Israel’s New Government Learned From the U.S. Far Right
It seems there hasn’t been a single day since the beginning of the coalition negotiations to establish a new Israeli government that has not seen a horrifying new policy proposal from the people who, as of last week, rule our lives. Between handing over the police to Itamar Ben Gvir, placing the economy and the Civil Administration into the hands of Bezalel Smotrich, and extracurricular programming in the hands of the LGBTQ-phobe Avi Maoz — it has been hard to keep up.
Over the last week, much of the media’s focus has surrounded one of the newest decrees: an amendment to Israel’s anti-discrimination law, allowing business owners to deny service and doctors to deny treatment for reasons of “religious beliefs.” While the law appeared in the coalition agreement between Likud and one of Israel’s Haredi parties, it was MKs Orit Strock and Simcha Rothman from the far-right Religious Zionism Party who spoke openly about applying the law to the LGBTQ community.
All of these appointments, plans, and declarations are terrifying, especially when considering that the real avalanche of legislative horror is still ahead of us. What has been lost in the local and international furore over these latest policy proposals, however, is the extent to which the Israeli far-right is borrowing from the American far-right in its crusade against LGBTQ identities.
First of all, let us recognize one basic fact: the goal of Israel’s fascist right is to establish a religious dictatorship run according to their openly oppressive principles, explicitly targeting Palestinians, LGBTQ people, women, and most every marginalized group in Israel. They will use every iota of power they are handed, and then try to gain more. Thus, they are therefore guaranteed to take advantage of this power to the fullest extent possible.
Their ability to do so will be defined by the United States, and specifically President Joe Biden, who has the power to put pressure on the Israeli government, including through threats of sanctions. It is thus the White House that will decide how far the fascists will be “allowed” to go.
Given the current limits on their power, what can the far right do? They can take a page out of the U.S.’s anti-LGBTQ playbook and begin passing laws against the community, as well as other marginalized groups.
As opposed to the popular notion of the United States as free democracy, it is in fact one of the world’s more conservative countries in the global north. For example, the “right” to discriminate against or refuse service to LGBTQ people has for years been the focal point of public controversy; in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently presiding over a case relating to this very issue — and under its current, far-right composition, is likely to rule in favor of discrimination. Similarly, federal law does not protect LGBTQ or other marginalized populations from being refused medical treatment, including in circumstances of life or death. The same goes for the “right” of schools to censor the existence of LGBTQ identities and erase the issue from curricula.
In other words, all of the anti-LGBTQ policies that members of the incoming Israeli government have recently proposed are fully concurrent with the existing situation in the United States. From here, then, it is easy to trace the trajectory of discrimination awaiting LGBTQ people in Israel in the coming months and years if the new government gets its way — following in the U.S.’s footsteps.
Exporting the war on trans people
The U.S. is facing a wave of transphobic legislation aiming to eradicate the existence of trans and nonbinary people from public life (and in general). Over the last two years, lawmakers have put forth nearly 300 transphobic bills across state legislatures, mostly focusing on barring trans and nonbinary youth from participating in sports, erasing their identities in schools, and barring gender-affirming care for children and youth (which, it is important to note, does not include any invasive, surgical, or permanent interventions at these ages).
In February of this year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a directive instructing social workers to treat gender-affirming care for children and youth as a form of parental violence, and to remove children receiving this care from their families. In March, Idaho passed a law that renders gender-affirming care a felony punishable by life in prison for parents who allow their children to access it. In April, Alabama passed legislation prohibiting doctors from providing gender-affirming care to patients under the age of 19, with similar laws enacted in Tennessee and Arkansas. In June, Louisiana passed a law barring transgender girls and women from participating in women’s sports, with similar laws passed in Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and other states. Also this year, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Tennessee all made it illegal for students and staff from using school bathrooms or locker rooms that don’t correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. The list goes on and on.
Another law in Florida that has been making headlines of late has received the moniker “Don’t Say Gay.” Recently signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis, it bans discussion of non-heterosexual and cisgender identities in kindergartens and schools through third grade.
It is important to note the discourse surrounding this type of legislation: the people advancing such bills often utilize the rhetoric of “protecting our children,” with the buzzword “grooming” being increasingly deployed by the U.S. far right to describe public displays of queer identity, and particularly transgender identity. In a cynical and rather heartless manner, supporters of transphobic and LGBTQ-phobic legislature have extracted this term from its original context — referring to pedophiles establishing relationships with minors in order to gain their trust so that they can later abuse them — and co-opted it for their cause, now using it to describe any legitimization of LGBTQ identities as brainwashing, and portraying children as victims of the “transgender ideology” and the “gay agenda.”
