Some 25,000 Israelis, including dozens of Knesset members, marched in Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade on July 21. They were taking part in much more than a heart-warming show of strength by the LGBTQ community. More than ever, it was a demonstration of enlightened liberalism. At the largest gay pride parade that Jerusalem has ever seen, it was a comforting final note after a very harsh week for the LGBTQ community.
It all began with a July 13 speech by Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, the head of the pre-military service yeshiva in the settlement of Eli, in which he called gays and lesbians “perverts.” These disparaging and insulting remarks, made by the head of an influential educational institution, were surprising not only in their crassness, but also because they were made openly, at a public conference. Then came a letter in support of Levenstein signed by 300 prominent rabbis. It was suddenly obvious that despite the enormous progress that Israel’s gay community has made over the past few years in the struggle for equal rights, there is still a long way to go.
One positive surprise was the response by politicians from across the political spectrum denouncing Levenstein’s comments. They included the chairman of the right-wing Orthodox HaBayit HaYehudi, Education Minister Naftali Bennett. His rejection of Levenstein’s remarks was especially important, because it gave voice to a tense debate within the religious Zionist community. Bennett had most probably chosen his words carefully when saying, “You cannot call an entire community derogatory names and hide behind [Jewish law]. … What was said is unacceptable to me. … That is not our way.”
In addition to Bennett, several Orthodox-Zionist rabbis joined the pushback against Levenstein’s statement, vehemently condemning it. Rabbi Benny Lau, a leading Orthodox-Zionist figure, harshly criticized Levenstein, warning that his words could have dangerous repercussions for some young boys. He said that a young gay yeshiva student had tried to commit suicide following similar comments Levenstein made in the past.
Over the past few years, some politicians, particularly from the mainstream secular parties, have “discovered” the gay community and have sought ways to reach out to it, not least for basic political and electoral reasons. Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride Parade has become a mecca for politicians ranging from Culture Minister Miri Regev to Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid. The parties have courted the LGBTQ community and electorate, and many of them have established gay groups within their organizations. Regardless, this embrace has not always found expression in the struggle for equal rights legislation, and in many cases, the LGBTQ community has come out against these very politicians when they abandoned them and their fight at the moment of truth. Even Amir Ohana, Likud’s only openly gay Knesset member, disappointed his community by voting against such legislation because of his overriding commitment to coalition discipline.
Yet, even if the community failed to obtain legislation it sought, when it comes to mood and attitude, politicians have embraced the gay community, and this is important. By standing beside the LGBTQ community after Levenstein’s remarks, and especially by participating in the parade, politicians have shown a level of solidarity that extends beyond calculations of political benefit.
Recalling the benighted comments that former Shas Chairman Eli Yishai made just a decade ago, it is quite apparent that times have changed. Yishai didn’t have a second thought, and he certainly didn’t apologize, when in 2006 he said in an interview to the Knesset Channel, “Gays and lesbians are sick people who, until just a few years ago, were exempted from military service because of it. It’s a sickness, literally. I didn’t decide that. Medicine decided that. It’s an illness. The Torah speaks about how serious it is.”
At the time, only a handful of politicians openly challenged him and condemned his comments. After all, he was industry and commerce minister, an important portfolio, and an influential political figure who could determine political fates. Instead of speaking out against Yishai’s remarks, most politicians simply decided to ignore them.
The shocking murder of two young people at Bar Noar, a gay youth club in Tel Aviv, in 2009 was a transformative moment in terms of public attitudes toward the gay community, especially among the political classes. Immediately after the murders, ultra-Orthodox politicians were accused of incitement because of their attitudes and statements about gays and lesbians. Yishai’s comments were cited again and again, and the ultra-Orthodox political leadership was forced to defend itself. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several of his ministers visited the site of the murder and publicly embraced the community.
For several years now, it seemed as if unenlightened comments about gays and lesbians by public figures had just about disappeared from public life. Then along came Levenstein, a man who seemed rather enlightened and liberal. By saying what he did, he delivered a harsh blow to the community and set the country at least a generation backward. He did this in the shadow of the one-year anniversary of the murder of Shira Banki, who was stabbed to death at last year’s event by an ultra-Orthodox homophobe named Zvi Schlissel. Banki was only 16 when she died.
The dark mood hovering over the event was exacerbated by the letter from the rabbis supporting Levenstein and by ultra-Orthodox demands that the parade be canceled, amid threats that they would cause a disturbance. To make matters worse, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced that he would not be participating in the parade. In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Barkat, who is secular, explained that he did not want to offend the ultra-Orthodox community. Instead of showing his support just a year after Banki was murdered, in his own town, in an attack against the gay community, he chose instead to ingratiate himself to his city’s ultra-Orthodox community solely for political considerations.
If there is any other reason to consider this year’s huge Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem a stunning victory, it is that it offered a resounding rebuttal to Barkat’s infuriating comments at a time when he should have been standing at the forefront of the marchers. That dozens of politicians — including Home Security Minister Gilad Erdan, opposition leader Isaac Herzog from the Zionist Camp, Yesh Atid’s Lapid and many other Knesset members — turned out in Jerusalem to show support for the LGBTQ community makes Barkat look ridiculous for putting politics above all else. In a city as divided as Jerusalem, Barkat had a chance to be a uniter, but he chose instead to join the dividers.
In an interview during the parade, Erdan commented on the incitement against the LGBTQ community preceding the event. “What I saw over the last few days was very, very painful,” he said. “We live in a Jewish and democratic state. I grew up in a religious home and attended a yeshiva high school. The most important rule that we are taught is that ‘“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is a central principle in the Torah [Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4].’ It is what preserved the Jewish people throughout the generations.”