An uncommon sight greeted visitors to Tel Aviv’s Gan Meir park on Wednesday night: Several ultra-Orthodox Jews, mainly men in black suits, entered the city’s Gay Center, located within the park. On their way to a meeting on the second floor, they incurred quizzical looks from some young people who were waiting for an HIV test. The puzzlement was mutual.
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“The mere fact of my coming here means addressing my deepest fears,” one of the Haredi men admitted. One week after an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade — Shira Banki, 16, died of her injuries three days later — this group had come to meet with activists from Tel Aviv’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. At their request, their identities will not be revealed.
“When we came, I thought of maybe asking people how I could find the gay youth. I thought, ‘what’s the first thing someone would think, there’s a Haredi asking, he’s planning an attack,” one ultra-Orthodox man related. Another expressed surprise about the lack of security at the entrance to the center. “There are enough crazies who wish you harm, this place should be better protected,” he said. The meeting was relaxed, the ice soon broken. Each person said a few words by way of introduction and explained why he or she felt the need to attend.
“The fear is always present since this is something that is not talked about, people shut their eyes,” a Haredi man said, adding, “I believe that if you simply don’t talk about something and repress it then at some point in the future it will come back and confront you.” Like everyone at the meeting, he disavowed the actions of the perpetrator — Yishai Schlissel, a Haredi man who only weeks before the stabbing was paroled after serving 10 years for a similar attack in 2005, is in police custody — calling him “crazy” and saying he in no way represents Haredi society.
“I can really relate to the remarks about fear,” a second Haredi man said. “I remember being afraid the first time I met a gay man. It was really scary, but after that I stopped being afraid and it worked out. I’m a great believer in dialogue. I often see people interpreting the same event differently. ... That disconnect creates the hatred or fear that feeds the hatred. The mere fact of this dialogue gives me joy. I don’t know what will come of it but it’s the right and beautiful beginning of something good.”
Sitting close together were ultra-Orthodox, lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people. Kippot against rainbow flags. Most of the Haredim said they were not in the ultra-Orthodox mainstream, describing themselves as being more open to other groups and as coming into contact with non-Haredi Jews in their daily lives. Nonetheless, this encounter was a big step for most of them. “The only gay people I’ve met were guys chatting me up on Facebook,” said one young man. Similarly, a few of the LGBT participants admitted to knowing little about the Haredi community. “This meeting is necessary and important,” said one well-known activist.
Participants made an effort to find common ground. “I too belong to a minority group that suffers from ignorance and demonization,” one Haredi man said. “Real pluralism means listening to everyone. I can’t embrace a position that contradicts the Torah, in which I believe, but it’s always healthy to sit and talk.”
According to the only ultra-Orthodox woman in attendance, familiarity is the way to get past stereotypes and eliminate the polarization in Israel “that must be stopped now” in order to prevent “societal catastrophe.”
“I often hear ‘he’s a homo, he’ll rape me!’ or ‘yuck, don’t touch me.’ What is this nonsense? The fact that we met and no one raped us spreads calm,” she adds, laughing. “This terrible disaster, that a person, what’s called ‘one of our own,’ decided to commit such a terrible act, with some people justifying it and giving it legitimacy, I’m here so that such things don’t recur.”
One of the Haredim told the gathering that he has a gay brother. Their parents, and some of their siblings, don’t know. “He’s my brother, flesh of my flesh. I’m the brother who accepts him the most. I’ve met many secular people. I’m aware of what he’s struggling with. He’s 25 and has been carrying this burden for at least a decade, after being kicked out of several yeshivot. I try to embrace him as much as I can but it’s difficult since I am very Haredi. I can’t give it legitimacy. I tell him, ‘I know that this is what you are but I can’t accept it since for me this is wrong.’”
He said the personal connection exacerbated his shock at the parade attack. “I took it very personally and was very pained to read the letter written by that wicked man Schlissel, a letter written in authentic Haredi language, describing the ‘devotion of his soul.’ Schlissel is extremely fanatic but his letter was written in my language. He took my language, my culture, and did what he did. That’s why it was so painful for me. It bothered me that no one in the religious Zionist camp spoke out against it. A secular person who kills doesn’t do so in the name of secularism. Here, an ultra-Orthodox man murdered in the name of ultra-Orthodoxy. The minute he did so in the name of your culture you have to say that this is not your culture,” the man said.
“We’re very homophobic. The Haredi public community fears homosexuals and all those related concepts,” said another participant, who is known within Haredi society. “As long as it’s in Tel Aviv that’s one thing, but when they come to Jerusalem it’s terrible.” He stressed that Schlissel belongs to a group of Haredi extremists. “Today they published two statements of support for Schlissel — you’re fortunate for being caught after giving vent to God’s fury. They use all kinds of slogans and partial phrases from the Torah or Jewish law in trying to blur the issue,” he said.
Continuing, he said, “I came here because I’m not afraid to come here. I’m afraid only of people who judge people by association. There are extremists in every group. The problem starts when people are labeled and separated based on their association. It’s a great concern and this dialogue contributes a lot.”
The popular gay activist expressed concern at the joining of politics and religion. “The Haredi doesn’t care about gays, Arabs or anyone else being given equal rights and other things. The problems start when people see the State of Israel as the embodiment of the Kingdom of the House of David, something religious and utopian. That’s where the problems stem from, the joining of religion and nationalism, this link with its mystical aspects, that’s what creates people like Schlissel. That scares me a lot.” A few of the Haredi participants raised objections to these remarks.
It was only after the getting-acquainted round, which took around 90 minutes, that controversy arose — beginning with the Jerusalem pride parade.
“The parade is a tool, and one reason the Haredim stopped opposing it is that the LGBT discourse has entered the Haredi street,” said one transgender participant. “When the Haredim opposed it the Gay Hotline received many calls from Haredim who wanted to come out. Our aim, and you might oppose this, is to raise awareness, for people to know that such things exist.”
The Haredi woman raised a common argument. “There’s no problem with what you do in the privacy of your homes. It all begins and ends with the provocation. I’m talking about the Tel Aviv parade, which is very exhibitionist, and that’s unacceptable to Haredim. If you didn’t walk around waving the rainbow flag with feathers on your head I’m not sure there’d be such opposition,” she said.
“To us it’s not a provocation,” responded an LGBT representative, a formerly Haredi man.
The ultra-Orthodox participants agreed that Haredim do not protest loudly against the pride parades, mainly so as not to call attention to the events. “On one hand the parade helps people in distress, give legitimacy. On the other hand it can take some confused people and throw them into the mix. Instead of having a conventional family, such a person will follow a different path,” said the well-known Haredi figure.
“Growing up gay is a nightmare anywhere, dealing with loneliness,” a prominent LGBT activist countered. “You’re alone even in your own home,” facing discrimination from your family, he said, adding that Haredim had no reason to fear the community. “We’re not a missionary movement, we don’t have an interest in growing.”
While the word “fear” was often voiced by the Haredim, among the LGBT participants “hope” may have been used the most. “I had no trepidation about the meeting,” a prominent lesbian activist said. “I’ve been walking around with a really bad feeling all week. It’s almost a week since the parade, with violence, incitement and hatred everywhere. This meeting gives me hope. After all, we’re a single community of human beings, we’re all equal. This meeting opens a small door to the reality I’d like to live in.”
The participants decide to continue to meet, with an eye to larger, monthly gatherings. They also decided not to publicize the names of participants, in order to preclude pressure aimed at ending the dialogue. One participant suggested that the next meeting be held in Bnei Brak. “I promise everyone that as long as you don’t come with [rainbow] flags, it’ll be fine,” he said.