Protesters march nationwide as unprecedented LGBT strike begins over surrogacy
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Protesters march nationwide as unprecedented LGBT strike begins over surrogacy

Thousands of Israelis rally in major cities for equality in rights to have children, with mass event set to take place in Rabin Square in the evening

Protesters for LGBT rights march on Tel Aviv's Ayalon freeway, July 22, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Protesters for LGBT rights march on Tel Aviv's Ayalon freeway, July 22, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Protesters briefly blocked the Ayalon freeway in central Tel Aviv on Sunday morning amid demonstrations across the country, as the LGBT community began an unprecedented nationwide strike in protest of Israel’s failure to include gay couples in its surrogacy laws.

The main southbound artery through the city was temporarily blocked by thousands of marchers waving the rainbow flag of the pride movement.

In Jerusalem hundreds of demonstrators gathered near the prime minister’s residence, waving Israeli and rainbow flags. There were also demonstrations in the northern cities of Haifa and Carmiel and the southern city of Beersheba.

Three people were arrested in the Jerusalem protests, including a candidate for the Meretz party in the next municipal elections. It was not immediately clear what led to their arrest.

The day’s main event is a major rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square at 8:30 p.m.

The LGBT community’s umbrella organization, The Agudah, set up protest tents on the central Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, where community members from the business, academic, and press sectors gathered.

Many members of the community were striking throughout the country, often with the backing of their employers.

Dozens of companies and local branches of multinationals based in Israel announced their support for the day of protest and their willingness to allow employees to participate in it. Some said they would be implementing new policies to help workers become parents via a surrogate, regardless of sexual orientation.

Protesters for LGBT rights in Jerusalem, July 22, 2018 (The Agudah Facebook page)

The strike was announced on Wednesday by The Agudah, shortly after the Knesset voted on a surrogacy bill which extended eligibility to single women, but not to men, effectively preventing homosexual couples from having a child via a surrogate.

Several streets in central Tel Aviv surrounding the square will be closed to traffic beginning in the early afternoon. Some streets in south Tel Aviv will also be shut to traffic to accommodate a march from Levinsky Park to the square by members of the transgender community.

More than 40 companies and businesses voiced their support for the strike and the protests, among them the local divisions of Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft.

Protesters for LGBT rights march on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon freeway, July 22, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Israel Airports Authority warned that flights on Sunday could be delayed due to manpower shortages as a result of the strike, but later said they had recruited enough manpower to cover the shortage.

Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital and the Magen David Adom emergency service also announced that they were permitting workers to participate in the protest.

Netivei Israel, the national transportation infrastructure operator, and Haifa Port will also allow workers to strike.

The head of the Histadrut union, Avi Nissenkorn, on Thursday said that the national labor federation would support LGBT members who wish to take part in the strike, calling on unions and management to allow workers to take part in the nationwide strike “without infringing their rights.”

On Saturday, one of the protest organizers told Walla news that “the whole country will be at the square to tell the Israeli government ‘enough,’ to tell [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to stop with the lies.”

“We will no longer be quiet while you [the government] discriminate against us,” Roy Neumann told the Israeli news site.

The prime minister earlier this week declared his support for a clause to be added to the legislation to extend surrogacy rights to gay couples, but ultimately voted against the measure, reportedly due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition.

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)

The clause was proposed by MK Amir Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, who is gay.

The Agudah called for the strike in response. “For the first time ever, the gay community will go on a national strike,” the Agudah wrote in a statement. “On that day workers from the community, and likewise our supporters and partners, will not be present at work and will close their businesses to protest the blatant discrimination against the LGBT community and the deterioration that has begun recently due to the government’s efforts to roll back our campaign.”

On Thursday, Microsoft Israel R&D Center announced on its official Facebook page that it will pay NIS 60,000 ($16,500) to any employee interested in starting a family through surrogacy. Surrogacy costs can run to around NIS 200,000.

“The current text of the surrogacy law excludes the LGBT community and denies them the basic human right to establish a family,” the company wrote. “This is a regrettable and unequal law. Starting today, every one of our workers who decides to set up a family using surrogacy will receive NIS 60,000 irrespective of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or marital status. Everyone!”

Members of the LGBT community demonstrate in Tel Aviv against a Knesset legislation that denies surrogacy rights for same-sex couples on July 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Mellanox Technologies said it will offer NIS 60,000 as well as a month of parental leave to employees who use surrogacy and would allow workers to participate in the strike.

“We regret the current text of the surrogacy law, which unfairly excludes the LGBT community, and hope that the day will not be long in coming in which Israeli law also enables true equality for the basic right to parenthood,” the company said in a statement.

Israeli companies Natural Intelligence, Logic, Zap Group, Matrix, Playtika, Fiverr, MyHeritage, Similarweb, and Wibbitz all said that employees will be permitted to strike.

The Tel Aviv and Givatayim municipalities, the Jordan Valley Regional Council, Teva, Allen Carr, Proctor & Gamble, Saar Book Publishing, SodaStream, Comme il Faut, Shufersal, Cellcom, and Pelephone also announced that they will allow workers to strike, as will Isracard, Castro, and IsrAir.

Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn at the National Labor Court in Jerusalem, December 5, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

iStore, an official retailer of Apple in Israel, said its shops in Tel Aviv, Beersheba, and Ra’anana will all join the strike for one hour in a show of solidarity.

On Thursday evening, hundreds of protesters gathered at a pre-planned demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to show their anger at the law. Shouting “Netanyahu is homophobic, so we have taken to the streets,” demonstrators blocked roads in the center of the city before being dispersed by police.

A surrogacy agreement involves a woman who is willing to carry a pregnancy for another individual or couple, who will become the child’s legal parent or parents after birth.

Until Wednesday’s legislative amendment, the right to surrogacy was only extended to married, heterosexual couples. In a further change, surrogacy was previously limited to two children per family, but the new amendment increases the number of children per family unit to five.

In addition, the age limit for surrogate mothers has been raised from 38 to 39, and a surrogate will now be able to give birth five times (including her own children) instead of four as the law currently mandates.

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