Tech firms in Israel are giving workers a day off to protest the country’s anti-LGBT surrogacy law

“How much ‘No’ we can hear?!”
“How much ‘No’ we can hear?!”
Image: EPA/Abir Sultan
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Major strikes are planned across Israel this Sunday (July 22) to protest a new law that essentially excludes LGBT couples from state-supported surrogate pregnancies. The law, which received a last-minute vote from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, previously allowed only heterosexual married couples to qualify for government-funded surrogacy under Israel’s national health care system.

The new law expands eligibility to include single women—but not single men. And as Israel does not yet recognize same-sex marriage, the change effectively rules out surrogacy for gay and lesbian couples.

“This is a huge disappointment,” says prominent LGBT activist and Tel Aviv city council member Yaniv Waizman. “The law purposely excluded single men because [its sponsors] did want gays to be included.”

The new law prompted immediate public protests from Israel’s vocal activist community—along with condemnation from private sector companies, particularly from the country’s many high-tech firms, committed to workplace diversity and inclusion. The law is also a challenge to Israel’s heavily promoted image as haven for LGBT rights in the Middle East, a reputation that has helped Tel Aviv become one of the world’s most popular LGBT tourism meccas.

“Israel is of course way, way, way ahead of any other country in the region when it comes to LGBT rights,” says Jeremy Seeff, a Tel Aviv-based lawyer, director of LGBTtech and founder of the Israel Diversity Standard. “But that is not good enough; we are a democracy and we must keep on fighting for equality.”

Helping to support this fight are dozens of major Israeli companies—along with large multinationals ranging from IBM and Microsoft to PayPal and Novartis—which will offer a paid day off to employees joining Sunday’s protests. Other firms, like airline Israir, will allow their employees to wear black instead of their usual uniforms on Sunday as a sign of protest.

Microsoft, meanwhile, said that it will provide NIS60,000 (about $16,500) to any Israeli employee seeking to start families via surrogacy—regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or marital status.

“The current version of the surrogacy law excludes the LGBT community and deprives them of the basic and human right to establish a family,” Microsoft said on its official local Facebook page. “This is an unfortunate and unequal law.”

The furor touches upon many of the most potent issues facing Israel today. First, critics contend, the new rules undermine Israel’s core democratic values—already under threat by a recent law that legally sanctions separate neighborhoods for Arabs and Jews—by offering surrogacy to women but not men.

“This is first and foremost an issue of equality,” says Waizman of the Tel Aviv city council, who along with his husband recently had a daughter via surrogate in the US. “We want the right to have our children in Israel, just like everyone else.” As Waizman’s case illustrates, Israeli men can legally work with surrogates outside of Israel, but the process, they say, is costly and labor-intensive.

The law also further erodes mainstream support for Netanyahu. Buoyed by conservative gay parliament member Amir Ohana—who proposed the LGBT inclusive clause—Netanyahu had been vocally committed to LGBT inclusion until days before the vote. But the prime minister—whose shaky government depends on ultra-orthodox parties for support—apparently caved to religious pressure and voted against including surrogate privileges to single men. Netanyahu has indicated he will support adding single men at a later date, but activists like Seeff of LGBTtech have little faith in “passing laws that politicians promise to fix at a later date.”

Beyond the obvious equality issues, the surrogacy battle has become a rallying cry because it illustrates the tenuous nature of Israeli law, which is rooted in democratic principles but often decided according to traditional Jewish strictures. For instance, Israel doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage because it doesn’t recognize civil marriage. Everyone in Israel must be married according to religious law—whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, this means between a man and a woman. These “synagogue vs. state” conflicts have become a focal point for Israel’s secular elite keen to see their nation shed theocratic strangleholds on many aspects of daily life.

“From birth to marriage to family life and even death, the religious authorities control how we live—and nothing will change in Israel until we fully separate government from religion,” Waizman says. “This is why Israelis from all communities and companies plan to protest the surrogacy ban on Sunday—because it’s not just an LGBT issue, but a civil rights issue.”