Can One Be Gay, Republican and pro-Israel in the U.S.?

The intersection between faith, sexuality and ideology is fraught. Democrats face a dilemma over whether Israel supersedes gay rights as a political issue.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Jewish participants in the San Francisco Pride march in 2014.
Jewish participants in the San Francisco Pride march in 2014.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

Several unrelated incidents – and vociferous reactions to them – over the past few weeks have highlighted just how tangled gay rights, Republican politics and Israel have become in the United States.

In early April, the Jewish National Fund in Atlanta found itself at the center of an unexpected storm when it attempted to honor Pastor Charles Stanley for his longtime support of Israel. But for Southern Jewish and LGBT rights groups, Stanley’s harsh anti-gay statements took precedence: After a vocal campaign against him, the local Baptist clergyman declined the award.

A week later, two prominent gay New York businessmen faced similar scorn for hosting a small, private dinner with Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, also known for his anti-gay views. The hosts, now facing a major backlash from the LGBT community, claimed they were interested in discussing Cruz’s views on foreign policy, the Middle East and support for Israel – areas where they largely agree.

These incidents took pace at a complicated intersection of faith, sexuality and ideology. In the context of U.S. politics, each ingredient has an uncomfortable relationship with the others: The Republican Party has yet to broadly embrace gay rights (though some members are reconsidering their stance); gay activists have become vocally anti-Israel (even if many LGBT Jews are not); Israel boasts an impressive record on LGBT rights (while also being charged with “pinkwashing”); and support for Israel has threatened to become a partisan wedge issue following Netanyahu’s Congressional speech in March.

In an opinion piece responding to the Cruz event in New York, Jay Michaelson, a columnist for The Daily Beast and a Jewish and LGBT activist, argued in favor of the boycotts against the hosts, placing the incident in a broader context. “What happened in that penthouse,” he wrote, referring to the location of the dinner, “was part of a much larger pattern of gay Jewish Republicans putting LGBT civil rights aside, and putting Israel first.”

That claim raises a number of questions: Does a significant gay Jewish Republican voice exist? If so, does Israel supersede gay rights as a political priority, and is it such a significant issue that gay Jewish Democratic voters would switch their party allegiance? And what makes the incident in question part of a larger pattern?

“There’s not a growing number of Jewish LGBT Republicans, necessarily,” said Arthur Slepian, the executive director of A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israel LGBT advocacy group based in San Francisco, who himself is a Democrat. “I don’t see any evidence that [Israel] is driving people toward the Republican Party.”

But Slepian also pointed out that there is a growing sense that the two identities are no longer mutually exclusive. “I think what we’re seeing is that more and more LGBT people in general and LGBT Jews are stepping up to say ‘I can be an LGBT person and a proud supporter of Israel’ and those things are not in conflict.”

Several politically involved gay Republicans also told Haaretz that there is no organized contingent of Jewish LGBT conservatives, nor does it appear that their numbers are suddenly and sharply increasing. Still, they pointed to an increasing overlap of political priorities and strong representation in both gay Republican and Jewish Republican organizations.

“There are gay Republican Jewish members that place in high consideration the United States’ relationship with Israel and those nations that are a threat to Israel,” said Gregory T. Angelo, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a pro-LGBT organization affiliated with the Republican Party. “But that doesn’t represent a new voice.”

Expanding political tent

Recently, Angelo penned an opinion piece along with Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, in The Hill, a political newspaper in Washington, D.C., describing their concerns about a potential nuclear deal with Iran, and criticizing the Obama administration for not making human rights, including for gays, a condition in the negotiations.

“That’s why Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest coalition of gay Republicans and its allies, and the Republican Jewish Coalition are together insisting that human rights are a component of any nuclear deal with Iran,” they wrote. (The RJC does not take a position on domestic social issues like gay marriage, focusing only on “national security, small government and economic policy.”)

The shared political agenda involving Iran and U.S. foreign policy also coincides with growing support for same-sex marriage within the Republican Party. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week found that 56 percent of Republicans would attend the gay wedding of a loved one if invited, suggesting that Republican candidates who take a strong anti-same-sex marriage stance may be increasingly at odds with core voters. The growing embrace of same-sex relationships is true of conservative-leaning Jewish organizations as well.

“In the last two months, I’ve been to the AIPAC conference and the J-Street conference and in both cases we spoke at LGBT events,” said Slepian. “In both places there are large factions of LGBT supporters.”

He also pointed out that Israeli politics reflects a similar expansion of the political tent for LGBT individuals: Fifteen years ago, he said, LGBT Israelis were almost uniformly aligned with the left-wing Meretz party; today, even Likud has an organized LGBT chapter. That doesn’t make it a champion of gay rights per se, but it is no longer dismissing that constituency either.

