Socialist Alternative

Israel: Tens of Thousands Protest and Strike for LGBT Rights

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Shahar Benhorin, Socialist Struggle Movement (CWI in Israel/Palestine)

This was one of the most important demonstrations organized in Israel in recent years. The fact that all six parties in the Netanyahu coalition government all oppose full equality to LGBT people has not prevented the right-wing regime from making cynical propaganda use of the achievements of the LGBT struggle. It does this in an effort to nurture for itself a democratic image, camouflage ongoing discrimination against LGBT people and cover up a policy of racism and occupation.

“Our achievements to this day have been achieved in our own right, not by legislators and governments, not by charity but by efforts, struggles, wars,” said actress, Orna Banai, in front of tens of thousands of demonstrators in Tel Aviv. She was the first speaker in the mass Equality Demonstration that marked the day of an unprecedented pro-LGBT rights protest strike that shook the country with demonstrations in 17 cities and roadblocks. Thousands to tens of thousands of workers participated in the strike during the day.

According to ‘The News’ survey, a majority of 56% of the general public supports the protest, and even a majority of Likud party and Jewish Home party voters expressed sympathy. The rabbis of the extreme right, who published in response a homophobic incitement letter, found themselves isolated. The data confirm the trend in recent years that following a high tide in the LGBT struggle, with an unprecedented number of pride parades and protest events, the attitude of the broad Israeli public to LGBT rights is to the left of the government and the Knesset [parliament].

Government surprised by the protest

The current government had already succeeded, with its right-wing destructive agenda, in awakening relatively significant movements in Israel against corruption and against the threat of deporting asylum seekers – where the government even had to yield for the meantime – and on other social struggles, such as the struggle of the disabled. And in the Gaza Strip the brutal blockade of two million poor residents was met with an unprecedented mass protest that attracted world attention.

But the faltering coalition government has become accustomed to the fact that in the Knesset it faces no significant opposition. The main capitalist opposition parties, led by Lapid and Gabai, the governing parties’ former partners, often praise the coalition and are not even perceived as an alternative to the government. At the same time, the heads of the Histadrut and student organizations have allowed the government “industrial quiet” to implement a destructive policy of attacks on workers and the poor.

On July 18, the Knesset approved a change to the Surrogacy Law, and on that occasion, Netanyahu and his government voted against the repeal of discrimination in the law towards LGBT people. Netanyahu and his associates did not expect extraordinary resistance, especially when the next day they boasted about the approval of the racist Nationality Law in the Knesset. Throughout the weekend another bloody war in the Gaza Strip came very close. This was, first and foremost, as a result of the Netanyahu government’s insistence on continuing the aggressive siege against the residents of Gaza, at all costs, stirring up the depths of despair from which “fire-kites” [explosives attached to kites and flown from Gaza into Israeli areas] also flourish.

With the help of security demagoguery, Netanyahu and Likud have managed to improve their situation in the polls in recent months, exploiting security concerns among the Israeli public due to rockets and fires and from the confrontation between Israel and Iran. But the polls provide a fairly partial picture. Beneath the surface is the disgust of broad layers of the population over a series of burning problems. These include an aspiration to solve the crisis in Gaza, which among sections of the Israeli public is expressed, in a distorted way, a sick support for a new war.

Sunday, July 22 could easily have been one of the first days of another war in Gaza, and of mass shock exploited for poisonous incitement, accompanied by a sharp shift to the right in the mood of the Israeli public. But the political reality develops dialectically, through contradictions. The lull of the last moment left room for the development of the most significant demonstration of resistance, so far, in Israeli society vis-à-vis the present Netanyahu government.

What is legal? Conversion treatments

About 80,000-100,000 people streamed to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to protest against LGBT discrimination and most of them against the Netanyahu government. Signs with the inscription, ‘Equality’, flooded the square. Banai spoke of the fact that in the government there are “irresponsible people promoting racist laws”, and the audience’s booing against the government echoed throughout the square. Then the crowd’s reaction to the government’s treatment of LGBT people: “Getting married is illegal, adopting children is illegal, and registering parents is illegal, what is legal? ‘Conversion Treatments!'”. Shouts of “Shame, shame, shame!” that originated in the movement against corruption rolled into the Equality Demonstration, alongside the roar of “Bibi [Netanyahu], Go Home!”

