I hold Jews up to a very high standard, I admit it. It’s a dumb thing to do—having expectations of people based on what group they belong to rather than who they are as individuals, but it’s a syndrome that I and many Jews have been guilty of for centuries. “Is that person good for the Jews?” was a common refrain in my house growing up. More than thinking that Jewish people were “above” crimes and indiscretions, I think our secret worry was that as an already persecuted minority, our lives and our status might be tainted by association. I’m sure this is something that American Muslims experience on a daily basis. I remember hearing fears expressed by members of the Korean-American community when the identity of the Virginia Tech murderer was revealed. Would this now reflect badly on them? It didn’t, of course, except among lunatics who were already looking for reasons to hate Korean-Americans.
I abhor any acts of violence, no matter who is the perpetrator, but I know that even today when I hear about a heinous crime in the news, it’s often accompanied by an unconscious sigh of relief when further information reveals that the offender is not Jewish. Maybe this is a marker of my age. I was obviously not around during the national hysteria of the Leo Frank case (1915) or the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1953), but I think the ugliness of those high profile and suspect convictions (all of which led to a marked increase in anti-Semitic incidents in this country) was embedded in my genes by nervous ancestors who were proud of their heritage but desperate to avoid any unsavory attention from the Gentile masses. I had friends whose Holocaust survivor parents did not allow them to wear Jewish star necklaces in public. They were so worried that harm would come to their children if they “advertised” their Jewishness that they encouraged a kind of vigorous assimilation (short of marrying a goy) that would allow their loved ones to fly under the mainstream society’s Jewdar.
My high expectations of Jews is not entirely fear-based. It’s also founded on my love for the Jewish people and my personal understanding of Jewish teachings, law, and traditions. As a rule, I do expect Jewish people to have a certain level of compassion for the downtrodden, the ability to identify with people who are persecuted by the larger society, and a basic humanity for all people, regardless of their differences. Obviously there are plenty of examples of Jews, including myself, who frequently fail to live up to this ideal but I still expect it and am shocked and outraged whenever I see the tenets of Judaism hideously twisted to support an agenda of hate and violence. And by that let me quickly say that I’m not talking about any of the issues regarding Palestinians or the division of land in that part of the world—let’s save that important discussion for another time (preferably on someone else’s blog). No, I’m referring to recent actions by the religious right in Israel against Israeli gays and lesbians.
Compared to other countries in the Middle East, Israel is seen as a bastion of tolerance for gays. Indeed, many Palestinian gays have sought refuge on the streets of liberal Tel Aviv and elsewhere. I read one horrific account recently of a 16-year-old Palestinian youth, now living just outside of Tel Aviv, who was outed to the Palestinian Authority and forced to strip and sit on a Coke bottle during his interrogation. There have been reports of Palestinian Authority vigilante squads rounding up gays in refugee camps and throwing them in prison. In the Palestinian-controlled sections of the West Bank and Gaza, sodomy carries a penalty of up to 10 years. Some Arab gays have been encouraged by terrorist groups to become suicide bombers to “purge their moral guilt.” Fundamentalist Islamic courts prescribe capital punishment for homosexual activity. So in Israel, a country that guarantees political asylum for anyone persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation, and where openly gay men and women are allowed to serve in the military, gays are completely safe, right? Not if the extremists on the religious right have anything to say about it.
In an unusual display of cooperation, ultra-orthodox Israelis, also known as Haredi Jews, have been working hand-in-hand with conservative Muslim groups, promising to “do whatever it takes, including violence” to stop local organizations from putting on gay pride events in Jerusalem. Such folks believe that while gay-sponsored events are bad enough in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, they are an intolerable affront in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Two years ago, when local gays marched through a secular neighborhood in that city, an ultra-orthodox man ran into the crowd with a knife and stabbed three participants, severely injuring one of them. Last year, after plans for another gay pride march were made public, thousands of Haredi Jews started violent riots, blocked the streets, and threw bricks at cars, injuring dozens of police officers, journalists, and bystanders. Last year’s parade was cancelled out of fear of more violence. How about arresting the Jewish leaders who were inciting the violence? As far as I’m concerned, the Jewish rebbes who are spewing their message of hate are no different from the teachers in the fundamentalist madrasas who are regularly spreading their anti-American, anti-Semitic, violence-filled bile.
