When 'tradition' means 'bigotry'

As Jews, in particular, we should recognise the humanity of gay people

By Paul Berger, November 1, 2010

New Yorkers opened their newspapers a couple of weekends ago to read of a brutal attack on three gay men in the Bronx who were kidnapped, beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted by a gang of nine men. In Belgrade, over the same weekend, about 100 people, mainly policemen, were injured after far-right demonstrators rioted because of a gay parade.

We have a keen ear for any hint of antisemitism. Imagine if the fact of a person's Jewishness was a provocation for such violence. Isn't that what much of the past 60 years of Jewish history has been about? We can do little about neo-Nazi thugs in Serbia and homophobic gangs in New York. But our own backyard is hardly clean.

As more details of the attack in the Bronx emerged, Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate in next week's New York gubernatorial race addressed the Satmar community of Williamsburg. He clearly knew his audience - and he directly addressed the issue of homosexuality.

He announced that he had not marched in this year's gay pride parade in New York. He did not, he said, want his children to be "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option". His remarks were greeted with applause. But Paladino stopped short of reading a prepared remark, acquired by journalists, asserting that, "there is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual."

The following day, a vigorously backtracking Paladino told Fox News that the "dysfunctional" line had been added by one of the Satmar rabbis and that he did not read it out because he did not approve of it. He is not a homophobe, he said, just opposed to gay marriage.

And so it is with many of the defenders of the supposed sanctity of marriage. In a recent article, Rabbi Avi Shafran, of the strictly Orthodox Agudat Israel, wrote: "A traditional conception of so essential and societally vital an institution as marriage constitutes not disrespect of individuals but rather respect - for humanity."

He went on to compare the issue with polyandry and incest. If gays can get married, he implied, why not brothers and sisters? Rabbi Shafran does not know the answer to this question because in his mind homosexuality is the same as incest. As the history of bigoted laws has shown - from the denial of the vote to women to the outlawing of inter-racial marriage, opponents of such "radical" ideas will always cling to morals and tradition to defend their case while ignoring the rights upon which they are trampling.

In 1878, the Supreme Court of Virginia invalidated a marriage between a black man and a white woman, arguing that: "connections and alliances so unnatural that God and nature seem to forbid them, should be prohibited by positive law, and be subject to no evasion." Indeed, mixed marriages were legalised across the United States as recently as 1967.

It should come as no surprise that the conservative Agudat Israel and the insular Satmar community disapprove of homosexuality and, by definition, of same-sex marriage. But, for the rest of us, surely now is the time to say, once and for all, that homosexual couples have as much right to get married as heterosexual couples.

Recently, the New Jersey Jewish Standard tied itself in knots over just this issue. It started when the newspaper ran its first-ever announcement about the forthcoming marriage of a same-sex couple, Avichai Smolen and Justin Rosen, a couple of weeks ago.

The following Monday, the paper published an apology online saying that because of the "pain and consternation" it had caused a group of rabbis and their community, the newspaper would not repeat this form of announcement. The response from Jewish supporters of gay marriage was fast and furious. Within a few days, more than 100 people had commented on the site, mainly calling the decision shameful and insulting. The Standard was inundated with letters, and so changed tack again. Publisher James Janoff said that perhaps the newspaper had acted in haste and that it would meet local rabbis and community leaders to discuss the situation.

The New Jersey Jewish Standard's circulation covers the spectrum of denominations from Orthodox to Reform. On this question, it can never satisfy everyone. But this is not an issue of deferring to one side or the other. It is time to take a moral, Jewish, stand --- against bigotry.

Paul Berger is the JC's New York correspondent

Last updated: 2:28pm, November 1 2010