March 8 Interviews: Activist Elinor Sidi, on Space, Surrogacy and Security

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“I think as long as Israel continues to occupy itself by ‘security’ issues, as long as we don’t end the occupation, as long as we continue occupying different nations, we will not have the ability to fully address civil society issues.”- An Interview with Elinor Sidi, on the little space we have to move between the secular, liberal and ultra-Orthodox men’s battle.

Interview by Nevin Öztop.
Some of you might still remember little Na’ama, an 8 year old girl in Israel, who was spat on by ultra-Orthodox extremists and called a whore for dressing “immodestly” on the way to her school back in 2011.
Elinor Sidi, the Executive Director at Jerusalem Open House, went beyond the limits of this individual incident and invited everyone to see how little space there is left for women to breath in the fight between ultra-Ortodox men and liberal men: “I do get angry when women’s pain is being cynically used in the war between secular men and religious men over power. What difference does it make for little Na’ama who spits upon her, religious or secular men, is she still gets spit upon?”
She now invites us to question if everything that is good for liberal gay rights is also good for all human rights, for women in particular. Our main topic is surrogacy and where race, class and money are in all the state regulations. Her message for March 8 is “Our rights should not be gained on someone else’s back and that race and power dynamics should never be used.”
First let me ask – where will you be on March 8 and what will you be doing?
I believe a part of our job we are doing is for women’s rights. We are an LGBT organization but women’s rights are a big part of what we do. On the weekend there will be a Slut Walk in Tel Aviv and I will be marching there.
Let me step in here… You just gave a great example for a cross cutting message that concerns both the LGBT society and women. Why will you be at this walk?
First of all, I am there to say “We are not asking for it”. In Israel it is not common knowledge that if a women is dressed in a certain way, she is not asking for sexual assault or harassment. That basic notion still needs to be broadcasted through to a wider public. Personally I am going to be there because every time I was involved in the protection of that walk, I was sexually harassed myself. While submitting all the papers to get an approval for the walk itself, I was harassed by police officers: “Why do you need to dress like sluts?” “Why do you use the word ‘slut’?”… Working on the Slut Walk itself is an experience on its own. I will stop going to the walk when working on the walk becomes non-offensive and no longer harmful.
People outside and inside of Israel have many conceptions and misconceptions about what Israel looks like for women and LGBT society in general. You live in Israel and you have your own words to say. What are the common agenda and problems, can you describe to us?
I think we have one big problem, which is the fact that policy and actual life are very much different. We do have a liberal policy and we do enjoy freedom and legal rights, and I am talking for both LGBTs and women. For instance it is granted by law that you cannot discriminate against women and LGBT people in employment and hiring processes but in real life things work differently.
One of the main regulations in Israel is surrogacy. It is also one of the very troubling issues in the country. Can you please give us an overview of what is on the table right now?
I guess it is a Jewish thing, or demographic thing: We always have another war we are waiting to win. Having more babies is an actual obligation that a person needs to fulfill in order to get approval from society. This applies for LGBT people too. One of the struggles by women back in the 80s was to gain social and legal rights to have a family like anybody else. For women it is very easy, but for men, they have a technical problem. As technology has improved over the years, surrogacy has become available for gay men, mainly in India and Thailand. Now gay men in Israel using surrogacy in certain countries is becoming a pressing issue inside the LGBT community. I think it is really going to split up the lesbian women and gay men over this topic. There is a big movement of protest against surrogacy, which says gay men should not gain their rights on the back of women, that gay rights should not be gained by using women who are in financial difficulties.
One of the main struggles that is going on in Israel has been opened to thousands of gay men, and we are talking about thousands of women in financial difficulties who are being used. Hopefully we will be able to reach some kind of an agreement. I think using women from completely different cultures and backgrounds, some of whom are not even able to understand what is written in the contract they are signing, is completely out of question. I think it is completely against human rights and completely wrong. I also have strong feelings against the use of Israeli women, but at least they would have the same culture and the relations can be regulated better on the contract they are signing. The way it is happening now is completely against the human rights of the surrogates.
It is basically for gay men who do have the money to buy the service of surrogacy. It serves a specific class, a specific group of men, and a specific group of nationals. In a way there is a class and race issue involved, right?
Exactly, it is also a question of race because the men who are using this service are white. They come from a a certain socio-economic background. So when they are using surrogacy in India, in addition to their sperm, they will also need an egg. We are talking about race economy, colour economy; it is quite horrific. They usually get an egg donor from Eastern Europe, which is also not regulated and it is not insured. It is a white egg, inserted into a brown woman.
If you would ask me, “What would gay men say about that?”, I think they would say they want families, their own families. As a lesbian, when I wanted to have a child, I only needed to get a sperm which I could get wherever I wanted. The Israeli government subsidized the whole process which made everything easy for me. They might say it is cynical to criticize gay men’s needs for a family. I do understand what they are saying, but I just think that the violation of women’s rights – the human rights of the surrogate – is not something that the LGBT community can accept. Our rights should not be gained on someone else’s back and race and power dynamics should never be used.
A lot of people go to Israel for many reasons… As for gay tourism, Israel is seen as a gay destination. People do not know, or rather don’t want to know, the kind of debates you might be having within the movement or the sorts of violations that are going on in the country. The occupation and inhumane siege of Palestine, demonstrations about the poor working conditions of African immigrants, recent protests about rising housing prices… Where is all that?
It is funny, one of the main news websites just published a survey in which they examined Netenyahu’s speeches throughout the past few years in Knesset, the Parliament. They looked at the topics he tackled the most. He speaks about Iran almost 50% of the time. Public housing, which is a major problem in the country, was mentioned only twice.
It is unbelievable that Iran has become such a big topic that it distracts all other discussions about civil society, public housing, lack of jobs, immigrants… I think as long as Israel continues to occupy itself by “security” issues, as long as we don’t end the occupation, as long as we continue occupying different nations, we will not have the ability to fully address civil society issues. It is a complete destruction for Israeli society. Unfortunately I am a minority in Israel.

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