Opinion |

Israel's Gay-baiting Homophobes Are Fighting a Losing Battle

The loudest voices opposing LGBTQ rights in Israel come from a curious mix of ultra-nationalist rabbis, a secular Putinesque right-wing, Islamists and Arab conservatives. But they're increasingly shouting into the wind

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Participants gathering for this year's Pride March in Jerusalem
Participants gathering for this year's Pride March in JerusalemCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A sleepy suburb of Petah Tikva has become in recent months one of Israel's most active hubs of political protest. A large tent has been erected in an empty lot near the home of Nir Orbach, a Yamina lawmaker, who is widely seen as the weakest link of the coalition’s right flank, and the next likely defector who could bring the government down.

Every day, dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of students from national religious high-schools, along with their rabbis and teachers, come to the tent to hold prayers and Torah lessons, all calling upon Orbach, a member of their community, to come to his senses and leave this terrible government of terror-supporters.

Two weeks ago, it was the turn of students from a yeshiva in Mitzpe Ramon to occupy the tent. The dean of the yeshiva, Rabbi Tzvi Kostiner, had a particular bone to pick with the government, or more specifically its education ministry, and its "extreme agendas" which he claims (with scant evidence) are inflicting even on kindergarten children books that "normalize" the idea of families with same-sex parents.

"This is the battle in which I say all of us, all of us, each from their own place, must not feel shame, must gather bravery," shouted Kostiner, at his young charges. "Everyone, where they work, must say LGBTs go home! Homos go home!

"Evil, evil, evil and more evil! Who knows how much violence there is there? How much sexual damage? Evildoers! Evildoers! And they are going to put this madness in every home and we are silent, afraid. We must fight it all. That’s our duty in every place, not to be ashamed of our Jewishness. This crazy government, this madness."

The video of Kostiner’s sermon has of course made the rounds on social media, eliciting the standard outrage and expressions of support from his supporters. And for anyone familiar with the rhetoric of the rabbis of Har Hamor, a Jerusalem yeshiva whose founding president Rabbi Tzvi Thau has, in recent years, added to the yeshiva’s religious fundamentalism and ultra-nationalism a virulent strand of homophobia, there’s nothing surprising there.

Thau and his followers have even founded a political party – Noam, currently represented in the Knesset by Avi Maoz, who is part of the "Religious Zionism" list. Noam is dedicated to "strengthening the Jewish identity of Israel." And top of their list of threats to Israel’s Jewish identity is the "progressive madness" of normalizing homosexuality.

Far right Lahava activists protest the Jerusalem Pride March: Signs read 'End the abomination,' 'Jerusalem is not Sodom' and 'Leftists are traitors'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

What is interesting in Kostiner’s tirade however is that he chose to say it in the context of a protest against the Bennett-Lapid government.

The mini-storm over Kostiner’s words was dying down when a new one erupted. This time, the venue was Channel 14, a far-right and ultra-conservative station owned by Yitzchak Miralashvili, a Russian-Israeli oligarch who made his fortune as one of the main investors in VKontakte, Russia’s largest online social network.

Since casino owner Miriam Adelson decided to shift her freesheet Israel Hayom from its slavish pro-Netanyahu positions to a more Bennett-friendly stance, Channel 14 has become the most prominent news organization opposing the government.

Channel 14 has a monthly magazine, and this month its main article is written by conservative blogger Gali Bat Chorin (a pseudonym) on those "who take advantage of LGBT." It’s a 13-page mishmash of half-baked theories on matters ranging from conversion therapy to gender dysphoria, with quotes from everyone from Herbert Marcuse to Milo Yiannopoulous, accusing the "radical-left" of taking advantage of the various LGBTQ causes for their own political agenda. She ends her "essay" with the fighting words, "the sanity revolution is starting now!"

There’s nothing original in this turgid over-long summary of the various gender-identity wars raging in the west. All it proves is that Bat Chorin can read English (among her many achievements is the translation into Hebrew of Jordan Peterson’s "12 Rules for Life.")

