Modern And Traditional Attitudes Towards LGBT Are Playing A Leading Role In The Israeli Identity Crisis

In Israel, the traditional – modern divide when it comes to LGBT is not always what it appears to be

A scene from the annual Tel Aviv gay parade (2015)
Copyright: GeorgeDement [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

My readers may perhaps be surprised to find out that Judaism has traditionally had a largely tolerant attitude towards male homosexuality. Female homosexuality was never a “thing” because nobody cared what women did in their free time. In any and all cases, they were supposed to get married and bear children, which they did.

This tolerant attitude was the result of how leading rabbis throughout history viewed male homosexuality. The way they viewed it is perfectly summarized by the English word “gay”. This word had to cede its original meaning of “happy”, “cheerful”, “joyous” in favor of “homosexual”, but the reason that homosexuals were euphemistically called “gay” had everything to do with the original meaning of the word. Homosexual behavior was seen by society as an indulgence of an appetite, perhaps a rather esthetically and morally challenged one, but an appetite nonetheless. Homosexuals (male ones) had a “gay” lifestyle; they, to borrow a more modern expression, liked to party.

Rabbis saw homosexuality in exactly that light; akin to adultery, masturbation, excessive drinking; in short, leading a profligate and immoral lifestyle. This view did not mean that they did not consider it a sin, only that it was one of many sins that men indulged in and, like with any sin, the path to “teshuvah” to repentance, was always open.

In Israel today, the rabbinical establishment still sees homosexuality in this light. But large parts of the secular Israeli Jewish population beg to differ. They see homosexuality, both male and female, as an identity rather than as a mode of behavior. In other words, they see it as it is seen by most of the West. Since in this view homosexuality is hardware rather than software, there can be no repentance, no reprogramming. Since it is identity, it cannot be sinful because the path of sin is something that by definition is embarked upon freely, is CHOSEN, while identity is not.

This divide came into focus in Israel last week, when Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the leader of the religious Zionist party the Jewish Home (Ha’Bait Ha’Yehudi) naively fell into a trap set for him while being interviewed on one of Israel’s many liberal TV programs. When asked what he would do if one of his sons were “gay”, a question that presupposes the modern liberal view of homosexuality as an identity, he answered that thank God his children were raised in a “healthy” household, an answer that assumes homosexuality to be nothing but a sinful choice. When one is raised in a healthy family, one is less likely to make bad choices like heavy drinking, abusing drugs, or engaging in homosexual behavior. That was Rabbi Peretz’s meaning.

Needless to say, the tap snapped shut and the usual chorus of condemnation ensued. The religious right hunkered down to weather the storm. Elementary schools in wealthy Tel Aviv neighborhoods started the next school day with lessons on “tolerance” and explanations of what are gays and lesbians are to children as young as six.

The right engaged in its weak and useless defense of “out of context”, as in the rabbi’s words were taken out of context. They were not. What he said was true to how he viewed homosexuality. His interviewers may have been, indeed were, biased, but this bias is nothing new and should have been well-known to Rabbi Peretz, who could have and perhaps should have declined the interview.

So what now? In truth, not much. Israel is quite different from Western countries when it comes to homosexuality. Twenty percent of its population are Arabs, mostly Muslims, who wholeheartedly reject the Western definition of it and are much closer to the traditional Jewish one, though they are far less tolerant of it.

Of the remaining 80% who are Jewish, one third, so more than 25% of the total population are observant Jews, who, once again, do not partake in the modern view of homosexuality. We are left with just over half of the Israeli population who are secular Jews and thus are potential subscribers to the idea of homosexuality as a hardwired identity.

However, of this half a large portion are repatriates from the former USSR who, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, hold very dim view of homosexuality indeed. Another part of this group are Jews, who while not self-identifying as “Sabbath keepers”, are nevertheless quite traditional and conservative, including when it comes to LGBT matters. In all, I estimate that only fifteen to 25% of all Israelis subscribe to the modern view of homosexuality, though they are disproportionately wealthy and well educated, which makes them punch well-above their weight when it comes to the Israeli power centers of the media, the legal system, and the civil service.

And herein lies the problem. The folks who hold modern Western views of homosexuality are clustered in what many in Israel call the Tel Aviv “state”, meaning that Tel Aviv is utterly unrepresentative of the rest of the country, which is much more traditional and does not subscribe to the liberal progressive values that are so prevalent in wealthy North Tel Aviv and its adjoining suburbs.

Perhaps like in America, more traditional Israelis are beginning to feel that while they are the electoral majority, their voices are taken away from them by a powerful minority that is quite willing to use its vast power to enforce its values on the rest of the population, whether it wants it or not. This feeling is reinforced by the relentless legal persecution of incumbent PM Netanyahu, a persecution that is now nearing its decisive moments as far as the March 2nd election is concerned.

While many on the right consider Rabbi Peretz’s interview a blunder and a gift to the progressive left, I feel that the opposite may be true. The obvious trap and the resulting oh so predictable outcry from the left cannot fail to reinforce in the minds of many middle of the road Israelis the feeling that they must use their votes to put a stop to the undemocratic power being wielded by the liberal elites. Time will tell.

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