Press Release: WorldPride 2005 in Jerusalem
The Jerusalem Open House is the GLBT community center serving the population of the Holy City and will be hosting the WorldPride celebrations in August 2005. As an organization that serves both Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs alike, the Jerusalem Open House works to unite a fragmented community, to provide essential human services, to act as a center for gays and lesbians from all over the world who travel to Jerusalem, and to be an effective agent for social change. We sound the voice of tolerance and pluralism in Jerusalem – a city with many different ethnic, spiritual and cultural communities and a city of globally symbolic significance. WorldPride 2005 will bring thousands of us together to make this voice heard throughout the world.
For more information please contant Irit at firstname.lastname@example.org
March 13, 2003
Palestine’s oppression of gays should not be ignored–Commentary
by William Goodwin
As the clouds of war grow ever darker over Iraq and media scrutiny becomes increasingly focused on the possible conflict, violence has continued to foment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A diplomatic Gordian knot, intransigence and distrust have characterized both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Especially since the reignition of the intifada, human rights have suffered at the hands of both governments. Consequently, debate and discussion of the hostilities has been framed with the tacit assumption of moral, and it would seem intellectual, parity. Assigning fault and determining the conflict’s roots is beyond the expertise of a young student such as myself.
A pluralistic superimposition of societal equality, however, grossly distorts the vast gulf separating Israelis from Palestinians. Unfortunately, organizations all too often overlook fundamental injustice to champion one side over the other. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in such groups as QUIT!, Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism or Queers for Palestine.
QUIT! is a San Francisco-based organization describing itself as "part of an international movement for human rights that encompasses the movement for Palestinian liberation, and all other liberation movements." Solidarity stems from the group’s implicit belief that as gays they understand the marginalizing of Palestinians. It would seem to be a simple expression of support for those suffering from Israeli abuses. And so it might be perceived to be by those in the organization. The group’s unqualified support for Palestinians, however, puts it squarely in support of a violently homophobic society and government.
Brutal oppression and abuse of gays characterizes many Arab nations, though it is certainly not unique to them. Saudi Arabia, in the recent past, has beheaded several men known to be gay. Others had their punishment of 2,600 lashes stretched over two years, in biweekly floggings, so that they would be able to survive long enough to receive their full sentence. Egypt actively arrests and, in some cases, tortures gays, purportedly for "offenses against religion." And the PLA (Palestinian Liberation Authority) is no different. In the August 2002 New Republic, Yossi Klein Halevi described the treatment of one gay youth: "He was beaten by his family, then warned by his father that he’d strangle (him) if it ever happened again." Later, "he was arrested … and forced to stand in sewage water up to his neck, his head covered by a sack filled with feces, and then he was thrown into a dark cell infested with insects and other creatures he could feel but not see."
This is not by any means the worst. Halevi quoted the friend of another victim. "They put him in a pit. It was the fast of Ramadan, and they decided to make him fast the whole month but without any break at night. They denied him food and water until he died in that hole." Gay Palestinians fleeing for their lives, then, is not surprising. But where they seek refuge is. Paul Varnell, writing for the Chicago Free Press, offers a hint: "Which Middle Eastern country has a variety of gay organizations … has members of parliament who speak out on behalf of gays … has a head of state (willing to) meet with gay activists? … Israel."
These "homosexuals sought refuge in Israel after being persecuted in their own communities," according to the BBC News service. Not only that, but Israeli civil rights organizations are fighting to let those who illegally entered the country stay. "Campaigners in Israel are trying to stop the deportation of a Palestinian homosexual back to the Gaza Strip, where they say he faces death threats." Amazingly, this issue has gone almost completely unreported. Outside of the efforts of a few writers such as Halevi, Varnell and blogger Andrew Sullivan (whose writing prompted this article), little has been done or said about the deplorable state of affairs, even by human rights organizations.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its last annual report, comprehensively documented abuses specifically related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but failed to mention such gay abuse even once. Scrutiny of Israelis on the same subject, however, is far more intense, according to Shaul Ganon, a prominent Israeli gay activist. "The international human rights groups say they’ve got a long list of pressing issues, (but) when Israeli police harass Arab Israeli homosexuals, I send out reports, and then – oh, you should see how quickly the human rights organizations get in touch with me to investigate. The hypocrisy is unbelievable," Halevi quotes him as saying.
The dichotomy in open-mindedness and rational thinking is painfully clear. Israeli activists are willing to fight for Palestinian rights, even as suicide bombers slaughter innocents in malls and discos. Meanwhile, a Palestinian gay fears for his safety because "his own family tracked him down and tried to kill him," according to the BBC. No one could, or should, claim Israeli conduct in countering terrorist attacks has been blameless, nor that their historical treatment of the refugees is untainted. But any discussion of the conflict that fails to acknowledge the bitter homophobia as symptomatic of an ignorant, retrogressive society cannot hope to offer any effective solution.
Such recognition is not a racist condemnation of Palestinians or Arabs. Indeed, the seeds of this presently backward state might very well have been sown by the aggressiveness of Israel’s security measures during the decades and merely watered by religious extremism and poverty. Whatever the source, the tumultuous upheaval that has become daily life in the West Bank, Gaza and refugee camps must be considered in the context of this gross societal disparity.
12 June 2003
Jerusalem pride’03 parade delayed after suicide bomb
Jerusalem’s second gay pride parade, "Love without Borders", scheduled for tomorrow, Friday 13 July, has been delayed after the city experienced one of its worst suicide bomb attacks yesterday. The bomb, which killed 16 people aboard a packed bus during the city’s rush hour and injured up to 100 others, precipitated an emergency meeting of the parade’s organisers. The meeting concluded with the announcement: "As a result of yesterday’s suicide bombing in the center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem’s 2nd pride parade Love without Borders (originally scheduled for tomorrow, Friday, June 13th) will be delayed by a week. Yesterday’s bombing was one of the worst in Jerusalem since October 2000, the echo of which felt strongly in the center of Jerusalem as well as at the Open House itself. "The parade will take place a week later than planned, on Friday June 20th.
No changes occur in the route of the parade or the schedule for pride day, excluding the delay by a week." Hagai Elad, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House, told GayMiddleEast.com: "We cannot joyfully parade in the heart of Jerusalem while funerals are taking place – including those of neighbors and friends. Postponing the parade by a week is the only course of action we can take now, an expression of human sensitivity towards the city we live in." Last year’s parade, the first in Jerusalem, was considered a huge success, with up to 4,000 estimated participants.
June 9, 2003
Jerusalem of pink
by Jenny Hazan
A throng of teens and young adults gathered beneath the gigantic rainbow flag at the Jerusalem Open House LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer and Questioning) Community Center on Saturday night to kick off the second annual Love without Borders Jerusalem Pride week. With a line-up that includes a literary presentation by Blue 18 author and former Ha’aretz journalist David Ehrlich tonight, a solidarity meeting with professional activists from the Italian Queer Organization on Thursday, and the grand finale parade on Friday afternoon, Jerusalem’s Open House – the organization behind the event – is putting the holy city on the map of Western capitals that pay tribute to gay pride.
But the event in Jerusalem is distinct from any of its partner festivals, both here and abroad. "Pride in Jerusalem is very different than pride anywhere else on the planet," said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Jerusalem Open House. "It’s the only pride event in the world that starts with the Traveler’s Prayer and ends with Shabbat services." Love without Borders is tailored to Jerusalem’s unique population.
The six-day event –which includes the sponsorship of both the Al-Fatiha Foundation for gay and lesbian Muslims and the Keshet Ga’avah World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews–takes its name not just from sexual orientation, but also from the political boundaries between Israelis and Palestinians. "We’re a social change organization, and the agenda is to make Jerusalem more open, more pluralistic, and more tolerant," explained El-Ad. Some of the more than 4,000 participants at last June’s precedent-setting parade used the festival as a pro-Palestinian political platform.
Marchers held signs declaring "Free Condoms, Free Palestine," "Transgender, not Transfer" and "Dykes and Fags Against the Occupation." The event also proved controversial to the haredi community, which threatened to stop the march by "all means," but opted merely to boycott. But, the Jerusalem Open House would not be deterred. "It’s a gradual process of the community growing, maturing, and understanding what its obligation is toward members of our community who don’t yet feel safe enough to come to the center," said El-Ad. "I think that this mixture between disbelief and fear is beyond us. This opens the door to the possibility of a much bigger audience – even bigger than last year. This is what we’re hoping for."
Recent film documents LGBT suffering in Palestine and Israel–‘Zero Degrees of Separation’
by Richard Ammon, GlobalGayz.com
‘Zero Defrees of Separation’ is a feature length documentary (still in progress as of June 03) examining a unique and complex relationshiip between two lovers and two nations from different worlds often less than 3 kms apart. Selim and Ezra, a gay Palestinian-Israeli couple, are fighting for the right to live together in Jerusalem. Through their lives and those of other gay and lesbian Palestinians and Israelis we gain a unique perspective on the Middle-East conflict. In a world where borders create and destroy lives daily , the people portrayed in Zero Degrees take on the larger questions of nationalism and its flaws. As Israeli-Palestianian couples exisitng on the the margins of their societies, these individuals cross those borders sometimes physically, sometimes metaphorically defying the notion of an external conflict with impermeable borders. Zero Degrees is about what is possible and impossible; a story that finds humanity in a time where little else seems to exist.
To watch this documentary is to feel suffocated and oppressed–which is perhaps a success for the director in her unflinching intention to see inside the pain and grief currently blanketing the murderous Holy Land now made very unholy by the intense hostility in the streets and political hallways. Zero Degrees of Separation feels like a voyeur’s intrusion on a deadly family argument that no one should see.
The Palestinian-Israeli war is ugly, violent, divisive and humiliating. Caught in the black hole of hatred are many LGBT citizens of both cloths. As they speak before an impersonal lens their words are sad, mournful–lost in violence and antagonism. Lesbian feminists and a gay Palestinian-Israeli male couple are caught in the crossfire of bullets, occupation, suicide bombers, rocket attacks, arrest and extremist politics. The passion and freedom and easy sensuality taken for granted by many western queers is here forbidden territory. Ezra and Salim possess a love for each other that transcends their racial and religious heritages but this love is gripped by danger and threats from both camps. Salim is a Muslim Palestinian, now disowned by his family in Ramallah since he came out to them. He cannot return home as he could face death. To be gay in that culture is to be "Lu’ot", to be cursed. Yet to be in Israel is to be an illegal alien, in and out of various jails for the past several years. "These are the schools for teaching more hatred and violence as victims learn well how to victimize in return," he says. "The only way to rescue yourself from being a victim is to victimize others. So the teaching goes.". But Salim refuses to be sucked into that political black hole. His love for Ezra is a small but piercing light in the darkness, a glimmer of what life could be like in the Holy Land.
Ezra is alienated from many of his gay Israeli friends and peers (in Tel Aviv for example) who celebrate Gay Pride festival under rainbow balloons and western-style music and tight bright pants. "Tel Aviv gays are apolitical, they are into assimilation." Ezra cannot understand this sort of life—assimilation into Euro-American lifestyle. "For what? We are not Europe and we are not America. We need to find our own voice and form. We don’t dress or act like that," he declares seriously and with fatigue. He refuses any celebration as long as Israel occupies and oppresses Palestinians in therri own territory. His world is filled with daily shots of hostility, arrest, search-and-destroy warriors, bullets and senseless slaughter of innocents on both sides. His words are slow and infused with unbearable heaviness and near hopelessness for a peaceful hearth where he and Salim can relax in each other’s arms, invite friends for dinner or walk easily through the streets of Jerusalem. He cannot feel peace in his heart when he knows others—Palestinians and Israelis—are suffering. The right way is to work actively against all oppression— racial, religious, political –toward women, gays, any minority including refugees.
