LGBT rights as Jewish values

"Don’t expect him to attend a pride parade,"says community leader Shai Doitch after gay groups met with MK Moshe Feiglin.

Likud MK Moshe Feiglin at LGBT event (photo credit: Courtesy)
Likud MK Moshe Feiglin at LGBT event
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Expectations for last week’s unlikely discussion between representatives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community and far-right Likud MK Moshe Feiglin – whose 2009 article “I’m a Proud Homophobe,” published in Makor Rishon, riled the community – were low.
“I’m not here to convince anyone or to be convinced,” he said at the meeting’s start in Tel Aviv’s Bar Noar, a safe space for LGBT youth. “If what I say is uncomfortable to hear, at least know that you’re being told the truth. And if it is comfortable to hear, know I’m not sucking up to you.”
Yet during the two-hour discussion, members of the LGBT community managed to uncover some common ground, in part by appealing to the MK on grounds of Jewish values.
When one volunteer for a group that supports displaced LGBT youth said that some 60 percent of the kids had come from haredi (ultra- Orthodox) homes, the kippa-wearing Feiglin said it was important for him to find a solution for such children.
“I have no doubt that it’s more difficult for religious youth,” he said.
“They might want to keep being religious even if they are gay.”
Another audience member implored the MK to make inroads into the religious education system, saying that religious educators lacked training on how to deal with LGBT youth in a healthy way, and Feiglin said he agreed in principle.
“As a 15-year-old, I would have died to see a religious man with a kippa sitting here and even saying ‘gays and lesbians,’” said a yarmulke-wearing man named Daniel Jonas, representing Havruta, a religious gay men’s group, said.
When the Aguda, the LGBT organization that organized the event, explained how it hosted LGBT youth who had been thrown out of their homes or communities on holidays such as Rosh Hashana and Passover, the MK praised its work.
But when it came to family issues, considerable difference persisted, despite the Jewish framing.
“I believe in family. And when I talk about family, I mean the ‘classic’ family, with a man and a woman,” he said.
That “classic” family, he continued, is the foundation of society and of the nation, and there are “forces” that want to break it apart.
Aguda chairman Shai Doitch said family was equally important to LGBT Israelis.
“I appreciate what you say about the value of the family,” he said.
“Our community is going through this process, and we want to develop our families as well.”
His parents’ first reaction when he came out of the closet, he said, had been concern that he would not have a family or children. In fact, though, it is the law that stands in the way.
“I don’t have kids, but I hope I will, be’ezrat Hashem [with God’s help],” chimed in Jonas. “How is it that the Jewish state doesn’t allow me to bring Jewish children into this world?” From the audience, a man named Ilan stood up and described the difficulties that he and his partner Alon had had getting their baby Ella, now three, through surrogacy in the United States.
Israel’s generous surrogacy policies are not available to gay couples, though change may be on the horizon.
A Health Ministry committee, drawn together at the behest of the Supreme Court, recommended in May 2012 that gay couples be allowed to use surrogate mothers in Israel, but lobbed some restrictions.
Chief among them: Only “altruistic” surrogate mothers, who performed the service without taking a fee, would be allowed. Because the law bars many family members from serving as surrogates, finding a surrogate mother for free could be difficult.
Because the surrogacy laws target married couples, Ilan and Alon had to shell out hundreds of thousands of shekels to cover private medical expenses in the US that other Israelis receive through insurance.
Furthermore, they did not receive the same parental status as straight couples who have surrogate children.
“I’m the non-biological father, and I have no standing whatsoever,” Ilan said. A 2005 Supreme Court ruling allows gay parents to adopt one another’s biological children, but the bureaucratic process, which straight parents of children born through surrogates need not endure, takes a long time to push through. If something terrible were to happen to Alon before the state got around to formalizing Ilan as a legal father, young Ella would be left in a legal quandary.
Returning to more explicitly Jewish themes, another audience member added that the current surrogacy system put children’s Jewish identity at risk. Without access to the same benefits other parents seeking surrogacy receive, many gay couples turn to places like India for surrogate mothers.
Without Jewish birth mothers, the children are not recognized as Jewish by the rabbinate.
To that, Feiglin replied that while he understood gay couples’ desire to start families, “I think every kid in the world has a right to a mother and father.”
He also brushed aside studies the participants cited showing that children raised by same-sex couples came out just as healthy and happy as those raised by heterosexual couples.
“I’ve seen studies, too,” he said.
“I’m not prepared under any circumstances to hurt the normal family.”
Ilan shot back, “If it’s so important for us, as a society, to start checking the parents [before helping them have children], let’s check everyone. I respect your family structure, but you don’t have to feel threatened by mine.”
When another audience member pointed out that by embracing families, the LGBT community was actually contributing to family structure, Feiglin said, “It’s very interesting, what you’re saying, and this is a discussion that needs to be had.”
Not everyone in the audience thought the representation of the LGBT community at the meeting was wholly accurate.
“The description you hear here is a small slice of it,” said Avi Soffer, a former chairman of the Aguda. “We’re the vanilla straights of the community.”
He explained that many members of the community did not seek a traditional, hetero-normative lifestyle.
Soffer then lambasted Feiglin for the “proud homophobe” article.
“Homophobia is anti-Semitism.
Most of us live like rape victims. We live a very violent existence,” he said, arguing that when public figures declare themselves “proud homophobes,” it contributes to the ignorance that leads parents to throw their LGBT kids out of the house.
“Everyone who’s ever written an article knows the editors get to choose the headlines,” the MK replied. Still, he added, “I haven’t changed, but I experienced things. I developed.”
The son of a close friend, he explained, had come out of the closet and asked to meet with him.
“That meeting, more than any other one, clarified things for me,” he said.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post after the discussion, he plainly stated: “I am not a homophobe.”
Despite remaining at apparent loggerheads over family issues, both he and the event organizers said the dialogue itself was important.
“He didn’t say he would write a different article than he did in 2009, and we didn’t ask him to,” Doitch said. “Don’t expect him to attend a pride parade.”
But Feiglin’s promise to help on what he termed the “human rights” issues facing the community was an important step.
“I learned a lot,” the MK said of the discussion. “We had a real and honest dialogue, and that is very important.”