This type of discourse is already seeping into the statements of Israeli fascists. For example, a flyer by the anti-LGBTQ hate group “Choosing Family” asks: “Do you, too, believe that children shouldn’t be exposed to sexual content?” Similarly, earlier this year, far-right radio host Shimon Riklin described the distribution of a trans children’s book, explaining the personal story of a real transgender girl named Jazz, as a brainwashing ploy, asking: “Why isn’t there a law in the State of Israel against this bunch of wackos who want to touch our children?” and calling them “perverted.” Another recent dramatic development in this direction has been the persecution, both locally and nationally, of a nine-year-old transgender boy in Givat Shmuel for simply going to school along with cisgender children. As part of this persecution, an anti-trans conference held in the city included a discussion about the “dangers of the transgender ideology.” We can expect that, after its establishment, such events will receive further support from the government itself.
From conversion therapy to Roe v. Wade
U.S. federal law also provides no protection against conversion therapy, a dangerous practice that targets LGBTQ youth and seeks to change their sexual or gender identities. Although several states have enacted laws against this practice, it is legal in most states. This allows for severe institutionalized abuse of LGBTQ children and young people, causing trauma and far worse; according to various studies, conversion therapy doubles the risk of suicidality among LGBTQ people, who are anyway at greater risk than heterosexual and cisgender people.
Conversion therapy has been hotly debated in Israel over the last few years, with legislative attempts made and failed to provide protection against it. Avi Maoz, the leader of anti-LGBTQ party Noam, is one of Israel’s biggest proponents of conversion therapy, while Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has openly supported it in the past, including as part of official Knesset discussions. Another disconcerting move on this front is the far right’s intention to lower the bar on the certification of various therapeutic professions, so as not to require academic studies. One disturbingly likely result of this would be to enable people offering conversion therapy to present themselves as legitimate therapists. In any event, one can now expect no legal protection against conversion therapy, but rather attempts to legitimize it.
And lest we forget the area of reproductive rights, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s dramatic ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade, thus eliminating protection of the right to abortion. This, in turn, has led states like Texas, Alabama, and Louisiana to ban abortions almost entirely, causing enormous injury to the reproductive health of women and anyone with a uterus, often posing a risk to their lives. Yet another risk is that of imprisonment in the event of a miscarriage — something that has already happened in practice, even prior to the SCOTUS ruling.
While in Israel, no one seems to be openly speaking about banning abortion just yet, the fascists certainly seem to have their eyes on the prize. Abortion is listed among the medical treatments that parts of the Israeli far right proposes can be legally refused on religious grounds. If such a decree passes into law, entire hospitals would be permitted to refuse performing abortions or even treating miscarriages. Since the right to abortion is not protected by law (having an abortion requires the approval of a committee under strict criteria), snatching it away would not be difficult.
Smotrich’s American dreams
But the Israeli far-right won’t stop there. Just ask Smotrich, who published an op-ed in the conservative Wall Street Journal this week in which he writes that the new government will make Israel more like the U.S. To do so, Smotrich says, Israel will enact legislation that allows business owners to refuse service to certain customers on the basis of their religious conscience — that is, to pass a law that allows for blatant discrimination against LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups.
But that’s not all, Smotrich also promises to promote hyper-capitalist and union busting policies, protect the “individual rights” of West Bank settlers (without, of course, extending any rights to Palestinians living under the brutality of Israel’s apartheid regime), and limit the power of the judiciary against the whims of the new far-right government. All of this, Smotrich writes, is inspired by the American model.
And the scariest part? All of these things will remain true so long as Joe Biden remains in power. Should Donald Trump or even Ron DeSantis win the 2024 U.S. presidential election, it could give the Israeli far-right the green light to establish the halachic dictatorship of their dreams. Then the real persecution of marginalized groups in Israel will start.
And yet, we still have time to prepare. As opposed to many in the U.S. left, Israeli leftists are deeply familiar with authoritarian systems. As a Jewish apartheid state, Israel has never been a democracy, which means we already hold much knowledge about the ways that its racist and discriminatory systems work. For us, though this will certainly be a significant, even shocking, escalation, it will not be a surprise — nor will it find us empty handed.
The volume may intensify, but the basic mode of operation remains the same. We know it. We have lived it. We have fought against it, and we will continue to fight it. Because no matter how long it will take —and we are in this battle for the long haul —we are going to win.
[Shiri Eisner is a bisexual, feminist and genderqueer writer and activist. They are the author of the Lamba-nominated book 'Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution.']
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