Likud MK urges colleagues to defend new Knesset speaker from homophobic attacks

As Bitan speaks out, Ohana says he prefers to hold his tongue and not criticize rabbis; Deri claims Netanyahu tricked him with appointment; ex-Shas MK: Ohana should marry a woman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with new Knesset speaker Amir Ohana and Ohana's children after the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset, on December 29, 2022. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with new Knesset speaker Amir Ohana and Ohana's children after the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset, on December 29, 2022. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

Likud MK David Bitan on Monday reportedly urged fellow members of the ruling party to defend their colleague, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, who has come under repeated attack from homophobic rabbis and lawmakers over his sexual identity.

Bitan said during a closed faction meeting that Likud MKs should “not make coalition calculations” in speaking out to support Ohana. The new Knesset speaker responded that he decided to hold his tongue on the matter, maintaining his policy of “not attacking rabbis.” The comments were leaked to Channel 12 and other Hebrew media outlets.

A handful of prominent Orthodox rabbis have spoken out against Ohana after he was sworn in as Knesset speaker last week, making him the first openly gay individual seated in the post.

Jerusalem’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, said Sunday that it was “unbearable” that an openly gay man was made Knesset speaker and sharply criticized the religious parliamentarians who supported his appointment.

On Saturday, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, an influential Haredi rabbi with close ties to several senior members of the new government, said Ohana was “infected with a disease” and insinuated that the deadly 2021 Meron disaster happened due to Ohana’s sexual orientation.

Ohana has not commented much on the criticism publicly, but he did tweet on Sunday in favor of loving his fellow Israelis, rather than compounding senseless hatred.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, January 2013. (Uri Lenz/Flash90/File)

On Monday, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri reportedly accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “tricking” him with a surprise appointment of Ohana.

The Kikar Hashabbat Haredi news site quoted Deri telling Shas MKs in a closed faction meeting: “Netanyahu tricked me with the appointment of Amir Ohana. We thought it would be [Likud MKs] Yoav Kisch or David Amsalem.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) leads a Likud party meeting at the Knesset alongside MK Amir Ohana (L) and MK David Bitan on July 10, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Deri also implied that the Haredi lawmakers should have treated Ohana’s inaugural speech with more disdain than they did. Several Orthodox MKs were seen bowing their heads so as to not look at Ohana as he gave his inaugural speech.

“We erred in our conduct in the plenum. I headed out immediately after the speech, I can’t understand the Haredi MKs who went to hug him after that address.”

However, Deri himself hugged Ohana later in the ceremony, after the former was sworn in as interior minister.

Shas MK Nissim Zeev (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then-Shas MK Nissim Zeev in 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

Also Monday, former Shas MK Nissim Zeev suggested that instead of resigning, the gay Knesset speaker should “form a kosher family and marry a woman.”

“In what country in the world is there a gay [parliament] speaker?” Zeev told Radio 103FM. “There is no hate here, but there is a deviation from the path of the Torah. This must be protested.

“Amir Ohana can serve in any role, but not as Knesset speaker — sensitivity should be shown,” he added. “He is definitely a respected person, but he isn’t a role model.”

United Torah Judaism MKs Yitzhak Goldknopf and Meir Porush, a minister and deputy minister, respectively, in the new government, avert their gaze as MK Amir Ohana, who is gay, makes his first speech as Knesset speaker, December 29, 2022. (Screenshot from footage by Ari Kalman, Behadrei Haredim, broadcast on Channel 12; used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

On Sunday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attacks on Ohana by Amar and Mazuz, citing a passage from Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot), a compilation of rabbinic ethical teachings.

“‘Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God].’ Every person is created in God’s image. That is the fundamental belief that was given to humanity thousands of years ago by our people, and it is the fundamental belief that guides us today,” the prime minister said.

In his first remarks after being elected, Ohana thanked his parents — who were in the gallery — for accepting him “for who I am.” And he thanked his partner, Alon Haddad, “the second half of my life for almost 18 years,” who was in the gallery with the couple’s children, Ella and David, whom Ohana also mentioned.

Ohana vowed that the incoming coalition would not infringe upon LGBTQ rights.

“This Knesset, under the leadership of this speaker, will not hurt them or any other family, period,” he said in comments directed toward his family.

The outcome of the plenum vote was 63-5, with all coalition lawmakers voting in favor — including the members of the Haredi parties and the Religious Zionism party — except for United Torah Judaism MK Ya’akov Tessler, who was overseas.

Several of Likud’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners have expressed homophobic positions, including advocating for bringing back currently banned conversion therapy, changing governmental forms to say “mother” and “father” instead of the gender-neutral “parent,” and running on the platform of a “normal family.”

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