The film also interviews lesbian feminist activists–a very endanged type in Palestine. Feminism too is another curse, says one of the women Ruada sadly. Her heart is obviously hurt as she speaks about the oppressed condition of women in Palestine. As an activist in her culture she laments the loss of personal identity in the struggle against violence. There is no other right choice in Palestine for women outside the sterile rigid role assigned by Islamic fundamentalists, outside of subservient marriage and prolific motherhood, outside the litany of hate for Israel.
In a discussion which followed the screening in New York at the LGBT Film Festival in June 03, additional points were made in referencee to Zero Degrees: Black Laundry is a politically active LGBT organization in Israel working actively against oppression. They bother the pink party types who want music, style and cell phones on the way to the gym. While they dance, Black Laundry (also translates as ‘black sheep’) does anti-occupation work.
The West Bank is different from Gaza; Gaza is very torn up from attacks. Life is at the level of survival so virtually no LGBT work is possible there. Gay peoplethere try desperately to escape, but to where? They face torture if it’s discovered they’re gay, and Israel refuses entry to Palestinians now. The agony of trapped lesbians and gays in Gaza is horrifying.
In Jerusalem there is Open House, an LGBT organization that has a Palestinian Coordinator offering information—counseling and literature in Arabic– but with no influence or power to help.
The director of Zero Degrees, Ellen Flanders, will continue filming when she raises more funds. Already the Canadian Film Board has been very generous she said. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
June 17, 2003
Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox mayor backs gay rights parade
Jerusalem’s newly elected ultraorthodox mayor gave lukewarm backing Tuesday for a gay rights parade in the city as police opened an investigation into the destruction of gay pride flags along the parade route. Uri Lupolianski, who was elected mayor June 3, defended the right to hold the parade, while making it clear he had no intention of participating in it. "Everyone has his own parade," he said. "I myself will be marching in another parade."
Meanwhile, Jerusalem police began investigating the destruction of approximately 20 of the 100 rainbow-striped flags hung by the Jerusalem municipality in the city center over the past week. Parade organizer Hagai Elad said the flags were destroyed on Sunday and Monday nights. "I blame the police for not taking proper precautions," he said. "As for who is responsible, I cannot really speculate."
In a statement sent to the Maariv daily, the right-wing Kach movement, banned under Israeli law since the 1980s, sharply criticized Lupolianski for allowing the flags to be hung. "It’s disgraceful that gay pride flags should fly in Jerusalem, particularly when there is an ultra-orthodox mayor," it said. "We will not permit the Jewish character of the city to be undermined." This is the second year the Jerusalem gay rights pride is taking place. It was originally set for last Friday but was postponed until June 20 following a June 11 bus bombing in the city that killed 17 people, including Alan Beer, one of the parade’s organizers.
Jerusalem Pride 2003
Thousands of people, many dressed in drag and waving rainbow flags, marched through Jerusalem on Friday in Israel’s second annual gay pride parade. The parade went peacefully under heavy security amid fears that ultra-Orthodox Jews and right-wing groups would try to disrupt the event. Earlier in the week, dozens of the rainbow flags that were put up along the march route were vandalized.
The right-wing Kach movement, banned since the 1980s, claimed responsibility and said the parade undermined the city’s Jewish character. The Kach statement also criticized Jerusalem’s new ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, for allowing the march to go ahead. Lupolianski, who was elected June 3, gave lukewarm support to the parade. "Everyone has his own parade," he said. "I myself will be marching in another parade." A small group of right-wingers protested the march but police removed them from the route.
The parade opened with a minute of silence for the Jewish and Arab victims of Mideast violence and for Alan Beer, a march organizer who was killed with 16 others in a June 11 suicide bombing in Jerusalem.
The parade, originally scheduled for last Friday, was postponed after Beer was killed. Interior Minister Avraham Poraz gave his support to the marchers. "There are a few ministers in the government who aren’t happy that I’m taking part in this event, but despite everything I have come to wish you a happy holiday. We are all proud of you," he said. After the march, revelers gathered in Independence Park for concerts hosted by drag queens, and took part in face painting, prayer sessions and other activities. A smaller pride parade was also held for the first
Tel Aviv gays to get married couples’ discounts
Tel Aviv – Tel Aviv has granted same-sex couples the same city discounts as married couples in what homosexuals hailed as a step towards full integration in Israel. Gay residents who declare their union in a notarised statement will be authorised to receive discounts for city services and sites such as sports centres and museums, the Tel Aviv municipality said on Thursday. Wednesday’s decision by the city authorities does not cover state benefits such as child allowances. ”The achievement here goes well beyond money,” said Adi Steiner, the municipality’s liaison officer for Tel Aviv’s gay community.
”With this act of recognition, Israel has come closer to the liberal policies of nations such as Canada and Holland.” Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast, has a reputation for being more liberal than other Israeli cities and is often alone is passing ordinances that clash with traditional Jewish religious codes. ”Tel Aviv is a European-style city that somehow found itself in the Middle East,” said Jonathan Rosenblum of Am Echad, a religious Jewish think tank. ”The majority of Israelis still consider themselves traditional, and gay unions anathema.”
Directed by Eytan Fox; written (in Hebrew, with English subtitles) by Avner Bernheimer; director of photography, Yaron Scharf; edited by Yosef Grunfeld; music by Ivri Leder; production designer, Amir Dov Pick; produced by Amir Harel and Gal Uchovsky; released by Strand Releasing. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 71 minutes. This film is not rated. WITH: Ohad Knoller (Yossi), Yehuda Levi (Jagger), Assi Cohen (Ofir), Aya Koren (Yaeli), Hani Furstenberg (Goldie), Erez Kahana (Yaniv, the cook) and Sharon Regniano (the Colonel).
(1) New York Times, New York, NY http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/24/movies/24YOSS.html
Movie Review: ‘Yossi and Jagger’ Israeli Officers in Love,
Trying to Elude Death and Detection By Stephen Holden The pressures and privations of military life have rarely been portrayed in as much telling detail as they are in "Yossi and Jagger," Eytan Fox’s compact (71-minute), touching portrait of a group of bored Israeli soldiers stationed at a cramped army base on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The area they’re patrolling is a rutted, snow-covered no-man’s-land that appears almost completely lifeless until the moment that enemy firepower explodes out of nowhere. In the opening scene the soldiers, clutching handkerchiefs to their noses, bury a stinking cache of meat that has rotted since their last visit to the area. When away from the base, they subsist on a combination of beef jerky and chocolate. Amid this desolation, love has flowered between two young commanders, Yossi (Ohad Knoller) and Jagger (Yehuda Levi), who are carrying on a passionate but discreet affair.
Although the other soldiers refer to them as a couple, they view the bond between the men, who are both well liked, as nothing more than a special friendship. When the lovers need time alone, they steal away on a bogus lookout mission and make love in the snow, observed only by rabbits. The affair is not without its tensions. Yossi, the more macho and closeted, is not entirely comfortable with his sexuality and disapproves of his partner’s fondness for "diva music" and other nonmanly tastes. The handsomer, more free-spirited and playful Jagger is a shameless coquette who pressures Yossi to consider leaving the army and living with him. Emotionally needy, Jagger petulantly hounds Yossi to put his love into words and deliver the Hollywood romantic fantasy he craves.
When two attractive female soldiers, Goldie (Hani Furstenberg) and Yaeli (Aya Koren), arrive at the base, the suppressed sexual tensions among the soldiers intensify, and you worry that the lovers will be found out and disgraced. For the blond, sexually aggressive Goldie, the visits offer a welcome opportunity for hot, recreational sex. The dark-haired, moony-eyed Yaeli is a romantic who nurtures schoolgirl fantasies of a Champagne-and-roses affair with Jagger, whom she recognizes as special because of his sensitivity. Even after her forlorn inquiries about Jagger’s tastes in women elicit discouraging responses, Yaeli refuses to give up her dream. One soldier, Ofir (Assi Cohen), pines for her. When she rebuffs him, he focuses his resentment on Jagger. If the situation has all the ingredients of a shrill, tearful melodrama, the filmmaker, working from a taut screenplay by Avner Bernheimer that doesn’t waste a word or a gesture, keeps the emotional lid firmly in place.
And this restraint lends the psychological undercurrents among the characters a resonance they would not otherwise have. Each of the soldiers, from the playful cook, Yaniv (Erez Kahana), to a tough, war-mongering colonel (Sharon Regniano), who pays a surprise visit, is incisively drawn. And the performances of Mr. Knoller and Mr. Levi (a leading Israeli soap opera star) distill the emotional chemistry of their precarious relationship. "Yossi and Jagger" may be a gay love story. But the movie, which ends with a wallop, is an unusually subtle and convincing study of group psychology and fluctuating morale among professionals under stress in close quarters. .
October 7, 2003
Movie Review: Showing our best (gay) face abroad
by Calev Ben-David
‘Five minutes into Yossi & Jagger, two Israeli soldiers out on patrol are kissing and cuddling in a snowy field somewhere near the Lebanon border." So begins a Village Voice review of the acclaimed Israeli movie now being screened in one of Manhattan’s top art-house cinemas, the Film Forum. The review then goes on to ask: "Is there snow in Israel? Are there queers in the Israeli Defense Force? ‘Is this a rape, sir?’ riffs the cuter of the two, nicknamed Jagger for his pop-star looks."
The answers to those questions are yes, yes and no. There is snow in Israel, certainly on the Mount Hermon ridge straddling the Syrian border, which is where the movie is set. There are homosexuals in the IDF, both open and closeted; my own artillery reserve unit, for example, included an openly gay soldier, who incidentally was also one tough customer. And no, there is no rape in Yossi & Jagger, which chronicles the consensual affair between the two army officers named in the title, both still in the closet, but with the latter pressing the former to break away from the societal restraints that keep them from openly declaring their love for each other. Yossi & Jagger has won critical raves both here and internationally, rightly so in my opinion. It’s almost a back-handed compliment to describe it as one of the best Israeli films ever.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better film anywhere on the subject of gays in the military, or for that matter, one so successful at depicting everyday life in an IDF combat unit. Yossi & Jagger beautifully captures the mix of boredom, fear, camaraderie and underlying tensions in any front-line unit. Its greatest achievement, though, is in depicting Israeli soldiers as flesh-and-blood human beings, rather than just stick-figure representations of various political attitudes. Interviewed by the Voice, the film’s director Eytan Fox commented, "Israelis are very aware of how ambivalent the world is about us. There’s this big campaign saying, ‘When you are abroad every one of you is an ambassador.’ But I don’t want to be a fig leaf for Israeli policies. This is an anti-war film." I suspect the American-born, media-savvy and openly gay Fox is being a little disingenuous here in telling the left-wing Voice what he probably thinks it wants to hear.
In fact, by setting his film on the Syrian border rather than the West Bank or Gaza, he cannily avoids having to address the debate over the territories, or depicting the soldiers in conflict with a civilian Palestinian population. In fact, the Arab enemy is never seen or directly encountered, which is often the case on the northern border. For the most part, the soldiers in Yossi & Jagger are depicted as a likable, sensitive and sympathetic bunch. The exception is the inclusion of one somewhat caricatured overly-macho colonel, but even this doesn’t qualify the film as an overall critique of the IDF. In fact, the most effective and dedicated officer in the film is the title character Yossi, superbly played by Ohad Knoller, who is determined to pursue a career in the IDF despite his sexuality.
