The Aguda – Justice, Equality, and Inclusion for the LGBTQ Community
by Nurit Shein
With Israel having recently celebrated its 75th birthday, the country is facing what well might be its greatest challenge – the definition of its democracy. The demonstrations that fill the streets every week with tens of thousands of blue-and-white flags convey the message of shared concern for the future of the country we all care about. As the Knesset – the Israeli parliament – inches closer to curbing the role of the Supreme Court and redefining the process of appointing judges, the LGBTQ community is extremely concerned about the hard-fought rights it has gained over recent years and highly engaged in the pro-democracy protests.
Israel does not have a constitution to ensure basic civil rights, and religion and state are not fully separated. Many of the rights and freedoms of the LGBTQ community were achieved through the courts and these might now be repealed. In the absence of judicial oversight, most of the budget money allotted to the organizations serving the community could now be diverted by a simple change in regulations.
Since its establishment in 1975, the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel – The Aguda, has been the leading human rights organization in Israel with a mission to achieve justice, equality, and inclusion for the LGBTQ community and to ensure LGBTQ visibility and affirmation. The Aguda has spearheaded large-scale public struggles for the community, and achieved social and legislative changes, both nationally and in local communities across Israel.
As the voice of the LGBTQ community, the Aguda heads a coalition of 18 LGBTQ organizations, strengthening bonds and coordinating shared strategy and action, while providing guidance to alliance members to assist their capacity-building efforts. One such collaboration is the interagency support between the Aguda and the religious LGBTQ organizations, which work together to combat the issue of so-called “conversion therapy.” The Aguda’s clinic provides mental health support to individuals who have suffered from such therapy, while the legal department helps sister organizations with their public struggle.
Coupled with the organization’s efforts to bring forth social change, the Aguda also provides extensive assistance to individuals and specific community groups. This includes a range of professional services such as mental health support, legal counseling, family mediation, assistance to refugees and immigrants, and support to victims of discrimination or hatred on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
From its inception, the Aguda’s long and impressive list of achievements has been positively impacting the lives of community members. Some of these successes include:
- With the objective of promoting a strong Arab LGBTQ community and providing vital support tailored to its needs, language, and unique community characteristics, the Aguda operates an Arabic hotline, which provides anonymous support and resources. In addition, it opened the only center, Beit el-Meem, which offers social activities, and provides legal assistance and leadership training in order to bring about policy reform.
- In an effort to create an egalitarian society where everyone belongs, the Aguda engages in lobbying the Knesset, the government, and local authorities, to promote gay rights. Through direct collaboration with elected officials at the national and local levels, the Aguda has been successful in advancing legislation, defining regulations, and securing budget allocations for the community.
- The Aguda has opened the only comprehensive Trans Center in Israel, in collaboration with the Gila Project. The center provides accessibility to social services and combines mentoring and coaching with legal and health assistance, along with social activities.
- The Aguda launched the Israeli Institute for Gender and LGBTQ Studies – an independent and professional division, providing up-to-date data on core issues affecting the lives of LGBTQ individuals in Israel, while adhering to superior research and academic standards. Among its numerous projects are: Research on promoting social reform for the Arab LGBTQ community in Israel; defining the characteristics and needs of LGBTQ individuals in Israel’s geographic and social periphery; examining anti-LGBTQ conduct; and a national pilot study on the Israeli public’s perceptions of and attitudes towards transgender people.
- The organization has also created a smooth ‘runway’ for individuals seeking to immigrate to Israel: The Department for LGBTQ Immigrants and Diaspora Jewry, in partnership with the Department for Social Activism and Tikkun Olam at the World Zionist Organization, provides information, support, and connections to the local LGBTQ community. Moving to a new country and starting a new life is daunting, all the more so for LGBTQ individuals. By providing personal guidance and linkage to support networks, this program mitigates much of the anxiety and allows for easier integration for those who choose to become part of our community.
Combating homophobia remains one of the central struggles of Israel’s LGBTQ community. So, the Aguda also publishes an annual Current Homophobia Report, which details homophobic incidents across different areas of life —the workplace, accessing healthcare, the legal system, social media, and the public arena.
Most significant has been a 50 percent increase in the number of reported incidents from the trans community in 2021. Like the story of A, a young trans man from Jerusalem, who was humiliated at a well-known clothing store where the sales person would not let him try on clothes in the men’s fitting room, and forced him to leave. Or the story of B, who was told by an examining doctor not to engage in sex with men.
The services provided by the organization also contain the stories of struggle and personal resilience. Such is the story of N, a 25-year-old from Nablus, in the West Bank, who came to Israel when he was 16, but went back home to help with his ailing father. When his sexual orientation was discovered, he suffered life-threatening abuse and finally fled back to Israel. The Aguda helped him obtain legal permits, housing, and financial and emotional support. Such are the stories of the Aguda’s Asylum Seekers and Refugees department. Its program provides support to LGBTQ members seeking asylum, the vast majority of whom have no legal status in Israel and have fled persecution due to their sexual orientation; most of those turning to this department are Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, who are at a high physical and mental risk.
With the formation of the new government, the LGBTQ community faces fresh challenges. The ultra-religious and ultra-nationalistic parties that are part of the new coalition, with representatives such as Avi Maoz, a self-described “proud homophobe,” and the proposed judicial “reform” all pose a serious threat to individual rights. The Knesset will potentially be able to overturn any ruling by the Supreme Court, such as the ability of same-sex couples to adopt. Against such threats, the Aguda, along with the rest of the LGBTQ organizations, is determined to continue to operate as a cohesive community and, in partnership with Israeli society generally, create a liberal culture, accepting of everyone. Our plan is to augment services, build new mechanisms, and function as a coalition against hatred. The LGBTQ community is at a crossroads: We must fight, and are fighting, for our position in the State of Israel.
Nurit Shein is a member of the board of the Aguda and its immediate past Chair..