The LGBT Association began planning the strike day and the protest campaign last summer after the government objected to adoption rights for same-sex couples. “We were preparing for a summer of protest because it was clear to us that everything that was promised to us last summer did not happen… The issue of surrogacy arose almost unplanned”, said the Association’s chairperson, Chen Arieli.

The protest was misleadingly framed in the establishment media and in statements by corporations as the “Surrogacy Protest”. From the point of view of the masses who took to the streets, the Surrogacy Law is far from being the heart of the matter, as was clearly seen on the signs and slogans in the demonstrations on the ground. The main mass anger that erupted in this protest arose over the discrimination and the legitimization of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Anti-LGBT discrimination continues to be reflected in many and hard forms, in all spheres of life. Equally important, the demonstrations also expressed opposition to the government, which represents discrimination and destructive and dangerous policies, in general.

During the mass demonstration, the audience sang, “We Are Here Everywhere”, in defiance of exclusion and discrimination. Protesters called out: “The People Demand Social Justice – for the Homo, the Lesbian, the Trans and the Bi”. Just a week before the protest day, a transgender woman was stabbed in south Tel Aviv. Apart from a demonstration of some 1,000 people in the south of the city, the incident was repeatedly mentioned throughout the mass demonstration, and the protest against the discrimination and suppression of transgenders received a sharp and central expression from the stage.

Yes to equality in parenting rights

The Surrogacy Law served as a trigger for the eruption of protest. The change in the Surrogacy Law approved by the Knesset opened the procedure to single mothers, while Netanyahu and his government opposed the proposal to open the procedure to single fathers and male couples.

The hypocrisy and the vote in favour of LGBT discrimination provoked outrage. Yes, LGBT discrimination should be opposed, in principle, in every sphere, including in the Surrogacy Law, which has allowed the procedure for heterosexual couples in Israel since 1996.

However, the meaning of permitting commercial surrogacy, regardless of sexual orientation, is to regulate a complex form of exploitation of women in capitalist society. It is important that LGBT rights organizations be careful not to raise demands that actually mean ‘equality’ for the right to exploitation.

According to a study published by the Haifa Feminist Center organization, in 2011, about 80% of surrogate women in Israel applied to serve as surrogates for economic reasons. Surrogacy seekers pay huge sums of 200,000 Shekels (47,000 euros), of which brokerage firms cut a coupon of tens of thousands of Shekels. The procedure entails physical and mental risks and costs for the surrogate mother. Taking those risks for economic motives is dangerous, including the possibility that the economic distress of young women would urge them to agree to serve as a “womb for rent” in the private market.

This objectification reaches a peak in a few neo-colonial countries that allow commercial surrogacy today. Poor women are enslaved by mediating corporations, under draconian conditions, to carry embryos for affluent couples (mostly heterosexuals) from richer capitalist countries.

In Israel, there are dozens of births from surrogate procedures, every year. The Israeli law offers certain supervision and regulation in order to reduce the exploitation of Israeli surrogates. But as long as its commercial surrogacy, as long as women may be pushed into the process for economic reasons and as long as private corporations are allowed to roll a profit at the expense of women’s health and wellness, it is certainly a mechanism with a detrimental potential.

Therefore, similarly to the accepted attitude in Israel towards organ donations from the living, we believe that only altruistic and voluntary surrogacy should be permitted while ensuring the prevention of commercial exploitation.

However, even the elimination of LGBT discrimination in the Surrogacy Law will still leave this option for realizing parenthood relevant for a few only. Achieving full equality in parenting rights requires a further significant struggle to eliminate discrimination in adoption proceedings, to fully recognize joint parenting arrangements and to uproot prejudices in society.

Demands for equality

Following the day of protest, 14 LGBT rights organizations held a press conference and published a short document of demands on their behalf. This includes 18 specific demands, including aggravated treatment and punishment for hate crimes on the basis of gender or sexual orientation; prohibition of “conversion treatments” for minors; changing the Surrogacy Law; equality in the registration of parenthood and adoption options; the adjustment of social services to LGBT populations; the expansion of health services for transgender people; LGBT-related education programs for schools; and the extension of government funding to LGBT rights organizations.

