LGBTQ in Israel: When Tel Aviv Meets the Rabbinate

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Whenever I teach about the story of Israel and I am asked to discuss the “tough issues,” the “provocative questions” or the really “juicy topics,” I start off in the same way — the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is peanuts compared to the navigation of what it means for Israel to be both a Jewish and democratic state. (Slight exaggeration there.)

On June 2, 2000, United States President Bill Clinton declared that the month of June should be “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month” in commemoration of the June 1969 Stonewall riots. Since then, dozens of countries and cities across the globe have observed the month of June as LGBTQ Pride month.

So, before June disappears, we wanted to unpack the topic of LGTBQ and Israel. 

Where does Israel fit in and how should Israel fit in? 

Described as the “Founding father of Israeli constitutional law,” Amnon Rubinstein is just the person to frame the discussion. Rubinstein is a former member of Knesset. He spent 25 years in the political arena before winning the prestigious Israel Prize for law in 2006. He is now the chairman of the board of directors of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, more popularly known as IDC. 

In a 2010 article published in Azure, Rubinstein artfully investigates the tension between Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Contained in these 15 pages are descriptions of various challenges, from national symbols to questions of the calendar, to the integration of non-Jews — a particularly large minority of Arabs in Israel. All of this, he points out is solvable. Yet, he says, “The final, and perhaps most compelling, claim against Israel’s definition as a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state concerns the problem of religion.” 

In many respects, Israel is “extremely liberal, boasting progressive legislation on such issues as gay rights, support for single-parent families and abortion,” Rubinstein argues. But here is where things get interesting: without an official state religion (fun fact – there isn’t one), Israel has inherited the old Ottoman millet system, in which the religious courts govern family law, marriage and divorce questions. Christian, Muslim and Druze courts all govern their communities in these areas. From Rubinstein’s understanding, this can work quite neatly because the other religions are more “homogenous” in religious practice. But with Jews? Not so much. He explains that for the “Jewish population, there is a large secular segment that, in the absence of civil marriages, is forced to marry in accordance with Orthodox law.” As such, many secular folks go abroad to hold a civil wedding. And, it is here where the values of being “Jewish” and “democratic” collide. What yields? 

Rubinstein concludes:

“Israel was founded as a Jewish and democratic state, and Jewish and democratic it must remain. Rather, we must wrest the term ‘Jewish’ from its exclusive religious definition and interpret it in a more inclusive, cultural sense.”

  • Is Israel a perfect democracy? No, but all democracies are flawed.
  • Should Israel be compared to other democratic states? Yes, if those countries deal with war and violence frequently. No, if those countries live exclusively in peace and security. 
  • Do you agree with Rubinstein’s conclusion? If so, why yes? If not, why not?

Led by my colleagues Sara Himeles and Avi Posen, you will find what I believe is as responsible and critical a read on the questions surrounding what it means to be gay in Israel, how Israelis engage in this question and how we might all discuss this with one another, with respect, with dignity, with integrity and with empathy. 

I always love hearing from you, so please send me your thoughts, feedback, questions or suggestions.

Best,

Noam

What Happened?

LGBTQ rights activists in Israel are marking a milestone of a record number of openly gay lawmakers currently serving in the Knesset. With the appointment of Blue and White party member Yorai Lahav-Hertzano last week, the Knesset now has six openly gay MKs, representing 5 percent of parliament, the fourth-highest percentage in the world, behind only Britain, Liechtenstein and the Scottish parliament. Pledging to fight for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ surrogacy rights, 31-year-old Lahav-Hertzano said, “I’m gay and I’m proud of being gay, and I’m very proud to be a gay lawmaker in Israel.” This comes as Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai announced that same-sex couples will now be allowed to register as married and enjoy marital rights, in a challenge to the national government. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Municipality removed an LGBTQ pride banner from a US Embassy building, with Deputy Mayor Arieh King stating, “Anybody that tries to defile the holiness of Jerusalem needs to be opposed.” Though annual Pride Parades in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities were canceled due to coronavirus, thousands of Israelis still attended rallies for LGBTQ rights across the country, and police arrested 27 far-right activists in advance over concerns that they might disrupt the event. The City of Tel Aviv also announcedHabib Albi” (Arabic for “Love of My Heart”) by Static and Ben El Tavori with Nasreen Kadri as its official Pride song for 2020. The song, including the backgrounds of its three performers, highlight the diversity of Tel Aviv and its LGBTQ community. Static was adopted abroad by an Israeli couple and raised Jewish, Ben El is of Mizrahi descent and Qadri is an Israeli Arab who was raised Muslim and converted to Judaism. The three performers are surrounded by diverse members of the Tel Aviv LGBTQ community in the video. Their upbeat anthem combines Hebrew, English and Arabic, and implores listeners: “Say you love me like we do in Tel Aviv.”

