Gay-friendliness is not only about values
Last week we had another round in the ongoing culture war centered on the rights of the gay-lesbian community after Attorney General Menachem Mazuz ruled that gay and lesbian couples can legally adopt children. Predictably, Shas leader Eli Yishai said this was "shocking and disgusting," and United Torah Judaism MK Avraham Ravitz called Mazuz "an idiot" and described the idea that same-sex couples could form a family as the invention of some "stupid liberals."
Mr. Ravitz would probably not be impressed if he were shown the scientific evidence that demonstrates conclusively that same-sex couples are at least as competent as parents as straight couples. But let it be noted for the record that "stupid liberals" have strong backing for their ideas, if you care to hear the facts before you make up your mind.
I am tempted to call on the ultra-Orthodox leadership to moderate its extremely offensive tone toward the gay-lesbian community - if only for the sake of civilized coexistence. But unfortunately I am not very optimistic about the effectiveness of such a call. I can only hope that the moderate members of the Haredi community I know who think differently will try to influence their leaders.
Since liberals have made it clear time and again that we see the issue of gay rights as crucial for an open society, I believe it is necessary to point out how important gay-friendliness is from the standpoint of the economy.
American Economist Richard Florida published his book "The Rise of the Creative Class" five years ago. Its main thesis is that modern developed economies thrive on a new class of creative people who are the engine of the high-tech, media and financial industries. His analyses have shown very consistent correlations between the percentage of young creative people in a city and its economic situation.
He has since shown in detail how all major cities compete with each other to attract the creative class on a global level, and that the failure of countries and cities to do so results in massive economic loss. As a result, Florida has been sought after as a consultant by city planners, politicians and companies from around the world who have understood the crucial importance of the creative class.
The most consistent predictor for the attractiveness of a city, country or company for creative people is - you may have guessed by now - gay-friendliness. There is some logic to this: Throughout history, tolerance has been the central factor in fostering creativity, and gay-friendliness turns out to be its strongest expression. Florida reports that even many straight people inquire about the gay-friendliness of cities when they consider moving or working there, because they take it as an indicator of the city's openness, tolerance and joie de vivre.
The high-tech sector has been the engine of Israel's economic growth in the last two decades. It is probably no coincidence that the flourishing of the Israeli economy in the last two decades was accompanied by a strong legal liberalization vis-a-vis the gay community.
In fact, Israel has been rather advanced in its dealing with the rights of the gay and lesbian community in the last 20 years - another corroboration of Florida's thesis on the correlation between gay-friendliness and economic growth. Not surprisingly, the high-tech and media sector is mainly centered in the greater Tel Aviv area, and some other liberal enclaves.
Unfortunately, Florida's negative predictions are also corroborated in Israel. Israel's policy has been to foster economic growth in the periphery of the country, and many people are worried about the concentration of wealth in the "State of Tel Aviv," as it is sometimes called jokingly. Florida's data show that no amount of tax incentives will encourage the creative class to move to areas that are not culturally vibrant, tolerant - and gay friendly.
Bnei Brak and Jerusalem are two of the poorest cities in Israel, and both are, to put it mildly, not gay-friendly. Since cultural openness cannot be dictated by the state, I am not too optimistic about the possibility of influencing the economic future of these and other culturally conservative cities except through education and cultural change. Tolerance cannot be enforced, it must be embraced.
One thing is certain: The issue of gay rights is something we cannot compromise on, even if one does not care about the principle. Given Florida's data, it is an economic as well as a cultural imperative to keep Israel an open and tolerant society.
Israel would pay a heavy price for reversing the trend toward gay-friendliness: The brain drain that draws Israel's talent abroad will turn into a tsunami, and without the creative class, Israel's economy and culture will lose its vibrancy.
The writer is a professor at the psychology department of Tel Aviv University.