Although the movie’s ending does imply that Yossi has, perhaps, learned to be more accepting of his lover Jagger’s more up-front attitude about sexual identity, it doesn’t suggest that this epiphany means he is also ready to abandon his military ambitions. Hopefully, there just might well be room in the IDF for an exemplary officer who is also a gay gentleman. Thus I think more effective than any explicit anti-war theme in Yossi & Jagger is a powerful implicit message in its accurate portrayal of Israeli society even in the despised IDF! as far more varied, tolerant and advanced than that of its enemies, or the one-sided negative image of the Jewish State painted by its numerous critics abroad. Village Voice writer Richard Goldstein clearly picked up on this aspect of the film by noting,
"It’s [Israel] one of the world’s more macho societies, and the rules of queer theory dictate that in such a setting intense homophobia (accompanied by furtive homo trysts) ought to be the norm. But this formula doesn’t consider the association between gay culture and the West. The same perception that drives Islam to reject its own homoerotic tradition also pushes Israel to be the region’s most gay-friendly state. Homosexuality is a marker of the boundary between fundamentalism and secular modernity and not just in Israel."
In other words, Israel with all its faults is still a beacon of enlightened Western attitudes in a region dominated by reactionary Islamic societies. Those are the kindest words I’ve read about Israel in the Village Voice in years and something one would expect more from the nonconservative publications that have long served as this nation’s prime apologists in America. So Fox’s objections notwithstanding, Yossi & Jagger turns out to be a terrific "ambassador" for Israel, not by preaching to the converted, but by fashioning a meaningful entertainment of special interest to those political/cultural sectors traditionally most hostile to the Zionist endeavor. And not because it is "anti-war," or raises the banner for gay rights, but simply because it paints a humane portrait of IDF soldiers struggling to maintain their humanity in the most inhuman of circumstances.
2 October 2003
Welcome For Danish Gay Ambassador
The Political Council for Gay Rights in Israel (PCGRI) has sent an official letter to Denmark’s Embassy in Israel, welcoming Mr. Carsten Damsgaard, the new openly gay ambassador to Israel. The letter not only welcomes the new ambassador, but also praised the Danish government and the Danish Foreign Ministry for appointing a gay man to the position. "Clearly a person is to be evaluated on his or her individual merits, and not according to his or her sexual orientation" reads the letter. "We are aware of the fact that some circles in your country have expressed dissatisfaction over this appointment. We wish to back you on this wise and courageous decision.
"We are confident that Mr. Carsten Damsgaard will do an excellent job, as well as we are sure that the people of Israel will warmly welcome the new ambassador, as all other ambassadors before him. "We salute the government of Denmark for making this choice and hope that other countries, including the state of Israel, will do the same in the future." According to a BBC report, the new Danish Ambassador, whose expertise is in terror and security, will be accompanied to Israel by his male partner. The Israeli embassy in Denmark reported that the new Danish Ambassador’s sexual orientation has not caused any problem among the ranks of the Israeli foreign ministry. Yuki Lavie, Director of the PCGRI stated, "The new Danish ambassador is coming to Israel, a country whose laws forbid discrimination based on ones sexual orientation. We are sure that any negative remarks on the new ambassador’s appointment are only coming from radical religious elements who opinions have little interest.”
October 15, 2003
LGBT Israelis are making progress, El-Ad says
by Justin Elliott
Four thousand people marched under rainbow flags in downtown Jerusalem on June 17, 2002. The event, "Jerusalem Pride – Love Without Borders," was the city’s first ever gay pride parade. Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of Jerusalem Open House, which organized the parade, spoke Tuesday afternoon about the challenges of promoting an LGBT agenda in Israel’s most religiously conservative city. Friends of Israel organized the lecture, held in the Ratty, for a group of about 20 during the lunchtime rush. El-Ad said the parade organizers faced much opposition, but the event provides an opportunity for Jerusalem to make news in a positive way. He said it was a day to "put fear, hate and suspicion aside – just for a while" and to "give hope and optimism a chance."
At a time when several suicide bombings had emptied the streets of the capital, the parade "brought life back to the center of the city we love so much" El-Ad said. El-Ad described Jerusalem Open House, the only LGBT center in the city, as "an organization on the front lines of the fight for an open, tolerant, diverse, pluralistic Jerusalem." Hannah Lantos ’06, who spent last year in Israel, said she attended because she was tired of only hearing news of the intifada. El-Ad agreed, noting there are 600,000 people in Jerusalem trying to lead ordinary lives. El-Ad said persistent political and social conflict in Jerusalem makes outreach to the LGBT community even more important. Gay teenagers always need advice and support, he said, especially in trying times.
El-Ad described the challenge of reaching out to the Orthodox Jewish and Arab communities, which make up two-thirds of Jerusalem’s population and are particularly hostile toward homosexuality, he said. Speaking to Jerusalem’s secular Jewish third is easy, but the community center is aimed at those who really need it, he said. In the Arab community, sexuality, let alone sexual orientation, is not commonly discussed, he said. El-Ad said Jerusalem Open House recently joined with Amnesty International’s Israeli chapter to put out a pamphlet in Arabic explaining "level-minded, basic" facts about sexual orientation. The pamphlet has "no sexy guys, no fancy images," he said.
"It’s so you can pick this up and not be scared by it being too gay." He also noted the creation of an Arabic confidential phone line and informational Web site, which is getting thousands of hits. El-Ad stressed Jerusalem Open House is not anti-religious. A rainbow mezuzah is posted in the doorway, and Shabbat services are held every week, he said. But it is hard to shake the center’s sacrilegious image, he said. El-Ad said the center continues to face immense challenges, but, "we had to change the social reality about being gay and out in Israel." As for the future, El-Ad reported Jerusalem Open House had just won its bid to host World Pride Day in August 2005.
October 20, 2003
Next World Pride 2005 To Be Held In Jerusalem
by 365Gay.comNewscenter Staff
Jerusalem – Jerusalem will be the site of the next Interpride celebration, the world LGBT event that is held every five years. Intrerpride attracted a quarter of a million gays and lesbians to the last celebration, held in Rome in 2000. It will be the largest gay event ever held in the Holy Land.
"An event of this magnitude has never occurred before anywhere in Israel," said Jerry Levinson, the executive director of Jerusalem’s Gay and Lesbian Center, Hagai El-Ad. The center will serve as the host organization. Jerusalem was chosen after a successful lobbying campaign at the annual Interpride conference this month in Montreal. But Levinson says he has his work cut out for him. Jerusalem is intensely religious for Jews, Moslems, and Christians. The city never celebrated Pride until two years ago because of stiff opposition from religious organizations.
October 23, 2003
Israeli gay man denied partner’s inheritance
An Israeli tribunal ruled that a gay man cannot claim his deceased partner’s inheritance, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported on Wednesday. After his 70-year-old longtime companion passed away, and although there was no designated heir but also no will in his favor, the unnamed man invoked an Israeli law that recognizes an inheritance right for unmarried sexual partners. But the judge rejected the argument, deeming that the man was not in a position to loosely interpret the law, which applies only to heterosexual couples.
January 15, 2004
Palestinian gays seek safety in Israel
by Dan Baron, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Belying its name, Electricity Park is shrouded in darkness, an ideal spot for curb-crawlers keen to avoid attention as they prowl for male prostitutes at night. The anonymity these streets offer serves as a refuge for the young men who ply their trade in this dismal corner of Tel Aviv. Many of them have far more to fear than the police or the occasional abusive client. Tricked out in drag or the tight, modish attire of Western urban youth, dozens of gay Palestinian runaways eke out a dangerous living on Israel’s streets.
For these gay men, life in the seedy parts of central Israel is far better than the virtual death sentences they fled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sani – not his real name – grew up outside Gaza City, in a refugee camp whose clan networks and congestion made privacy practically impossible. He said he realized he was homosexual at age 16, in an encounter with another youth. Sani’s secret was safe from his father, a local sheik, but eventually it leaked out to the Palestinian Authority police. "They brought me in, held me for hours," he told JTA. "During one round of questioning, they made me strip and sit on a Coke bottle. It hurt. And all the time I was more worried my family would learn why."
Torture by Palestinian Authority security services or vigilante attacks by relatives is a fate suffered by countless gays in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where sodomy carries a jail term of three to 10 years. Islam prescribes capital punishment for homosexual activity. Those who survive torture and attacks either fade into meek self-abnegation or, like Sani, break away. Sani’s freedom came at a price: He had to report other Palestinian gays to the police. But as soon as he got out of the Gaza lock-up, Sani got out of Gaza for good, posing as a day laborer to escape to the safety of Israel proper, where he joined an estimated 300 fellow gay runaways.
Now 22, Sani is always on the move, lodging with friends or rich clients he meets at Tel Aviv’s bath houses. If he is short on cash, he resorts to street-walking in Electricity Park. Sani phones home every few months to assure his mother that he is all right – on condition that she doesn’t tell his father and brothers anything about the conversations. "She says they consider me dead, and it’s better that way," he said. "I have nightmares about them coming to kill me."
According to Shaul Gonen of Agudah, Israel’s homosexual rights association, at least three Palestinian runaways have been abducted by vengeful kinsmen, never to be heard from again. "Being gay in the P.A. is, quite simply, deadly," Gonen said. Israel’s preoccupation with security also means that the runaways, in the country illegally, run the risk of being summarily deported if caught. "The first danger to them is from family and community, as well as authorities" in the P.A.-controlled areas, Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International told Reuters.
"Going to Israel is a one-way ticket, and once there, their biggest problem is possibly being sent back." Israel signed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees covenant of 1951, guaranteeing asylum for anyone persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation. The country’s Interior Ministry said any gay Palestinian can apply to remain in Israel indefinitely if persecution is proven, but the ministry gave no figures on how many such applications have been filed. Another option for the Palestinians is to seek haven abroad. One gay Israeli-Palestinian couple found a home in Canada, and Gonen currently is campaigning to persuade European Union nations to be more forthcoming with offers of asylum.
Many runaways are apparently unaware of their rights, or worried that through some bureaucratic bungle they could find themselves on the wrong side of an Israeli military checkpoint before their asylum application is processed. One 19-year-old runaway told Israel’s Channel One TV that the Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of the Palestinians’ mainstream Fatah movement, tried to pressure him into becoming a suicide bomber to "purge his moral guilt." He refused and fled to an Arab village in Israel’s Galilee region. Gonen tells of a Palestinian runaway in Tel Aviv who helped catch a terrorist. The gay runaway grew suspicious overhearing an illegal Palestinian laborer speak. The man’s accent was Gazan, but he claimed to be from the West Bank. The runaway reported the laborer to the authorities via an Israeli friend, and police who arrested the laborer discovered he was a terrorist fugitive.
Palestinian homosexuals often elicit more suspicion at home than in their haven of choice, regularly drawing accusations that they collaborate with the Shin Bet (Israeli secret police). Human-rights observers suggest that Palestinian homosexuals, fearing for their lives if exposed, are especially vulnerable to Shin Bet blackmail.