Why Does This Matter?

What is pinkwashing?

In the context of LGBTQ rights, pinkwashing describes a political strategy of promoting gay-friendliness in order to appear progressive and tolerant. This criticism is leveled against Israelis in two very different ways. The first is when Israelis accuse their own politicians of spending billions of shekels to promote Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade, at the same time that they do not invest equal resources to advance the rights of LGBTQ Israelis. The second category of pinkwashing comes from outside of Israel, especially supporters of the BDS movement, and is used as a weapon against Israelis and the Jewish state. This is the accusation that Israel hosts Pride parades and promotes gay rights and culture only in order to distract from what some refer to as the occupation of the Palestinian people. Ido Aharoni, former Israeli consul general in New York City, rejects this: “We are not trying to hide the conflict but broaden the conversation,” he says. “We want to create a sense of relevance with other communities.” And Linda Dayan, an LGBTQ Israeli agrees, stating that “anti-pinkwashing ‘progressives’ don’t see LGBTQ Israelis as real people, only pawns.”

What is the legal status of same-sex marriage in Israel?

Same-sex marriages are not performed in Israel, leading many gay couples who want to get married to do so outside of the country. This is because there is no system of civil marriage in Israel. In a practice dating back to Ottoman times, all matters concerning marriage and divorce in Israel are handled by religious courts. Jewish couples must marry through the Chief Rabbinate, which refuses to perform same-sex or interfaith marriages, while Christians, Druze, and Muslims must marry through their own state-sanctioned religious institutions within Israel. Israel does, however, recognize same-sex marriages performed outside of Israel: “There is a trend of marrying abroad and then coming back to Israel to be recognized,” Hebrew University professor of family law Ram Rivlin explained. In terms of legal protections against the discrimination of members of the LGBTQ community, Israel outlawed employment discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in 1992, and inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Israeli military has been formally accepted since 1993.

Tel Aviv: Israel’s Hub for LGBTQ Culture and Pride

At the same time that same-sex couples are unable to marry in Israel, Tel Aviv is known to be one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the world. The city holds one of the world’s largest annual Pride parades, which typically takes place over a full week and has attracted as many as 250,000 people in recent years. Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai has emphasized that the Pride parade has national and international significance, beyond being just a celebration: “Tel Aviv…will continue to be a light-house city, spreading the values of freedom, tolerance and democracy to the world.” In a region like the Middle East, Tel Aviv stands out as a rare symbol of acceptance and coexistence and its LGBTQ-friendly culture extends to Israeli film and television as well. Recent successful Israeli films with LGBTQ themes include “Montana” (2017) and “Yossi and Jagger” (2002) and television shows such as “Transkids” (2019). So, while state-sponsored religious authorities employ a more traditional standard to questions of marriage, and while religious Israelis are generally conservative in their attitudes on LGBTQ issues, the city of Tel Aviv and much of Israeli culture offer a progressive alternative.

Diversity of Perspectives

Despite recent surveys showing that most Israelis are in favor of same-sex marriage, Israeli politicians and leaders who agree have not yet been able to convert that support into legislation. Former Yesh Atid party MK Aliza Lavie, who proposed a bill that would have instituted civil marriage (including gay marriage) in Israel, told the Times of Israel, “We have to allow a civil alternative for all of the couples [who] prefer not to go through the rabbinate.” Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, who participated in Jerusalem’s Pride march last year, also supports civil marriage, as well as allowing gay couples to use a surrogate in order to have a child: “We don’t tell anyone what to do or how to live,” he told Israel’s Channel 12 news. Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (“Be Free Israel”), which promotes religious pluralism in Israel, has also been outspoken in support of gay marriage in Israel, telling Ynetnews, “There is no other option besides the immediate legislation of a civil marriage law.” Shmuel Shattach, director of the “open and self-critical” religious Zionist group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, agrees. He told the Times of Israel, “It is time for Israeli politicians, including the religious ones, to finally begin reflecting the sentiments of many within Israeli society.”

