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Netanyahu’s U-turn on right to surrogacy sparks mass LGBT protests

Demonstrators for LGBT rights march in the streets of Tel Aviv on Sunday, calling on the government to recognize their rights of parenthood equality such as marriage, adoption, and surrogacy. (Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

JERUSALEM — Waving rainbow flags and demanding equal rights, members of Israel’s LGBT community and their supporters rallied across the country Sunday, protesting the government’s refusal to amend a law that would have allowed gay couples to have children via surrogacy.

Their anger was sparked by an apparent U-turn from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had committed to supporting a key change to existing surrogacy legislation but voted against an amendment when it was presented last week in the Knesset.

Protests were held throughout the day as members of the sizable community also announced a one-day strike that was widely supported across Israel’s workforce and backed by numerous multinational companies. 

In Tel Aviv, the heart of Israel’s LGBT community, main roads were blocked for nearly an hour, and a central event in the evening drew thousands of supporters chanting against Netanyahu and his government’s policies. In Jerusalem, protesters clashed with police outside the prime minister’s official residence and two people were arrested for disturbing the peace. 

Israel — and in particular, the city of Tel Aviv, where the annual pride parade there last month drew about 250,000 revelers — is often seen as a bastion of LGBT rights in the Middle East. But not every sector in society embraces or even accepts the community. In 2015, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stabbed six people during the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, killing a teenage girl who was there as a spectator.

Netanyahu has expressed support for LGBT rights in the past, and in a recent Facebook post he recognized the need to fix the “unfair” existing surrogacy law. But his coalition partners, in­cluding conservative and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, stand firmly against expanding such rights for LGBT families. His critics say that was why he ultimately opted to vote against the change.

After the vote, Netanyahu uploaded an additional Facebook post saying he supported surrogacy for fathers as well as mothers. He said would support more comprehensive legislation on the matter in the future.

Israel’s surrogacy law was passed 22 years ago, but it “does not provide a real solution to all those who want to become parents in this way,” said Irit Rosenblum, founder and chief executive of New Family, a nonprofit group that helps and supports the establishment of alternative families.

An amendment to the law that was approved last week now means single women, in addition to heterosexual couples, can use the surrogacy process to have children. The law was not extended to men who want to become fathers.

Still, Rosenblum says, the law remains deeply restrictive, placing limits on the ages of the intended mother, as well as the surrogate mother, demanding that the religion of those involved are the same and dictating that the relationship status of the surrogate is single.

In addition, applicants must be assessed by a committee, a slow and bureaucratic process that has led to fewer than 700 babies being born via surrogacy since the law was enacted. Instead, roughly 500 to 600 surrogate babies a year are born to surrogate mothers abroad, not only to gay couples but also to heterosexual couples who struggle to get pregnant.

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“In order to become parents, we have to travel abroad and spend many thousands of dollars,” said Shai Davis, a board member of LGBTech, an organization of technology professionals dedicated to enriching the community for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

He said the protests were also in response to a “culture of intolerance and a variety of incidents against the community in recent months.”

“It is coming to a head right now,” said Davis, co-founder of the Israel Diversity Standard to promote equality for all groups in the workplace. “There was great hope for change, and now there is tremendous disappointment that it has failed to materialize even though there was a promise from the prime minister.” 

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