Nitzan Horowitz, the first openly gay politician to be elected to the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), is a man on a mission. Representing the left of centre, pro-peace New Movement-Meretz party, he has called for Israel to introduce secular marriages for gay and straight couples as well as campaigning for help for LGBT people from neighboring Arab countries who risk death if returned home.
Speaking last week at a London meeting of young members of the Zionist Federation as well as a separate audience of LGBT Jews, Mr Horowitz spoke of his experiences as a gay politician and how they have informed his campaigning for human and gay rights across the middle east.
“If you solve the issues about separating religion from the state you can solve a lot of the issues relating to LGBT rights,” he told both groups.
“Through the courts, but not through parliament, we have very good LGBT rights in Israel already. Because of the religious power in parliament, it was always going to be impossible to pass legislation specifically to protect LGBT rights, especially with this horrible right-wing government. So we go through the courts, using the aspirations of equality within the Israeli Deceleration of Independence as the basis for our claims.
“Actually, the situation on the ground is not bad, better than here in the UK in many respects. For example, if you live with someone for just three months, it is enough under Israeli law to be considered as a ‘common law marriage’, with no marriage ceremony or registration and it makes no difference whether the couple is gay or straight. So if something happens to me and I die, my partner gets all his inheritance without any tax, just as he would if we were actually married.
“But there is a real danger with things being decided by court precedents rather than by Parliament, because if another judge, who is less liberal, makes a different ruling, then rights could be taken away, just like that. This is something we have to try and avoid on a daily basis. But the real problem isn’t gay rights in my opinion, it’s tolerance. Rights are guaranteed by the court but if people are beaten in the streets, or there is hate crime, obviously that’s also illegal but it doesn’t stop it ruining or in the tragic case of a shooting in an LGBT youth centre, ending gay peoples’ lives.”
Part of the reason why Israel protects unmarried couples as if they were married is because of the complex system of religious law that underpins a Jewish country with a significant Muslim and Christian minority.
Mr Horowitz explained: “Israel is a messy legal system with personal law being determined by different religious courts. There are the Jewish courts, the Muslim courts and 13 different denominations of Christianity have their own religious courts. We inherited this system from the British, who in turn inherited it from the Ottoman Empire. What it means is that so many religious institutions have a say about how I can live my life, how the law applies to me, that there is no provision for secular personal law.
“So, a Jew can’t marry a Christian within Israel, nor can a Christian marry someone of no faith. And a Jewish man with the surname Cohen [in biblical times the name for a priest] cannot marry a divorced woman. They are all, like gay couples forced to marry outside of Israel. The state does recognise all of these marriages and gives the couples legal protection, but it is wrong that the ceremonies themselves, particularly civil ceremonies can’t be done inside Israel.”
Mr Horowitz also pointed out that the religious groups within Israel are united in their opposition to homosexuality.
“The first time the country’s three religious leaders; the Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Catholic-Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and the chief mufti of the Muslim congregation have ever got together in history was in their opposition of World Pride coming to Jerusalem,” he said. “They got together and sat on the same table because of their hatred of gays.”
Speaking to PinkNews.co.uk, Mr Horowitz explained how gay Muslims are treated within Israel and the Palestinian Territories. “When I talk about gay rights to an enlightened Arab politician, who agrees with me about every other human rights issue, they simply say ‘no we don’t have this phenomenon, it is only the Jews who have homosexuals, we don’t have this problem.’ How far from the truth they are.”
Mr Horowitz added: “The gay Palestinians fear for their lives. They leave their homes in Gaza and Ramallah and come to Tel Aviv where there is a very big gay community and nightlife. The problem is that in Tel Aviv, they are living as illegal immigrants. But if you send them back to Palestine, they might be killed by their own families. So what I’m doing in some of these cases is working with like-minded politicians to find them a suitable country where they can live safely outside of the Middle East. I have helped some gay people get refugee status in Sweden, Norway and Canada. There are all sorts of solutions to enable to them actually stay alive. But some of them do remain in Israel of course and that is right and we must help and support them.
“As for the Arab countries around us, this is a big problem. They are fundamentally very undemocratic and oppressive societies that do not respect the human rights of any kind. But it should be a topic that is raised by other countries as we’re not in a position to influence them, they often don’t even recognise the State of Israel. The problem with non-Palestinian refugees is if they live in an enemy country of Israel like Syria, the border is closed and it is almost impossible for them reach us. Egyptians and Jordanians can come because we have diplomatic relations with them, but it is not very easy for gay people from those countries to live in Israel, because unfortunately, our own religious establishment is not very tolerant to gays either. The interior minister, Eli Yishai, the man responsible for issuing visas to asylum seekers hates gays, so it is impossible to talk to him about cases, it is very complicated, but I try my best that I can.”