Middle East's biggest LGBT pride parade draws 200,000

More than 200,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv for the region's largest gay pride parade. Despite growing acceptance of LGBT rights, Israel lags behind the United States in legalizing certain civil rights for the LGBT community. 

Oded Balilty/AP
Israeli dancers perform during the 18th annual Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv.

This past weekend, over 200,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv for the city's annual Gay Pride Parade. The eighteenth year of festivities took off on Friday, June 3, after a moment of silence honoring the memory of those who have been victims of anti-LGBT violence.

"We're slowly walking toward a more equal, more respectful society that allows all human beings to express themselves as they see fit," said Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv. The parade's theme this year was "Women for a change," focusing on women's empowerment.

As in the United States, acceptance of same-sex relationships in Israel is growing quickly, perhaps spurred by the stabbing death of teenager Shira Banki at the Jerusalem Pride parade last August. But Israel's government has been even slower than the American government in acknowledging LGBT rights, even though Israel acknowledges more extensive LGBT rights than any other country in the Middle East, and for that matter, Asia.

According to a survey issued during Tel Aviv Pride Week by Hiddush, a nonprofit advocate for religious pluralism in Israel, and the Smith Polling Institute, 90 percent of secular Israelis support same-sex marriage. Meanwhile among the religious, 77 percent of traditional Jews, 46 percent of national religious Jews, and 16 percent of the ultra-Orthodox also support the marriage of same-sex couples. All marriages in Israel are under the jurisdiction of religious courts, which means that even for seculars, there is no option for a nonreligious civil marriage.

"The survey results are a source of pride and a badge of honor for the Israeli public during Pride Month, but the political and legal reality in Israel is shameful," said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of Hiddush. "Israel not only denies same-sex couples the right to marry against the clear public will, but also denies hundreds of thousands of heterosexual couples the right to family because it granted exclusive monopoly over Jewish marriages to the Orthodox Rabbinate."

In February, the opposition in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, put forth a series of gay rights bills. The package of legislation proposed allowing gay civil unions and same-sex couples to adopt children, educating health professionals about sexual orientation and gender identity, prohibiting gay conversion therapy, and giving the same-sex partners of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers killed during service the same benefits heterosexual widows or widowers would receive. All these bills, however, were voted down in their preliminary readings.

Knesset member, Tzipi Livni, of the Zionist Union, a center-left socially liberal political party, nonetheless said that she was was happy that Amir Ohana is the first openly gay member of the Knesset, as part of the decidedly right-of-center Likud party (of which Benjamin Netanyahu is the chairman). Knesset members on the left and right give who support the LGBT community give the gay rights movement political validation, but Livni says that's not enough. "The country must give them rights," she said. "We will keep fighting, until this government stands behind its words."

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