What is interesting is once again the context. That Channel 14, a station which has very little editorial infrastructure or production capacities beyond an open-studio with talking-heads delivering diatribes against the Bennett-Lapid government which is destroying the Jewish State, chose to feature this essay on the cover of its monthly magazine. That cover was adorned with a cartoon of a pride-colored golden calf, and the blaring headline "Lahatabistan ['LGBTQstan'] – This is how the radical left organizations are imposing the LGBT religion on Israel."

Ostensibly, Kostiner and Bat Chorin are not coming from the same place. He is a fundamentalist rabbi who views homosexuality as an abomination and a spiritual threat to the Jewish soul. Bat Chorin is a secular woman married to a non-Jew, a political rabble-rouser translating popular far-right western conspiracy theories into Hebrew and, lest she be accused of homophobia, she makes it clear in her piece that she has no issue with "the lifestyles of the individual."

But in the current context of Israel’s political and cultural wars, they are on the same side. Both hate the government and the nebulous "progressive" interests it somehow represents.

It’s hard to see why. This government isn’t notably more gay-friendly than the previous Netanyahu government. Both prime ministers have been vaguely open to engaging with LGBTQ groups without actually pushing forward any legislation on their rights. Both of their cabinets have included openly gay ministers as well as ultra-conservative parties – the Haredi ones in Netanyahu’s case, and in Bennett’s, the unprecedented inclusion of the Islamist United Arab List.

LGBTQ rights is a curious issue in Israel and one which doesn’t necessarily break down on the normal political divides. The mainstream right-wing elements, like Likud, which has an active LGBTQ group which regularly meets with party leaders including Netanyahu, don’t see any need to take sides.

Within the national-religious community, a growing number of young men and women are openly coming out, while the sentiments of rabbis like Thau and Kostiner are representative of small if vocal minority.

That’s even more the case with Channel 14’s attempt to inject Putinesque gay-baiting in to the right-wing discourse. It’s a losing battle which has few allies. The Haredi leadership simply ignores the issue – its politicians won’t even participate in debates on it.

Ironically, if the far-right was less dedicated to Jewish supremacism, they could have found allies in unexpected places.

The United Arab List's new spiritual leader, Sheikh Safwat Freij, railed this week against the government intending to spend 30 million shekels on funding LGBTQ groups in the Arab community, while even ostensibly progressive Arab-Israeli leaders like Ayman Odeh are not eager to challenge their socially conservative constituency on these issues.

Interestingly, the health ministry, currently run by one of Israel's most prominent gay politicians, Nitzan Horowitz, which made a big deal this week of including the Pride colors in the logo of its social media accounts in Hebrew, didn’t make the same changes to its accounts in Arabic.

Somehow pride got lost in translation. But the Israeli right hates Arabs much more than it hates gays.

The two largest annual mass events in Israel, the only ones to regularly draw hundreds of thousands, are Tel Aviv’s Pride parade and the Lag Ba'Omer pilgrimage to Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s shrine on Mount Meron.

Pop sociologists will say this symbolizes the deep divide within Israeli society, between the secular hedonist international city of Tel Aviv and the traditional Jewish heritage of Jerusalem. Cynics will note that that God’s wrath was directed at Meron last year when 45 men and boys were crushed to death in Israel’s worst civilian disaster.

But these are facile observations. At the parade in Tel Aviv next Friday, and certainly at yesterday’s smaller one in Jerusalem, there were plenty of those who would have felt equally at home at Rabbi Shimon’s grave.

There are those in both the secular and religious right in Israel who think that their homophobic crusade for "sanity," "normalcy" and "health of the national soul" can be rallying cries in the coming battles for Israel’s identity. Not everyone on the right feels the same.

At last week's Israel Conservative Conference, there were no sessions on "family values" and other similar dog-whistle themes. Its organizers, who are trying very hard to build an Israeli version of the American conservative movement here, are at least savvy enough to realize which of its ideological elements have less chance of taking root here.

There remains a long uphill fight for acceptance of LGBTQ people in the more conservative of Israel’s Jewish and Muslim communities. But in mainstream Israeli society, it has already been won.

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