In the musical “Chicago,” a character named Velma attempts to manipulate her cellmate in what the narrator refers to as “an act of desperation.” Velma weaves her web of deceit with an apparent air of cool confidence. Only the audience is aware of how down-and-out she really is. The malicious letter recently published by 200 rabbis representing the meeting point of Orthodox and Haredi leadership (many of whom draw salaries from the public purse) that declares homosexuality to be a disease and non-heteronormative families abusive, is likewise an act of desperation rather than a show of authority or strength. It is an effort to stem the tidal wave of public support in favor of extending civil rights to gay men by drawing upon age-old fears and prejudice. Behind the poison pen is a beleaguered, fierce rabbinic leadership anxious to maintain its grip on power in the face of mounting pressure to reform or even abolish state-funded Ultra-Orthodoxy.
It is easy to understand the desperation of these rabbis. Their once venerable position seems to be slipping away as they are challenged by Diaspora Jewry, Liberal Jews, women’s groups and even members of their own community who oppose their power and policies. While they currently enjoy considerable parliamentary influence (as evidenced in the recent round of legislative wrangling), they are fast moving away from occupying public consensus. Indeed, an ever-growing majority of Israelis are losing patience with what they see as a community of leaders who have abused their power and created a sector of society that pays little in return for its privileged position.
The letter is but the latest in a series of acts which can only be seen as signs of weakness. Just recently, Haifa police were pushed into arresting a Conservative rabbi using the fabricated pretext that he performed a marriage forbidden by Jewish Law. This backfired, as did the insistence the week before that the Likud abandon gay men in the changes to the surrogacy law. The backlash to these acts has been swift and strong, just as the response to this letter should be.
To be sure, the letter is built on a series of factual ‘errors’ (AKA lies), such as the deviancy of homosexuality, or the pronouncement that heterosexual couples are exclusively qualified for parenthood. Far from damaging children, as the letter claims, a plethora of reputable research concludes that same-sex couples (like single parents) are quite successful at raising healthy, well-adjusted children. Some studies have indicated that LGBT parents have an advantage over standard families, since their desire to become parents in the first place predisposes them to greater investment in the process.
Calling gay men ‘perverts’ and ‘terrorists’ is likewise baseless. A look at worldwide statistics on violent and sexual crimes shows that by far the greatest perpetrators of these crimes are heterosexual males, the demographic that the rabbis both represent and claim to champion.
The letter, though, was never meant to be taken seriously by the gay community or its allies, the rabbis are well aware that in these circles their opinions matter little, even if they offend. Instead, the letter is designed to rouse traditional homophobic prejudices from the very populations that traditionally support the Israeli rabbinate—voting members of the Likud and Jewish Home parties. It became necessary for the rabbis to rally support and reign in this base after it was revealed in a recent poll that well over half of Likud and Jewish Home voters support extended rights for gay men. This, the rabbis must have concluded, is a situation that cannot be tolerated.
The poll is likely more threatening to the rabbis than the massive march on Tisha B’Av Sunday in Tel Aviv. It indicates that for most Israelis, the issue of homosexuality is no longer a matter of faith, but of politics. If 58% of the Religious Zionist community can detach their belief in civil liberties from their understanding of Jewish law, it seems that they, like many Israelis are beginning to see the wisdom in separating religion and state. If they, like most of Israel’s citizens, reach the conclusion that it is time to dismantle state sponsored faith, these rabbis are in trouble.
Up until now, the rabbis who form the core of government-sponsored Judaism have succeeded in creating a self-sustaining monopoly. They have not only secured generous civil service salaries for themselves and their followers (think of how many people are paid to be Kashrut inspectors, Rabbinic-court and burial workers and educators), but have cemented in law policies that favor their communities. They have managed to force successive governments to sponsor their population explosion and fund educational systems that create generations of dutiful voters cut off from the mainstream of Israeli society and unprepared for life outside their community.
Thus, gay men are a clear and present danger to the continued authority of the government sponsored, Ultra-Orthodox dominated rabbinate. For one thing, accepting homosexuality challenges long-held gender norms at the core of most Haredi societies. Separating the caring of children from their biological creation and legally allowing males to become primary caregivers, upends the idea that women alone are meant to stay in the home and out of the halls of study and communal power. Given that Haredi women already form the dominant economic force in their society, the acceptance of non-gendered parenting presents a serious threat to male authority.
Gay men have become the vanguard of a broader civil liberties movement that challenges the status quo of official state Judaism. They bring with them other streams of Judaism, including Reform and Secular rabbis who want to either end all government funding for religious leaders, or take a representative piece of the pie. They are the most visible members of a coalition that insists that all Israeli citizens be educated to the same standard, serve in the army and pay taxes at the same rate and become equally responsible for supporting their families. If this movement succeeds, it will almost certainly result in a declining birthrate among Ultra-Orthodox families, greater assimilation into general Israeli society and a weakening of the political power that rabbis hold over their own and other Israeli communities.
These rabbis have a great deal to lose and the letter they have penned is a frantic and cynical attempt to use old prejudices to shore up support. They are trying to connect the love that Orthodox or Traditional voters have for their faith with a hatred of homosexuality and all those who refuse to adhere to defined gender stereotypes. By vilifying LGBT families, they are trying to paint all non-traditional families as ‘sick’ and all those who support them as illegitimate Jews, unpatriotic Israelis and despicable humans who sanction the abuse of innocent children.
Several prominent voices in the Israeli civil-liberties community have warned that the letter amounts to call for violent action against the LGBT community and their allies. Given that a similarly inflammatory statement by clerics in 2005 (ahead of the World Pride March held in Jerusalem) was followed by a violent attack against marchers, they are right to sound an alarm. This too plays into the hands of the rabbis who penned the letter, since one of its consequences (unintended or otherwise) is that it will rightly frighten people from taking to the streets and demonstrating their power.
Acts of desperation rarely succeed (especially in the long term) and thus far, the desperate acts of the rabbinate have served to distance them from public support rather than gather strength. Yet, their influence in the public sphere, like their grip on the current government, remains strong. Their words were carefully chosen to hit the right psychological buttons and in the short term, those words may do damage to a cause that is gaining momentum. More importantly, the treacherous, extreme nature of the letter will appeal to those who already hold such views and may be tempted to see this as permission to act violently.
While the letter should be dismissed as factually inaccurate, it must be taken seriously as an act of incitement. No matter what happens in the coming days, the authors as leaders and public servants must be held accountable for their words and the consequences of this reprehensible act.