But a veteran handler of collaborators, Menachem Landau, denied this. "Gays are already treated with suspicion in Palestinian society," Landau said in an interview. "So what good are they for covert work?" In Israel, covertness is a way of life for Palestinian runaways. They pick up Hebrew and make all efforts to erase their Arabic accents. Military dog tags and Star of David medallions are de rigeur as an Israeli disguise. They save up money for private medical care in lieu of hospital visits when they fall ill.
The Electricity Park crowd has learned to spot plainclothes police from afar. The really lucky ones adopt a new identity altogether. The 30-year-old runaway from a village near Jenin works in a Tel Aviv restaurant using an identification card loaned to him by an Israeli Arab friend. He lives with his Jewish partner in the quiet Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. "With any luck, I’ll go unnoticed until there is peace,” he said.
February 8, 2004
14 Gay Arab (with Israeli lover) From the West Bank Finds He Can’t Go Home Again
by Molly Moore, Washington Post Staff Writer
Jerusalem – Fuad Musa sensed the suspicion as soon as he walked into the Pasha restaurant in Jerusalem’s middle-class Talpiot neighborhood. It followed him to his table and lingered as he ordered dinner.
" The security guard kept looking at me," recalled Musa, a towering 28-year-old with an angular face and brown eyes so soft they appear on the verge of melting. He was sure he knew what the guard was thinking: Here is an Arab. He might be a terrorist. " Before the food came, we stood up and left," he said, the resentment as raw as if the episode had happened last night, rather than 20 months ago. He hasn’t ventured into an Israeli restaurant since.
A Palestinian living illegally in Israel, Musa said he feels both rage and humiliation when security guards and strangers in the street mark him as a potential terrorist by the pigmentation of his skin and the contours of his face. This happens all the time, he says. But he feels equally unwelcome in Ramallah, his home town in the West Bank, where Palestinian society — even members of his family — treat him as an outcast because he is gay.
Today Musa is a foreigner in both lands, a pariah in both societies.
" He’s a product of the occupation," said his partner, Ezra Yitzhak, 52, an Israeli Jew who has long been active in peace and pro-Palestinian organizations. "He has everything against him." Musa’s personal struggles reflect the intolerance within two societies hardened by numbing death tolls and intractable politics, and cultures alienated by centuries-old hatreds and equally ancient beliefs. Israelis and Palestinians have demonized each other, seeing individuals largely through a prism of collective prejudices.
" The entire conflict is here," Yitzhak said. "It’s in my house. Not in the city next door. It’s in my house." An Israeli court last week gave Musa three months to return to the West Bank, find a third country willing to accept him as a refugee or face imprisonment, all options he considers untenable. Thousands of undocumented Palestinians have been sent to Israeli prisons or forced back to the Palestinian territories since the start of the current Palestinian uprising against Israel nearly 31/2 years ago, according to Palestinian officials and human rights organizations monitoring the cases.
But Musa and Yitzhak view their case as far more complex, and potentially tragic, because Musa moved to Israel more than four years ago for the same reason that many gay Palestinians have left their homeland — to escape the stigma that Muslim culture imposes on homosexuality. " Here it’s okay to be homosexual," he said. "There I feel threatened." As one of the few gay Palestinians who have taken their case public, however, Musa said he fears for his life in an Israeli prison, where he would encounter homophobic inmates. He speaks from some experience.
In the previous Palestinian intifada, which broke out in 1987, Musa was a teenager throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. He spent nearly two years in Israeli jails and was released as part of the amnesty that came with the 1993 Oslo accords, which effectively ended the slowly dying conflict. The peace accords freed Musa from jail, but his sixth-grade education and lack of skills gave him few options for employment, as is the case with many Palestinian men of his generation. Musa turned to crime and was imprisoned again in Israel for stealing a car. " What’s left for people like him is to be criminals," said Yitzhak, who met Musa soon after he was released on the car-theft charge. Yitzhak said he was attracted to Musa partly because he believed he could help the affable young man escape his troubled past.
Musa is determined never to go back to prison, but he also fears for his life in the Palestinian territories, he said, where his sexual orientation is widely viewed not only as a disgrace to his family but an affront to Islam. " If he is sent to the West Bank, it would be very dangerous for him," said Eitan Peleg, one of Musa’s attorneys. "But he’s staying here illegally. Every minute he is here, he is committing a felony offense."
Moving to a third country would mean leaving behind Yitzhak. Though Israel is far more tolerant of homosexuality than Palestinian society, Musa’s initial entry into the Israeli gay community was hardly free of hostility. Yitzhak’s family, although accepting of his homosexuality, was vociferously opposed to Ezra’s choice of an Arab lover. " Even my mother told me, ‘He will kill you one day,’ " Yitzhak recalled. Many of his gay Jewish friends "didn’t want to accept a Jew and an Arab together."
But Musa’s charm and easygoing nature won over most of Yitzhak’s family and friends, Yitzhak said. The two melded easily into Yitzhak’s professional life in Jerusalem, where Yitzhak trained Musa to work in his plumbing business. They participated in the vibrant, open gay community of Tel Aviv — a city that is far more cosmopolitan and socially tolerant than most of Israel, and a refuge for Israeli and Palestinian gays.
" Before the intifada, we would go to films and restaurants," Musa said. "We’d go dancing in Tel Aviv, go sailing. It was a lot of fun." Musa occasionally brought Yitzhak to family weddings and festivities in Ramallah, introducing him as a platonic "friend." It was a believable cover story after Yitzhak’s many years as a peace activist who traveled frequently to the West Bank in support of Palestinian causes.
" In the beginning, they were suspicious of me and Ezra," Musa said of his immediate family. "But they never said anything."
Four years ago, Yitzhak invited Musa to move into his Jerusalem apartment. Although Musa had no Israeli identity card, Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, determined he posed no security threat and issued him a letter of permission to live in the country. But after the onset of the Palestinian uprising, the life Musa and Yitzhak had built on the acceptable fringes of Israel’s legal and societal systems began to unravel.
" People walking in the street looked at me different," Musa said. "It was a really terrible feeling. You feel bad, like what have you done?
" Because I’m an Arab, every restaurant I go to, they ask for my ID, call the police and check to see if I’m okay," he continued. "You lose all the fun of going out."
" There are days when it’s better not to go out," interjected Yitzhak, whose extroverted personality contrasts with Musa’s shyness. After the incident at the Pasha restaurant, they stopped dining out altogether in Israel.
At the same time, said Musa, "In Ramallah, I would not walk on the streets."
Early last year, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, published a story about Musa’s efforts to become a legal resident of Israel. The newspaper referred to him by a pseudonym and printed a blurred photograph of Musa with Yitzhak.
Relatives in Jerusalem easily recognized Musa, however, and sent the clipping to his family in Ramallah. His parents telephoned, and Musa says they sounded almost irrational in their anger. At one point, one of them blurted, "We don’t want you as our son anymore!"
Other relatives took turns on the phone. "They were shouting at me, threatening me; they threatened my life," said Musa, who is from a family of six boys and two girls. "My brothers didn’t even want to talk to me." After he hung up, Musa recalled, "I felt lost, like a man who’s not even alive." For five months, Musa’s parents and siblings refused to speak to him despite his attempts to call them. Eventually, his 22-year-old brother, Abed, returned his calls, and last fall Abed communicated a message from his parents: "The family said you can come back."
Musa met with Abed and their father, a taxi driver. He brought along a female friend to keep family tempers in check. " My father said it was a question of family dignity," Musa said. After a long, emotional conversation, "I forgave them," Musa said simply. He and Yitzhak have not been back to visit them in Ramallah, however. " Even if his family accepts him," Yitzhak said, "the future is impossible. Arab society won’t accept homosexuality." Today, Musa finds himself in a netherworld where he fears Palestinian suicide bombers — the warriors of the second intifada — as much as any Israeli Jew. "I don’t even park near buses or stand near buses," he said. "If I’m right there, they would try to kill me also. They don’t care."
But he said it was painful to sort out his emotions toward the Palestinian bombers: He knows they would kill him in a heartbeat, yet he once fought for their cause and was willing to go to jail for it. " It’s a very hard and difficult question," he said, nervously re- adjusting the toffee-colored muffler tucked around his neck to ward off the chill of a damp winter night. "I’m a freedom fighter. If somebody says they are a freedom fighter, you respect him for that. " They are my blood, my people. I have never stopped supporting people fighting for freedom."
Just as forcefully, he added, "I don’t agree with blowing up a bus full of kids." Still, he said he understands why they do it. "They don’t have alternatives. This is their only force, their only power against Israel with its M-16s and tanks." Coming to terms with the way he and Israelis regard each other is no easier, Musa said. " There are [Israelis] who know me and trust me," he said. "They even treat me as their son. It’s crazy. Somebody smiles at you. Then the next moment, somebody else looks at you like you’re a terrorist. Sometimes your mood changes 20 times a day. It drives you crazy."
Some days the emotional swings are so disorienting, "it makes me depressed and not want to live," Musa said as he sat cross-legged on the pillows that line the living room floor of his and Yitzhak’s Jerusalem apartment. "Sometimes, I drink too much to forget the day." The security crackdown, with its military checkpoints, police searches and prohibitions on Palestinian travel, has became a trap for Musa. Police stopped honoring the worn letter from Shin Bet, which once had been accepted as a credible voucher from the government. He estimated that he had been detained more than 60 times in the past year — sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for five hours.
Yitzhak said he spent hours cajoling Israeli authorities and paid thousands of dollars in fines to get Musa out of detention.
In December, the same Israeli policeman stopped Musa twice within two weeks and vowed to get him kicked out of the country or sent to jail, according to Musa and Yitzhak. The courts, although giving Musa two short-term reprieves, ruled that he could leave the couple’s three-room apartment only during daylight, and only to travel to and from work. Musa contemplated the options Israel may now force on him. Most wrenching, he said, is the prospect of being separated from the partner he adores and the home life he cherishes.
Even though he has reconciled with some of his family members, he said he cannot return to the West Bank: "Over there, I am nothing. I cannot be myself." The threat of jail terrifies him even more: "I won’t survive there. People know I’m homosexual." As a youngster, said Musa, "I had many dreams: to have a good life, a safe place to live. To have pets and birds . . . to have a normal life, like normal people." And then in a voice so soft and flat that it was barely audible: "None of them came true."
May 14, 2004
Two New books: ‘Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition’ and
‘Queer Theory and the Jewish Question’ (on the intersection between queer and Jewish identities)
by Jay Michaelson
Imagine learning that, because of how you were born, God hates you. Imagine being raised in a traditional religious world, where obeying God is the primary value, and then, just as you were becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, coming to realize that you are incapable of doing so. Over the next several years, you try your hardest: You fight against the urge, repress it, deny it, even try to change it with aversion therapy. You can’t tell anyone, because even to reveal the truth would cast you out of the community. But, in private, you try, and try and try – and fail. What would you do? Until recently, the only alternatives in the traditional Jewish world were to lie, to die or to leave.
As they have throughout history, many gay Jews conceal their identities and marry people of the opposite sex. Today, they fill chatrooms and listservs with their private struggles. Many others cannot cope, and choose to end their lives. Although statistics for the Jewish community are not available, studies show that 30 percent of gay youth attempt suicide by the age of 16. About 276,000 American teenagers try to kill themselves every year, and it is estimated that a third of these attempts are related to homosexuality. Many gay Jews leave behind the Orthodox world, or Judaism entirely, after experiencing what’s sometimes called a "Huck Finn moment."
