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Tide is already turning

Miriam Shaviv writes of a a small but significant sign of the sea change in attitudes to gay people in the Israeli Orthodox sector

    Israelis participate in the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem, Aug 3, 2017.
    Israelis participate in the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem, Aug 3, 2017. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

    The posts started appearing in my Facebook feed a few weeks ago: straight Orthodox men and women, explaining why they were going to attend the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem last week to show solidarity with their LGBT friends.

    “I’m here to fulfil the mitzvah of ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, wrote one kippah-clad man, ‘in the name of my Judaism, a Judaism of love and inclusivity. To show that what the rabbis say against the LGBT community is not in my name.”

    “I’m marching to support my beloved son,” wrote one mother-of-six with a headscarf, “and all the men and women who still do not receive support, even though they were created in G-d’s image.”

    In the corner of the posts, a little rainbow-coloured Star of David, with the Hebrew logo: “Supportive Orthodox community.”

    In the end, hundreds reportedly marched, many of them carrying signs declaring which yeshiva or religious high school they attended.

    It was a small but significant sign of the sea change in attitudes to gay people in the Israeli Orthodox sector. A decade ago, perhaps, such a public demonstration of support would have been completely taboo. Two years ago, a photo essay of gay youngsters posing with their Orthodox family members — including two modestly dressed grandmothers and their gay grandsons — went viral. With so many yeshivah graduates out and proud, nowadays there is growing acceptance even in relatively conservative Israeli communities.

    It is no coincidence that at the exact time as the Jerusalem Gay Pride was taking place, the UK Jewish community was wrapping up a row which was bookmarked by Rabbi Dweck’s now infamous lecture on attitudes to homosexuality, and a rabbinical missive urging a boycott of JW3 because it had held events celebrating LGBT Jews.

    Many have lauded Rabbi Dweck’s lecture as “brave” – and it was, as the events which followed showed. For some, “Orthodox” and “gay” remain two contradictory terms.

    But, in reality, by urging the Orthodox community to be more accepting of its gay members, Rabbi Dweck was merely expressing what many mainstream Orthodox people want and hope to hear from their rabbinical leaders. While it is undeniable that many individual LGBT people continue to suffer isolation, rejection and difficulties, it is increasingly socially acceptable to be gay in the more modern parts of the Orthodox community.

    Witness the enormous outpouring of support for Rabbi Dweck. The issues that emerged were complicated but, at the end of the day, he would never have received the kind of backing he did from regular S&P and United Synagogue members, had they found his original lecture offensive or unacceptable.

    On the contrary. For many straight, Orthodox people of my generation and younger, homophobia is repulsive and off-putting.

    We all know gay people, including many who are regular shul-goers, who are communally active and who went to all the same schools and youth movements as us. In many cases, they are our siblings, cousins and children.

    Squaring our love and affection for them with what the Torah has to say about homosexuality is increasingly a challenge for many people, an exercise in cognitive dissonance. While people generally accept the Torah’s prohibitions on this matter, they do not want to see their friends hounded on the basis of their sexual identity.

    After women’s rights, this will be the next great battle in the Orthodox community. In many ways, they are connected. What Rabbi Bassous and friends may not like — and what the Orthodox community has not received enough credit for — is that, on the ground, the tide is already turning.

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