A few weeks ago, Hila Peer was watching the evening news with her twin daughters. The nearly five-year-olds obviously were not familiar with the intricacies of Israel’s political system but when the news showed a Knesset member who got up to speak, they immediately recognized his words.
It was Avi Maoz, the new deputy minister in charge of aspects of our education system and the chairman of the far-right Noam Party, who stood at the Knesset podium and started singing the popular children’s Hanukkah song “Banu Hoshech L’garesh,” which can be translated as “We have come to expel the darkness.”
This was the message Maoz, a known homophobe, felt the need to share with the Israeli public. For Peer, it was frightening. As chairwoman of the Aguda – The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, Maoz was singing about expelling her. About expelling her children.
Peer shared this story with Tamar Uriel-Beeri and me on Tuesday when we interviewed her for The Jerusalem Post podcast (available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play and more). I recommend you listen to hear about the fear that has overtaken the LGBTQ+ community in Israel after a week of attempts to promote some of the most discriminatory and far-reaching anti-gay legislation in a Western democracy.
There was Religious Zionist Party (RZP) MK Orit Struck who said on Sunday that doctors should have the right not to serve people from the LGBTQ+ community if it is against their religious belief and her fellow party member Simcha Rothman, who added that a hotel owner could also refuse to provide a room to a gay couple.
Even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the comments, there is no question that the LGBTQ+ community in Israel is under attack. Even without the legislation, there is an atmosphere being created that does not make for a healthy and positive society. All it does is make a significant segment of society – Peer’s Aguda claims 10% of Israel is LGBTQ+ – feel persecuted.
The question that troubles me is why does Smotrich’s party – which carries the name of a movement whose schools my children study at – have this obsession. Why is Smotrich so opposed to the LGBTQ+ community? Why have Struck and Rothman made this their crusade?
Last week, I met with a senior member of the RZP and asked what it was that led to this obsession. Why not, I suggested, leave it alone and focus on the main issues the party seeks to advance, like rule of law, judicial reforms and more? Those, I argued, make up the platform you ran on with the aim of changing Israel. Why focus on something so minor that only undermines the bigger change you seek?
THE MK seemed to agree with the principle that it was a lost battle but Struck or Rothman clearly did not.
What makes this interesting is how different it is when looking at the ultra-Orthodox parties and how silent they are when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. Haredi MKs have no problem speaking out against matters of religion or the economy but when it comes to the gay community, they are silent. Why? Shouldn’t they also be vocal?
The answer seems to be that the haredim understand that doing so is self-defeating. On the one hand, sources inside the community claim that talking so much against LGBTQ+ raises awareness and then leads to more haredim questioning their own sexual identity.
In addition, allowing legislation that permits business owners to bar gay people today means that tomorrow there could be legislation that bars haredim. It is a slippery slope and one that the community would prefer Israel not to start sliding on.
All you had to do was read the editorial published Tuesday in Yated Neeman, the flagship haredi newspaper based in Bnai Brak. Affiliated with Moshe Gafni’s Degel Hatorah faction, the paper blasted Rothman and Struck for their comments earlier in the week, which the paper said the haredi public “needs to be the first to oppose.”
It is not only members of Knesset who have made anti-gay legislation their personal crusade but also leading rabbis from the religious-Zionist camp. Yigal Levenstein, a rabbi from the Bnai David pre-military academy in the settlement of Eli, has long attacked the LGBTQ+ community. In 2016, he said that homosexuals are perverts and in 2018, he called to eradicate homosexuality like the world eradicated AIDS. That same year, his co-director at the yeshiva, Rabbi Eli Sadan, accused the LGBTQ+ community of being missionaries and said that most of his gay students were gay on “a psychological basis.”
Zvika Klein, our Jewish World analyst, wrote an insightful piece this week explaining the RZP opposition to the LGBTQ+ community. RZP members, he explained, view their role in society as the implementation of a biblical vision and part of the process of the nation of Israel’s return to its homeland. A secular Zionist might only reflect on the Zionist element and the haredi only on the religious aspect. But for a religious-Zionist Israeli, life is about two ideals that forge a formidable ideologically-driven agenda.
I will add another point. Religious-Zionists view themselves as religious but modern; observant but part of society. They are not like the haredim, who prefer to live in isolation. Religious-Zionists want full integration. Until a point, that is.
The LGBTQ+ community undermines the religious-Zionist idea of family life and is therefore considered a threat. Haredim can close themselves off from society and not work or mingle with gay people, religious-Zionists cannot. They work in law firms, accounting practices, hospitals and high-tech start-ups with gay people. They cannot simply hide behind a wall and pretend homosexuality does not exist. As a result, they are left with only two options: either accept the reality or fight it.
It is for this same reason that RZP is so opposed to Reform Jews. While religious-Zionists want to integrate into society, they don’t want to assimilate as the Reform did. Accepting Reform Jews as equals creates a danger Smotrich and his followers feel they will not know how to manage.
And while this might be understandable from their narrow religious-political perspective, we cannot forget Peer and her twin daughters.
They are Jews living in modern Israel and they are afraid. They and hundreds of thousands of others worry they are in danger today. Whatever we might think about politics, that alone should trouble us. Something is clearly wrong.
Saying goodbye to Rabbi Druckman
Speaking of something wrong, that was my feeling on Monday when reading all the glowing news reports and eulogies about Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the spiritual leader for many religious-Zionists, who died on Sunday, at the age of 90.
Druckman accomplished some amazing feats in his life. He was the winner of the Israel Prize, a former MK and deputy minister, dean of the Or Etzion Yeshiva, and head of the Yeshivot and Ulpanot Bnei Akiva – the largest chain of yeshiva high schools for boys and girls in Israel and one of the people who helped turn Bnei Akiva into a leading youth movement in the country.
What a lot of these eulogies neglected to mention though was that in at least two known instances, Druckman helped cover up rabbinic sex crimes. The first was in the late 1990s, when Ze’ev Kopolovich, head of the Netiv Meir high school yeshiva in Jerusalem, was found to be molesting and sexually assaulting his students. Druckman, then head of the chain of Bnei Akiva yeshivas, learned of the crimes and immediately forced the rabbi to leave the school. What he did not do though was go to the police.
Eventually, the news came out, Kopolovich was arrested and put on trial and Druckman later apologized for his mistake. And while it might have been possible to forgive him, that went out the window the moment Druckman decided to support Motti Elon, another yeshiva head and convicted sex offender.
After Elon was convicted of sex crimes in 2013, Druckman publicly backed him, stating that the judge was wrong to convict. Druckman then invited Elon to lecture at the Or Etzion Yeshiva. In 2018, when evidence arose of new incidents of sexual abuse by Elon, Druckman refused to apologize and only issued a weak statement after several donors pulled out of supporting Bnai Akiva institutions.
This is part of Druckman’s story and it should not be whitewashed. It needs to be remembered because the way Druckman behaved in these two cases is indicative of a problem that still exists within the national-religious camp when it comes to rabbis who are accused of sexual abuse.
A case right now involving Rabbi Zvi Thau continues to rock the national-religious world, after two women came forward and claimed that the Har Hamor Yeshiva head sexually assaulted and raped them. Did rabbis come out and support the women? Did they condemn Thau and call on him to step down from his public roles? Some did, but the majority has, again, remained silent.
This is wrong. It is the job of our religious leaders to speak up for the victims and the weak. Rabbinic leaders have a responsibility to protect their community, even when it is not convenient.
Obviously, when decades-old allegations surface it is always going to be hard to determine the truth. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind the current track record – it is not so good. National-religious leaders need to do better. That, too, is part of the Druckman legacy.