“Being attracted to men doesn’t mean you have to believe in creating a Palestinian state,” says Israel’s first openly L.G.B.T. cabinet minister.
By Matti Friedman
Amir Ohana at the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in 2016.CreditDesiree Navarro/WireImage, via Getty Images
JERUSALEM — For Amir Ohana, the shift that led to Israel’s current political moment — and indirectly, to his own unlikely rise — can be pinpointed to one incident in the fall of 2000. Mr. Ohana, who was just appointed this country’s first openly gay cabinet minister, was then a 24-year-old from a desert backwater making his way in Tel Aviv. The Israeli right, his political camp, was out of power, the public still hoping for peace with the Arab world.
On Oct. 12, two Israelis in their 30s reporting for their annual stint of reserve duty took a wrong turn in the occupied West Bank and ended up detained in a Palestinian police station in Ramallah. As a crowd cheered outside, Palestinian civilians beat them both to death and dumped one of the bodies out the window.
Mr. Ohana remembers seeing the footage on TV, particularly one image that became infamous: a jubilant killer raising two bloody hands out a window. That evening, he told me, he felt the national mood shift. “Many Israelis who saw themselves on the left moved to the right at that moment, and stayed there,” he said.
For Israelis the killings came to symbolize the end of many things: of the optimistic 1990s, of the Oslo peace process and of the old Israeli left. The right, its dark predictions vindicated, began its return to dominance.
In Israel’s recent election, in April, Labor barely squeaked into parliament with a humiliating six seats out of 120. The election went, again, to the right-wing Likud — with significant help from Mr. Ohana, now 43 and one of his party’s most hard-line, eloquent and anomalous spokesmen. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a new coalition since then has triggered the country’s descent into a second national election. But Mr. Ohana’s role in the last campaign, and in the new one, was recognized Wednesday when, after just one term in parliament, he catapulted through the party ranks to make history by becoming justice minister in Israel’s interim government.
The new Knesset has five openly gay members, a record. But four are on the center-left, where L.G.B.T. rights have long been popular. Mr. Ohana, the first openly gay lawmaker on the right, is in uncharted territory. His unique trajectory is worth watching because it will test the extent of tolerance by the rightist politicians who hold power, and by the electorate.
Israelis sometimes speak about two Israels: one Western-oriented and left-leaning, with roots in Eastern Europe, and the other working-class, traditional and rooted in the lost Jewish communities of the Islamic world. Although Mr. Ohana grew up in the middle class, in that simplified division his North African last name and family background place him in the second Israel.
Mr. Ohana’s parents were raised in Morocco. Along with many other Arabic-speaking Jews who came to Israel, they landed in rough immigration camps in the southern desert, then fashioned new lives for themselves against steep odds. The Ohanas’ social world was conservative, and their dusty city was far from the sexually liberal bubble of Tel Aviv; there weren’t many openly gay people around Beersheba in 1991. Having a gay son wasn’t something they’d planned. But when he was 15, Mr. Ohana told his parents the truth. “That was me and there was nothing I could do about it,” he told me recently. “I couldn’t change and I didn’t want to.” They took it, he remembered, “very badly.”
When Mr. Ohana was 18 he joined the army, serving as an officer in the military police. He was discharged in 2000, as peace negotiations collapsed and the Second Intifada began. He then joined a Shin Bet intelligence outfit tasked with stopping the Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks wreaking havoc on Israeli streets. Polls show that Israelis of Mr. Ohana’s generation and younger are drawn increasingly to the right. (He says he was always there.) He spent six years in the security service, studying law at night.
At a Tel Aviv bar called Evita he met a man named Alon, a stockbroker. They’ve been together for 14 years — without getting married, because the state doesn’t recognize gay marriages performed in Israel, and there’s no civil marriage at all. They have two children, David and Elah, born in 2015 to a surrogate mother in Klamath Falls, Ore., because surrogacy is not legal for gay men here.
In the fall of 2011, Mr. Ohana convened 20 friends in his living room. He’d met some of them on Facebook — that was the year that social media helped drive Arab revolutions, social-justice protests in Israel and Occupy Wall Street in the United States. The mood was one of empowerment. (The same wave in Israel would propel two young leaders from the leftist protests into the Labor benches, where they now serve as Mr. Ohana’s opponents.)
All those present at the meeting were openly gay and right-wing. Until then, L.G.B.T. issues had been a sole concern of the left, and Mr. Ohana and his comrades, later known as the Likud Pride group, saw no reason for this to continue. The Israeli right isn’t the American right; here right-wing mainly means a tough stance on the conflict with the Arab world, and the rest is flexible. Or, as Mr. Ohana has said before entering the Knesset in 2015, “Being attracted to men doesn’t mean you have to believe in creating a Palestinian state.”
