First openly gay minister shrugs off jeers at Jerusalem pride march

Amir Ohana, appointed justice minister Wednesday, says he hopes protests against him don’t overshadow wider message of struggle for equality by LGBT community

Amir Ohana attends the annual Pride Parade in Jerusalem on June 6, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Amir Ohana attends the annual Pride Parade in Jerusalem on June 6, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A day after being appointed as the first openly gay minister in the country’s history, Likud lawmaker Amir Ohana attempted to brush off an unwelcome reception at the Jerusalem pride parade Thursday.

Ohana was appointed Wednesday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fill the justice minister role in the transition government until elections take place in September.

Ohana was greeted by booing and protests against him as he walked through the capital’s pride march Thursday surrounded by security guards. Some 10,000-15,000 participants took part in the march, according to police.

“What have you done for the gay community,” some shouted at the fresh minister, a staunch ally of Netanyahu, whose governments have been criticized for doing little to push forward LGBT rights. “Shame, shame,” shouted others, amid boos.

Ohana released a video later saying he hoped the protests against him did not distract from the wider message of the march, an annual event meant to highlight the community’s struggle for equality and tolerance in the conservative city.

“The Jerusalem [pride] march is very important to me because Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the seat of government and legal institutions. As a liberal, who believes with all his heart in freedom of expression, I said to the group of protesters who demonstrated against me, [who] weren’t ultra-Orthodox or religious, [that] it is important they came here,” Ohana said.

People take part in the 18th annual Jerusalem Gay Pride parade on June 6, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“I hope this doesn’t overshadow the main message meant to come out of this event: It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or secular, left-wing or right-wing, LGBT or not, the message is one of tolerance.”

Ohana is a lawyer by training who became the first openly gay MK in a right-wing party when he was elected to the Knesset in 2015.

Ahead of the march, Jerusalem Open House head Ofer Erez told Army Radio he hoped Ohana would show up for the event.

Several other politicians also attended, including Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, the first time a member of the party participated in the Jerusalem march, according to a spokesperson for the faction.

Ohana’s appointment followed the formal departure of Ayelet Shaked from the Justice Ministry on Tuesday, two days after she was fired by Netanyahu in a cabinet reshuffle that also targeted her political ally, education minister Naftali Bennett. The move was widely seen as a bid to prevent the once-popular right-wing duo from using their cabinet positions to bolster their campaigns ahead of the new national vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) seen with MK Amir Ohana at a Likud party meeting in the Knesset on January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Bezalel Smotrich, had called on Netanyahu to appoint him as Shaked’s replacement, later saying he wanted to impose Jewish religious law on the country. A Likud spokesperson said Ohana’s appointment meant “the halacha state won’t happen,” in a jab at Smotrich.

However, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party reportedly said it would protest Ohana being able to keep his post for long, since the fact that he is gay would oblige him to adopt LGBT-friendly reforms, which are anathema to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“There are many issues such as marriage, parental rights, surrogacy and more that end up on the justice minister’s table, and there can’t be an option of him being there to make the decisions on those matters,” the UTJ source was quoted as saying by the Maariv daily.

In response, Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu had conveyed a message to UTJ, saying Ohana’s appointment was made as a nod to the LGBT community and to attract more socially liberal voters in the September elections.

File: Likud party politician Amir Ohana (left) and his partner seen at Ben Gurion International Airport as they arrive back from the US with their surrogate babies, on September 26, 2015. (Flash90)

In July, Ohana lobbied for the government to support a bill that would extend surrogacy rights to same-sex couples. It was ultimately shot down after Netanyahu pulled support under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox.

“When my husband and I wanted to raise a family, we had to travel thousands of kilometers to another country. The twins were born prematurely and we were not by their sides,” Ohana told a committee meeting at the time. “I had to turn the world upside down to find a Jew, who did not know me but lived nearby, to be by their sides. I am not defying the rabbinate and going against religion, just asking for a bit of humanity.”

In 2017, he was briefly removed from another Knesset committee as punishment after he skipped votes to protest the government’s refusal to back equality for same-sex couples adopting children in Israel.

Ira Tolchin Immerglick and JTA contributed to this report.

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