The Israeli Labor Party’s struggle to recapture the prime minister’s office in the upcoming March elections is an uphill battle, with the party’s leader, Isaac “Buji” Herzog, toiling to position himself as a viable left-wing alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu. But most of the press the party’s getting these days has nothing to do Herzog’s peace plan or his economic designs; instead, Labor is roiled by a controversy surrounding the sexual identity of one of its members of Knesset.
The legislator, whose identity is a loosely guarded secret on blogs and social media platforms, is a closeted gay person. And this, a number of prominent gay activists have argued this past week, should be unacceptable in a liberal party that enjoys strong support from Israel’s LGBT community.
Last week, Gal Uchovsky—a prominent journalist, TV personality, and screenwriter—fired the opening salvo in the campaign to out the private parliamentarian with a fiery open letter to Herzog, demanding that Labor’s leader force the legislator to choose between the Knesset and the closet.
“It’s nice that you have an active gay caucus,” Uchovsky wrote, “but it’s ridiculous when you have, in your party, an elephant the size of the Azriely Towers. A closeted member of Knesset is a disgrace. It’s a shame. As I see it, the Knesset should have no room for people in the closet. Such people can remain closeted, if that’s what they wish to do, but then let them not be members of Knesset. In this day and age, you can’t have it both ways. Want to remain closeted? No problem: Stay home. Want to be a member of Knesset? Then let there be no closet.”
A number of prominent gay Israelis readily agreed. A public official hiding his or her sexual identity would be a setback in the ongoing campaign to secure basic civil rights for gay Israelis, they argued. Besides, they asked, don’t we expect our elected officials to be frank and forthcoming about all other aspects of their personal lives? And how is the legislator’s sexual preference any different from the state of Netanyahu’s marriage, which is constant fodder for the tabloids? Such reasoning was only complicated by the fact that the legislator had been openly gay before entering politics, despite never having been identified as such in the press. The legislator’s effort to suddenly mute this central aspect of life is a move many gay Israeli activists regard as a cynical political calculation. Referring to the legislator as “Voldemort”—the Harry Potter villain whose name is almost never explicitly uttered—one writer restated Uchovsky’s dictum as a universal principle: “If you don’t want to be honest and transparent,” he wrote, “get out of politics.”
But not all gay Israelis agreed. To some, Uchovsky’s open letter was a crude act of bullying by a self-appointed vigilante who did not represent his larger community. “What kind of warrior on behalf of gays and lesbians are you,” wrote one of Uchovksy’s critics, “that you reduce their entire being, their entire essence, their thinking and their acting to the single question of whether or not they’re in the closet? How small does a person have to be to treat another person in such a shallow manner?”
Believing that a gay legislator’s main allegiance was to the gay community, the critics continued, meant viewing the entire world through the narrow lens of personal circumstance; a committed lawmaker, they added, should do the opposite and see him- or herself as a servant of all Israelis, not as a guardian of a particular sector’s interests.
Before too long, the contentious debate was joined by the parliamentarians themselves. Earlier this week, Erel Margalit, the renowned Israeli venture capitalist turned Labor MK, wrote a strongly worded op-ed, entitled “Gal Uchovsky, I Don’t Need Your Vote.” Calling Uchovsky’s demand “borderline violent,” Margalit said that while he deems gays’ struggle for basic rights fundamental, there are other struggles that concern a far greater number of Israelis and therefore must take precedence.
“The upcoming elections are about much more than sexual orientation,” Margalit wrote. “They’re about equality and morality and justice and an end to conflict. They’re about our broad future. They’re a choice between those who want Israel to remain a democracy and those who promote nationality laws. Whoever calls for public officials to be fired for no other reason than their personal choices is a person who doesn’t care about human and civil rights in the least.”
This discussion, of course, is nothing new in American politics, where more than a few lawmakers have sought to keep their sexual orientation private, often while marrying members of the opposite sex, and sometimes while vociferously opposing gay rights. But Labor’s legislator appears to be Israel’s first politician facing such a challenge, or at least the first to rise to prominence. The legislator’s politics are progressive, so the common argument that has sometimes won the day stateside—namely, that it’s OK to out a closeted lawmaker if his or her politics are actively damaging to the gay community—carries little weight here. The MK is single and silent on the personal life question, a silence respected by the press. And with just one openly gay MK—Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, only the second openly gay parliamentarian in the Knesset’s history—there is hardly a precedent for the legislator coming out.
It’s possible that this storm, like so many conflagrations before it, will blow over without causing Labor any harm. But it may not: With the Israeli left expected to register its feeblest performance ever—a recent poll by Channel 10 predicted 22 seats for Labor and six for Meretz, paltry numbers compared to the slated gains of right-leaning parties—any sign of discord may nudge voters away from Labor and toward centrist alternatives like Kulanu, the new party founded by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, or Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. To win, Labor would need to convince a significant number of Israelis that it is no longer the exhausted outfit that had plowed through six leaders in 10 years. It would need to rid itself of the narcissism of small differences, the left’s usual Achilles heel. And it would need to present a coherent agenda that addresses not only the perennial conflict with the Palestinians but also a vision for ordinary life that most Israelis find compelling. Judging by the tempests of last week, things are off to a very rocky start.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.