In Mark Twain’s novel, a turning point occurs when Huck decides he’d rather help Jim, the runaway slave, even though he’s been taught he’ll go to hell as a consequence. "Well, I guess I’ll go to hell then," Huck says, and follows his conscience instead of his religion. Gay Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg is unsatisfied with these alternatives. His new book, "Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition" refuses to lie, die or leave. The book was born of Greenberg’s own years-long struggle as an Orthodox rabbi with a secret. When he did finally admit to himself and others that he was gay, he said, "I realized I would have to leave the rabbinate or make sense of it." He chose to stay, and "Wrestling with God and Men" is the result. The book is divided into four parts.
The first discusses homosexuality in sacred Jewish texts – chiefly the prohibitions in Leviticus. The second addresses evidence of homosexuality in Jewish history, from David and Jonathan, to homoerotic tales of the rabbis, to medieval gay love poetry. The heart of the book tries to understand the meaning of the Leviticus prohibitions, and in the concluding chapters, Greenberg – recognizing that few Orthodox rabbis will accept the interpretations he has offered – suggests a basis for mutual respect and recognition between the Orthodox community and its gay and lesbian members. Chapter and verse Leviticus 18:22 states: "And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman: it is a toevah." Contrary to popular belief, Greenberg demonstrates that the verse is extremely unclear.
The "lyings of a woman" is a unique phrase, echoed only one other time in the Bible, and a redundant one; the verse could simply say, "You shall not lie with a man." (The Hebrew word for "lie," shachav, is unambiguously sexual.) The word "toevah," rendered "abomination" by the Christian world, is actually closer in meaning to the word "taboo": a practice done by other groups, but precisely for that reason, not done by us. (Elsewhere in the Torah, for example, we learn of practices that are toevah for Egypt, but not for Israel.) And, as it was for many centuries of Jewish discourse, lesbianism is not mentioned at all. Yet even with these ambiguities, how does Greenberg reconcile the apparent prohibition of some forms of same-sex behavior with his own gay identity? First, he claims that avoiding the issue is false consciousness.
"I don’t want to get around Leviticus. I want to get into Leviticus, to find out what it really means," he said. He recognizes that traditional interpretations of the verse expand it to prohibit all forms of homosexual behavior between men. But one Yom Kippur, when Greenberg deliberately took the aliyah (ascension to the Torah) containing the verse in question, he realized that "these verses have never been understood, because gay and lesbian people haven’t been at the table to interpret them and give their testimony. These verses are not known." Therefore, his project is not one of apologetics – why it’s okay to be a gay Jew – but hermeneutics: trying to understand what a verse means, now that those who have been silenced are silent no longer. The "new information" offered by formerly silenced gay and lesbian Jews is critical. If it is false consciousness for gay religious Jews to ignore Leviticus, it is also false consciousness for interpreters of Leviticus to ignore gay Jews. Clearly, God makes some people gay. What, then, is the meaning of the verse?
In fact, "Wrestling with God and Men" offers two answers to this question, one that Greenberg believes to be true, and another that he believes to be acceptable to those who don’t agree with him. Drawing on traditional sources as well as historical ones, Greenberg claims that, ultimately, Leviticus 18:22 is about violence and degradation. In the ancient world, people were divided sexually into penetrators and people who were penetrated.
To be in the latter category was to be demeaned; in most cultures, it included only women, slaves and non-adult boys. In typical fashion, ancient Judaism extended the sphere of moral consideration, and said that no man should be "womanized." Greenberg observes that the verse really says "v’et zachar," which is better rendered "And to a man you shall not lie …," rather than "And with a man." In this reading, penetration is something done to a person, not with them, and it is a form of humiliation. What the verse says, in effect, is "Don’t make a woman of a man." Linguistic sense Greenberg’s reading has several attractive features.
First, it makes linguistic sense of an otherwise puzzling verse. Second, it situates Leviticus 18 within an understanding of sexuality that can be found throughout ancient texts. (Effectively, Greenberg says the verse is about misogyny, not homophobia.) Third, and most importantly, it meets Leviticus 18 on its own terms, and understands it in light of categories that were absolutely critical for ancient Judaism, and yet are absolutely foreign to contemporary, loving, same-sex relationships. In fact, only a narrow band of homosexual activity is prohibited by Leviticus 18 – perhaps none, if "the lyings of the woman" refers solely to degradation and not to anatomy.
And ultimately, just as straight couples are not interrogated by their Orthodox communities about how they observe the laws of family purity, so gay couples need not be interrogated about their interpretation of this particular verse. They can be both honest and accepted. To be sure, Greenberg also addresses various other rationales that have been offered for the prohibition – reproduction, category confusion, idolatry – but he says that these all fail to explain the verse’s wording and meaning. Notably, Greenberg does not address the argument that "homosexuality is unnatural," even though it was a fundamental point in a noted Conservative Movement responsum. In this interview, Greenberg called the category "not Jewish," noting that "plenty of sins are natural, and plenty of commandments are unnatural" and observing that no traditional rabbinic treatments of homosexuality used the term to describe it.
In any case, he claims that he is not seeking a rationale. He is seeking the truth, in a way that is impossible to accomplish when the facts of sexuality are suppressed. At the same time, Greenberg is very pragmatic. He recognizes that few Orthodox rabbis will accept his interpretation, and fewer still would agree to change Jewish law on the basis of it. Thus, having spent 100 pages developing and proving his argument, Greenberg abandons it for the last portion of "Wrestling with God and Men," turning to a legal compromise that he argues would allow gay people and Orthodox people to coexist. Essentially, the compromise places gays and lesbians under the category of "oness," or duress.
They are like obsessive-compulsives who can’t help themselves, and whose sin is therefore virtually excused. Critically, Greenberg does not suggest gay people have this view of themselves. "I want to open up the possibility of remaining in the community," he said in the interview. "And that means, I have to accept compromise. It’s all right for an Orthodox rabbi to have a limited perspective of me, as long as he doesn’t expect me to have that perspective of myself." Coexistence, not immediate legal change, is the goal.
In Greenberg’s view, "hearts and minds change first. The law is the last thing to change in a social movement." And for that to happen, gay people need to find a way to accept the Jewish tradition (hence Greenberg’s "real" reading) and Jewish traditionalists need to find a way to accept gay people (hence the compromise). Greenberg says that gay people should not expect advocacy from Orthodox communities. But his ultimate goal is that "a 16-year-old gay Orthodox kid has a life-trajectory that’s pretty good. No humiliation, and no lying." Greenberg recognizes that "for many Jews, homosexuality is not on the line; Judaism is." Slivers of spirituality I was one of those Jews myself, and for me, "Wrestling with God and Men" is not a sufficient answer. Greenberg says that he remains Orthodox because it is "a spiritual and moral ground from which to contend with life’s myriad possibilities, a disciplined and balanced way to live a great life in the midst of inevitable uncertainty." But so are other forms of Judaism, and other forms of life, that don’t involve being regarded as an obsessive-compulsive (at best) by one’s community.
In my own life, I found I didn’t have to choose between God and self-acceptance. When I had my own Huck Finn moment, I found that as soon as I was willing to go to hell, God was willing to go with me. This, ultimately, is the greatest flaw with "Wrestling with God and Men": It contains only slivers of the deep spirituality that Greenberg himself possesses. Indeed, the heartbreaking letter from a gay Orthodox man that Greenberg reprints in the book’s introduction contains more spiritual essence than any of the legal or textual arguments. "I would love to ‘love a woman’ … Whether [homosexuality] is genetic or socially acquired makes no difference to me. I hate it and myself for feeling this way and am beginning to lose the battle." The man writes of failed conversion therapy ("nothing but mental torture"), of depression ("Outside of work, I rarely leave home anymore"), and of despair ("I’m running out of options").
Like the voices in the 2001 film "Trembling Before God" – and Greenberg’s was one of them – this letter, like many others I have seen that resemble it, is filled with the Jewish struggle for Godliness. It also proves that we must be reading the verse wrong. How could a loving God want this? Conversely, "Wrestling with God and Men" contains little in the way of the distinctive contributions gays and lesbians have made and can make to the Jewish people. For a book subtitled "Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition," it is overwhelmingly focused on the negative. Non-Orthodox gay Jewish icons (Tony Kushner, Harvey Milk) are absent, and one is given the impression that gay Jews want little more than mere acceptance. This may be how traditional Jewish readers see the essence of gay Jewish identity, and such readers are Greenberg’s primary audience. Today, though, following the footsteps of non-Jewish writers like Toby Johnston ("Gay Perspective") and Mark Thompson ("Gay Soul"), many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews are not asking to be treated just like everyone else – they are discovering what unique gifts they bring to the Jewish world.
Coincidentally, "Wrestling with God and Men" is being published almost simultaneously with ‘Queer Theory and the Jewish Question’, an anthology of writing on the intersection between queer and Jewish identities.
That anthology observes how the West has long analogized non-heterosexuality and non-Christianity, and how, today, the two identities productively interact – from Barbra Streisand’s cinematic cross-dressing to Proust, Ansky and Dickens. Queer theory and Jewishness are both modes of difference, of resistance to domination; all the more a pity that so few who write on sexuality in the traditional Jewish world seem even to have read "Epistemology of the Closet" or other classics, let alone the new work in "Queer Theory and the Jewish Question."
As for Greenberg, he notes that Judaism loves difference – God is blessed as the One who varies creatures – and that difference is more than pluralism. But his book rarely goes beyond a plea to be accepted. In fairness, acceptance is still so far from reality in most Orthodox circles that Greenberg’s book is both noble and necessary. It is, by far, the most comprehensive treatment of homosexuality within the Jewish legal tradition, and a convincing argument according to halakha (Jewish law). Greenberg did not set out to do more. Yet on the Jewish spiritual path, these legal jots and tittles are mere dances of the One. We know that God wants love because God loves. And when everything is God – the angel as well as his opponent – all the tortured wrestling is seen for what it truly is: a loving embrace of the Knower and the Known.
Jay Michaelson is the director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews (www. nehirim.org) and a contributor to the forthcoming anthology "Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer" (Alyson, 2004).
Second review of book: Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition
Congregations where members drive to shul will have a different response from one whose members are meticulous that those who participate in the synagogue be stringently observant. – S.B. Reexamining Leviticus "Halakhic conversations about homosexuality are not common, but it’s important to get at the fundamental questions," says Rabbi Steven Greenberg (right) about his new book, Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (University of Wisconsin Press). "My aim is to begin exactly that kind of conversation on both the deeper conceptual level as well as on a more pragmatic ritual level."
Greenberg, purportedly the first and only openly gay Orthodox rabbi, has articulated a defense of homosexuality through traditional Jewish sources and reasoning. In the process, he describes his own struggles and sheds light on familiar stories. Reminding us that the sin of Sodom was larger than a specific sexual act, he points out that the rabbis emphasized a variety of degrading behaviors by the residents of Sodom, especially toward guests. Greenberg also rereads the story of Adam and Eve, Jonathan and David and unearths undeniably homoerotic works by Judah Ha-Levi and Moses ibn Ezra, renowned medieval scholars who authored many liturgical poems.
