Israel has been an LGBTQ haven in the Middle East. Its new government could change that.


(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?

No. Polls show the majority of Israelis back equal treatment for the LGBTQ community.

“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.”