The haredi factor

Haredi leaders cannot take back statements that compare members of the LGBT community to animals and plagues.

gay vigil jerusalem 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
gay vigil jerusalem 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
In the wake of Saturday night's murders at a Tel Aviv lesbian-gay-bisexual-transexual (LGBT) youth support group meeting, many Israelis are either certain that this atrocity was a haredi hate crime or are blaming such accusers of blood libel. Frankly, it is not particularly important to me who the murderer is as long as he is caught before he kills again. Far more critical is that people realize that this atrocity was not a fluke. Regardless of whom the killer turns out to be, several prominent members of the country's Orthodox communities should heed these deaths as an example of the damage caused by hate speech. While the ultra-Orthodox Shas party condemned the attack, such violence was a perhaps inevitable response to the incitement uttered by several haredi leaders over the years. Those who do not follow Israeli news may have missed the many instances of anti-gay incitement. In 2003, for example, a Shas MK attempted to dehumanize gay people by attacking another MK's assistant, saying he was "a faggot who everyone is too disgusted to approach, and therefore according to Halacha, he is worse than an animal." (Haaretz, July 23, 2003). In 2008, he and his fellow Shas MK Shlomo Benizri continued their attempts to demonize the LGBT community. They claimed such people were "carrying out the self-destruction of Israeli society and the Jewish people," were "toxic as bird flu" and, most infamously, that our lifestyle was the cause of an earthquake. Having framed gay people as the root of all evil, Shas's condemnation of Saturday's attack rings hollow. AS HATEFUL as these politicians' rhetoric is, some religious leaders' homophobic statements cause even more damage. They have not only prompted violent protests against the annual Pride Parade and have been responsible for the vandalism that has cost Jerusalem hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the stabbing of three participants in the city's 2005 parade was a direct cause of their utterings. Because of the gravity of this incident, it was shocking that the following year, members of the haredi community dismissed anonymous fliers promising NIS 20,000 to "whoever causes death to one of the Sodom and Gomorrah people" as a "practical joke." Although the leading rabbis of the haredi communities denied responsibility for those fliers, they distributed their own which said, "Anyone with the ability to do so has the duty to do everything he can to smash the jaws of evil in any way he can" (Yediot Aharonot, July 11, 2006). In light of the previous year's stabbing, it is hard to interpret this message as anything other than incitement. While haredi street violence against the march has been reduced in the past couple of years, veiled calls for divinely-inspired murder continue. Just last month, a flier was posted around Jerusalem that quoted one prominent rabbi as saying: "We are all Pinhas" (whose vigilante murder of an interfaith couple is applauded by God in the Torah) and another as saying of LGBT people: "They are Amalekites" (the tribe whose extermination is commanded in the Torah). LASHON HARA is traditionally one of the worst sins in Judaism, because words, once spoken, cannot be unspoken. Even if Saturday's murderer was not haredi himself, haredi leaders cannot take back statements that compare members of the LGBT community to animals and plagues, blame them for natural disasters or compare them with a group whose murder was divinely commanded. They can, however, apologize for these past statements and pledge to condemn the dehumanization committed by any members of their communities. Unfortunately, their current refusal to acknowledge this systemic problem only encourages future bloodshed. While this hypocrisy is one reason for the angry comments about haredim made by some LGBT activists, much of the anger comes from hard experience. The atmosphere created by the hate speech described above cannot help but cause isolation and self-hatred in LGBT haredim. Those offering support to these individuals know that perhaps the most insidious violence is not physical attacks like the one on Saturday, but rather that which LGBT people who have internalized their religious communities' homophobia inflict on themselves. The writer is a graduate student in Middle East studies at Ben Gurion University and is active in Beersheva's LGBT society.