Bringing Regret Out of the Closet

So it is precisely now, when condemnation of homophobia is the order of the day, that we must demand that the prime minister make it clear that, from now on, no minister will be allowed to curse and malign members of the LGBT community.

I usually have no interest in trying to understand the political and spiritual leaders who excel in fanning the flames of hatred against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Their xenophobic language disgusts me and is not worthy of response, only of condemnation. Today, however, I would give a great deal to know what is going through the minds of, say, Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai and his colleagues in the Shas party leadership, who seem to compete with each other in raising the bar of homophobia and ignorance. Do they feel sorrow in their heart of hearts this week? Or is their denial so profound that they can completely ignore their role in fomenting an atmosphere of incitement toward the gay community?

Have they learned the lesson?

Apparently, at least in part. They vehemently condemned the criminal shooting Saturday night at the youth club of the Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders in Israel (the Aguda). Their condemnation of the attack, which left two dead and another 15 wounded, is appropriate and fitting, though it is sad that we could not have taken that reaction for granted in advance. Beyond that, a genuine expression of regret by the leaders of Shas - if it exists - remains deep in the closet: We're not reading or hearing about it in the media.

Although we should be careful about creating a causal connection between words and deeds, particularly when (at least as I write) the identity of the shooter remains unknown, it is impossible to ignore the public atmosphere that is conducive to such actions - and, yes, even encourages them.

Those immediately responsible for this public atmosphere are rabbis and MKs from various religious parties, who have turned homophobia into the lowest common denominator for inciting the masses and thereby enlisting political support.

On the other hand, it is encouraging to see that officials from the center of the political map are demonstrating a growing degree of openness toward the gay community. On June 1, opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) was the main speaker at a festive event marking Gay Pride Month at Tel Aviv's LGBT Center. That same day, she was among those who hosted the community in her own home - the Knesset - at a special session organized by Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, which was attended by MKs from the various Knesset factions, as well as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin of Likud. This week too, Livni did not make do with simply condemning the murders or making a general statement about tolerance, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did. She understood that at such a painful moment, the way to convey support was to mention gays and lesbians directly, something the premier initially seemed reluctant to do. However, Netanyahu made a quick correction. His visit to the Aguda yesterday sends a strong signal in the right direction.

Until last week's murders the LGBT community in Israel was characterized by a welcome self-confidence, which was in part an expression of the feeling that we could downplay the importance of continuing to establish our status in the Israeli mainstream. We know who we are and no longer need affirmation from others. It seemed as though the gay-friendly space in the country was sufficiently broad - and even gradually becoming broader - that it wasn't so terrible if some MKs and senior ministers were willing to make foul statements about their fellow citizens.

But complacency has a price: The fact that we have an increasing number of friends has caused us to forget that we still have quite a few enemies, some of whom serve in the Knesset and the cabinet. Israel is happy to flaunt its openness toward the LGBT community and the great degree of equality we enjoy. But let us make no mistake: The whole truth is that Israel is becoming more progressive in its attitude toward gays not because of the parliament, but in spite of the fact that along with their liberal members, the Knesset and cabinet also include ignorant, homophobic voices.

That's why the support of people like Tzipi Livni and Reuven Rivlin is of great importance to establishing the community's legitimacy. Just as it is often said that "Only the right can make peace," it may well be that only the right - or the center - can advance a progressive agenda in Israel in the area of civil rights.

There is no question that the tragedy this week gave rise to a moment of grace, during which we are witnessing greater openness toward the gay community. But will this openness lead to ongoing political commitment as well?

So it is precisely now, when condemnation of homophobia is the order of the day, that we must demand that the prime minister make it clear that, from now on, no minister will be allowed to curse and malign members of the LGBT community. We must also demand of politicians that they explain their attitudes toward various rights and legislative issues, including whether a proposed civil-marriage law will apply to same-sex couples. Perhaps here, too, a comparison can be made to the diplomatic realm: It's not enough to talk, we have to act as well.

Journalist Yoav Sivan is a former board member of the Aguda: the Israeli LGBT Association, as well as the Jerusalem Open House. He is now attending Columbia Journalism School in New York.