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Israeli-Arab society torn over LGBTQ legislation

The vote over a bill banning gay "conversion therapy" stirred a real conflict within Israeli-Arab politics and society.
Participants hold rainbow flags as they take part in Tel Aviv's annual Pride Parade amid the COVID-19 pandemic, on June 28, 2020. - Thousands took part in muted LGBT events across Israel today as the usually larger gatherings were cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions. In Tel Aviv, home to the Middle East's biggest annual Pride parade, revellers gathered at Rabin Square for a concert featuring local stars including transgender Eurovision winner Dana International. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JA

The attitude toward the LGBTQ community is one of the taboos of Israeli-Arab society. Thus, when it becomes public, storms erupt. This time, the storm threatens the unity of the Arab Joint List that includes four parties representing Arab society in Israel. The LGBTQ controversy is harsh, fundamental and ideological.

Traditional, conservative Arab society finds it difficult to tolerate those with different sexual orientations, which sometime is seen as "a stain" on the family, the clan or even the entire village. In August 2019, two brothers from the Arab village of Tamra tried to kill their 16-year-old brother who fled to an LGBTQ youth shelter in Tel Aviv. According to the indictment, after it was discovered that their brother was homosexual and was having an affair with a man, the brothers hit and stabbed him and threatened to kill him — all in the presence of the mother.

Another example of this kind of treatment is the drowning of Arab-Israeli dancer Ayman Safiah from the village of Kafr Yasif about two months ago. The local sheikh refused to conduct the traditional Muslim burial ceremony and to allow the funeral procession to pass by the mosque, arguing that Safiah was an “infidel.”

The issue came up again in recent weeks when Julia Zaher, owner of the Al Arz Tahini company, decided to donate to the telephone hotline that supports the Arab LGBTQ community. When this became known, several Arab supermarket chains decided to boycott the company, causing rage on the Arab social media networks. Many criticized the supermarkets, but just as many supported them. When the story got more publicity, a “reverse campaign” was initiated to support Al Arz Tahini. Numerous human rights groups — such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, and LGBTQ organizations — called on the public to buy Zaher’s tahini.

One of the only Arab Knesset members to take Zaher’s side was Aida Touma-Sliman of the Joint List, who talked to Zaher and tweeted, “The courageous stance of the company sends a clear message to the public: that LGBT rights are human rights. The boycott on Al Arz Tahini is an attempt to shut people’s mouths and intimidate Julia and her company. I call on everyone to go out and buy Al Arz Tahini and defy the boycott.”

But Touma-Sliman was a minority voice within Arab politics. And so, much criticism was leveled in the Israeli media on Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh from the socialist Hadash faction. Muhammad Zoabi, a prominent Arab-Israeli gay rights activist, wrote an article published on the Hebrew-language Ynet news site in which he called on Odeh “to choose which side you are on: Are you with those who try to silence us and return us to the closet? Or the side of those who want to take our society forward? Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Odeh stammers when people try to talk to him about the LGBT community. Whenever he is asked by the media for his stance on the issue, he tries to evade the topic or limit himself to vague statements about 'democracy and equality for all.'”

After the tweet, Zoabi’s family announced that they renounced him.

But evidently, Odeh internalized the criticism and in the next skirmish, he took the side of the LGBTQ community. The latter incident was in the Knesset during the July 22 preliminary vote on a bill presented by Chairman of the left-wing Meretz party Nitzan Horowitz — himself a homosexual — to prohibit “conversion therapy” in Israel.

The conversion therapy refers to “treatments” by traditional rabbis, educators and religious figures to allegedly return young boys and girls who show signs of same-sex affinity to the “straight and narrow path.” Since the proposal came from the opposition, and the ruling coalition contains the ultra-Orthodox parties, it was expected that the proposal would be defeated. However, ministers and Knesset members from the Likud, Labor and Blue and White parties — including Amir Ohana and Itzik Shmueli, members of the gay community — voted in favor and the bill passed its first/preliminary reading.

The votes in the Joint List on this bill banning conversion therapy were split: Odeh, Touma-Sliman and Ofer Kasif voted in favor of the proposal as did all four members of the Islamic party. Odeh supported the bill since it sanctions first and foremost psychologists offering such treatments. Still, apart from these three, the rest of the Arab legislators chose not to take part in the voting process.

Odeh’s support for the bill stirred up harsh criticism against him in the official Arab press and also on social media. He was criticized by religious leaders mainly for allegedly betraying Muslim-Arab values.

Knesset member Mansour Abbas, chairman of the Islamic faction, told Al-Monitor that Odeh created a rift with the Arab public that elected him. This traditional, religious public demands that he limits himself to dealing with the burning issues of Arab society, and not deal with this one especially sensitive topic. “Odeh’s vote and the vote of the others was not preceded by a discussion or even announcement to the members of the Joint List or the general Arab public, and that is the exact opposite of transparency. Odeh publicly accused Arab society of hypocrisy, and that is unacceptable. Especially when he does not explain his new insights. Odeh, and all of us, were elected because of having a certain agenda and that’s why people are frustrated and angry at him.”

Abbas added that there is increasing pressure on himself and on the Islamic faction to leave the Arab Joint List. “The Joint List must rethink its path if it wants to toe the line with most of the Arab public. If not, they have to make clear statements regarding their position, and then we will decide where to go from there. The alliance between the Joint List parties is not written in stone. However, there are many many other issues that are critical to Arab society, and we will examine these before we come to a decision.”

Odeh did not agree to answer questions — a departure from his usual style. His office directed us to interviews he had given to the media in Arabic. In these interviews, he tried to explain that he responded to the distress of some members of the public, and that he voted according to his own conscience.

Odeh and Abbas both want to drop this sensitive, loaded topic in favor of more burning problems in the Arab-Israeli world. They know that they must address the issue of violence and murder in Arab society that is breaking negative records, and the coronavirus-induced economic crisis that is negatively affecting Israel’s Arab public even more than the Jewish one.

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