesset majority of 61 members to override the Supreme Court if the Court strikes down a law. Levin has also proposed letting the Knesset majority appoint the majority on the panel responsible for appointing judges.
Those proposals, which are moving through the legislative process with Netanyahu’s support, would “in the long run totally and almost surely infringe on the rights” of LGBTQ Israelis, according to Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Democratic Values and Institutions.
“The coalition will have total power to appoint the judges which means they will be a lot more conservative, more religious,” Fuchs said. “If the Supreme Court will have been captured by a coalition which is very religious, very nationalist, very conservative, then we cannot rely anymore on the Supreme Court to further progress the rights” for LGBTQ people, or for others at risk of marginalization. He said the changes would likely result in a majority of right-wing judges within four to six years.
The proposals have drawn criticism from nonpartisan watchdogs, international legal experts and Israel’s left, which views the judiciary as an essential bulwark against theocratic governance. An estimated 100,000 people protested against the proposals in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, and more protests are planned.
But a majority of Israelis appear to support allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings, according to a poll released Monday by the Israel Democracy Institute.
Do anti-LGBTQ measures have public support in Israel?
“We have an extreme right-wing group that is threatening to make changes that the vast majority of the public does not stand behind,” Peer said.
Fuchs said a backlash would likely inhibit, at least in the short term, the passage of any proposed laws targeting the LGBTQ community.
“There is a strong support of LGBTQ rights, so it won’t be easy to pass laws that bluntly and openly infringe upon LGBTQ rights,” he said.
Some backlash has already occurred. Strok’s speculation that doctors could deny service to LGBTQ people immediately spurred a social media video montage of staff for 10 medical service providers in Israel in which they repeated, “We treat everyone!” One of the speakers was a Hasidic male urgent care nurse, in a sign that even Orthodox sectors might not support extreme actions.
But Smotrich says he believes his party’s supporters are not bothered by anti-LGBTQ efforts.
“A Sephardi or a traditional Jew, do you think he cares about gays? He couldn’t care less. He says, ‘Do you think I care that you [Smotrich] are against them?’” Smotrich said in a private conversation with a businessman that the public broadcaster Kan published on Monday. (The coalition is also threatening to defund Kan.) In the comments, Smotrich outlined some limits on his activism. “I’m a fascist homophobe, but I’m a man of my word,” he said. “I won’t stone gays.”
What are LGBTQ activists in Israel and the Diaspora saying and doing?
LGBTQ Israelis are playing a crucial role in the mounting anti-government protests, activating a network that put some 100,000 people in the streets in 2018 after Netanyahu voted against a bill to allow gay couples to use surrogacy.
And even without any concrete changes taking place yet, LGBTQ activists say talk is already creating a hostile environment.
Ethan Felson, the CEO of A Wider Bridge, a U.S. organization that advocates for Israel’s LGBTQ community — and stands up for Israel within the LGBTQ community — likened the language in the coalition agreements to U.S. party platforms, which do not necessarily influence policy but set a tone nonetheless.
“It can foreshadow, or it could be words on a page,” Felson said. “But those words should never be on any page. I heard from the mom of [an Israeli] trans kid this morning just how fearful they are for their families, their security. We know all too well that when people say bad things in one place we can expect other people to act out in hateful ways in another.”
Felson, whose past is in Israel advocacy — for years he directed the Jewish Federation of North America’s Israel Action Network — suggested that the part of his current job advocating for Israel in the U.S. LGBTQ community just got a lot harder.
“I would not like to wake up and find out that Kanye West is in charge of the Civil Rights Department over at Justice,” is how he described the challenge, referring to the rapper and designer who in recent months has come out as an antisemite.
Felson’s group is urging U.S. Jews who meet with politicians from the new government to raise concerns about LGBTQ Israelis. It is also planning to call on pro-Israel funders to fill any budget gap created if the Israeli government slashes funds for LGBTQ services, as Felson expects it to be.
A Wider Bridge is also planning to forego its traditional presence at Tel Aviv Pride to instead join the Jerusalem parade, which takes place in a more fraught atmosphere, according to Felson.
“There’s a time to protest and a time to party,” he said.
Stuart Kurlander, a philanthropist who is prominent in the LGBTQ and the pro-Israel communities, said that he is consulting with LGBTQ activists in Israel, and should things take a turn for the worse, making up for lost government funds could be one avenue for his philanthropy.
“If it develops and there are impacts to the LGBTQ community, then I along with other philanthropists will look to try and fill those gaps,” he said.
Kurlander said in an interview that he takes Netanyahu and Ohana at their word that they will stem an anti-LGBTQ backlash. He said his support for Israel would not be diminished if the changes by the extremists go through, but that other donors might be negatively affected.
“It’s not going to deter me and my support for Israel,” he said. “I suspect it may for some.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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