Look, I’m not so naïve that I expect Israel’s ultra-orthodox rabbis to don rainbow tallit and start performing same-sex marriages under their chuppahs any time soon. I get that most of these leaders believe that homosexuality is prohibited by their interpretation of Divine Law. An excellent documentary called “Trembling Before G-d” was released several years ago that details the painful dilemma faced by Hasidic and orthodox gays who feel passionately about their religion but risk expulsion by their families and communities if they dare to come out. But as much as I personally wish that rabbis everywhere would accept their gay members, there’s an enormous difference between having different beliefs about certain lifestyles and actively trying to destroy people because of these differences.
As this year’s pride activities loomed, religious groups in Israel banded together under an umbrella group that called itself The Committee to Stop the Abomination Parade. They put up posters in Jerusalem encouraging citizens to do “practically anything” to stop the event. “In general, I’m against violence,” said a 26-year-old ultra-orthodox resident of Mea Shearim, one of Jerusalem’s most religious neighborhoods, “but I know people are very angry, they don’t want this social disease to have a bad influence on their children. We don't trust the Knesset or any other part of the secular state on this issue. We can only trust ourselves. This terrible promiscuity must be stopped.”
To be fair, the rabid extremists on this issue are still a minority, but an increasingly strong one as right-wing religious parties continue to gain seats in the Israeli parliament. Many straight Israelis have started attending the gay pride events as a show of support for their fellow citizens and for the future of democracy in Israel. “I think that it was quite clear that the main issue is not gay and lesbian rights in Israel,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, associate director of the Israel Religious Action Center. “From a very early point in the battle, it was about democracy, human rights, and the character of our society.”
Last Thursday, hours before this year’s parade in Jerusalem, a 32-year-old ultra-orthodox man was arrested carrying a homemade explosive device he planned to plant along the parade route. I don’t know what happened to this guy but I find myself hoping he was treated in exactly the same way an Arab man found with a bomb in Israel would be. While gays and other supporters marched through the streets surrounded by police, Haredi Jews held a counter-demonstration, burning tires and chanting psalms. They managed to stop traffic at the main entrance to Jerusalem with their fires and “Shame” banners. 19 of the men were arrested, and one broke through the police barricades shouting “Filth! Get out of Jerusalem!” before being escorted away. It is these protesters, particularly the violent ones, who are bringing shame to their country and their people.
Our beloved rabbi, Lisa Edwards, her partner, Tracy Moore, and other members of BCC, the oldest LGBT temple in the world, recently traveled to Israel as a group (photo at left courtesy of BCC member Sylvia Sukop). I can’t bear the thought of these wonderful people and deeply spiritual Jews being taunted by those ignorant ultra-orthodox idiots. I have learned more about Judaism and have come to love it more as a result of my family’s experience at BCC than I ever did in the orthodox synagogues of my childhood. Rabbi Lisa could go head-to-head on any Talmudic issue with the entire Haredi rabbinate if only they could refrain from dismissing her because she is a woman and a lesbian. And I bet Lisa would even talk to these people without calling them “idiots.” I realize how judgmental I'm being of certain branches of Judaism but their calls for violence are sending me over the edge.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m trashing the entire orthodox community with this rant, that’s the last thing I would ever do. I know many orthodox Jews, including members of my own family, for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration despite any differences we may have about religious or social issues. I love Jews of all stripes, and I admit I am attracted to many facets of the orthodox lifestyle, as evidenced by my recent trip to Brooklyn where I gazed longingly at the Hasidic hordes. But the kind of virulent protesters I’m talking about, the ones who expend so much energy preaching hate and intolerance, these people I have no love for.
They are bad for the Jews.