Let’s be honest: It’s not like I was going to vote for Carl Paladino in the first place. If there were some kind of reverse political dictionary, and I was in it, Carl Paladino would be listed as my particularly aggressive antonym. That was before he decided to publicly demonstrate his homophobia, while bringing the Jewish community into it. Unfortunately, it’s not as though we weren’t in it to begin with. This is everyone’s problem, whether or not we consider ourselves to be queer positive folks, but particularly if we do.
Even if you were never planning on voting for Paladino, even if you were disgusted beyond any reasonable definition of the word at his remarks to the congregation in Brooklyn, it’s still vital to understand that homophobia is not an oppression that stands alone; it’s a particularly insidious outgrowth of sexism, and even in its most progressive corners, the Jewish community is guilty of perpetuating both.
Sometimes it’s easy to recognize sexism in the Jewish world: all male boards of synagogues and other organizations, no female rabbis on certain bimahs, no child care available for events. Other times, though, it’s harder to see: Young women and men held to separate standards of modesty. Regardless of denominational affiliation, marriage to someone of the opposite sex is expected of both men and women, sooner rather than later, and in those marriages, gender roles are often hard and fast: women hold babies; men are the public figures. Of course, there are exceptions, and there is progress. But to understand how sexism and misogyny work is to understand that at the root is a particular fear of women.
The gender binary is everywhere in Jewish life, it’s how the show has been run for thousands of years. Jewish women are socialized around the importance of building a Jewish home, Jewish men around a certain kind of religious and institutional power. The organized Jewish community plays into this structure as well; it’s everywhere from summer camp and Birthright Israel as breeding grounds for Jewish babies, to whose simchas we celebrate (two women? Is that a “real” Jewish marriage?).
Women and men behave and dress in different ways. They have separate roles in halacha and in daily Jewish life. What happens when we transgress rigid expectations of gender, when gender behavior is fluid, when anyone can be anyone? Fear, and with that, hate.
I worry that we don’t see this connection for what it is — stark, dangerous and omnipresent. Do we think Paladino’s comments have nothing to do with us, if we weren’t going to vote for him and we weren’t in that room with him, literally or theoretically, in Brooklyn? If as a community, we were willing to face up to our realities, it would be a safer place, a more Jewish place, for everyone.