Israel is experiencing what may be a painful maturation of its gay and lesbian community.
It comes with the unfolding of a long running police investigation into the shooting deaths of two and the wounding of 11, one of whom was seriously disabled, four years ago at a gay and lesbian community center in Tel Aviv, Bar Noar (Youth bar).
The fact that the police worked diligently on what appeared to be an insoluble crime for so long is itself a reflection of the gay community''s clout. Murder cases that are not solved after a month or so get relegated to the files, most likely forever, unless brought forward by unexpected revelations. The practice is not only Israeli, but seems to be a general way of police forces to deal with limited resources. However, this case remained on the active agenda.
When the event happened, it was widely viewed as a hate crime, directed against the gay and lesbian community, most likely by the Haredim or other religious Jews. Biblical injunctions against homosexuality are well known. There is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the law as defined in Leviticus, "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." (20:13). Suggestng something else, however, is the story of David and Jonathan. (Samuel 1:26): "thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." and the relationship between Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth. Although the religious have standard interpretations that these are not expressions of what is forbidden, the text is no less obtuse than many other well crafted Biblical passages.
Israeli practice with respect to gays and lesbians has put it among the more enlightened countries. For some years, due to Supreme Court rulings, gay and lesbian couples have received some of the economic rights enjoyed by married couples. The topic has not been an issue in the military. IDF has no "don''t ask, don''t tell." Gay marriages are not on the horizon in a country where marriage/divorce is largely the province of religious authorities, and where intermarriages, i.e., heterosexual marriages between members of different religious communities, are not permitted by the Rabbinate or their Muslim and Druze equivalents..
In practice, however, marriage for those forbidden to marry in Israel is legal. Civil unions formalized overseas are registered with the Interior Ministry, and provide all the rights and responsibilities that married couples experience in other civilized countries. There is also a substantial incidence of civil marriage overseas, then registering with the Interior Ministry, by Jewish couples with limited tolerance for the rituals of a religious marriage. Gay and lesbians married overseas have registered themselves as married in Israel, sometimes with bureaucratic hassles not experienced by heterosexual couples.
The police have announced some conclusions and made arrests dealing with the Bar Noar episode that have sent shock waves through the gay and lesbian communities.
By all the signs, it was not something to be laid at the responsibility of the Haredim or other religious activists, and may not have been a hate crime in the simplest sense of that term. However, gay and lesbian activists have not abandoned the idea of a hate crime. To at least some of them, all violence against members of their community deserves the most despicable adjectives.
The motive for the crime appears to have been revenge against a member of the gay community who frequented Bar Noar, and was said to have exploited sexually the younger brother of the man who did the shooting. Insofar as the target of the revenge was not in Bar Noar when the event occurred, yet there was shooting nonetheless, and innocent individuals died or were severely injured, it seems fair to conclude that there were elements of hate in the action.
The case touches one of the elements involved in homophobia, i.e., the fear and suspicion of harassment and exploitation of young males by gays, perhaps turning the victims gay. It also exposes the issue of exploitation within a community whose activists have described themselves as models of individual decency.
The culmination of the police investigation and resulting media festivity occurred during the run-up to the annual Tel Aviv gay pride events. Police deny that the timing was intentional. Thousands paraded, perhaps not all of them gays or lesbians. Politicians of several parties, not all of them left of center, proclaimed their support for the community. Even a leader of the ultra-Orthodox party SHAS, allowed himself to be quoted with something other than condemnation of the community. Ariyeh Deri is a candidate for the Jerusalem mayoralty, and pledged to maintain the status quo and allow the annual gay parade that had been a matter of controversy among the 30 percent of the city''s Jews who are ultra-Orthodox.
Most of the politicians who spoke at the central gathering were well received, with the notable exception of boos for Yair Lapid. Most likely his reception reflected recent actions as Finance Minister, going back on his campaign pledges not to increase the burdens of the middle class. Gays and lesbians are nothing if they are not the epitome of what is politically correct, and Israel''s current conception of what is correct is to improve social services, and to put their costs on someone higher in the economic scale than the middle class.,
Political influence, introspection, embarrassment, and perhaps shame are all involved in the story, along with the baser elements of revenge, aimless shooting, and the death and injury of individuals whose only fault was being in the wrong place at he wrong time. The persistence of the police and the appearance of leading politicians at gay pride events testify to the status of the gay and lesbian community in Israel. As elsewhere, community activists are well educated, articulate, and likely to be politically involved. A prominent Knesset Member, albeit of the small leftist party Meretz, is a former media personality who is an articulate advocate of gay and other causes. He is also an announced candidate in the upcoming Tel Aviv mayoralty contest.
Embarrassment, introspection, and shame are associated with the exploitation of young men by an active member of the community. That element of the story produced other stories of exploitation by community members. Acknowledging that community members have suffered not only by virtue of being gay, but having brought suffering to others, has brought to the open that exploitation must be faced in the place that gays and lesbians had developed as a sanctuary for their community.
Where sex is concerned, gays and lesbians may not be all that different from the rest of us.