This is a largely positive programme, but, at the same time, very minimalist, unfortunately, to the extent that even demands for recognition of civil marriage, including same-sex marriage, and for separation of religion and state, do not appear in it. Following sharp criticisms, the demands document was updated within a day, supplemented with a demand for equal recognition of same-sex couples – a positive, but insufficient, correction.

LGBT people are trampled under the policy of budget-cuts, privatization, and destruction of the welfare and health services, but this is ignored, as are their housing and poverty plights, which intensify the problems faced by LGBT people. These problems also serve as fertile ground for the intervention of far-right forces that incite and nurture prejudice.

The liberal NGOs which signed the programme refrain from explicitly exposing the right-wing capitalist government, Likud and its five ‘satellite parties’, as an enemy of the LGBT struggle and of the workers and the poor in Israel. Moreover, LGBT Palestinians, who are being persecuted by the Israeli occupation authorities, are not mentioned, nor are LGBT asylum seekers, whose requests are refused review by the state. And what about other forms of blatant discrimination that the government imposes?

It would seem essential that the abolition of the Law of Nationality should appear – and in a central place – in the list of demands. But the NGOs, in this case, are playing into the hands of the ‘divide and rule’ of the right-wing regime. Instead of taking the opportunity to assist building a broader struggle against the government, against discrimination of LGBT people, against racism and for equality, these organizations offer an agenda that does not meet the aspirations and energies that were seen in the streets.

Fundamentally, the masses have taken to the streets to demand equal rights for LGBT people, in all spheres of life, and to express opposition to the government. The liberal associations’ plan, which is presented as ‘the programme of the community’, includes a number of worthy demands but does not pose the goal of full equality in society.

No to an alliance with the corporations

Dozens of corporations, including international giants, like IBM, Microsoft, Facebook, and Teva, announced support for the pro-LGBT protest strike. Some allowed workers not to go to work on the day of the strike, without affecting wages, and some even announced that they would pay grants to workers who would turn to a surrogacy procedure. But these initiatives did not come from the corporations. They were pressurized. According to ‘Globes’, their initial responses to the idea were not enthusiastic at all.

The LGBT Association originally planned a strike day and rejected the proposal by public-relations advisers to call on workers to go on sick leave. The idea, in the first place, was that workers would be open about the protest and would not stay at home, but would use the day of the strike for protest actions.

There was an understanding that most workers would be afraid of losing wages and of management harassment. The full mobilization of the Histadrut [trade union federation] and the other workers’ organizations would have been able to solve the problem and pave the way for a strike on a much larger scale. But the organizers did not seem to think about the possibility or assume it was practical, and the role played by the Histadrut leadership in recent years gave them no reason to assume otherwise.

Under these circumstances, the strategy adopted by the LGBT Association was to put pressure on corporations to formally agree to a strike of their employees. In the momentum that was built in the days leading up to the strike, the Histadrut leadership finally agreed to announce its support. However, instead of announcing independent organizational steps, the Histadrut instructed the workers’ committees to demand that the managements ‘allow’ workers to strike. A group of media and advertising people joined forces to increase pressure on the corporations.

The overall pressure was real. “Sometimes they were really threatening,” an anonymous, ‘involved’ source was cited. “Journalists also called to make threats, and the managers think, ‘Why should I be a victim of a media ambush?'”

The economic price demanded from the corporations was negligible: the strike took place on the Jewish Tish’a B’Av day of fasting, a day in which many businesses work on a partial basis, and in any case, the assessment was that only some of the employees would be interested in striking. The extent of personal sympathies of some CEOs is not important – the considerations behind the giant corporations’ actions are public relations and the aspiration to make more profits. They are certainly not interested in entering into a confrontation with the protest movement and absorbing damage to their reputations. They recognize an opportunity to appear as ‘progressive’ and receive increased publicity.

The same corporations will not support the idea of a strong organized labour force that will benefit workers. Or a sharp increase in the tax they are required to pay in favour of an extensive investment in social services, affordable public housing, investment in vocational training and the creation of high-quality jobs.

