Last night in Tel Aviv, the Israeli left won the battle but lost the war.
After the passing of a controversial law barring gay men from access to state-supported surrogacy, thousands took to Rabin Square in protest. It was one of the most well-attended demonstrations in recent memory, and it followed on the heels of a nearly unprecedented strike, supported by scores of corporations, during which many members of the nation’s LGBTQ community stayed home from work. It was an impressive showing. It was also, sadly, misguided.
Not that the law itself is defensible: The decision to single out gay couples, depriving them of the same rights enjoyed by anyone else wishing to start a family, is patently discriminatory and morally wrong. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised to vote against the bill but ended up rushing to support it after succumbing to threats from his haredi coalition partners, registered one of the lowest points in his tenure, appearing weaker and more unprincipled than ever. Although no polls are yet available, the massive attendance in Sunday night’s demonstration suggests that a majority of Israelis see the law’s passage as highly objectionable. But rather than press on in an instructive way, the Israeli left last night did what it does best, opting for ideological purity over political efficiency.
The roots of this recent disaster go years back. In 2016, Israel’s political system was abuzz at the possibility of Labor joining Netanyahu’s coalition. Most in the media and on the far-left fiercely objected to the putative national unity government: Even though Labor had few major policies that were widely divergent from Likud’s, and even though joining the coalition might’ve facilitated the passage of a host of policies that would’ve benefited many of its voters, the finger-waggers in the opposition insisted that making common cause with Netanyahu was an unpardonable sin. Instead, the prime minister shored up his coalition by conceding to the orthodox United Torah Judaism party on a host of issues, gay rights included.
It could’ve gone differently. Over the weekend, Amir Ohana, an openly gay Member of Knesset with Likud, wrote a long and heartfelt post on Facebook, explaining the failure of an amendment to the law he himself had proposed and that would’ve granted gay couples equal rights when it comes to surrogacy. Had the amendment passed, Ohana wisely wrote, the haredi parties would’ve quit the coalition, leading to the government’s downfall and more political chaos. And immediately after the vote, he added, many of his friends in the LGBTQ community took to social media and the press to portray Likud itself as a party inherently intolerant to gay rights. “There are those who don’t want there to be LGBTQ people on the right,” he wrote. “It’s much easier for them to paint the world in black and white: It’s the bad guys versus the good guys, the haters versus the lovers, the right against the left.” Such a worldview, Ohana argued, was not only factually false but also politically disastrous.
It only takes a quick glimpse to confirm Ohana’s suspicions. Israel’s LGBTQ umbrella group timed its strike for Tisha B’Av, releasing statements that accused anyone who had voted for the law of “baseless hatred.” It’s a good soundbite, but also a terrible reading of the Israeli public pulse. Appropriating a holy day that most Israelis reserve for spiritual contemplation and using its symbolism to promote earthly causes instead risks alienating many who would’ve otherwise marched side-by-side with the protestors. It forces a choice where there really oughtn’t to be one: You’re either breaking the fast after 25 hours of religious observation or you march up to the square and shout. And the demonstration itself quickly turned into a referendum on the prime minister, making it very difficult for anyone who may agree with Netanyahu on security matters, say, but disagrees with him on gay rights to come out and show his or her support. It’s yet another chapter in the history of the left’s zero-sum game, one that has seen it shrink from a viable electoral force to a handful of seats in the Knesset representing three or four neighborhoods in Tel Aviv and no one else.
On the verge of oblivion, the Israeli left refuses to learn not only from its own mistake but from the experience of others as well. The marriage equality movement in America, for example, succeeded precisely because it shunned any attempt to portray its issue as partisan, and focused instead of promoting a crucial key message: That everyone deserved the right to marry. This inspiring and effective approach seems to be too much for the Israeli left, who would still much rather stick it to Netanyahu than build the sort of complex coalitions that win elections and change minds. What a pity.