Over the course of the book, Greenberg overturns traditional reading of the famous line in Leviticus 18:22, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination." He feels the prohibition is not specifically about homosexual sex but about the element of violation that, he writes, once upon a time accompanied sex between men and women. He rereads the Levitical prohibition as: "And [either a female or] a male you shall not sexually penetrate to humiliate; it is abhorrent." In Wrestling, Greenberg also opens up a practical discussion of how homosexuality could be integrated into a halakhic life. He points out that the biblical prohibition, even taken at its face value, doesn’t forbid same-sex love, only anal sex between men. He offers the possibility that abstaining from that one act might be a way for two men in love to live within the bounds of Jewish law and argues that a person with bisexual inclinations might be obligated to abstain from homosexual activity. "The tradition has a value for the heterosexual family, and if one has an option, it’s the choice one should make," he says. "There’s a difference between closing off all sexual possibilities and the limiting of one."
Greenberg, 42, grew up in a non-Orthodox family and became observant in his teenage years. He was later ordained at Yeshiva University and attended Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel. Now a teaching fellow at CLAL – The National Center for Learning and Leadership in New York, Greenberg feels his route to Orthodoxy may have made it easier for him to eventually come out. "My background made it easier for me to conceive of a possibility of living an Orthodox life and being gay," he says, "because I didn’t identify Orthodoxy with conforming to a set of parental expectations.
My becoming Orthodox was a kind of countercultural rebellion against stultifying American culture. The process of writing the book began in 1993, when Greenberg wrote an article under a pen name in Tikkun magazine about living in the closet as an Orthodox rabbi. The response convinced him there was a need for someone to bridge the gap between traditional Judaism and gay culture. When Greenberg received a fellowship to study in Israel in 1996, he came out and helped found the Jerusalem Open House, the first gay and lesbian center in the city. He also began the research that would undergird Wrestling.
Early reaction to the book has been mixed. "I have heard from gay people who are thrilled that they have a set of…texts and a way to see homosexuality that allows them to remain committed to tradition," Greenberg says. "From the right, the criticism is there is no such thing as an Orthodox gay rabbi. And some on the left think I’m not harsh and demanding enough to the Orthodox community." – Samantha M. Shapiro Legalizing Gay Unions: The Jewish Debate What does the current debate on same-sex marriage mean for American Jewry? Not surprisingly, the more liberal camps are in favor, and the Orthodox Union "rejects the portrayal of homosexual unions as the equivalent of heterosexual marriage." The Conservative movement, however, is still working to establish a position. Formally, the movement is opposed. "The question is whether the Conservative movement will revise its position," says Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. "Jewish marriage law constitutes one quarter of the Shulkhan Arukh [code of Jewish law].
It’s not a minor matter. It can’t be overturned without formidable halakhic argumentation." In response to requests from its broad constituency, the movement’s Law Committee discussed the issue at length in mid-March and now plans to follow its typical yearlong protocol, says committee member Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the Conservative University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and a widely recognized ethicist who has written at length in support of same-sex marriage. The committee’s voting members, 25 rabbis from the Rabbinical Assembly, submit teshuvot, responsa, in writing. After reviewing them, the committee then issues a public position. Estimates vary, but at least 20 Conservative rabbis have already performed some kind of same-sex commitment ceremony. And their doing so has not affected their membership in the Rabbinical Assembly. "[Theirs] is a very principled position, and I don’t see it at all as a shortcoming of the Conservative movement," says Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.
Whatever the ultimate decision, will it contribute to the movement’s demise, as widely speculated in the media? "When we were ordaining women that was said…and that is not really what happens," says Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. "Probably no matter what we do, people will likely say these stereotypical statements. They turn out not to be factual. We are not concerned that the movement is going to dissolve, split apart or disappear because of this discussion of this issue." What is true, Schorsch says, is if the movement adopts positions without strong halakhic grounds, it becomes "vulnerable to pressure demanding that it adopt other positions on nonhalakhic grounds." Meanwhile, at its annual convention in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, the rabbinical arm of the Reconstructionist movement, unanimously approved a resolution urging "full and equal civil marriage for gay men and lesbians."
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, which bills itself as New York City’s Synagogue for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews, Our Families, and Our Friends, recently launched a campaign asking Jewish clergy to sign a pledge saying they will solemnize weddings without a marriage license. Since 1992, Kleinbaum, a member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), has testified in federal court and before the United States Congress at hearings on the subject of same-sex marriage.
Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is also an outspoken advocate of gay marriage. "The desire that full rights be extended to lesbians and gays reflects the Jewish belief that gays and lesbians are human beings created in the image of God," Ellenson says. "The time has come for that truth to guide our culture and religious Jews should not be hesitant in saying so." – Lisa Alcalay Klug
The Arts and Life: Trembling Before G-d Now out on DVD; film has opened the door to greater understanding toward homosexuals in the Orthodox community.
by Sarah Bronson
It took Sandi "Simcha" DuBowski six full years to find a gay or lesbian Orthodox Jew who would appear in Trembling Before G-d, his documentary on the subject. Not because such people didn’t exist – he knew many personally – but because none were willing to risk their invisibility. Finally, he found six brave souls who were willing to "out" themselves in a feature film, but the rest of the participants asked to hide their identities, fearing the repercussions for themselves and their families were they to be revealed. Last October, almost two years to the day after Trembling premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, DuBowski attended the wedding of two women who grew up Orthodox. The families of both women, including some Orthodox rabbis, were in attendance. DuBowski recalls looking around in amazement at all these people at a lesbian wedding. "I had not touched on the issue of marriage at all in the film," he says.
"It’s not an issue I could deal with; for most Orthodox gays and lesbians I know, marriage is not their issue. I was wondering what the next 20 years will bring. It’s all moving so fast." (For a discussion of gay marriage see below.) True, in the last few years American society in general has become increasingly open to homosexuality, as is evident by the popularity of television shows such as Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and, most recently, The L Word. The film Yossi & Jagger, about a secret gay relationship between two Israeli soldiers, won raves from critics. But to the extent that the status of homosexuals in the Orthodox community is moving at all, the changes, however dramatic or subtle, are due largely to DuBowski’s film. Although several support groups for "Orthogays" – such as Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva and Day School Alumni Association (GLYDSA) and OrthoDykes – preexisted Trembling Before G-d, members of these organizations maintained each other’s anonymity. Countless rabbis have counseled homosexual students and congregants, but always in private.
Trembling has brought the issue of homosexuality and Orthodoxy into the general consciousness. With theatrical releases in 80 North American cities and four airings on the Sundance Channel last June, the film has had an emotional, albeit not a halakhic, ripple effect throughout Orthodox synagogues, families and individuals. Since its release in October 2001, Trembling has also been shown in dozens of synagogues and Jewish community centers, and it was aired on Israeli television in January 2004 (for more information go to www.tremblingbeforeg-d.com). The documentary is 80 minutes long and follows the lives of Malka and Leah, a couple who met at their Bais Yaakov high school; Michelle, who became estranged from her Hasidic family when they discovered her homosexuality; David, who struggles to maintain a relationship with God after spending 12 years trying to become heterosexual; Israel, a man in his fifties who left Orthodoxy completely but yearns for a reunion with his father; and Mark, a British cross-dresser who rejoins his ultra-Orthodox community after contracting HIV. Several other closeted Orthodox homosexuals share their stories from behind screens.
The film has won several prestigious awards and has led to countless formal and informal discussions about homosexuality and religion, including an interfaith Jewish and Mormon dialogue and an open forum in New York cosponsored by eight local Orthodox synagogues. In Israel, DuBowski launched the Petach Lev organization, which has used the film to train 2,000 educators in religious schools to recognize and counsel youngsters with sexual-identity issues. With the release of the Trembling DVD this past fall, the movie promises to continue its thought-provoking and groundbreaking work. The two-disc DVD, which is available through mainstream retailers, contains an additional three hours of material with, among other items, testimonials from both fans and critics of the film; in-depth interviews with six Orthodox rabbis, in which they discuss the halakhic and philosophical implications and possibilities for gays and lesbians in their communities; interviews with the director; and scenes deleted from the original documentary.
Included in the extras is "Trembling on the Road," a 40-minute feature showing footage of post-filming dialogues in synagogues; reactions of rabbis and laypeople after viewing the film; angry criticism from Jews and non-Jews who were protesting outside theaters showing the documentary; and dialogues with Christian laypeople. Among the memorable moments is one with a Hispanic man who had wanted to be a priest when he was a child, but was "outed" to his family by his own priest – after which he severed his ties to the church. Another is a religious, gay Mormon with a wife and two children discussing his decision to get married. Woven into other sections are images of people who appeared in the original documentary explaining how the film changed their lives. Michelle, for example, has lost an enormous amount of weight. She was astonished, she says, by "how much pain was in my eyes." Her family was angry that she participated in the film, but doing so made her feel empowered, she explains, and she hopes they will come to understand her.
Trembling has kept the plight of Orthodox homosexuals one of the hot topics around Shabbat tables for almost three years. "Among my Orthodox friends," says Jake Marmer, a 23-year-old New York resident who edits the Mima’amakim Journal of Artistic Exploration of the Jewish Religious Experience, "this movie was more talked about than the nomination of Senator [Joseph] Lieberman. [It] promoted the subject [of homosexuality]… into the realm of Jewish pop culture." The discussions that accompanied many screenings also create a forum in which rabbis and lay leaders can educate each other about the realities of hidden gays. In an interview included on the DVD, Tanya Zion, project coordinator for Petach Lev, describes a typical occurrence: Two rabbis who teach at the same school were watching the movie together. Afterward, one insisted there were no gay students in the school, whereupon the other disclosed that several had approached him for help. The two had never discussed the subject before.
The film "brings stories into people’s living rooms," Zion says. "It’s impossible to ignore people whose suffering is real." Perhaps the most important change brought about by Trembling is that young Orthodox homosexuals feel less isolated. When Yosef, a New Jersey medical student in his early twenties, started coming to terms with his homosexuality a few years before the film’s release, he found himself circling the block, garnering the courage to enter a gay dance club. "I was looking for information," he explains, "to understand what it meant to be gay." He knew that other Orthodox gay men existed, but didn’t know how to find them. "I’d just found some articles about them, which said that some get married and some leave religion and some kill themselves." JQY cofounder Mordechai Levovitz praises the film for helping him feel less alone. "I felt I had no history or context," he says on the DVD. "I was just the crazy Mordechai Levovitz. I was the one who was different.… And all of a sudden there’s this film coming out, a movie, that people are going to and talk about. And it wasn’t just me anymore. It shows the power of not just living, but living and being accounted for."
The film also succeeded in sensitizing segments of the Orthodox lay population. "This documentary did make me think," says 30-year-old Eric Heine, who lives in New York. "I thought it was going to be a soapbox for the gay community, blasting the Orthodox for…intolerance. But I found…they presented both sides very well." Most homosexuals who publicize their sexual orientation eventually leave Orthodoxy, says Chaim Samuelson (a pseudonym), coordinator of GLYDSA. But, he adds, many Orthogays are truly observant in prayer, kashrut and Shabbat. Trembling highlights, for example, David’s commitment to prayer. Malka and Leah’s home is an Orthodox haven, with fresh-baked hallas and kugels every Shabbat, except that two women light candles at sundown, not one. The film underscores the difference between homosexuality and promiscuity by highlighting couples in committed relationships and includes interviews with men and women in traditional marriages who have never acted on their homosexuality.
But with the prohibitions against homosexual activity written in black and white in the Torah and rabbinic literature, there is little if any room for rabbis to maneuver in addressing its legal aspects. However, recently, Rabbi Steven Greenberg has offered an innovative, though not widely accepted, reinterpretation of the biblical prohibitions in his new book, Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuals in the Jewish Tradition. Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, figures prominently in the film and DVD. Nevertheless, the expectation that Orthodox homosexuals will keep their proclivities and actions secret is prevalent. On the other hand, larger numbers of gays are disclosing their orientations to their families and friends. Limited numbers are taking public actions such as commitment ceremonies. The two men featured on the Trembling poster are a real couple from New Jersey, and they have recently adopted a 2-year-old boy. Isolated gay couples have also turned to adoption agencies, and lesbians to agencies or sperm banks, to become parents.
