Herzog says anti-LGBT rhetoric worrying, as Netanyahu again vows to thwart proposals

President speaks out after far-right MK suggests discrimination laws should be amended to allow refusal of service on religious grounds: ‘Undermines fundamental democratic values’

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks at a gathering in Tel Aviv, December 13, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks at a gathering in Tel Aviv, December 13, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

President Isaac Herzog expressed concern Sunday over comments that indicated growing intolerance for the LGBT community among politicians set to form Israel’s next government, while incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back against claims that Israel would soon make it legal to discriminate on religious grounds.

Herzog and Netanyahu spoke out hours after Religious Zionism MK Orit Strock, set to be a minister in the government-in-waiting, sparked an outcry by saying that doctors should be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that contravene their religious faith, as long as another doctor is willing to provide the same treatment. A report indicated that legislation enshrining that right had been agreed to by members of the incoming coalition.

According to Hebrew-language news site Ynet, Herzog held a phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday in which he expressed his concern over the potential amendment to the country’s discrimination laws.

In a series of tweets Sunday, Herzog said he was “worried and concerned” by the increased targeting of the LGBT community.

“A situation in which citizens in Israel feel threatened because of their identity or belief undermines the fundamental democratic values of the State of Israel,” he wrote.

“The [bigoted] comments heard in recent days against the LGBT community and against any different groups and sectors worry and disturb me a great deal,” he said.

Herzog committed to “act with all [his] power” as president to “prevent harm to the different segments of the population.”

According to the Kan state broadcaster, a coalition agreement between Religious Zionism and Likud includes a clause stipulating that the incoming government will seek to amend discrimination laws to allow business owners to refuse to provide a service if it violates their religious beliefs. The deal has yet to be officially signed.

Netanyahu, who previously issued a statement denying the existence of such a clause, said he “completely rejects” the comments from Strock.

President Isaac Herzog, right, grants Likud party chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu the mandate to form a new government, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“We will not allow discrimination against LGBT people or the rights of Israelis to be eroded,” he said in a statement sent out by his Likud party. “In the country that I will lead, there will be no situation where a person, whether he is a gay, Arab, or Haredi, or anyone else, will be refused service in a hotel or in a hospital.”

Netanyahu has previously vowed to safeguard rights for LGBT people and others, in the shadow of demands by far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners for legislation that would eat into those protections, but clauses seemingly included in his various coalition agreements have led some to question his commitment.

According to Ynet, Herzog has received “inquiries from around the world” regarding the incoming government, which includes several openly homophobic parties, and has also backed far-reaching changes to Israel’s judiciary as well as the repeal of a law banning racists from running for the Knesset.

File: Thousands take part in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, on June 2, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a statement earlier in the day, Netanyahu denied that he had agreed to pass legislation that would enable service providers to refuse to serve LGBT people, as well as other groups, on religious grounds.

“The coalition agreements do not allow for discrimination against LGBT people or for harming the right of any citizen in Israel to receive service,” he said.

Kan published an image Sunday that purported to show an earlier draft of the coalition agreement between the Likud and Religious Zionism, showing the clause in question eliminated from the agreement. The report stated that due to pressure from Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich, Netanyahu had agreed to reinstate the clause.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich during a vote in the Knesset, December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to Kan, the clause appears in every coalition agreement between the Likud and the other parties of the incoming government, although only the deal between Likud and Agudat Yisrael, one half of the United Torah Judaism faction, has been formally signed so far.

Strock’s comments drew widespread backlash from medical professionals and others, including a group of 200 current and former medical professionals who signed a document warning that the country faces “complete systemic collapse.”

The signatories stated that the day medical professionals refuse to treat patients equally will be a “black day” for the country and the medical profession.

Strock sought to calm fears in a post on Twitter, writing, “You can calm all the outrage. No one intends to discriminate against LGBT people because of their identity. Not over medical services, and not in any other service. LGBT people are human beings, and they deserve dignity and respect like everyone else.”

MK Orit Strock speaks during a visit of Religious Zionism party members in Netiv Haavot neighborhood in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

She added that her comments were not about the identity of the person receiving a service, but rather the identity of the person carrying out the service, and insisted that a “strong majority” of people agree with the law change.

As it stands, the law forbids discrimination by those providing public services or products on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and other similar considerations, and anyone breaching it is liable to be fined.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report. 

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