Opinion |

This Year’s Least Shameful Politician: An ultra-Orthodox Homophobe

The MK thrown out of Shas for attending a same-sex wedding is no poster-boy for ultra-Orthodoxy tolerance of the LGBT community. But he did the right thing, unlike Trump and Netanyahu who headline a year of shame

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Yigal Guetta after submitting his resignation to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on September 17, 2017.
Yigal Guetta after submitting his resignation to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on September 17, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Yigal Guetta, who under pressure of the senior rabbis of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political party Shas, was forced this week to resign his seat in the Knesset, hardly deserves to be seen as a symbol of tolerance towards gay people.

True, the reason for Guetta’s abrupt ouster was an interview he gave ten days ago on Israel Army radio in which he explained that in 2015, he had attended his nephew’s marriage to another man "in order to make him happy, because he’s my sister’s son and she’s my sister and I want to embrace her."

But the same 'embracing' Guetta said in another radio interview only last year - where he was asked for his views on the gay community in Israel - that "every society has a proportion of sick people, every society has rapists and thieves", and in the case of gay people, "even one percent is too much. There is no place in our society for these kind of things."

Neither is there any need for us to sympathize with Guetta for the manner of his dismissal. The rabbis drummed Guetta out of the party, despite the opinion of his Knesset colleagues, especially his fellow MKs in Shas itself, who view Guetta as an efficient and popular parliamentarian.

He may be well-connected to the Shas grassroots, who have always been more forgiving and moderate, at least in religious matters, than its so-called "spiritual leaders," but Guetta chose to serve in a party with no democratic processes, where rabbis decide who can and cannot represent them. Members of a political party that, since its inception has used rabbis’ images and blessings to attract voters, can’t complain when the same rabbis turn on them and turf them out.

And yet, we do sympathize with Guetta. Even though he doesn’t deserve it, and even though the party in which he was a member until this week is one of the main reasons civil marriages, let along gay marriages, are not formally recognized in Israel. We sympathize with him because we mistakenly tend to excuse those whose entire education and upbringing has led to their homophobia, just as it has their other intolerances.

Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu attend an event at Ariel University, June 28, 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod

But we also sympathize with him for the way he wouldn’t apologize for doing the decent thing in turning up for his nephew’s gay marriage, despite his homophobia. And here, I want to believe that our sympathy isn’t entirely misplaced. We can reject Guetta’s rancid opinions on gay people and agree that he only has himself to blame for choosing to serve an anti-democratic clerical party, while appreciate that he chose to do the decent thing.

Perhaps the problem is that we simply aren’t used to seeing a politician prepared to lose their job for something so basic and decent as standing by their family.

Certainly, gay-friendliness is no guarantee of decency. This week, amid the controversy over Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev’s latest remarks against "Israeli artists [who] contribute to the incitement of the young generation against the most moral army in the world, by spreading lies in the guise of art," and her threats to defund productions that don’t toe the political line, there were those who defended her because of her "solidarity with the gay community." 

Broadcaster Yigal Ravid criticized the decision by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television’s decision to disinvite her from the annual local Oscars, the Ophir Prize event, urging everyone to remember that "she has always been the first in the Likud to come to the gay community’s events."

So what? That doesn’t make Regev any more decent or brave. Likud, for quite a while now, has been largely free from homophobia, with an openly gay MK and annual meetings of its gay members with party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Regev took no political risk in engaging with the community and shouldn’t be allowed to use that as pinkwashing for her attempts to suppress freedom of expression.

At the best of times, expecting politicians to act against their nakedly opportunistic instincts and do the decent thing is a futile exercise. That is doubly true in the age of Trump and Netanyahu, when we have no right anymore to be shocked by anything an Israeli or Western politician says.

Confederate monument marked with the word 'shame' and a photograph of Heather D. Heyer, killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, Va. Aug. 16, 2017Credit: Steve Earley | The Virginian-Pil

We’re on the eve of a new year so I won’t depress you or myself by listing all the times in 5777 when the shame barriers were broken by politicians. Suffice it to say, this is the year that a president of the United States failed to call out neo-Nazis marching on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting "Jews will not replace us." And then the prime minister of the Jewish state failed to do so as well.

I think the real reason for many of us wanting to grasp at Guetta’s refusal to apologize for going to his gay nephew’s wedding, is that we’re all just so sick and tired of politicians that even the faintest flicker of decency from one of them bowls us over. It flies in the face of everything we’ve become accustomed to this year. No wonder he has no place any more in Israeli politics.

Those of us who will go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana will quote the verse from the Book of Daniel: "To you, Lord, the righteousness, and to us the shamefacedness."

Never mind righteousness. This has been a year in which our leaders have lost even their capacity for shame. 

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