That kind of public display has corroborated for many their major complaint against Trembling: that the film has a dual agenda – to make homosexuality an acceptable alternative lifestyle in Orthodoxy and to create a rainbow movement within the Orthodox world. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, published an article, "Dissembling Before G-d," in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and other media sources, criticizing the film for cutting short interviews with rabbis and not allowing "Judaism to make its case." DuBowski insists his goal was only to show the Orthodox community that there might be a neighbor, a cousin or a student who is in pain. "This film puts a human face on what for many Orthodox Jews is a very abstract concept," DuBowski said. "For them, [homosexuality] is just a verse in the Torah. I wanted them to see faces of people who struggle with that verse every day." Another common criticism is that too many stories were left on the cutting-room floor: Those of Orthodox Jews who choose to remain celibate and those who seek help to become heterosexual.
Arthur Goldberg, codirector of the reparative-therapy group Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH), says, "the film makes a mockery of change. [DuBowski] talks about snapping a rubber band on your wrist or eating figs or dates or electric-shock therapy – all of which are ludicrous – when the fact is that there is a whole process of change. Thousands of people have in fact changed from gay to straight, not just from JONAH but also through private therapists or other faith-based or secular groups." Although Goldberg and psycho-therapist Adam Jessel, a proponent of reparative therapy, appear briefly in the DVD, DuBowski acknowledges that he deliberately gave the therapy little airtime. "When the [American Medical Association] and the [American Psychiatric Association] say that reparative therapy is not proven and can be damaging to people because it often fails and people sink into depression, I think [its advocates] need a reality check," he says.
"Besides," DuBowski adds, "are these people prepared to marry their daughters to men who claim to have changed? The answer is never yes." However, he points out that the Trembling DVD prominently features several gays and lesbians who have never engaged in homosexual activity. "The movie opens with the story of a man who is married and hasn’t acted on his homosexual desires for 56 years," DuBowski says. "Everyone ignores that story." (A close watching reveals the film does not explicitly mention that these people were able to avoid homosexual affairs.) Although the DVD makes Trembling accessible to mass audiences in the privacy of their homes, DuBowski is still working on the "process of moving the film in the world." Beyond the Petach Lev training, in November 2003 DuBowski helped convene the first Orthodox Mental Health Conference on Homosexuality at the JCC in Manhattan and is organizing a tour of the film in Christian seminaries in the American South.
"The Christian community has many of the same issues as the Jewish one," DuBowski explained. "But it’s safer for them to talk about it in the context of a Jewish film." The central conflict between homosexuality and traditional Orthodoxy has yet to be resolved, if a resolution is possible. For the traditionalist, the words of the Torah, the Talmud, the Shulhan Arukh and Maimonides present an insurmountable obstacle. Regardless of communal or familial support, Orthodox gays and lesbians must still choose between living with intimacy or keeping Jewish law. The painful struggle is embodied in a poem Marmer wrote for a gay friend after seeing the film: takes off his kippah / on the corner of Christopher St. / trembling-before G-d. In The Tradition While Trembling is raising awareness, it is unlikely to change Orthodox understanding of the verses in Leviticus Chapters 18 and 20 prohibiting anal intercourse between men.
Lesbian sexual activity and sexual intimacy between men, even if it doesn’t lead to intercourse, are considered violations of rabbinic law. Orthodox gays and lesbians struggle with a clash of two forces. On the one hand is a religion that ideally affords devotees a sense of community, holiness and purpose. On the other hand is the religious college student who is attracted to members of the same gender. He or she feels compelled not only to violate halakha, but also to give up a future once envisioned as a traditional wife or husband. "Orthodox prohibitions against homosexual activity cannot and will not change," said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. The question, he says, is whether communities will "accord homosexuals acceptance as Jews and human beings – albeit sinners, whether it is beyond their ability to choose [to be homosexual] or not – entitled to a life of dignity within the Orthodox community." The answer to that is complicated by the lack of a single Orthodox decision-making body.
Also, rabbis were dealing with homosexuality long before Trembling was made. The stereotypical response is to instruct a gay congregant to recite psalms in the hope of becoming heterosexual and refuse to call him to the Torah. In reality, when Yosef, a medical student, came out, his Hillel rabbi said, "It doesn’t change my view of you, but I can’t condone nonhalakhic behavior" and then asked Yosef to say a blessing at his son’s brit. Yosef said that the rabbi "still invites me for Shabbat meals…. He treats me like anyone else." Responses vary even from the same rabbi, because "pastoral issues are different from legal issues," explains Michael Broyde, rabbi of the Young Israel of Atlanta and a member of the Beth Din of America.
"Whether someone should stop what they are doing is less complicated than how to get them to do that. Some people…you tell them to hide what they are doing. Some, you tell…to stop. And others you realize cannot stop, because that is who they are. The halakhic conversation is simple, but if you want to have a pastoral conversation you are in more complicated waters." How homosexuals are treated depends on several factors, Broyde says, including the personal style of the rabbi ("some rabbis deter people from sin with honey, others with vinegar"); whether the individual is discreet; if he or she is in a leadership position; and the attitude of the community.
June 4, 2004
Jerusalem gay parade draws thousands, and protests
by Jonathan Lis
Thousands of people attended the third annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem yesterday and two right-wing activists were arrested for throwing eggs at people taking part. Two bodyguards were hired to protect Mayor Uri Lupolianski after warnings that ultra-Orthodox factions were planning to harm him. The parade began at 6:30 P.M. and moved from Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall toward Liberty Bell Park, where it ended with a happening and a party.
Lupolianski was elected last year as the first ultra-Orthodox mayor of the capital. Members of the ultra-Orthodox community were incensed he even allowed the Gay Pride parade to go ahead and held two demonstrations in the last week to protest. Posters went up in the city denouncing the mayor and the parade. Rabbi David Basri, a prominent kabbalist, said homosexuals were "subhuman" and would be reincarnated as rabbits.
But parade organizers also criticized the mayor. Hagai Elad, a gay community leader and director of Open House, which organized the parade, wrote a letter to Lupolianski saying the city tried to withhold approval for the parade. It failed to hang Gay Pride banners along the route as promised, and had not yet paid Open House NIS 125,000, its share to finance the previous parade, he said. Some 150 ultra-Orthodox rabbis held a conference on Judaism in Sabbath Square, in the capital, not far from the route of the Gay Pride parade. The conference was authorized by police and municipality officials. Participants burned wigs imported from India.
June 24, 2004
A gay-friendly (lesbian-run) day care center
Viva Sarah Press
Sitting down for story time at the Rainbow in the Cloud nursery center in Tel Aviv, children can hear stories about Mommy and Daddy, Mommy and Mommy, Daddy and Daddy, and just Mommy or Daddy and me. That’s because for May Argaman, who heads the new center, it is of the utmost importance to promote a liberal learning environment.
"My play school is open to any parent who doesn’t want his child to exist in a box. It’s a gay-friendly, straight-friendly, all-friendly place," said the teacher who recently inaugurated Rainbow in the Cloud. "My place is not critical or judgmental, just accepting." Argaman, 24, who has a warm and bubbly demeanor, worked for two years in a conventional Ramat Hasharon day care center, but left two months ago to open her own. She says she knows of other lesbian and homosexual teachers in the field, but believes she is the first out-of-the-closet lesbian to run a creche.
"I wanted a nursery school with my own messages," said Argaman, who practices the Adler educational principles, which promote respect for the child and mutual admiration based on the assumption of equality. "I wanted a place that honors the child and gives him a lot of warmth and attention. I wanted a place with diversity. "I haven’t seen a day care center that talks about mommy and mommy or daddy and daddy. It’s very natural for me to talk about it. Children who have grown up in such an environment need literature to relate to and need other people who know and go through the same things they are experiencing.
"For the children of straight parents, it’s good for them to know there are other types of parenting and families out there. It will help them when they grow up to be more tolerant toward themselves and society. I’m offering something very liberal and new." Argaman said she has found that other freethinking day care centers at which she has worked or visited inevitably fall short on the gay issue. "On Family Day, for example, I’ve seen teachers, who are trying to be very liberal, put up pictures of one dad, or one mom, a black woman or a man, and maybe one person in a wheelchair. And they believe they’ve covered society-at-large. But they haven’t. We are also in the picture."
This year’s theme of the annual Tel Aviv gay pride parade, taking place on Friday, is "Proud Family." And although Argaman’s center has no official tie to the gay community, major players are promoting her venture as a success of the homosexual and lesbian population. In the last few years, hundreds of children have been born to or adopted by gay and lesbian couples, said Adir Steiner, one of the parade’s coordinators.
"When we say family, we mean every kind of family people are choosing to have. There are many different alternative families. We’re saluting them, saying it’s okay. There’s no one traditional path of family anymore," he said. Organizers from the Association of Homosexuals, Lesbians, and Bisexuals in Israel hope to get out the message that everyone deserves the opportunity to start a family. The theme is dedicated to those still fighting for their rights to start a family, those struggling for spousal recognition in same-sex relationships, and those still battling for equal entitlement. "I’m really happy about this year’s theme. I’m happy to see gay families go about their regular lives. I think society should pay more attention to gay families. The media only focuses on the gay boys in thongs who kiss provocatively and doesn’t show us ‘normal,’ boring people," said Argaman, who notes that she and her life partner Keren, who share a surname, hope to start a family by means of sperm donation.
"I hope people will see we’re normal, we lead regular lives. We just happen to like the same sex." Steiner, who has gay friends with children, said places like Rainbow in the Cloud are necessary. "Other day care centers accept gay families, but there is still a need for a place like this," he said. "We always hear, ‘Why do you need special community centers or nursery schools; why can’t you be like everyone else and use the same frameworks?’ Until we acquire [complete social acceptance], we have to have supporting foundations to allow parents to take their kids to a community center or nursery where they are automatically accepted, so they don’t have to apologize for who they are.
"Some couples need a special support system to deal with their unique problems," said Steiner, who works in the Public Appeals Department at the Tel Aviv Municipality and who has been Mayor Ron Huldai’s adviser on gay issues for the last six years. "The child of gay parents has different needs. He needs to be explained to why he has two mothers or two fathers. Sometimes you need the support of a nursery school that can help. Not all teachers are equipped to do this. I’m sure Rainbow in the Cloud will succeed. It’s a great idea."
Set in two rooms of the rented apartment she shares with Keren, the new center geared to ages one to three is filled with colorful blocks, stuffed dolls, trucks, puzzles, games, books, plastic animals, and drawing tables. "We [gay people] don’t have special toys," she said. It looks like any ordinary child center, with stenciled butterflies and oversized felt animals on the walls, and fuzzy, multi-colored throw-rugs.
The only giveaway that this is a lesbian-run outfit is the small rainbow-colored beanie baby bear perched on one window sill and a rainbow-colored bead bracelet hanging from a doorway. On the outside wall of the apartment, a rainbow flag waves in the wind. "I’m not on a gay mission," Argaman said, explaining why gay paraphernalia does not reign supreme. "The rainbow flag outside my apartment says I’m proud of me and who I am, in spite of those who are not comfortable with my being a lesbian and think I’m unequal. The flag is saying that’s who I am. I’m proud of myself."
