Israel reaches record number of openly gay lawmakers

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel swore in its latest openly gay lawmaker on Monday, marking a record for the country considered a regional pioneer on LGBT rights despite opposition from religious conservatives.

Yorai Lahav Hertzanu from the centrist Blue and White alliance became the latest politician to join the 120-seat Knesset, bringing to six the number of openly gay lawmakers.

All are men and represent parties from across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.

Lahav Hertzanu's appointment came after a law change allowing ministers to leave their parliamentary seat and be replaced by another member of their own party.

Five percent of Israeli lawmakers are now openly gay, the fourth-highest figure in the world, according to political scientist Andrew Reynolds.

It comes "after Britain, 8.1 percent, Liechtenstein, 8 percent, and the Scottish parliament, 7.7 percent," said Reynolds, who directs an LGBT representative programme at the University of North Carolina in the United States.

Israel's first LGBT lawmaker, Uzi Even, was appointed in 2002, and the community in the Jewish state has far more rights than those in most Middle Eastern countries.

Openly gay soldiers serve in the military, while Israel recognises same-sex marriages conducted abroad, and gay and lesbian couples have surrogacy rights.

"There have been very positive developments in recent decades," said Or Keshet from Israel's leading LGBT organisation Aguda.

"It's very encouraging that there are six lawmakers representing different parties from the community," he said, adding that their success made them role models for young people.

"But we expect all those elected to represent us and advance equal rights," said Keshet. "And there is still a lot to do."

- First openly gay minister -

While Tel Aviv's Gay Pride parade usually draws huge crowds from around the world, the equivalent march in conservative Jerusalem is held under a heavy police presence.

Security was increased after the 2015 killing of Shira Banki, a teenager who was stabbed to death during the parade by ultra-Orthodox Jew Yishai Shlissel.

Several other people were wounded by Shlissel, who had been released just three weeks earlier after spending 10 years in prison for a similar attack.

Annual Gay Pride events in both cities have been cancelled this month due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The day before last year's parade, Netanyahu appointed Israel's first openly gay minister.

Amir Ohana took on the justice portfolio, switching to public security as part of a new Netanyahu-led coalition sworn in last month.

Left-wing politician Itzik Shmuli, who is openly gay, also joined the government ranks as minister for social affairs.

They sit alongside Rafi Peretz, an Orthodox rabbi who last year endorsed controversial therapy to convert gay people to heterosexuality.

Peretz, who was education minister at the time, backtracked on his comments following protests.

While Aguda praised the record number of lawmakers, Keshet said the next step would be even greater diversity.

"We'll love it when lesbians and trans people are also in parliament. That's already the case in the United States," he said.

"It will happen."