Trailblazer or Turncoat? The Gay Politician Dividing Israel's LGBTQ Community

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana made history as the first openly gay man in this position. However, few in the community seem especially proud of him, while his coalition partners spread homophobia

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
אמיר אוחנה פריימריז ליכוד
Amir Ohana at the Likud primary last August.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan

On Tel Aviv’s trendy Nahalat Binyamin Street, across from the Shpagat gay bar, is a graffitied steel door. It features one sentence, written in classical Hebrew calligraphy and layered in the colors of the rainbow: “Ohana is gay.”

It popped up in 2020, during Likud lawmaker Amir Ohana’s tenure as public security minister. At that time, he had already held the justice portfolio – becoming the first openly gay minister in Israeli history in 2019.

According to Imri Kalmann, the artist behind the graffiti and former co-chairman of the Aguda – Israel’s LGBT Task Force, it is supposed to serve as a reminder.

“Amir Ohana, you are gay,” he wrote in Time Out magazine, explaining his work. “You must protect, with every means at your disposal, those who are weak and vulnerable against the great power of the government.”

The iron door that bears the graffiti is now kept open around the clock to showcase the wears of the store inside, but the message remains intact. Ohana is not going away either, and just made history by becoming Israel’s first ever openly gay Knesset speaker.

Israelis wave flags during a rally to protest against inequality for the LGBT community in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 22, 2018.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The governing coalition of which he is a member also made history, as Israel’s most right-wing and religious government to date. One of Ohana’s coalition partners, Noam, ran on a platform of explicit homophobia and transphobia – going as far as to once catalog LGBTQ people who work in the Israeli media.

Whether Ohana is a trailblazer or turncoat is a hot topic in Israel’s LGBTQ community. At the start of his political career, he was hailed by many as a pioneer.

“When I first discovered that we have an LGBTQ representative in the Knesset, and no less in a strong right-wing party, I was thrilled,” says Kayla Tannenbaum, a 26-year-old customer service representative who grew up in the settlement of Efrat and now lives in Tel Aviv. “Finally, representation, someone to fight for us from the inside – even if not actively, then just through his presence in the Knesset, and especially in the largest right-wing party.”

But, she adds, his political positions and convictions soon dampened her enthusiasm: “He turned out to be the opposite of what our community needed.”

It felt like issues regarding the LGBTQ community became “a burden on him. Or even worse: he’s there just to enhance [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] political stance as ‘open’ and ‘progressive,’” she says.

This seems to be a common refrain. When Ohana makes brief appearances at Israel’s Pride parades, he is surrounded by security personnel – it seems his detail is there to protect him more from the jeers of frustrated queer people than a physical attack.

A billboard promoting Amir Ohana at the Likud primary election last summer.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Polarizing politician

Ohana’s career is marked by negating stereotypes and norms as a right-winger and gay man alike, all while declaring his pride in the labels. He was one of the founders of Likud Pride, a group of LGBTQ members of the party, and went on to lead the organization. In 2018, he initiated a clause in a surrogacy bill that would allow gay couples to use domestic surrogates (his own children were born to a surrogate mother based in the United States). That clause was struck down at the behest of allies of his own party.

“Ohana is a polarizing figure,” says Gali Ofer, chairman of Israel’s LGBT Sports Club and a member of the Coalition of LGBTQ Organizations. “He has said in the past that other identities of his have overtaken his gay identity. He has abstained from voting on [issues affecting] the LGBTQ community or left the Knesset during the votes. He also participated in the coalition that passed the surrogacy law that discriminated against gay men, with a promise to amend it that has never been fulfilled.

“At the same time, Ohana has also voted in favor of the community in contravention of coalition discipline more than once, and also withheld signing a law fining people who frequent sex workers – a move he did for the transgender community members who are engaged in sex work.”

Rotem Sorek is a bit more charitable toward the new Knesset speaker. She is the CEO of Ma’avarim, an organization that supports and advocates for Israel’s transgender community.

“We’re very happy to see Amir in such a prestigious position,” says Sorek, who cites her organization’s positive experience working with him. “He’s a principled politician, he knows how to listen and he knows how to fight for what he believes in. He has proven this.

“On a personal level,” she adds, “I believe that his contribution to public awareness about the LGBTQ community is massive. His achievements represent a significant bit of advocacy – particularly because he achieved them on merit. I’m more relaxed [knowing] he is in a powerful position in Likud.”

Roy Freeman, founder of LGBT Olim (an organization for members of the community who have just moved to Israel), is conflicted about Ohana’s new role.

“While this should be a major coup for the LGBTQ community, Ohana isn’t really considered by many in the community to be a member or even an ally. And he certainly hasn’t used his position to do anything of note to improve the situation for the community as a whole,” Freeman says. “Furthering his own career has always been more important to him than supporting the community, and this has been seen in his voting patterns.”

‘A palatable gay’

Born in the southern city of Be’er Sheva to immigrant parents from Morocco, the Knesset speaker is a lawyer by profession. He and his partner, Alon Hadad, have twins – birthed through a foreign surrogacy process that is financially prohibitive for many same-sex couples.

