Offended Gay Israelis Blast Apologetic Education Minister: 'We ARE Family!'

Shai Piron’s assertion that same-sex couples and their children are 'not a family' unleashed a wave of indignation not only from the LGBT community but from its allies too.

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Education Minister Shay Piron, left, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. The government has stolen the futures of one and a half million children, as it rides on the backs of the “middle class.”
Education Minister Shay Piron, left, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. The government has stolen the futures of one and a half million children, as it rides on the backs of the “middle class.” Credit: Nir Kafri

Hurtful, hostile and disparaging remarks about their lifestyle and sexuality from Orthodox rabbis and politicians are nothing new for Israel’s LGBT community. But there is one Orthodox rabbi from whom they expected a great deal more - Education Minister Shai Piron - and to say they are extremely disappointed in him right now would be an understatement - their fury is palpable.

Piron’s assertion that same-sex couples and their children are “not a family” unleashed a wave of indignation not only from the LGBT community in Israel but from the horrified friends and families of same-sex couples. There are calls for an apology, and even his resignation, and a public protest in front of the Education Ministry is planned for Sunday afternoon.

A resignation is probably not in the cards, but an apology was definitely in order. What Piron first offered up fell short of expressing total regret for his remarks, resembling what is often referred to as a “non-apology apology.”

“You can disagree with the way I worded my statements,” he posted on Facebook on Friday. “But they reflect the Israeli reality and the difficulties the religious community has with the changes in the family structure. I have always tried to act as a bridge between different groups and communities, and the first step in building these bridges is acceptance and understanding. I believe wholeheartedly that everyone deserves a romantic relationship! I apologize if my statements weren’t properly understood.”

Piron was on the defensive, answering a question from the right-wing religious outlet about why he supports his party's "sharply secular agenda." he pointed to the role he was playing in trying to make the legislation more acceptable to the Orthodox sector, by working to keep the words “couple” and “family” out of his party’s bill to introduce civil unions: alternative form of legal partnership with all of the rights of marriage, outside the framework of the rabbinate. He said: “I think that every person needs to receive full economic rights and build his life according to his world view. I think it is the right of a Jewish state, maybe even its obligation, to say to same-sex couples ‘that is not a family.’ ”

The intense level of anger towards Piron in the aftermath of the interview stems from a feeling of utter betrayal, coming as it did a week after Yair Lapid appeared during Pride Week, showing off his party’s support for the LGBT community, and declaring “Support for the gay community and its rights is part of what defines me as a person. I’m not doing it for you, I’m doing it for myself. As long as the gay community doesn’t have all its rights, it means I’m still not living in the country I want to live in.”

Piron and Lapid are as closely linked as two politicians can be - Piron holds the number two position in Yesh Atid.

But it’s not just his party membership that led most people to expect much more from Piron. From the outset, his stated goal in politics was to become Education Minister, and his message since taking office has been to prioritize the teaching of values equally with academic achievement. He paints himself as a ‘listener’ who ready to listen to teachers, and, as an adoptive parent of a special-needs child, especially sensitive to those who are different.

Over the past school year, every school in Israel received marching orders from his ministry to make the theme of this academic year “the acceptance of the other.” The emphasis was people with special needs, and those of different religion and races. While differences in sexual orientation weren’t explicitly mentioned, but one could presume such a message would include them.

He was supposed to be the sensitive face of Orthodox Judaism.

Following Piron's remarks, screenwriter Ori Gross posted on Facebook: “Shai Piron adopted a child. He and his wife chose to be parents to a child who they didn’t biologically give birth to and nobody is challenging the fact that they are a family. I know many same-sex parents and the only thing I can say about these families is that they are the most functioning, devoted beautiful, and family-like units I now. Outstanding parents. These families chose to be a family just like the Piron family chose their child, often overcoming huge obstacles to do so.”

When Piron he entered politics, running as Lapid’s number two, he addressed statements he made in the past advocating change therapy and the belief that homosexuality can be “fixed.” Initially enthusiastic about Lapid’s new party, organizations representing the religious gay community offered explicit statements of support for Piron, after he expended much effort to repair and cultivate the relationship and convince people that his attitude has evolved.

And now, this - evidence that either Piron still truly believes that acceptance of gay families is somehow not Jewish and his outlook has not really changed or that he is willing to appear to believe, in order to stay within the Orthodox consensus. If it is the latter, there is a parallel to be made to the position of fellow Orthodox Yesh Atid member Aliza Lavie, who ran into similar problems with Reform and Conservative Jews, by making it clear that while she considered herself their friend, there is a limit to the extent she is willing to stand and fight for their rights.

Whether or not his comments reflected a deep inability to accept gay partnership and gay family-hood, Piron’s relationship will have to be rebuilt from scratch.

After his Friday Facebook post proved insufficient, he tried again on Sunday morning, with a more heartfelt apology - this time, delivered in person to the cameras on morning television. “I am painfully convinced that my remarks were miserable. It’s not my place to decide who is a family and who isn’t” but added that for him, same-sex couples and their children “are a family from every civil, sociological, cultural and economic perspective. But at the same time, we have a problem to solve in the religious realm … What bothers me more than anything is the children and adults who were hurt by what I said and I am looking them in the eyes and saying - I truly apologize.”

But LGBT leaders want to see more than regret. Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz who said that his words were designed to create discord, that Piron is doing “exactly the opposite of what an Education Minister should do, and therefore, an apology won’t satisfy us.”

Writer and media personality Gal Uchovsky wrote that Piron must now “grasp and understand that an education minister in Israel, in 2014, simply can’t speak in this way. Moreover, he can’t continue to think in this way. As a member of the enlightened wing of the national religious public, he has to understand that this just doesn’t work. If he and the national religious public don’t update their outlook, there will be war.”

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