On the other side of the cultural and religious divide, there are a range of views in the Orthodox community on homosexuality. On one extreme, during last year’s Pride parade in Jerusalem, some residents of the Old City of Jerusalem, quoted in Arutz Sheva, referred to LGBTQ flags hanging in the city’s streets as “abomination flags.” They were upset that significant money was spent on the LGBTQ community, “which hurts Judaism’s basic principles and takes pride in committing some of the worst sins in the Torah.” Similarly, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Aryeh Stern, wrote to Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon to ask that he not allow the gay pride flags to wave throughout the city. He wrote, “I know from the point of view of the law, the mayor has no ability to prevent the parade, and therefore I ask you to at least give a ruling for the flags not to be waved, as they make the city ugly.” Recently, another ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, Meir Mazuz, claimed that the spread of coronavirus is divine retribution for gay pride parades. Israeli rabbis from more liberal Orthodox groups, like Rabbi Benny Lau, have called for a change in these attitudes. Lau, the former leader of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, was quoted in Haaretz, saying: “Nobody should have to live in a closet. A closet is death. A home is life.” Although Lau does not endorse gay marriage, he is in favor of formalized legal partnerships for same-sex couples, and has attended a gay wedding. Rabbi Daniel Sperber told Haaretz that there is a “new consensus” emerging in liberal Orthodoxy on the issue, including “a growing feeling that one has to…accept [gay and lesbian people] as members of the community and the synagogue.” Meanwhile, Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weiss, who is affiliated with the Rabbinate in Israel, defended the current marriage system because this preserves a single practice for Judaism. He stated that “centralized rabbinical marriage registration…is recognized throughout the Jewish world.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Due to the fact that marriage and divorce in Israel are handled by religious courts, interfaith couples, same-sex couples, and Jewish converts whose conversions are not recognized by the Rabbinate cannot legally get married in Israel, but their marriages are recognized if they get married outside of the country. Do you think there should be a separation between religion and state in Israel? For a deeper conversation, this article by Yeshayahu Leibowitz provides an excellent starting point.
  2. Although Israel is widely known by many as the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East, a Pew Report from 2019 claimed that Israel is in the company of countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran when it comes to religious freedom based on its amount of religious restrictions. How do you feel about these two different categorizations of Israel? Can Israel be both progressive and conservative simultaneously regarding religious freedom?
  3. In 2006, the Israeli foreign ministry began promoting Israel’s gay-friendliness as a way to “break apart the negative stereotypes many liberal Americans and Europeans have of Israel.” Israel wanted to brand itself as a modern country and also increase LGBTQ tourism. Many critics of Israel described this tactic as “pinkwashing.” What are your thoughts on the term “pinkwashing”? Is this legitimate criticism or is it just another way of delegitimizing Israel?
  4. Whereas the Israeli Knesset barred discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in the workplace in 1992, the United States Supreme Court only officially ruled against workplace discrimination against LGBTQ employees in June 2020. Is this a surprising fact? Why or why not? 

Virtual Classroom Tips 

  1. Read the following article by Nechama Goldman Barash in the Times of Israel which lays out four different approaches of how religious and civil marriage can coexist in Israel. Choose the option that you think sounds best or propose your own solution. 
  2. Read the following article from Arutz Sheva and answer the following question: Do you agree with Israeli politician Avigdor Liberman that there are some places in which it is inappropriate to host Pride parades?
  3. Ask your students to choose an article from the Israel Democracy Institute archive on the subject of Judaism and democracy. Write down the article’s main points and any questions they have.
  4. Empathy Experiment: Put yourself in someone else’s shoes – in Hillel’s words, “al tadin et chavercha ad she’tagia limkomo”:
    • As a gay Jewish person living in Jerusalem: How would you react to there being a massive Pride parade in support of the gay community in this holy Jewish city?
    • As a Haredi living in Jerusalem: How would you internalize the fact that there is a massive Pride parade in support of the gay community in this holy Jewish city?
    • If you yourself were in Jerusalem, would you attend the parade? Why or why not?
  5. Watch our video about Tel Aviv and utilize the accompanying educational resources. 

In Other News…

  1. In an interesting case, a missionary cable television channel, which was intended to proselytize and convert Israeli Jews to Christianity was ordered off the air this week.
  2. As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in Israel, a 19-year-old Israeli died from the virus, the country’s youngest victim.
  3. As borders begin to reopen in Europe, travelers from Israel (and other countries like the US, Russia, and Saudia Arabia) are excluded from entry due to its problematic coronavirus rate.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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