Even as Argaman (whose assistant is straight) is happy to offer a safe place for the gay community’s children, she repeatedly stresses the necessity that her day care not be seen as "a ghetto for gay families. I’m not radical, I’m openminded." In fact, so far all interested parents – registration opened last month and a handful of toddlers are signed up for September – are straight. None of the parents were interested in being interviewed for this article. And while Argaman is proud to promote her nursery as a lesbian-run place, the argument that a gay-run day care might stigmatize the child doesn’t hold with her.
"This is a general nursery. By placing children in what one considers a ‘regular’ center, one is putting them in a box, where they are given incomplete views of the general public. It’s not normal to paint a false picture of society and to hide the gay community from them. We are part of society, to exclude us is dishonest. My center is anything but stigmatizing." As for those who claim it will brainwash children into being gay, Argaman laughs. "[One doesn’t become gay] by listening to a story or seeing a gay couple. It is who you are. I am gay because I’m a lesbian not because I heard a mommy-mommy story. It’s like saying if I tell a mommy-daddy story to a gay person, he will turn straight. We all grew up on mommy-daddy stories and we’re still gay. "At my kindergarten I’ll teach regular topics like nature… but mainly I’ll do projects on what interests the children. I will tell standard mommy-daddy stories, but I will also add to that."
July 1, 2004
The fight for gay rights is far from won
by Shahar Ilan
One reason for the absence of many members of the homosexual community from the Gay Pride parade, reported Itay Katz on Friday, was a pervading feeling that most of the community’s greatest social battles have already been won. That is based on a number of victories in the courts and society’s wide acceptance of same-sex couples.
However, a claim filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) in March in the Labor Court, which did not receive much attention, demonstrates just how unfounded that perception of battles won can be. ACRI’s legal adviser, attorney Dan Yakir, says the legal achievements of the gay and lesbian community are only partial. Some were mandated by lower courts and others were won outside the courtroom. Consequently, they are not locked into binding and precedent setting legal standards. "There is a lot of unresolved discrimination and a law needs to be passed." Beyond that, each specific case commits only the organization that is directly concerned. For example, in June 2001, the Tel Aviv Labor Court decided that a same-sex couple was entitled to a survivor’s pension from the Mivtahim insurance fund. However, this was a decision made by a lower court, and consequently does not represent a precedent – it is doubtful if all the other pension funds will consider themselves obliged to follow it.
If, for example, there were at least the feeling that the civil service recognized single-sex partners as the equivalent of a common-law wife or husband, and entitled them to rights equivalent to those of heterosexual partners, it would be one thing. The fact is, there is still a long way to go. As far as the largest social-welfare institution in the country is concerned – that’s the NII (National Insurance Institute) – a homosexual partner cannot be a widow or widower and is not entitled to a survivor’s pension. If the bereaved have no income from such a pension, they will be doomed to living off an old-age pension of 1,300 shekels, just for spending a life with someone of the same sex.
The view of the NII is especially salient in view of the fact that the Civil Service Commission and the Israel Defense Forces have already determined that same-sex partners are entitled to survivor’s rights. Giora Raz, the former general secretary of the Divers Association and manager of the Dolphinarium, lived for 23 years with Yaakov Lisboder, an El Al flight attendant and service manager.
When they first started living together in 1980, the revolution regarding same-sex couples was not even a distant dream. Lisboder was the principal breadwinner. Each of the two had power of attorney over the other’s bank account. When Lisboder died in March 2003 of cancer, he left Raz the apartment and ten thousand dollars for each of Raz’s four grandchildren. Raz, according to the statement of claim, has no income other than his old-age pension – 1,300 shekels.
He quit his last job as the manager of Lilith, a restaurant that employs at-risk youth, in order to care for his ill life-partner. The survivor’s pension – or rather only 50 percent of it, because he already receives an old-age pension – could increase his income by 800 shekels. Last August, Raz submitted a claim for a survivor’s pension in the Holon branch of the NII.
In late September, he received a response from Yehudit Kuzari of the NII that his request had been turned down because he does not meet the criteria for a widower according to the NII law. He appealed to the ACRI and with its help, filed a claim with the Tel Aviv Regional Labor Court. Raz says that he is doing it "mainly for the coming generations."
The first time the High Court of Justice recognized a same-sex couple as a common-law couple was in the Danilowitz decision, handed down in 1994. At that time, the judges determined that a same-sex couple is also entitled to benefit from the arrangement according to which El Al provides the partners of its employees with plane tickets. In the wake of the Danilowitz case, Raz also began receiving tickets from El Al, which he continues to receive to this day.
In other words, to El Al, he is a widower – for the NII, he is not. The NII law defines a widower as "the man who was the partner of the insured woman at the time of her death." In the claim, attorney Yakir maintains that in accordance with the principles of Israeli law, and particularly the right to equality, the term "widower" should be interpreted in the law as referring to same-sex partners as well.
"The removal of Raz from the boundaries of the NII law would cause harsh discrimination against the claimant and the deceased due to their sexual tendency," said Yakir. "This interpretation assigns an inferior value to the warm and loving relationship between the claimant and the deceased that lasted 23 years. It is equivalent to stating that the loving and sharing relationship between the claimant and the deceased is not worthy of recognition, in addition to the humiliation and deep offense committed against the dignity of the claimant."
Yakir notes that the goal of the survivor’s pension is to mitigate the serious economic harm caused to a person of low income by the death of a life partner. He explains that even "someone whose partner was of the same sex could find himself in dire straits and lacking any significant source of income after the death of the partner." The hearing on the claim submitted by Raz has been set for September. The NII was unwilling to comment on the subject before the submission of a statement of defense.
September 16, 2004
Activist launched first Palestinian lesbian group ‘A language no one else is speaking’
by Glenn Kauth
Rauda Morcos is a true radical. She’s a Palestinian lesbian activist who next year plans to protest the Pride parade in Jerusalem. “I’m against the idea of having a celebration at the same time that there’s occupation,” says Morcos, the 30-year-old coordinator of the first Palestinian lesbian group, Aswat. “We have people being killed 20 minutes down the road at the same time as this racist separation wall is being built,” she says, referring to the West Bank towns near Jerusalem that are frequently the site of clashes with the Israeli army and where Israel is building a controversial wall to cut itself off from the West Bank.
Morcos’ discomfort with Israeli Pride festivities is illustrative of the challenges she and other Aswat members face: they’re discriminated against as Palestinians living under Israeli rule, as women in a male-dominated society and as lesbians in an Arab community where there’s no official word for “gay.” “We’re against any type of occupation,” she says. “I don’t want to be occupied as a Palestinian or as a woman or as a lesbian.”
Aswat was formed in 2003 by a group of women who wanted to add a Palestinian lesbian voice to the already thriving Israeli gay movement. The decision to restrict Aswat to women was not a deliberate political act. “We wanted to find a way to break the silence that so many Palestinian lesbians face,” she says. “For this reason, it was important to bring women together in a safe place where they could talk about their own issues. It was natural.”
Today, Aswat has grown to 14 women who regularly meet as a group. They don’t have an office of their own, so they borrow space from organizations throughout Israel and meet in different cities so people from across the country can take part. The group has several members from the West Bank who have to cross several checkpoints to reach the meeting place and who legally aren’t even allowed in Israel. Other women from inside Israel face the challenge of explaining to their families where they’re going when they come to a meeting. In many Palestinian communities, women aren’t allowed out alone at night, let alone to travel to another city.
Morcos gave up her job as a teacher in order to become the full-time coordinator of Aswat. Just this year, the group got funding from three foundations, allowing it to start paying Morcos a salary. Currently, she is on a tour of several North American cities to promote her work and raise funds for Aswat. She’ll be in Toronto on Thu, Sep 30, 2004 for a poetry reading and reception at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. It’s clear that Morcos is overwhelmed by the pace of change she’s faced since becoming part of Aswat. “I know I’m leading this boat,” she says, “and I’m afraid because it’s a huge responsibility. But I also try to remember that I’m not doing this alone.”
She regularly gets stared and pointed at while she walks the streets of her small village in northern Israel, Kufer Yassis. She has also received several harassing phone calls at home. A big challenge is working with Aswat’s so-called allies. Many Israeli gay organizations, for example, are taken aback by Aswat’s strong anti-occupation stance while many Palestinian feminist organizations are afraid to embrace the dyke movement. “We’re still speaking a language no one else is speaking,” says Morcos. Morcos says it was tough at the beginning, with people shutting doors in her face. “But I’m now at a point where I’ve stopped caring,” she says.
“Some doors will shut, but then other ones will open. You just have to remind yourself that it’s all worth it because you’re doing something for women.”
September 9, 2004
Israel’s First Gay MP Marries In Canada
by Jan Prout 365Gay.com Newscenter Toronto Bureau (Toronto, Ontario)
Uzi Even, the first openly gay man elected to the Knesset, has married his longtime partner in Toronto. Even, who served one term in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 2002, wed Amit Kama in a brief ceremony at Toronto City Hall Friday afternoon. Same-sex marriage is legal in Ontario, two other Canadian provinces, and the Yukon territory. Though they’ve been a couple for 18 years, they had never discussed marriage because it appeared to be impossible, Even said. Both men are university professors in Tel Aviv, and have an adopted son.
Even, a former Israeli military intelligence colonel spent 20 years working as a scientist on Israel’s secret nuclear bomb until he was discovered to be living with a male lover. He was then expelled from the military and began a legal battle that ended in a victory that saw the ban on gays in the armed services abolished. He then mounted a battle with Tel Aviv University to win pension benefits for Kama, securing the country’s first recognition of same-sex relationships. In 2002 he ran for the Knesset as a member of the left of center Meretz Party and won. After one term he returned to the classroom, but his activism is far from over. "My plan is to use my name and past record to start a debate in the media and in government – and it will probably continue in the courts – for legal recognition of our marriage," Even, 63, told the Toronto Star newspaper.
November 22, 2004
Israeli court OKs partner inheritance
Israeli gays and lesbians will automatically inherit a deceased partner’s estate unless it was willed to someone else, following a groundbreaking Nov. 13 ruling by the Nazareth District Court, the Jerusalem Post reported. The suit was brought by "I.M." who sought ownership of the house he shared with his late partner for 40 years. The government had rejected his claim, arguing that the 1965 Inheritance Law applied only to common-law opposite-sex couples. Activists said they believe the ruling may lead to other decisions granting same-sex couples ordinary matrimonial rights.
December 30, 2004
Court: No deportation for gay foreign partner
by Relly Sa’ar
The Tel Aviv District Court issued a ruling on Wednesday forbidding the state to deport a Colombian national who is in a relationship with an Israeli citizen, a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, though the Colombian’s visa has long expired. The 32-year-old Colombian is seeking permanent residency in Israel, but the Interior Ministry had decided to deport him until a final decision is reached regarding his status.
The ministry’s decision was overridden on Wednesday in a ruling by Judge Uzi Vogelman. A 1999 High Court ruling established that the ministry could not deport foreign nationals married to Israeli citizens. Wednesday’s ruling extends this and applies it to common-law marriages, including same-sex couples. The new court decision will lead to fundamental changes in the policy of the Interior Ministry. The couple’s petition was submitted by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The decision does not mention that the couple in question is a same-sex couple, but rather relates to the right of any Israeli and foreigner to live together in a common-law marriage relationship, without the state’s intervention.