Lavender power: Israel’s tinder box?


Gay pride, no longer any need to hide; it is a bedrock of the South African constitution: Simon Nkoli holding a sign representing the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) region (now Gauteng) at a pride march in 1998

FURIOUS PROTESTS currently going in Israel demanding LGBT rights and the surrogacy option, bring the spotlight home to what it was to be gay in apartheid South Africa – for many years illegal, punishable by fines and jail terms. Same-sex marriage, of course, was totally unimaginable. With worldwide shifts in social mores, how do things stand?

Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006. The SA Constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the fifth country to legalise same-sex marriage. Couples can adopt children and arrange IVF and surrogacy. Other countries allowing same-sex marriage include Belgium, Canada, Argentina, England and Wales, and the United States.

But legal legitimacy doesn’t automatically translate into gay acceptance, particularly in black rural areas and townships. Even before the question of same-sex marriage, let alone surrogacy or children, in any form, comes up, black lesbians face the horror of so-called “corrective” rape. Rapists believe they can “fix” women not conforming to conservative gender norms. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, including against lesbians, because they are lesbians.

The plight of LGBT people is continually highlighted in theatre, photography and dance, by artists such as activist photographer Zanele Muholi, choreographer Mamela Nyamza and playwright/artistic director Phyllis Klotz, in very important works which give victims voice and achieve wide audiences. The media gives significant coverage.

But it is not just in South Africa, and not just a contemporary issue. In the United States during the Cold War in the 1950s, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy led the Federal government to target gay men and lesbians, accusing them of endangering public morals and linking them to Communists. In a movement known as the Lavender Threat, hundreds of people were persecuted, bullied and lost their jobs because they were suspected of being homosexual.

What about LGBT people in religious communities, such as the Jewish communities in America and South Africa? The American community and the Israeli one are the two largest Jewish communities in the world. The South African one is very much smaller and still shrinking.

When the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage was to be legally binding in all 50 states, American Jews celebrated. Surveys showed that some 77 per cent favoured its legitimacy. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish streams – which together constitute most religiously identified US Jews – supported it.

Among South African Jewry, which has traditionally been a conservative community, including towards gay people, greater acceptance of gays is apparent in recent years, following the trend in post-apartheid South Africa in urban areas. Prominent community rabbis have said openly that gays are welcome in their synagogues, without explicitly condoning homosexuality. Rabbis still refrain from conducting same-sex marriages, however, either because of personal reservations, or because the policy of their Jewish stream does not allow it.

The SA Jewish community has shrunk by half since its 1970s heyday to only some 60 000 people, and lacks diversity compared to the 5-million-strong American community, where Jews wanting to remain in the Jewish fold have numerous options, such as egalitarian minyans, similar to the Orthodox shtiebls which have sprung up in South Africa, but with a liberal slant.

Back in Tel Aviv, touted as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities, legalisation of same-sex marriage and surrogacy seems, ironically, a long way off, despite the protests and the festive gay pride parade of 250,000 people earlier this year, for which the city closed major roads.

Haaretz reported this week on a Hadashot TV poll published on Tuesday, which found that a majority of Israelis across the political spectrum support the LGBT community’s fight for surrogacy rights. It showed that 56 percent of the public support the LGBT protests, while 33 percent oppose them.

Even right-wing parties backed the protests: 51 percent of Likud voters, and 58 percent  for Jewish Home, a largely religious party. Centrist and left-wing parties showed substantially higher support, with Zionist Union voters at 87 percent, Yesh Atid at 89 percent and Meretz at 82 percent

As expected, a majority among ultra-Orthodox parties opposed the LGBT campaign: United Torah Judaism and Shas registered 90 percent and 78 percent opposition respectively. The ultra-Orthodox opinion is crucial, since civil marriage is absent in Israel and all Jewish marriages must go through the Orthodox-controlled rabbinate, which follows the halachic injunction against homosexuality.

The Haredi parties’ political and religious power, however, rests on key positions in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. Will the gender rights protest be the tinder box that ignites a new direction in Israel’s politics?

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


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