The billboards posted by the Noam political party leave no room for doubt. The main reason the party was established was to fight what they describe in their platform as “an attempt to eradicate the family cell and confuse our children with sexual identity nonsense.”
Beside its fury at the fact that current Israeli discourse sees "no distinct identity of man or woman," the religious-Zionist party has no political or economic agenda, nor any positions regarding the environment, health or housing.
Noam’s election campaign is another attempt by leaders of the religious-Zionist camp to fight against LGBTQ rights and the community's place in the public sphere. They view this as endangering the “Jewish family,” which in their eyes is composed of heterosexual parents and their biological children.
The central city of Ra’anana is one example of the tension between the religious-Zionist camp and the LGBTQ community. “Family and Humility Month,” the religious-Zionist response to Pride month, is currently being celebrated in the city, which saw its first Pride Parade this year. The city’s synagogues will hold lectures, by male rabbis, on topics such as “Family Values in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers]” and “Building the Jewish Family.”
Ra’anana is not alone. Last week there was a conference in Jerusalem during which thousands of women heard lectures about relationships and the family cell. The message was that a family life is the ultimate response to the “confusion” afflicting the present generation. Those who spoke at the conference are affiliated with the teachings of Rabbi Zvi Thau, the founder of Noam, who just this week wrote: “We won’t allow our sons and daughters to become guinea pigs for the experiments and maladies of post-modern pedagogy.”
There are many examples of such movements and organizations. One initiative, the Hiburim project, received 2.8 million shekels ($800,000) last year from the Religious Services Ministry. Another is the "March of families" which took place in Haifa last year in response to the city's Pride Parade. Several of the march's organizers are also part of a group called Hotam, which promotes conservative legislation.
The ground is burning
Ideologically, Religious-Zionist fervor used to be directed at promoting the settlement enterprise, but today, without a left-wing government or plans for renouncing Palestinian territories, the focus has shifted to "Jewish family values."
Ultra-Orthodox nationalist rabbis “feel the ground burning,” says Rabbi Ronen Lubitz. “From their perspective, it's a head-on clash between the values and commandments of Judaism and the modern world.” Lubitz, who is also president of the liberal Orthodox Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avoda movement, was among the first Orthodox rabbis to preach tolerance toward gays wihin the community. In an article published in 1995, he proposed ways of dealing with the contradiction between the desire to accept gay people in religious society and the religious prohibition on homosexuality. “It took me two years to find a place to publish the article,” he says.
“Religious society, certainly its liberal part, but also the mainstream, have become more accepting and inclusive,” Lubitz says. Religious LGBTQ groups, established about a decade ago, have contributed to this. One such group, Havruta, was founded in 2007. Another is Bat Kol, whose members are religious lesbians. Many religious-Zionists do in fact accept same-sex couples. As an example, last month, gay religious people from the Alon Shvut settlement in the West Bank were invited to tell their personal stories.
Hadas Benayahu, director of Shoval educational group and a graduate of an ultra-Orthodox nationalist women’s college, says teenagers in religious communities have become more exposed to homosexuality. “I first heard the word ‘lesbian’ in sixth grade. Today much younger children know what it means.” According to Benayahu, “It used to be that ‘there’s no such thing.’ Today there are marches all over the country, and religious young people are exposed to it.”
The Orthodox feminist revolution, which has gathered force in recent years with women’s demand for roles in religious life and the synagogue, increases the sentiment that rabbinic authority is being undermined. According to Lubitz, ultra-Orthodox nationalists "feel that they have lost the reins, that suddenly people relate to the LGBTQ issue with equanimity.”
Education Ministry 'propaganda'
One of the Noam party’s targets is the Israeli Education Ministry, where it says “foreign organizations have taken control and inserted an extremist liberal worldview to re-educate the Jewish people" and "The propaganda of LGBTQ organizations is continuously changing world order.”
The “propaganda” in question is the ministry's budget of 1.5 million shekels ($425, 925) available for schools to hold activities raising awareness on LGBTQ issues. Noam's main concern is that ultra-Orthodox schools have access to these funds, and are using them. One of the speakers on the ministry's list is Rabbi Yuval Cherlow – a prominent figure in the moderate wing of religious-Zionism.
N., who discovered he was attracted to men 13 years ago when he was a student at a high school yeshiva in Jerusalem, was referred to conversion therapy. He said he became severely emotionally distressed and approached Cherlow with a question regarding Jewish law. Cherlow answered him with sensitivity and respect that he had a right to his existence in the religious world.
Shoval also appears on the religious education administration’s list of approved lecturers. As opposed to other organizations on the list, Shoval’s members are LGBTQ graduates of the religious education system. Dozens of Orthodox schools have invited them in recent years – mostly for meetings with faculty, which is seen as less problematic – but some have also been invited for meetings with students.
But while the religious education administration walks a fine line and in recent years has held dialogue with LGBTQ organizations, the ultra-Orthodox nationalists miss no opportunity to level harsh criticism and delegitimize the change.
According to Lubitz, he faces considerate pushback from ultra-Orthodox nationalists. About two weeks ago, he held a seminar for counsellors from the Orthodox education system entitled: “Inclusion of students with in-gender sexual tendencies in our educational institutions.” Liba Yehudit, another group for “the strength of the family unit in Israel," was quick to publish a letter saying: “The organizers of the conference and the heads of the religious education network gave in to the radical agendas.”
The day before the conference, the title was changed, and the sympathetic word “inclusion” was replaced by the neutral word “attitude.” The content and the speakers were not changed, Lubitz says.