The swift progress of same-sex marriage in the United States has been politically invigorating for many LGBT Jews, yet sexuality – like any aspect of a voter’s identity – is not the primary political motivation for everyone. Indeed, some LGBT Jewish voters feel that gay rights in the United States is riding a wave of momentum that no longer demands their support, while Israel faces serious challenges.

“I am certain that in due time the LGBT community will receive all the equal rights that should be automatically afforded us,” said an American-Israeli living with his partner in Tel Aviv, who asked not to be identified. “This is in stark contrast to Israel’s security which rests in a fragile state. I am willing to wait a bit longer for this inevitable social progress in order to ensure a safer world and more stable Israel.”

Though he’s not alone, the American’s reluctance to share his name speaks to how unpopular this view still is among LGBT Jews.

“I have known LGBT Jews who have felt afraid to reveal their conservative political opinions for fear of being ostracized,” he said, admitting that he shares this concern.

(Illustrating that point, last summer New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the largest LGBT synagogue in the world, was at the center of a very public dispute over how to show its support for Israel during the Gaza War, which led to the resignation of a board member and several congregants.)

“There is an assumption that if one is gay they are liberal, and an even greater assumption that if one is Jewish and gay they absolutely must be liberal,” the American explained. “This just isn’t so, and I see more people coming out of the woodwork to voice their opinions because of their passion for Israel. The Israel issue has served as a catalyst for LGBT right-leaning Jews to literally come out of the closet yet again and be heard.”

'More muscular coalition'

In addition to trying to catalyze change, some gay Jewish Republicans now see a unique opportunity to break down, or at least rethink, existing political silos. And they point to the kerfuffle over the Ted Cruz event as an indication that previously distinct political categories are beginning to blur.

“I would not over-read this particular event,” said someone active in Republican, Jewish and LBGT equality activities. “The broader story is that the ideological spectrum is growing.”

He also pointed out that the LGBT equality movement could learn something from the strategy of pro-Israel lobbyists in terms of cultivating bipartisan support. “If we’re smart, we’ll follow the pro-Israel community in the '70s, '80s and '90s, and then we’ll have a more muscular, durable, bipartisan coalition that is very effective in addressing policy.

“A good chorus has lots of different voices and a strong coalition has lots of different ideologies,” he added. “The equality family has gotten larger and there are lot of new faces and voices, and that makes our family stronger.”

By and large, however, it appears that the gay Jewish vote in the upcoming 2016 U.S. presidential election will remain overwhelmingly Democratic. Several voters in this demographic who spoke with Haaretz made clear that same-sex marriage is not a done deal and that, beyond marriage, there is still much to be accomplished for gay rights. Within their circles, few are considering switching political affiliation to the Republican Party, even those who are staunchly pro-Israel. They point out that if Hillary Clinton is indeed the Democratic nominee, she checks both boxes with a strong pro-Israel and pro-gay rights record.

So, the Republican Party is apparently not looking at an influx of gay Jewish voters anytime soon, but the increasingly partisan framing of Israel and the small but noticeable signs of a Republican softening toward gay rights leave room for a subtle shift – if not in this election cycle, perhaps the next.

In a rebuttal to Michaelson’s initial critique of the Cruz event, James Kirchick, also writing in The Daily Beast, suggested that sitting down for a civil conversation with someone who holds competing views is exactly what American politics needs most right now. With respect to the incident in question, agreement on Israel allowed people on opposite sides of gay rights to sit at the same table and discuss their differences – at one point, Cruz allowed that if his own daughter were gay, he would still love her – a significant admission for the Texas senator. However small a crumb that is, Kirchick thinks it should be celebrated.

“By his mere visiting the home of a pair of prominent, openly gay businessmen, and with his comments about loving his hypothetical gay daughter, Cruz set an important marker for conservative Republican politicians,” he wrote.

That may not erase Cruz’s virulent statements against same-sex marriage, nor his use of the issue to mobilize an Evangelical Christian base, but it represents the start of an unlikely conversation, and illustrates a blurring of the boundaries between who can talk to whom, the assumptions of one’s political opinions and the unexpected concessions that may come from dialogue.

The same can be said for LGBT Jewish Americans who have found, or are considering looking for, a political home with the Republican Party because of myriad views that may include, but are not limited to, support for Israel.

“I and other LGBT people have different opinions about Iran, ISIS, and the Federal Reserve,” said Slepian. “My opinions on those issues are not rooted in my being a gay person. There needs to be room so that as we LGBT people look at complicated issues in the world, reasonable people can reach different opinions and have different political affiliations.”

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