Israeli politician suggests doctors could refuse to treat gay patients

Ben Lynfield

The Guardian  /  December 26, 2022

President condemns anti-LGBTQ rhetoric after comment by Orit Strook, which she later said referred to certain procedures.

A suggestion by one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming ministers that Israeli doctors should be allowed to refuse treatment to LGBTQ patients on religious grounds has heightened fears that the new government poses an unprecedented threat to gay rights.

The Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, has weighed in to condemn the growing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, saying: “The racist pronouncements of recent days against the LGBTQ community and other sectors of the public make me extremely worried and concerned.” The president, whose post is largely ceremonial but who commands a degree of authority, added that such rhetoric undermined Israeli “democratic and moral values”.

Netanyahu – who called Strook’s remarks “unacceptable” – denies his new government will pose a threat to gay rights but critics say he is too weak to control his ultra nationalist and ultraorthodox coalition partners pushing Israel to increasingly adopt what they view as divinely ordained religious heritage.

In a radio interview on Sunday, the incoming national missions minister, Orit Strook, of the Religious Zionist party, was widely understood as implying that Israeli doctors would be able to refuse treatment to LGBTQ patients in the spirit of legislation her party is drafting and in accordance with coalition agreements that provide for amending an anti-discrimination law.

Strook specified that a doctor could refuse care to a patient if doing so violates his religious beliefs “as long as there are enough other doctors who can give this service”.

After sharp criticism of her remarks, Strook, a leader of the illegal Israeli settler community in Hebron, later tweeted that she had been referring to medical procedures that would be religiously objectionable, not LGBTQ individuals. She did not specify which procedures they might be but stressed that it was inconceivable to force a Jewish doctor to violate Jewish law in a Jewish state “that was established after 2000 years of exile due to Jews who sacrificed their lives for the fulfilment of Torah”.

Strook’s party is advancing an amendment to an anti-discrimination law that allows exceptions to service providers where religious beliefs of the provider would be violated. This principle is also specified in Netanyahu’s coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox Torah Judaism party.

Another Religious Zionist legislator, Simcha Rothman, said on Sunday that under the change, hotel owners would be able to refuse rooms to gay groups. “Freedom of occupation means that someone is allowed to act not nicely to the assortment of customers and to boycott or not to boycott them.”

The changes to the law, if they materialize, are also expected to impact on Israel’s Arab minority citizens and pave the way for further inroads by the Jewish fundamentalists of Religious Zionism, who also support annexation of the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu reiterated a pledge that his government would not harm the LGBTQ community, but tellingly, members of his Likud party ruled out changing the coalition agreement.

Ofer Newman, the chief executive of Igy (Israel Gay Youth), termed the statements and legislative plan “dangerous”. He predicted more violence and abuse against his community. “We’re in a new situation in which politicians who want to push people back to the closet possess ministerial power. We are in a frightened and alert mindset.”

Alon Shachar, executive director of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, said: “The changes the new government seeks to lead are liable to bring us to a situation in which LGBTQ people return to living in a reality of fear, violence and racism.

“If these ideas materialize and become reality in deeds they will affect not only the gay community but all Israeli society.”

Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice, stressed that since Netanyahu needed the extreme right parties to help legislate a weakening of the judiciary so that corruption proceedings against him would be cancelled, he might accommodate their demands.

“Since Netanyahu is very, very weak he has no option [of handling] these extremist forces, some of whom are lunatics,” Beilin said. “Maybe he intends not to implement these things but I’m not sure he can avoid doing so. These people are really zealots.”

“We have never been in such a situation. The jury is out. We may be facing a different Israel with halacha [Jewish law] as a point of interest that people living in darkness will support.

Netanyahu intends to hold a vote in parliament on his new government on Thursday 29 December, just days before his mandate to do so expires, the speaker of parliament said on Monday.

Netanyahu’s bloc of rightwing and religious parties won a parliamentary election last month, but the veteran leader has had a harder time than expected in finalising coalition deals.

Ben Lynfield in Jerusalem