The interests behind the large corporations are in contradiction to those of the tens of thousands who took to the streets, to the majority of the public and to the possibility of promoting genuine equality in society. They and their economic system bear responsibility for a society based on inequality and distress, which, among other things, blocks the achievement of full equality for LGBT people.

Building the struggle

Chen Arieli, the LGBT Association’s chairperson, turned to a sentiment of disgust at the agenda of the right-wing government when she spoke about how the protest “succeeded this week in uniting and consolidating everyone who is fed up with a discourse of hatred and violence”. When former MK Yael Dayan spoke against the Nationality Law, she received broad calls of approval. The host, Lucy Aharish, also referred to the Nationality Law and pointed out defiantly that she was proud to stand on the stage as an Arab.

In contrast to various protest rallies in the past, and also to the protest rally of tens of thousands after a homophobic murder in 2009, the organizers this time entered into a confrontation with the government. This prevented attempts to turn the event into being as strongly pro-establishment, as it might otherwise have been. Its distinct protesting character alienated the state president, and there was no playing of the state anthem at the end of the rally.

Towards the end of the mass demonstration, the hosts on stage declared in Hebrew and Arabic that the struggle was ‘only beginning’. Extensive mobilization for the Pride Parade in Jerusalem on 2 August was marked as the next major step. A series of local initiatives could continue to build the momentum for the struggle, including more meetings of activists to discuss the next steps.

It is also the time to take the idea of a strike for equality one step further. It should be demanded from the leaders of the Histadrut that is not enough just to make statements. Organized labour has the ability to truly paralyze the country. The mobilization of all the workers’ organizations and workers’ committees for the next demonstrations and preparations for a one-day country-wide warning strike could help the struggle to significantly intensify the pressure. But this pressure must be channeled into a general struggle against the government.

The government has suffered a blow. MKs [Members of the Knesset] from Likud said, ‘We’ve been very lucky… If the Knesset summer session had lasted another week, when the LGBT campaign was in full swing, the coalition would have fallen apart’. The leader of the Kulanu party, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, also stressed that the Surrogacy Law should be amended. They are afraid.

There are those who are still confused and muddy the waters with the claim that this is not a political struggle. A struggle against government policy is a political struggle. The danger of trying to make it ‘apolitical’ is to blur the criticism against the ruling parties and to delay the efforts to put forward an alternative.

The opposition at the demonstration to the Nationality Law and the government was important, but it is not enough. It represented a potential for the required struggle around a broader agenda. The High Follow-Up Committee of the Arab Public called for a protest rally against the Nationality Law on August 4. The unification of the struggles is the order of the day.

Socialist Struggle Movement demands:

  • End to discrimination against same-sex couples in parenthood and marriage rights, and in services. Recognition of the right to civil marriage, for all. Equality in the registration of parenthood and adoption, the elimination of LGBT discrimination in the Surrogacy Law, while preventing commercial exploitation of women.
  • An uncompromising struggle against all forms of legal and social discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Outlaw “conversion treatments” for minors.
  • Accessibility and full public funding for all necessary services and treatments for transgender people. Cancel the sex clause in the identity card. Enough with the cuts and privatisation of welfare and health services.
  • Promoting education against the oppression of LGBT people, sexism and racism, and for equality in all schools, campuses, and workplaces. Promote relevant initiatives on the matter by workers’ organizations and students’ organizations.
  • Yes to the complete separation of religion and state. Yes to freedom of worship and freedom from religious coercion. End the use of religious excuses to perpetuate discrimination.
  • A struggle to eradicate poverty and for an extensive investment in affordable housing. Raise the tax on the big corporations in favour of an extensive investment in quality jobs, and in public housing, with cheap rent, throughout the country.
  • The immediate repeal of the Nationality Law and any discrimination in law. Struggle against all discrimination, incitement, and oppression on the basis of nationality, ethnic origin, religion, gender and sexual orientation.
  • End the government’s cynical propaganda use of the achievements of the LGBT struggle to whitewash discrimination and occupation. Yes to the struggle against the occupation and the siege, and for peace.
  • A struggle against Netanyahu’s ‘capital and settlements’ government and for a socialist change of society.

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