The Likud-led coalition included ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who oppose L.G.B.T. rights, and they absented themselves when their new colleague took the podium. Mr. Ohana introduced himself as the son of “Esther and Meir who came from Morocco to build a state,” and the “other half” of Alon, who was in the audience with their two infants. “I’m Jewish, Israeli, Mizrahi, gay, a Likudnik, a security hawk, a liberal and a believer in the free market,” Mr. Ohana told parliament. (“Mizrahi,” or “eastern,” refers to Israelis with roots in the Islamic world, about half of the Jewish population.)
Mr. Ohana quickly positioned himself on the Likud’s right flank, an opponent of compromise on all issues of national security and identity. Success as a newcomer depends on Mr. Netanyahu’s grace, and Mr. Ohana has appeared frequently on TV to defend the prime minister from corruption charges with the cool skill of a criminal lawyer. Like Mr. Netanyahu, he’s willing to see the justice system — for which he just became responsible — not as a moral force but as a competing interest group. He recently criticized its “Sicilian mafia tactics.”
Mr. Netanyahu appointed him to head the committee in charge of passing the controversial nation-state law, which led to one of the biggest political fights in recent years. The law, passed in 2018, enshrined Israel’s Jewish character in law for the first time. The center-left opposition denounced it for undermining the status of minorities, downgrading the status of Arabic and displaying dangerous signs of ethnic chauvinism. Whatever the law’s effects on our society, as politics it was effective, rallying patriotic sentiment around the right while making the left seem naïve or treacherous — the classic Netanyahu maneuver.
When I asked Mr. Ohana how, as a member of a persecuted minority himself, he could back this law, he replied that it merely states what most Israelis believe: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Others are free to live here with full civil rights, but not the right to alter the state’s character as a refuge and home for Jews. “Whoever opposes the law simply isn’t a Zionist,” he said.
“I grew up in a culture with great respect for the East — the tunes, the tastes, the culture — and it taught me to respect Arabs and not patronize them,” Mr. Ohana said, reminding me that both of his parents grew up speaking Arabic. He believes that respecting the Palestinians includes dropping the pretense that their national movement will ever accept Israel’s existence. He believes the Islamic world, which housed and endangered his family for many centuries, poses a threat to Jews and L.G.B.T. people, and that Israel must protect both. The West Bank is both the biblical heartland and a vital security buffer against a return to the years of suicide bombings that shaped him and his generation of Israelis in the early years of the century. Israeli control over the Palestinians there will continue permanently as the “lesser evil.”
But how can a state that defines itself as democratic control a large population of people who aren’t its citizens?
In Mr. Ohana’s thinking, democracy is one of several competing values to be weighed against one another. “Why did our parents come here from Morocco, from Poland, Russia, Iraq and Yemen? Did they come to establish a democracy? I don’t think so — there were many democracies in the world. They came to create a state for the Jewish people because there wasn’t one, and without one it was a terrible world for us.”
On the left, some see Mr. Ohana as a useful mask for the right. “Ohana speaks in the name of liberal values but he actually promotes the politics of the most extreme religious right — annexing settlements, the nation-state law, breaking the power of the Supreme Court, aligning with open racists,” said Rami Hod, director of the Berl Katznelson Educational Center, a venerable left-wing think tank affiliated with the Labor movement. “Not only is Ohana not liberal, he represents the death of the liberal Israeli right and shows how the entire right now conforms to the line set by extremists.”
However he’s defined, the new minister’s proximity to power makes him the most influential force for gay rights in parliament, even if what he can actually achieve remains to be seen.
His first bill after entering politics, an attempt to extend hate-crime legislation to transgender people, was blocked by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers. The same pressure led the government to exclude gay men like him from new surrogacy legislation. Mr. Ohana voted with the opposition after delivering an impassioned plea in a Knesset committee, describing his own experience of being forced to travel to Oregon to become a father. He also joined the opposition in trying, and failing, to extend existing anti-discrimination laws to sexual and gender orientation.
While religious conservatives haven’t changed the way they vote as a result of Mr. Ohana, some do seem to have changed the way they speak. Lawmakers from the Shas party, for example, which is ultra-Orthodox and Mizrahi, have said in the past that gays should be treated like the avian flu and that they were responsible for natural disasters like earthquakes. That rhetoric has become rarer, part of what Mr. Ohana sees as “an evolution, not a revolution,” and for which some L.G.B.T. activists give him partial credit. It’s harder to speak that way about a political ally.
Israeli society is changing for the better, Mr. Ohana said, and so is the Israeli right. A Shas lawmaker, Rabbi Yigal Guetta, came under fire in 2017 for attending his nephew’s gay wedding and was ultimately forced to resign — but he went unapologetically to the wedding, a move impossible not long ago. I was with Mr. Ohana in a Knesset corridor when he was greeted by a Shas official with a long beard and a skullcap who congratulated him warmly on his political success.
“To the left’s credit, it must be said that for years they were the only ones speaking about L.G.B.T. issues,” Mr. Ohana said, “but it’s an L.G.B.T. interest for these issues not to be left in the hands of a small opposition party.” Given the outcome of the recent election, and whatever the results of the next one, there’s little doubt he’s right.
Matti Friedman (@MattiFriedman), a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.”