Here is how it happens. First, demagogues use incendiary rhetoric to inflame passions against a group or individual. Next, a “lone gunman” attacks the target(s) of that rhetoric. Then, the same demagogues who fanned the flames in the first place condemn the attack, express shock — shock! — that such a thing could ever have happened.
Most recently, of course, this pattern has unfolded in connection with the August 1 attack on a gay youth group in Tel Aviv. Leaders of the Shas party — who had denounced gay people for “carrying out the self-destruction of Israeli society and the Jewish people” (Knesset member Nissim Ze’ev), called them “toxic as bird flu” (same) and accused them of, get this, causing earthquakes (former health minister Shlomo Benizri) — are now bending over backwards to express how shocked they are that someone might take their words so seriously.
But we’ve been through this before, haven’t we? Ultra-conservative talk show hosts rail against an evil federal government, and then express shock that Timothy McVeigh would attack a federal building. Far-rightist Israelis denounce Yitzhak Rabin as a traitor who must be stopped, and then the leaders who whipped up their frenzy shed crocodile tears when someone “stops” him. It’s déjà vu all over again.
Now, there is one thing different about the Tel Aviv attack: We still don’t know who did it. The attacker may well have been from the Haredi community, like the man I watched stab three participants in the 2005 Jerusalem Pride Parade. But according to my gay friends in Israel, the word on the street is that it had to be someone who knew of this group, or may have even been part of it himself of herself — after all, it was in a relatively anonymous apartment house basement. Perhaps we’ll soon learn the truth.
But in terms of what we should all learn from this attack, and do as a response to it, the identity of the attacker really doesn’t matter. Whether the attacker was a Shas-nik or a self-hating gay teenager, the fact is that homophobic rhetoric leads to homophobic violence.
Indeed, most perpetrators of homophobic violence are also the victims of it. According to the Israeli Welfare and Social Services Ministry, one-third of teenage suicides in Israel are kids questioning their sexuality. American statistics are similar. Self-hatred is a dangerous thing — I know, having experienced it myself for over a decade, and having pondered ending my life on a weekly, if not daily, basis. The worst perpetrators of anti-gay violence prey on themselves.
So what should we do, apart from writing checks to Israeli gay youth organizations? Well, here are three suggestions:
First, understand that anti-gay statements and actions do cause violence. Of course, this includes the outrageous statements that issue forth from some of our religious leaders and which should not be excused by post-hoc expressions of surprise. But it also includes little things, like a kid saying “that’s so gay” when he means “that’s stupid.” It includes a rabbi who winks at Shabbat violation or treyf food but equivocates about whether “homosexuality” is acceptable to God. Such messages are subtle, but they send an unmistakable message to children and bigots alike.
Second, let’s not use morality or the Bible to excuse ignorance or fear. If you personally are still unsure about whether it’s okay to be gay, that’s fine — I understand that all this is new for a lot of people. But let’s leave the religious judgment up to God. In the meantime, here on Earth, there are millions of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered and feel, as I do, that their sexual/gender identity is part of their neshamah. So learn more about sexual diversity, and about the lives of gay people. Ask your gay friends and relatives about their experiences. At the very least, a curious agnosticism is justified (there are many ways to understand a couple of biblical verses), but I think you’ll find that you’ll come to a fuller understanding of the value of sexual diversity.
Finally, let’s understand that the closet itself is part of the problem. It was heartbreaking to read that family members of one victim insisted that she was “just passing by” the meeting and “only there by chance.” It was even sadder to learn that some family members of the injured have refused to visit their own children in the hospital. Can you believe it? Believe it. Now imagine what it’s like to be that child.
That’s the power of the closet. And that, alas, is why gay youth support groups remain necessary, even in 2009, and even in a comparatively tolerant country like Israel. Despite all the gains, there is still the stigma, and if I’ve learned anything in the years I’ve spent as an LGBT religious activist, it’s that, for some people, it’s always square one. So if you care about what happened in Tel Aviv, send clear, proactive messages at home that love is what matters, not the gender of your beloved.
I appreciate that Shas politicians are now backpedaling on some of their more offensive statements, and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unequivocal in his condemnation of the attack. But that does not excuse the atmosphere of hatred (including self-hatred) that those same Shas politicians, and many of our rabbis, have helped create. Let me be clear: They, and all of us, are responsible. There are no “wild weeds,” as The Jerusalem Post labeled the gunman. Weeds grow in gardens, which ought not be neglected. There is plenty of work to do.
Jay Michaelson is the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture and Spirituality. He writes The Polymath column for the Forward’s Arts & Culture section.