Anshel Pfeffer / Haredis May Not Be as Homophobic as They Seem

Many find their views on gays hateful, but ultra-Orthodox just say aloud what 46% of Israelis think.

Seventy one percent of Haredi citizens believe that homosexuality is a perversion, according to a the Haaretz poll. I know that many of this paper's readers saw the headline and shuddered, but I also know that those in the ultra-Orthodox community who saw the poll results immediately asked themselves - what about the other 29 percent?

I don't want to belittle the severity of homophobia within Israeli society, 46 percent of which views homosexuality as perverse, but these numbers should give us pause. Imagine for a moment a similar poll in which 30 percent of ultra-Orthodox Israelis said they don't actually believe in God, or that they think what the rabbis tell them isn't necessarily so. The Haredi community is notoriously difficult to poll and may tell a pollsters one thing while believing another. But the poll definitely suggests an intriguing undercurrent at work.

As of the time of writing (Thursday morning), no suspects have yet been arrested in connection with Saturday night's shooting at the youth gay club in Tel-Aviv, that claimed the lives of 16-year-old Liz Trobishi and 26-year-old Nir Katz and left 15 others wounded. I may be proved wrong, but I am confidently predicting that this was not a blind hate crime and that it certainly was not carried out by an ultra-Orthodox gunman.

Over the years, numerous surveys have pointed at the ultra-Orthodox population as the most racist, xenophobic and homophobic in Israel, but they don't produce murderers. They haven't got the hardware or the know-how and despite the violence we see in the Shabbat demonstrations in Jerusalem, they simply don't go for that kind of thing.

I have to admit here to a journalistic perversion of my own. I covered the Haredi community as a reporter for five years; there was nothing that I would have loved more than a juicy case of ultra-Orthodox homicide. I even tried to write a detective novel about one but had to give up, it just doesn't happen.

If the killer is eventually caught and my prediction fulfilled, the Haredi politicians who have been saying that they are being unfairly blamed for inciting against gays will certainly feel vindicated.

Nissim Zeev and Shlomo Benizri, two of the most vocal Shas politicians on this issue, never called upon their followers to physically attack gay people. They had no reason to believe that saying the Torah regards homosexuality a capital offense would cause anyone to actually carry out the sentence. The Torah is full of sins punishable by death, but no serious rabbi advocates bringing back stoning and beheading in this generation. That is their case defense.

If you support gay rights, then you will find the views of the ultra-Orthodox hateful and dangerous. But they are just saying aloud what half the country thinks.

The rabbis and political leaders of the Sephardi-Haredi movement are simply putting down ideological markers, clearly demarcating the gulf between them and a secular Israeli society which has suffered a complete breakdown in its values. At least they are saying what they really think.

Compare that with the wishy-washy position of the Orthodox rabbis, who are mainly afraid to take an unequivocal stand regarding homosexuality either way, and the total silence of the old-school Ashkenazi-Haredi leadership.

Despite their black hats and suits, Shas and its constituents see themselves as an organic part of Israeli society and do not shy away from taking part in any debate. They have strident views on every issue and are not afraid to express them.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai has espoused similar views on foreign workers and Arabs, he doesn't like any of them. But search the archives for similar utterances from the MKs of the rival Haredi party, United Torah Judaism, and you will find much slimmer pickings.

Like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was greeted by hoots of derision at Columbia University in New York when he said "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals," they simply do not exist from the Haredi viewpoint.

No rabbi or politician of this community will ever mention them in speech or writing; the two Haredi dailys, Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman, did not carry reports of Saturday's attack.

UTJ politicians have gone so far as to leave television studios if the issue is raised, clearly broadcasting that this is no concern of theirs.

But this is not just their attitude to homosexuality. Drugs, delinquency, violent crime, alternative family structures, feminism and rape all fall under this umbrella. If we don't mention them, these secular ills will simply cease to exist, certainly within our pure camp.

But whatever the response, fire and brimstone or complete indifference, at least some rabbis' followers have views of their own.

The sizable minority of religious Israelis, of all streams, who seem to disagree with their rabbis on homosexuality is an indication of a larger trend.

I am certain that if we were to examine their positions on other taboos, we would find similar numbers of dissenters. These are the signs of walls erected around a burgeoning community beginning to molder away, in no small part thanks to the pervasiveness of the media.

It doesn't necessarily mean that we are going to see another wave of haskala-secularism sweeping thousands of young Haredi and religious men and women away from their families and communities - there are still many ties that continue to bind them.

But it does indicate the rise of a new generation of independently thinking religious people, willing to engage the outside world on their own terms.