Tens of thousands of Israelis packed into Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Sunday night to protest the exclusion of gay couples from a recently passed surrogacy law that has drawn accusations of LGBT discrimination in the Jewish state.
Gay rights advocates and their supporters observed an unprecedented one-day strike earlier on Sunday, and large demonstrations were held in major cites across Israel, where hundreds were seen waving rainbow flags, blocking traffic, and shouting “shame.”
Many focused their anger at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last week pledged to pass legislation supporting surrogacy for gay fathers, but then voted against it, reportedly under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
“It’s very important, I’m not from the community, but I believe in equality,” a protester named Eti told the Times of Israel. “It’s just not right that some people can’t have kids.”
A Tel Aviv resident attending her first-ever LGBT solidarity protest, Eti said she believed Sunday’s rally would force the government into passing a law giving surrogacy rights to gay men.
“I think it will make a difference – I’ve never seen such activity online for a cause. It’s different this time,” she said. “Bibi can’t avoid making a change.”
Police said some 100,000 people attended the rally in Rabin Square, according to reports in Hebrew-language media. Several streets in downtown Tel Aviv near the rally were closed to traffic, while dozens of police officers were deployed to secure the area.
Addressing the crowd was actress and LGBT activist Orna Banai, who accused Israel of hypocrisy for claiming to be a gay-friendly country.
“Too many times we’ve heard that we have we actually have it really good here, and there’s no discrimination. Because they’re not stoning us, they want us to sit down and be quiet,” she said.
“But are you willing to sit down and be quiet?” she asked the crowd, who responded with a resounding “No.”
Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay was seen in the crowd, and told Channel 10 that he came to the rally to show support for Israelis who are subject to “pain and humiliation every single day as they fight for equal rights.”
Another protester, Shahar Abramovitz, told The Times of Israel that having his own children via surrogacy compelled him to attend the protest.
“I’m here because we had our children via surrogacy abroad,” he said. “Our twins are now 3 and a half, and we want to help others not to have to pay half a million shekels and to travel just to have children. There should be equality for all.”
“We know there is a time to run, and a time to stand and fight. And now is the time to fight,” Abramovitz added.
The gloves are off
The protests have generated widespread support and hundreds of Israeli companies said they would allow their employees to attend the various demonstrations on Sunday without penalty.
“It is a symbolic measure, but one that shows real support,” Julien Bahloul, spokesman for the Association of Gay Fathers in Israel, told AFP earlier on Sunday.
Some companies said they would contribute up to around $15,000 to help gay couples forced to seek surrogacy abroad.
Bahloul said gay couples wanting to have children must find a surrogate mother abroad and the costs can rise to more than $100,000. Costs would be cut in half if it were allowed in Israel, he said.
Leading Israeli LGBTQ activist Chen Arieli told Channel 10 news that the LGBT community in Israel was pleased to see such a strong turnout at Rabin Square.
“When we announced the strike, we did not expect this much support from the Israeli public,” she said. “We feel that today is a historic day,” she said. “Today everyone understands that an attack on the LGBT community is an attack on Israel’s itself.”
“The LGBT community has had a tough week, and we have decided that it’s time for the gloves to come off,” Arieli added.
Sunday’s protests were announced last Wednesday by Agudah — Israel’s umbrella organization for the LGBTQ community — 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.
Netanyahu had initially expressed support for a clause to be added to the legislation that would extend surrogacy rights to gay couples, but at the last-minute voted against it, apparently to appease ultra-Orthodox cabinet members who oppose giving gay men the right to father children through surrogacy.
Channel 10 reported at the time that in return for Netanyahu’s vote, the Haredi parties agreed to support the Likud-backed Jewish nation-state bill, another controversial piece of legislation that was up for its final votes later that week.
Amid mounting criticism, Netanyahu later denied that he changed his mind his position on surrogate parenthood for same-sex couples, saying he voted against the measure to ensure the bill would pass. He vowed to support a separate bill legalizing surrogacy for gay couples at a later Knesset session.