Reality check: Naftali Bennett's fine words

The Bayit Yehudi leader deserves praise for defending his lesbian spokesperson, but not for his support of the religious status quo.

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett
Just in time for the start of the new school year, Education Minister Naftali Bennett laid down an important lesson in tolerance when he came to the defense of his lesbian spokesperson Brit Galor Perets earlier this month.
Rejecting calls from a member of Bayit Yehudi’s presidential board for Galor Perets’ dismissal on the grounds that a lesbian cannot represent a religious party, Bennett, the leader of Bayit Yehudi, tweeted: “Whoever thinks that I should discriminate against a person based on his or her sexual orientation, gender or skin color, will receive a total refusal from me.”
Rightly so, Bennett garnered praise for his principled stance, although not from leading members of his own party. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel refused to support Bennett’s anti-discriminatory stance, turning an issue of equality for all into a narrow political calculation, cynically arguing Bennett “won’t find votes among the hipsters in Tel Aviv and same-sex couples.”
Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich took the opposition to Bennett one stage further, saying the party’s leader had given in to the “LGBT movement’s ideological and thought terror.” According to Smotrich, the role of the national-religious party should be to lead the fight “against a movement which aims to uproot the family unit, and together with it the very morals and ethics upon which Judaism is founded.” Or, in other words, equality for gays spells the end of Judaism.
So is the national-religious world on the verge of a split over the issue of homosexuality? The sad truth of the matter is that, in reality, it is the Uri Ariels and Bezalel Smotrichs of the world, with the full cooperation of Bennett, who still have the upper hand in controlling the personal lives of all Israelis, religious or secular, gay or straight.
Bennett might sound more liberal, but with the backing of the Likud and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, he and his non-politically correct (and proud of it) colleagues ensure that anyone who does not conform to their version of Judaism will not receive the official backing of the Jewish state for their lifestyle choices.
As comedian Lior Schleien likes to point out, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has two distinct voices: one in English, when he wants to come across to the world as a moderate statesman (the famous Bar-Ilan speech in which he recognized a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict was delivered in English), and his Hebrew voice, which is far more hardline.
And so in English, Netanyahu tells the United Nations that in Israel “gays march proudly in our streets and serve in our parliament, including I’m proud to say in my own Likud party,” but in Hebrew, his government recently told the High Court of Justice it opposed allowing same-sex couples to adopt because it would place an “additional burden” on the child.
But of course, the wider issue is not one of gay lifestyles and whether gays make good parents. It’s one of the role of religion in a modern-day state. While Bennett is no doubt entirely sincere in his belief that he, personally, will not discriminate against a person due to their sexual orientation, his support for the status quo in which the state-backed Orthodox rabbinate has total control over the personal status of Israel’s Jewish citizens, means he discriminates against gays, and others, every day of the week.
GAY MARRIAGE is a contentious issue in many countries – Australia is currently in the midst of a heated referendum over the issue of same-sex marriage – and Israel is not alone among Western countries in not recognizing such ceremonies conducted in the country. But as Hiddush, the Israeli organization for religious freedom and equality, points out, Israel is the only Western country on a par with Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states in relation to freedom of heterosexual marriage.
Under Israeli law, it is actually a criminal offense (with a maximum punishment of a two-year jail sentence!) for Israeli Jews to marry in ceremonies performed by non-Chief Rabbinate-authorized rabbis. To be fair, this law hasn’t been enforced, but the fact it’s actually on the statute books is a crime in itself.
Only in Israel can there be a situation in which a couple can be married in a halachically observant ceremony, conducted by an Orthodox rabbi (Google Rabbi Chuck Davidson if you’re interested), and yet still not be regarded as married. A marriage license issued by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas carries more legal weight in the State of Israel than a ketuba signed by certain Orthodox rabbis.
In Israel, it’s not just gay rights under threat, but those of any citizen who doesn’t want to play by the Chief Rabbinate’s rules. And Naftali Bennett, for all his fine words, is doing his best to make sure that this unacceptable state of affairs remains the status quo.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.