Gay Groups and Big Tech Challenge Israel’s Status Quo

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On July 22, an estimated 100,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to rally for gay rights. It was one of the largest political demonstrations in the country’s history; if the same share of America's population turned out, there would be 3 million protesters in the streets. It may be the Israeli left's best chance in a while to revitalize its electoral hopes.

The proximate cause of the demonstration was opposition to a new law that offers public financing for parental surrogacy to straight couples and single women, but not to male homosexual couples. The gay community used the occasion to stage an unsuspected display of power.

The event was put together by a small cadre of activists under the leadership of a gay rights umbrella group, the Aguda. But they didn’t do it alone. They had the support of virtually the entire Israeli hi-tech sector. 

The Israeli division of Apple gave their employees a paid day off to attend the demonstration, and closed its stores in a show of solidarity. “One of Israel’s greatest gifts is the creativity, diversity and talent of its entire people,” said a company statement. “Unfortunately, recent legislation passed by the Knesset undermines those values. Apple will always maintain its values of fairness, dignity and mutual respect, and we stand with all of our employees seeking equality under the law.”

IBM Israel explained its decision to support the rally in equally lofty terms. “No one should be denied one of the most basic human rights – the right to start a family – for being who they are. We support IBMers who wish to stand in solidarity with the LGBT community in advocating for legislation that is inclusive of ALL."

Some of the tech giants went beyond giving workers a day off and a pat on the back. Microsoft Israel and Mellanox, an Israeli-American supplier of computer networking products, each offered $16,400 to employees to help finance expensive foreign surrogacy.

This kind of support had a ripple effect. The broader Israeli business sector, which has traditionally been unwilling to frighten away customers with principled stands, found their backbone. El Al and IsrAir, Teva and Soda Stream, the major cell phone providers, retail chains and credit card companies all took a stand for the gay community.

The Aguda leaders insisted that theirs was a non-partisan movement. They merely encouraged supporters to work from within by joining the political party of their choice. This was disingenuous. Israel’s LGBT movement, like its American counterpart, has been strongly allied with the progressive parties that make up the parliamentary opposition.

The governing Likud Party does, in fact, have members who sympathize with LGBT causes. According to a poll published on Wednesday, 51 percent of Likud voters were in sympathy with the demonstration. But for now that sympathy has little practical meaning because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party is captive to its ultra-orthodox coalition partners on gay rights and other social issues.

The Aguda leaders set forth six basic demands, which tuned out to be fairly pedestrian, including more shelters for vulnerable LGBT people, stiffer penalties for anti-gay crimes and a publicly financed educational campaign for tolerance. Their demands highlighted the fact that gay rights are already well established in Israeli law and custom.

LGBT soldiers serve without controversy in every branch and rank of the military. Israel proudly brands itself as a gay friendly tourist country, and has made its annual Pride Week the closest thing to national mardi gras. The country has laws banning workplace discrimination and penalties for hate crimes. LGBT parents have adoption rights. And it is only a matter of time before gay males get equal surrogacy rights. 

The LGBT organizers are now in the anomalous position of commanding a vast army without a suitable mountain to capture. They are aware of this, which is why, a few hours after their press conference, Aguda added a seventh and much more revolutionary demand: secular marriage.

Breaking the Orthodox rabbinical monopoly over marriage (and divorce) is popular with both gay and straight Israelis. It is the kind of big issue that challenges the entire theocratic web of special rights enjoyed by the orthodox minority and which could decide elections.

This hasn’t escaped the notice of politicians on the left. Tzippi Livni, the newly crowned leader of the parliamentary opposition, left Sunday’s demonstration already understanding this. “I haven’t seen energy like this in years,” she told reporters. “This is just the beginning.”

Before switching sides, Livni cut her political teeth on the victorious Likud campaign of 1977. She saw firsthand how an ideologically inspired, energetic and organized cadre of rebellious activists can take control of a major party and put it in office.

Israel’s founding Labor Party has gone downhill ever since that first electoral loss. It lost its labor federation ground troops and prestigious kibbutz ideology to the temptations of market capitalism. The party’s core of enthusiastic peace activists found themselves without a Palestinian partner and, following the second intifada, settled into gloomy resignation. The party is led by lackluster figures who are resigned to losing before they begin.

Sunday's demonstration of strength could be a catalyst for change on the left. The LGBT’s energy, and its direct challenge to the rabbis, gives it a leadership position among Israel’s fragmented civil rights organizations. And its de facto coalition with the hi-tech sector is important. Silicon Wadi, Israel's version of Silicon Valley, while disclaiming any partisan agenda, lends prestige, financial support and unabashed secular egalitarianism to any cause it embraces. A left-leaning political party that captures both has a fighting chance of emerging from the doldrums of the past two decades.

It is axiomatic that mainstream Israeli voters put national security first. To win an election, the LGBT-Hi-tech coalition would have to be at once socially conscious and sufficiently hawkish. That's not an easy balancing act, but it's suddenly conceivable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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