Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman reached out Thursday to leaders of Israel’s LGBTQ community after a video emerged of him appearing to denounce gay pride parades during a 2013 meeting with hardline Haredi rabbi Shmuel Auerbach.
“From the day it was founded, Yisrael Beytenu has been guided by the principle of ‘live and let live,’ and respects all people for who they are,” Liberman wrote in a letter to the LGBTQ community Thursday.
In a video published on Wednesday by Channel 12 news, Liberman was seen expressing his agreement with Auerbach’s opposition to gay pride events in the nation’s capital.
Liberman drew immediate fire from across the political spectrum and from gay rights advocates and others.
Seeking to curb the damage from the tape, Liberman in his Thursday letter promised to push for civil marriage for gays.
“Yisrael Beytenu has supported and will continue to support civil marriage for everyone,” he wrote, adding that his party would include it in its coalition demands after the September 17 race.
Liberman, however, also said that his party is “not against religion or the religious. To each his own. I’ve said more than once that I’ll be the first to oppose opening supermarkets on the Sabbath in [the Haredi city of] Bnei Brak, but I’ll also demand that supermarkets aren’t forced to shut in Tel Aviv or Ashdod.”
“That’s the same way I think about pride marches,” he added.
Ohad Hizki, head of Aguda, Israel’s largest LGBT rights group, criticized Liberman’s letter Thursday, saying he had avoided stating in plain language his views on the LGBTQ community.
“We struggled to find answers in the letter we received from Liberman,” he said in a statement. “An explicit commitment to civil marriage for the LGBT is important, but besides that we couldn’t understand if Yisrael Beytenu has changed its opinion on the LGBT community or not. You can’t claim the mantle of liberalism without advancing equal rights for the LGBT.”
Yisrael Beytenu has made a central plank of its election campaign the championing of a secular agenda in the face of what it deems Orthodox hegemony over key elements of Israeli life.
It was Liberman’s refusal to join a Netanyahu-led coalition in May over disagreements with ultra-Orthodox parties that led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call new elections.
Auerbach, who died last year at the age of 86, was the leader of the Jerusalem Faction, an ultra-Orthodox movement whose members are seen as hardliners even by other members of the community.
According to Channel 12, which broadcast the footage of the meeting on Tuesday evening, Liberman had requested an audience to ask for Auerbach’s support for then-Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, whom he was backing.
Auerbach’s followers are among the most vociferously opposed to any semblance of national service, and have frequently demonstrated and blocked traffic in Jerusalem and around the country to protest the legal requirement that Haredi men who are exempted from the draft must formally register for it to obtain the exemption.
During the 2013 meeting, Liberman told Auerbach that if Lion is elected, “there won’t be all these parades that they hold here or the gay festivals.”
ב-2013, ליברמן רצה מאוד את תמיכת הפלג הירושלמי הקיצוני במועמד משה ליאון. איש עסקים מארגן לו פגישה עם מנהיג הפלג, הרב שמואל אוירבך. הרב והיו״ר מנהלים מו״מ. הם מסכימים למשל שאין מקום למצעדי גאווה pic.twitter.com/zR9J6wa91m
— עמית סגל Amit Segal (@amit_segal) August 20, 2019
Lion lost that race, but won the next one, becoming mayor of the capital in 2018.
The pride parade in Jerusalem, which takes place annually under heavy police guard — and has continued under Lion — is a smaller and more subdued affair than the raucous festivities that surround its equivalent in secular Tel Aviv. It is vehemently opposed each year by ultra-Orthodox and other religious leaders, who argue it has no place in the conservative and majority-religious capital.
The tape of Liberman, a hawkish settler who is also seen a possible partner for the left due to his commitment to secularization, was shellacked by politicians and others after the tape of him emerged.
“Liberman the homophobe has never been on the side of secular or LGBT people,” the left-wing Democratic Camp said in a statement carried by Channel 12.
“Avigdor Liberman, ‘the new liberal,’ is a homophobe of the old breed,” tweeted Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Likud stalwart and Israel’s first openly gay cabinet minister. “Whoever did not realize this until this evening, now it is clear. Right-wing liberals have only one address in the upcoming elections — Likud.”