In Jerusalem, Fundamentalism on the March

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 17, 2006, issue of November 17, 2006.
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‘Good morning, Iran/the loudspeaker calls/How we feared/that this day would come.” So sang Israeli pop star Aviv Geffen eight years ago, reacting to the growing strength of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel, and fearing that, demographics being what they are, things would only get worse.

Well, they have. Today, Jewish moderates in Israel and America may be heaving sighs of relief that the threats of violence surrounding the planned Jerusalem Pride parade were averted by a last-minute “compromise” that rendered the former parade more like a high school pep rally, carefully contained in the Hebrew University athletic arena. But when the bigots of Jerusalem come for you, my moderate friends, don’t say you weren’t warned.

For a variety of reasons, gays and lesbians are at the front lines in today’s culture wars between fundamentalism and liberalism, both in Israel and in the United States. But this debate is not really about homosexuality, or the specialness of Jerusalem, or the sensitivities of a religious community. Nor is it even about freedom of expression. Rather, it is about the fate of Israeli democracy, and how its fundamentalist right wing is slowly gaining power. Liberals — by which I mean not political liberals but anyone who believes in democracy, equality and freedom — should stand up and pay attention. So should any friend of Israel.

Jeremiads about Israeli society are commonplace, but no one can deny that the world of Yehuda Amichai and Amos Oz, Dana International and David Broza, is rapidly shrinking. Its last few denizens in Jerusalem are fleeing in droves for Tel Aviv, encouraged by the policies of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox mayor Uri Lupolianski, who last year compared gay people to animals and who has starved once-proud cultural institutions. But soon they will have nowhere to go, as the mostly Ashkenazic elite that has supported Israel’s liberal society finds itself, together with the mainstream traditional and religious-Zionist communities, sandwiched between rapidly growing Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations.

No one is demanding that Jewish fundamentalists change their beliefs, or their selectively literalistic reading of scripture. But when they tell me that I have no place in Jerusalem, that I am an animal — and when they wield the political power to make those views the law of the land — there my tolerance ends.

Tolerance is a funny word. Gay Jews are asked to be “tolerant” of bigoted ultra-Orthodox rabbis, because they are great spiritual leaders and supposedly have the weight of scripture behind him. But tolerance doesn’t work when it’s practiced by one side and not the other. Who won this latest battle? The peaceful, tolerant liberals, cheering each other up in a disused athletic facility? (I used to run laps there; the place is a little ghost-town, miles from downtown.) Or the ignorant, violent hooligans, who rioted in the streets of Jerusalem for days, egged on by preachers of hate, and quietly “tolerated” by rabbis who had the power to stop them? This was gang violence, and the threat of terrorism. And the terrorists won.

I have nothing but admiration for the leaders of Israel’s gay liberation movement. They are decent people who somehow maintain their composure in the face of outrageously offensive discourse. But we in America should not be so calm, because democratic Israel is in jeopardy. Remember, Iran, before the revolution, was also a cosmopolitan, lively culture. Moreover, ultra-Orthodox notions of collective responsibility make conventional Western notions of pluralism impossible — you can’t ask a community to “live and let live” when it believes that all Israel will be punished for the sins of some.

We shouldn’t turn the other cheek to fundamentalists; we should fight back. The first step is simply stopping the many ways in which the Israeli state perpetuates ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, such as allowing ultra-Orthodox youth to avoid army service, funding ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and subsidizing “Torah scholars” to avoid working for a living. American friends of Israel should band together to demand the immediate removal of these incentives. Just as we rightly condemn Palestinian schools for preaching the destruction of Israel, so we should condemn — or at least not financially support! — schools that deny its democratic legitimacy.

The second step is recognizing Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy for what it is: a threat to liberal society. Of course, there are plenty of intelligent, principled, ultra-Orthodox Jews in America and in Israel. But the ultra-Orthodox system is a danger to Israel as we know it, and it must be combated. Democratic values should be taught in every school in Israel. Non-governmental agencies should make it easier for people to escape the clutches of that system and start new lives as religious or secular Israelis, should they choose to do so. (Today, former ultra-Orthodox Jews are among Israel’s leading artists and writers, but their journeys were virtually unaided.) And the ultra-Orthodox control over family institutions (marriage, divorce, cemeteries, etc.) must be ended as a matter of principle.

None of these steps are coercive or aggressive. None tries to change anyone’s mind. They simply remove support for a system intrinsically opposed to a free and open society.

Right now, they’re only coming for me. But don’t worry, eventually they’ll come for you also. After all, I’ve heard prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis compare women wearing tefillin to animals, too. And Arabs, and Reform Jews. Who’s next?

Last year, when I marched in the Jerusalem Pride Parade, I saw what can happen when the incitement of a few evil “rabbis” goes unchecked, even if a silent majority of the religious public disagrees with them. I was only a few meters behind the three marchers who got stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox extremist. I saw the blood, and I knew it could have been me.

Ironically, the man most seriously injured in that attack was a straight man, a father. He marched with us, because he saw that we were marching for him as well. We were marching for equality, and for a vision of Israel that embraces difference, makes room for freedom and prizes liberty.

Jay Michaelson is director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews.

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