Why are religious politicians obsessed with LGBTQ+, Reform Jews? - analysis

Most religious Zionists don’t think the same way as the extremists. Many voted for the RZP because they felt they had no alternative. This might become visible in the next elections.

 Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters, November 1, 2022. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters, November 1, 2022.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

It seems that almost every day, another religious-Zionist politician or rabbi makes an extreme statement about the LGBTQ community and Reform or liberal Jews.

The Noam Party maintains a list of LGBTQ journalists in Israel for the purpose of minimizing their influence.

Religious Zionist Party MK Orit Struck said on Sunday that doctors should have the right to not provide medical care to LGBTQ people if it is “against their religious belief.”

And Noam chairman Avi Maoz said the Jerusalem gay pride parade should be illegal.

Not only that, but the same types of threats have been made by future coalition partners against Diaspora Jews, specifically liberal Jews. Calling someone “Reform” has become a way for right-wing – and specifically religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox Israelis – to demonize a person, organization or group. Many of them see the LGBTQ community and Reform Jews as representatives of ultra-progressive ideologies.

 AMONG SELF-IDENTIFIED leftists, once-popular issues such as the two-state solution have been replaced by those such as LGBTQ+ rights. Pictured: The first pride parade in Mitzpe Ramon, July 2021.  (credit: FLASH90) AMONG SELF-IDENTIFIED leftists, once-popular issues such as the two-state solution have been replaced by those such as LGBTQ+ rights. Pictured: The first pride parade in Mitzpe Ramon, July 2021. (credit: FLASH90)

Yet they do not make an effort to get to know these people and groups – certainly not enough to justify such outlandish claims.

The aforementioned outlandish claims

In May, Noam Party member Rabbi Tzvi Kustiner told his Mitzpe Ramon yeshiva students to “fight” against the LGBTQ community.

“This is the battle that I tell everyone: Don’t be shy. Be courageous. Where you work, tell them ‘LGBTQ people, go home! Gays, go home!’ Fight them on everything,” Kustiner said in a documented speech.

"This is the battle that I tell everyone: Don’t be shy. Be courageous. Where you work, tell them ‘LGBTQ+ people, go home! Gays, go home!’ Fight them on everything."

Noam Party member Rabbi Tzvi Kustiner

In June, ahead of a gay pride march in Mitzpe Ramon, a member of the local LGBTQ community received a threat that said, “We have nothing to lose. If the march passes by the house of the rabbi, we will kill them.”

In 2018, Rabbi Yigal Levenstein of the Bnei David pre-military academy in Eli said homosexuality should be eradicated – like AIDS. He has since repeated the sentiment.

So why are religious-Zionist politicians and rabbis specifically so vocal about LGBTQ and progressive Jews?

First, religious Zionists are perhaps the most ideological sector in society. The community sees its membership in the Knesset, or in any national institution, as a religious and national duty – as opposed to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) politicians, who view it as a way to look out for their community’s needs, with less of a strong ideological underbelly.

Religious Zionists in the Knesset or in leadership roles see their service as the implementation of the vision of the biblical prophets, part of the process of the nation of Israel returning to its homeland. As Zionists, they also see their duty as a patriotic nationalistic service to the Zionist cause.

While a secular Zionist might only reflect on the Zionist element, and the haredi only the religious aspect, the combination of these two ideals makes the religious Zionists take their role extremely seriously. This theory explains virtually every one of their political moves.

Perhaps RZP politicians and rabbis feel a need to demonize a group of people to create an internal communal sense of solidarity. The same explanation can be given to the demonizing of Reform Jews.

In both situations, RZP leaders have been expressing, for the past few years already, that these phenomena are foreign and distant, and that they are not to be a part of the community. Yet over the past two decades, the LGBTQ issue has become a topic that almost any family or educational institution has been forced to confront.

Approaching it differently from the majority of modern-Orthodox American rabbis, in Israel, a majority of the religious-Zionist rabbis – though not all – do not appear to have internalized the fact that a certain percentage of their constituents are LGBTQ.

They don’t seem to realize that this is an issue of life and death for the people involved – more than it is religious or ideological.

Instead of promoting sensitivity training to teach people how to delicately communicate or assist young LGBTQ members of their own communities, they have instead decided to fight any mention of the issue.

The rate of suicides and suicide attempts among young LGBTQ people is higher across the board than that for the general population. The loving, accepting approach that many liberal rabbis have expressed – even without providing concrete solutions in concert with Halacha – has not been adopted by the extreme segment of religious-Zionist rabbis.

The increasing number of individuals who confide in these rabbis about their sexuality causes these religious leaders to feel as if they are under attack by progressive forces. This is the same with the display of liberal types of Judaism in Israel.

Rabbinic organizations such as Beit Hillel that are more liberal than Tzohar, for example, have caused this more extreme group of rabbis to become nervous. That an Orthodox woman who was certified by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Ohr Torah Stone to serve as a spiritual leader and a morat hora’ah (someone authorized to provide direction in matters of Halacha) and is now the only rabbinic figure in an Efrat synagogue is something they see as a threat.

They think that Reform Judaism is taking over. What they don’t realize is that all they are doing is giving this relatively small Israeli group of progressive-religious Jews more exposure.

Most Israelis hadn’t heard of Women of the Wall until haredi and extreme religious-Zionists politicians and rabbis demonized them, as they did on Sunday. Members of the organization were treated as a fringe group for decades, but are now more mainstream because of the very attention that these religious-Zionist and haredi Israelis gave them by fighting against them.

The Western Wall compromise – a slow process that took years to get to the table – was canceled in a previous Benjamin Netanyahu-led government in 2017. That was thanks to a lobby group of extreme religious Zionists called Liba who convinced haredi media to attack its politicians for staying silent about the agreement.

Haredi politicians later admitted that sites such as Kikar Hashabbat and other haredi media outlets pressured them to stop the compromise.

This explains the issue of ideology: The haredi ministers from Shas and United Torah Judaism were okay with elegantly overlooking the vote on the compromise – but only when a religious-Zionist lobby group gave them reasons to be against it. Only then did they change their minds and make noise to make their constituents happy.

Many haredi leaders have since said this was a mistake that made Israelis more aware of progressive Judaism in Israel. Some think tanks actually claimed that the focus of the media on the Western Wall deal actually convinced more people to support and even join Women of the Wall.

Bnei David is one of the more influential institutions in the religious-Zionist community. It is affiliated with the extreme religious-Zionist Rabbi Zvi Thau and Har Hamor Yeshiva.

The institution has also become a symbol of masculinity and machismo. Most religious-Zionist men enlist in combat units. Bnei David is one of the drivers behind this admirable phenomenon. Serving in elite combat units is considered a religious and Zionist responsibility.

As a result, IDF officers from these types of yeshivot think it impossible that their friends might be gay. This pressure only compounds and isolates LGBTQ people even more.

The media also play a significant role in documenting that religious-Zionist politicians keep on mentioning the LGBTQ issue during their interviews. As is the case in most Western countries, Israeli media contain a large percentage of journalists who are part of the LGBTQ community or supporters of it. As a result, writers often amplify existing extremist opinions, at times more than what is actually the ideology of the politicians being interviewed.

However, most religious Zionists don’t think the same way as the extremists. Many voted for the RZP and its factions because they felt they had no alternative. This might become visible in the next elections, depending on how the religious-Zionist parties act. It is their responsibility to prove otherwise.