French Jews Square Off in Gay Marriage Debate

Play Key Roles on Both Sides as Issue Roils Society

Cultural Divide: With France split on legalizing gay marriage, Jews are playing key roles on both sides of the debate.
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Cultural Divide: With France split on legalizing gay marriage, Jews are playing key roles on both sides of the debate.

By JTA

Published February 05, 2013.
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Wide-eyed and smiley, Elay-Gabriel seems utterly unaffected by the French media’s sudden interest in him.

A dozen French journalists have visited the 18-month-old in recent months because he is trapped in a sort of legal limbo: He cannot obtain citizenship because the state does not recognize children born to surrogates abroad as French, even if one of their biological parents is a French national.

Complicating matters is the fact that Elay-Gabriel is being raised by two gay Parisians – Israeli-born Eran and his partner, Jean-Louis. (The family asked that their last name not be published.) Gay couples cannot adopt in France, meaning that surrogacy – and the citizenship uncertainties which follow – are inevitable for gays wishing to raise children.

“We learned singles practically can’t adopt, and gays are all singles in France because we can’t marry,” Eran said.

Much of that could change if President Francois Hollande succeeds in his effort to push legislation through parliament that would allow same-sex marriage in France, a move that has set off a fiery public debate in which Jews have played an outsized role.

In October, Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, breaking with the French rabbinate’s traditional neutrality on issues of civil legislation, penned an essay on the negative effects of gay marriage. Bernheim argued that legalization efforts are made for “the exclusive profit of a tiny minority” and are part of a wider move to “undermine the heterosexual fundamentals of our society.”

France’s association of Jewish homosexuals, Beit Haverim, condemned Bernheim’s language as “bellicose.” But the document has been quoted at length in influential French dailies and was cited approvingly by Pope Benedict, who called it “profoundly moving” during his Christmas address to Vatican officials.

Bernheim’s essay was a notable contrast to the inflammatory reaction of France’s Catholic clergy. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, said in an interview that the law would bring about “social collapse,” adding, “Next they’ll want to have foursomes. Then they’ll legalize incest.”

“When the Catholics spoke against this law, nobody listened because of the vehemence and because they’re Pavlovian opponents of change,” Yeshaya Dalsace, a well-known Conservative rabbi from Paris, told JTA. “People listened to Bernheim because the Jews are known as progressive forces of change in law, medicine, labor – you name it.”

For many, the debate is largely a nominal question of principle, as legal workarounds afford French gays de facto equality in most areas. Parenting, however, is an exception.

In November, Eran met with several French Socialist lawmakers leading the gay marriage effort. On Jan. 29, French media reported that Justice Minister Christiane Taubira ordered authorities to naturalize the dozens of surrogate children like Elay-Gabriel who are living as foreigners in France.

“This is positive, but a directive could be canceled and cannot replace legislation,” Eran said.

Preliminary deliberations on the “marriage for all” bill began in parliament on Jan. 28. With Hollande’s Socialist Party holding a majority in both houses, the law is likely to pass.

Still, the debate has ignited passions. Only a bare majority – 52 percent – supports the law, according to a poll of 1,002 adults published Jan. 13 by the newsweekly Le Point. The first discussion in parliament was preceded by a demonstration in Paris by some 340,000 opponents of the legislation. Another 120,000 demonstrated in favor.

The divide is similarly evident within France’s Jewish community.

Joel Mergui, president of the French Consistoire, a state-recognized body responsible for synagogues and religious Jewish services, spoke out against gay marriage in September, telling Le Monde, “It would change the natural model of the family.”

Dalsace has emerged as something of a spokesman for the other side, penning a 37-page essay and several Op-Eds disputing Bernheim’s reasoning and asserting that the law does not infringe on religious liberties. But while he is routinely quoted by supporters of gay marriage, Dalsace maintains that rabbis should not get involved in debating civil law. His objective in speaking out, Dalsace told JTA, is “to fight the false impression that Bernheim speaks for all Jews.”

While no data exist on where French Jews stand on the gay marriage question, experts say the Jewish community of 550,000 – the world’s third-largest – is gradually becoming more traditional and inclined to oppose Hollande’s law.

“The affiliated Jewish community of France is becoming more and more religious and traditional, and that is part of the influence of the large North African contingent which arrived here in the 1950s and ’60s,” said Gideon Kouts, head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Culture at Paris 8 University.

Whether or not religious opposition to the law is sufficient to prevent its passage is an open question, but it’s certainly not going to deter the French president. In an article in Le Figaro last month about an “informal talk” he had with a group of clergymen that included Bernheim, Hollande made clear that he planned to stand his ground.

“We don’t make laws based on demonstrations,” Hollande said. “[Because] if we did, we’d be letting the street decide.”


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