Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Country: Two Different Peoples

As I have mentioned from time to time, I spend a lot of my time trawling the internet, reading various columns and blogs. Recently I have discovered a lovely pro-Israel blog by a non-Jewish Englishman. The blog's name is Oy Va Goy, a clever play on the Yiddish phrase, "Oy va Voy" and a nod at the author's non-Jewish background. (At least, that's how I've understood it.) I highly suggest you bookmark this page; it's often one of the first to respond to Israel-related news and I find the writing thoughtful and provocative.

Recently, I read an article on this blog about the writer's take on gay pride parades in Israel . I don't want to write too much about the article itself, but I will say that I was impressed by the sensitivity and basic sensibility on view; something I feel that too many people sorely lack. The article's conclusion is that the gay community should "go and be proud" away from highly orthodox people - it's antagonistic and unnecessary.

The conclusion that a gay pride parade should not be held in Jerusalem is something I agree with - Jerusalem is Judaism's capital city and people flaunting themselves as actively doing something that is proscribed according Jewish law is intolerant and unnecessary. I have two problems though. Firstly, these (reasonable and logical)observations come from someone who is not Israeli and secondly, Israel's ultra-religious and ultra-secular contingents are highly ignorant and intolerant of one another. Sensible as they are, I fear that the writer's words will most likely not bring a solution or effect any change.

As I see it, Israel is a country struggling with a massive identity problem. Is it a modern country that embodies the principles of liberality, freedom and democracy or is Israel a state borne of Jewish values? The issue of gay pride is just one of many burning issues in Israeli society, but I think that it serves as a perfect example of the many positives and the many negatives in Israel today.

As an orthodox Jew, I have learned what the bible has to say about homosexuality, but I also know that it doesn't require believers to beat up homosexuals. Neither does the bible ban people from having homosexual feelings; that would be utterly impossible. The Torah does explicitly ban one aspect of gay relationships, but it doesn't require gay people to suppress their personality or emotions either.

I once heard someone tell me that there is a village somewhere in Israel where gay Haredi people live. I doubt that such a thing is true, but the concept sounded interesting to me. Throughout my schooling, I learned nothing about homosexuality from a Jewish perspective other that it was banned by the Torah. The concept that people could live simultaneously with Jewish and gay identities was something that I hadn't heard of before. Thinking about it more though, I see no reason for the two to clash - sexual orientation doesn't actually get in the way of being a practicing religious orthodox Jew.

Regrettably, many Haredim don't have such an enlightened attitude towards other lifestyles. I remember hearing a few years ago how the Haredi community of Me'ah She'arim reacted a to a similar gay parade being held in Jerusalem by rioting furiously in protest. People burned rubbish in the streets and tore down the traffic lights in their own neighbourhood to protest the offending parade - a ridiculous reaction in my opinion.

What concerns me most is that if this is the way Haredi people react to a gay pride parade, how does this bode for closet gays in their own community? What of the people who struggle with this dual identity and feel that they can never disclose their feelings for fear of ridicule and rejection? If there is one thing that I have learned about orthodox Judaism, it is that nobody is better or worse than anybody else. Despite this being a basic value, I find that it is often overlooked; too often religious Jews mock each other by using words like "Homo" and "Goy." It isn't acceptable to use homosexuality as a slur, even if is something that defies your own religious beliefs.

A few years ago while I was studying in Yeshiva in Jerusalem, my Rabbi held a group discussion at the end of one class. He wanted us students to think seriously about the controversy of the gay parade and how we should act. The Rabbi asked us whether we thought we should go out and demonstrate with the Haredim against the parade, but the class agreed that this would not be constructive or helpful. I remember clearly that we didn't take any action and let the event pass without getting ourselves involved, but I can't recall what the exact conclusion of the discussion was. One thing that I won't forget is that my Rabbi made a point that I find pertinent - what people do in the privacy of the bedroom is their own business and has nothing to do with us, but when people flaunt their activity in a provocative and tasteless manner then we have the right to be upset and protest.

I feel that a sensible attitude like this would go a long way in a country like Israel where everybody feels like he has a point to prove. Those who are liberally inclined are determined to fight for the justice of every cause, seeking equality for Arabs, for women for non-orthodox Jews and for homosexuals. Unfortunately, the more liberal in Israel sometimes push too hard and only succeed in infuriating and alienating others and here we have a case in point - there's simply no need to demonstrate one's sexual orientation in such an outrageous manner. I don't quite understand the mentality of people who feel the need to do such a thing, after all if heterosexual people don't need to go about parading and promoting themselves, why should the gay community? If the parade is to raise awareness and help bring about a greater level of acceptance then surely promoting gay culture in a more sober and tasteful fashion would be lead to increased acknowledgment by the religious establishment?

Which brings us to the Haredi community, who feel that their values, hundreds of years old, are being marginalised and subjected to mockery. The Haredi element of Israeli society is perceived as becoming increasingly extremist in reaction to safeguard themselves from the rest of Israeli society. Rioting against the gay pride parade is merely one example; now it is not unheard of to hear of women being verbally and/or physically assaulted for unwittingly taking a seat in the male section of a (de-facto) gender segregated bus. Similarly, women have been beaten up and had rocks thrown at them because their dress sense is deemed immodest by Hardei vigilantes. As an orthodox Jew, I understand precisely why the Hared community feels so strongly about violations of Jewish law (and in Jerusalem, too), but I cannot condone such actions.

Whereas the article's verdict is that a gay pride parade would be better held away from the Haredi community, I begin to wonder whether a gay parade should be held in Jerusalem so that those living a Haredi lifestyle will be exposed to homosexual culture. The different sectors of Israel society need to live together more cohesively, and a basic level of respect must be bred.

Ultimately, I agree with article's conclusion and reject the idea that a gay pride parade should be held in Jerusalem, even if the point being made is absolutely valid, it's about as necessary and sensible as a Jewish pride parade through downtown Tehran.

1 comment:

  1. Go and see "Trembling Before G-d"