“I don’t think he has much empathy for the community, nor any idea how worried many of us are about this coalition,” says Freeman. “He lives a privileged life and has little understanding of the issues that affect the LGBTQ community, or even the wider Israeli population.”

According to Ofer, Ohana is often criticized as “the sort who took advantage of the struggle of many gay people over the years and, now that it’s convenient for him, is ready to shed his obligations to keep the struggle moving and ready to abandon others within the LGBTQ community. And in that way, he’s a ‘good gay guy.’ Someone who doesn’t make a big deal out of his identity, is first and foremost a rightist, who doesn’t pity himself or talk about inequality – a sort of palatable gay.”

Although this has put Ohana at odds with many LGBTQ activists, the fact that he does not prioritize his gay identity does actually bring him in line with many members of the community.

Muhammad Zoabi, a 24-year-old student and freelance writer and speaker from Nazareth who now lives in Tel Aviv, says it is something he appreciates about the politician: “The fact that he says openly and clearly that the fact he’s gay is not something that dictates his entire life. It’s something that’s part of a wider range of identities that make him who he is.

“He definitely represents part of the community – if we can call it a community – that says: Listen, it’s not the only thing about us, and it’s definitely something we respect,” he says.

But Zoabi tempers this by adding: “No pinkwashing can make us forget that this government is controlled and dominated by a fascist-settler-oriented racist group of politicians.”

Ofer says that while it is impossible to brand Ohana “an enemy of the community, you also can’t say he is fighting for it. To a large extent, the message he broadcasts is that the LGBTQ community’s situation in Israel is a good one; that the LGBTQ struggle is over – an outrageous phrase his partner said; and that other issues are much more urgent – such as security, the status of the courts or the Jewish character of the state. He can therefore also compromise on joining a government with figures who strive to harm the community but share this agenda.”

He continues: “As a member of a minority group, I expect that he will work more toward advancing it, even at the expense of other issues. The community is not [equal] in its social and legal status in Israel, and it rests on decisions by the same High Court of Justice that Ohana is trying to neutralize.”

‘Infected’

In his first Knesset speech as speaker late last month, Ohana talked about his partner of nearly 18 years and their two children, Ella and David. “This Knesset, under the authority of this speaker, will not hurt them or any child or family. Period.” The auditorium filled with polite applause.

“And if there is a young boy or girl who is watching the swearing-in today, know that it does not matter who you are, or where you come from, you have the power to go wherever you want.” He then put on a kippa and recited a prayer. During his speech, some religious lawmakers kept their heads down, seemingly refusing to acknowledge him or his statements.

Indeed, regardless of how the LGBTQ community feels or how Ohana views himself, certain figures have been particularly vocal about his appointment.

Rabbi Meir Mazuz, the prominent head of the country’s Tunisian-Jewish community, told his yeshiva students in Bnei Brak recently that Ohana is “infected with disease.” He implied that this is what caused the deadly Mount Meron crowd crush in 2021 that killed 45 worshippers.

Former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, meanwhile, slammed ultra-Orthodox coalition members who backed Ohana’s historic appointment. “They are appointed to positions that are called honorable, [but] they have already lost all shame,” Amar told students during a Torah class.

Former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar criticized ultra-Orthodox coalition members who backed Ohana’s appointment to Knesset speaker.Credit: Emil Salman

Noam party director Elkana Babad told activists in a WhatsApp group that the Knesset ceremony had been painful and offensive. “We were wrong to not have predicted that the appointment would entail a ceremony filled with LGBTQ propaganda,” he wrote.

Despite the frustrations of members of the LGBTQ community – most interviewed here say they do not have high hopes that Ohana will defend the community’s rights or advance them – all nonetheless agree that his appointment is a breakthrough.

“The role of the Knesset speaker is one of the symbols of Israel’s government, and there is significance to an openly gay man being in that position,” says Ofer. “It’s proof of the LGBTQ community’s process of acceptance in society, and I’m very happy that more and more glass ceilings are being broken.”

Zoabi concurs. “It’s historic that someone who’s an open member of the LGBTQ community is the speaker – congratulations to Amir Ohana, this is something we should not be sad about.

“But the real face of the government,” he says, “is the response of most of his coalition members to his speech – bowing their heads so they don’t have to hear ‘the homo’ speak.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

NOW: 40% OFF
Already signed up? LOG IN

ICYMI

הקלטות מעוז

Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right MK's Plan to Turn Israel Into Theocracy

איתמר בן גביר

Why I’m Turning My Back on My Jewish Identity

Travelers looking at the Departures board at Ben Gurion Airport. The number of olim who later become yordim is unknown.

Down and Out: Why These New Immigrants Ended Up Leaving Israel

Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia in "The White Lotus."

The Reality Behind ‘The White Lotus’ Sex Work Fantasy

The Mossad hit team in Dubai. Exposed by dozens of security cameras

This ‘Dystopian’ Cyber Firm Could Have Saved Mossad Assassins From Exposure

מליאת הכנסת 28.12.22

Comeback Kid: How Netanyahu Took Back Power After 18 Months in Exile