Israel & gay cash + Israelis distance themselves from settlements – kinda.

I was away! But now I’m back. And while I was away, I wrote the following two pieces for The Forward:

1) Israel Loves Gay Cash — Just Not Gay Marriage: 

What do you reckon is the busiest time of year for Tel Aviv’s hotels — maybe the High Holidays? Perhaps Christmas/New Year’s, when America’s families are on vacation? How about Gay Pride Week?


…Tel Aviv’s message is clear: Come, have fun! We love your party attitude and your wallet!

To which Israel’s national government can only add: Just don’t fall in love and try to get married.

Even as Tel Aviv was raking in that sweet, sweet gay cash, a few miles away in Jerusalem the Knesset spent Wednesday rejecting a marriage equality bill…. To read the rest, click here.

2) Would Israelis Be Kidnapped If Not For Settlements?

On Monday the New York Times reported that the recent abduction of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank has raised a “hushed debate [within Israeli society] over the conduct of Jewish settlers.”

While I think it’s fair to point out that Israel’s reactions to the kidnappings have been marked more by anger and prayer than debate (however hushed), the simple fact that any questions whatsoever have been posed in conversation with an American reporter is significant and reflects a broader shift in attitudes toward the settlement project.

Earlier this month, Justice Minister (and one-time right-wing stalwart) Tzipi Livni was quite blunt: “It’s time to say things exactly as they are: The settlement enterprise is a security, economic and moral burden that is aimed at preventing us from ever coming to [a peace agreement].” Moreover, a recent study found that a growing majority of Israelis no longer support that enterprise.

It’s important to note, however, that if the citizenry shares Livni’s general sense of disapproval, they do not appear to share her reasoning: 71% of those surveyed say settler violence against Israel’s military keeps them from “identifying with” their settler brethren; 59% say the settlements are bad for Israel’s relationship with the U.S. The violence of some settlers against Palestinians, the financial drain on Israel’s increasingly inequitable society, or the obstacle that settlements pose to achieving a workable resolution of the conflict do not appear to be major concerns. In fact, while 52% support a full or partial withdrawal from occupied territory in the framework of an accord with the Palestinian Authority, 31% support full or partial annexation — where the difference lies between partial withdrawal and partial annexation is unclear…. To read the rest, click here.

Coercive Shabbat enforcement in Tel Aviv?

I love Tel Aviv

It’s true.

Shabbat approaches and I make my plans. I’m more observant than the average American or Israeli Jew (more than my own husband, come to that, who is also both Israeli and American), but less observant than many. We’ll make Kiddush in a kitchen that’s strictly kosher, and I won’t do anything of a professional nature from 20 minutes before sunset until the third star can be seen in the sky; Havdalah, on the other hand, almost always gets forgotten in our house and, in the course of Shabbat, I’ll turn on lights and heat food as the need arises.

This is what religious observance looks like in a free society: Some do more, some do less (and inevitably, some judge more, some judge less). But ultimately it’s up to the individual to determine what his or her faith and level of observance must reflect.

And yet it was with real ambivalence that I greeted the news this week that Israel’s Supreme Court has instructed the Tel Aviv Municipality to either enforce its own by-laws forbidding certain businesses from functioning on Shabbat, or write new by-laws.

When I lived in Tel Aviv, Friday afternoon was by far the best part of the week. One by one the stores and cafes would close, there was always a street party or beach event somewhere, filled with lazy, end-of-week revelers, and as you walked home with a Shabbat’s worth of fresh fruit and roasted sunflower seeds, rest would descend on a city best known for its frenetic pace.  It was lovely. Except, of course, if you’d run out of eggs, or you needed aspirin and the only emergency pharmacy open was half-way across town.

Not to mention the coercion piece of it.

The stores in which I could not shop, the errands I could not run, these were all a result of laws, by-laws, rules, and regulations that exist all across Israel that serve to limit commerce and enforce religious compliance on customers, clients, and owners who simply have no say in the matter. Should business owners choose to flout those laws and the municipalities in which they function choose to enforce them, heavy fines are usually levied and owners have to consider what’s more costly: Paying the city every now and then, or closing down?

The real cost is higher than either of those, however. As much as I loved my quiet, lazy Friday afternoons, as much as I love Shabbat and believe that its observance is an act of worship, enforced religion has no place in a democratic society.

The Jewish national movement succeeded where many national movements have failed, and its proponents now have an actual state. The fuzzy lines that have always existed between what is Jewish “nationality” and what is Jewish “religion” are not made any less fuzzy by the fact of a state, but they are made more urgent.

Jews are both a people in the modern sense and a faith community in the ancient one, but it was for purely modern, political reasons that Israel’s early political leaders granted (some of) its early faith leaders wildly disproportionate power. Rabbis became kingmakers and acted to establish laws and policy regarding religious observance, and as a result, huge swathes of Israeli national life are run as if the country were not so much a nation-state as an Orthodox shul.

Which is a big enough problem for all Israeli Jews who happen to not be Orthodox, but there’s another side to the coin as well: Are there laws in place—or not? Are Israeli laws meant to be kept—or not?

Tel Aviv and much of Israel has managed to wedge itself into the worst of all possible worlds on the issue: Laws have been passed which are patently bad, because they’re not in keeping with a democratic ethos, and those laws are routinely broken, because too many people find them onerous and easy to break. Which is to say: The entire system manages to disrespect and damage Israel’s democracy and legal system about six ways to Sunday (or, you know: Shabbat).

I love Shabbat, but the way I observe it is my choice. If I choose to be an apikoros, that’s between me and my Maker, and no one sitting in a dusty office at any end of the earth should be able to tell me otherwise. Self-selecting Orthodox communities are free to self-select and keep the commerce at bay within those communities’ boundaries, but as tax-paying citizens, any Israeli who wants to pick up a liter of milk on Saturday morning should be able to do so.

The Supreme Court is right: Either Tel Aviv should enforce its own by-laws, or change them. As it stands, everyone—the state, its citizens, democracy, and (I would argue) Judaism itself—loses.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Gay, religious, and proud in Tel Aviv.

gay pride tel aviv“Pinkwashing”—the calculated exploitation by Israel’s government of the LGBTQ community’s hard-won  civil and social gains as a beard for the human rights abuses of the occupation—is a thing. It’s real, it’s documented, and the sheer cynicism becomes even clearer when we consider that the government that conducted a PR campaign around gay-friendly Tel Aviv is the same government that gives disproportionate power to religious parties that reject all that Gay Pride stands for.

But what is also a thing, what is also real, is Israel’s actual LGBTQ community, and the joyous celebration that is Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride Week—a multi-hued happening to which people travel from all over the world, because it’s a blast. Witness the fact that this year’s “Official Video of Tel Aviv Pride Week” (which, okay, I admit: I did not knowthat was a thing) is performed by the straight and wildly popular Mizrahi singer Omer Adam (video below). Gay or straight, Pride is one of the best weeks of the year to be in the city that I still consider my home.

The big event is, of course, the parade itself, which will take place on Friday. It’ll feature all the usual suspects—Adonises and Amazons in itty-bitty clothes; rainbow flags, clothes, and hair; the famous and the wanna-be. But participants will also find a quieter, ultimately more subversive presence, as well:

Havruta, the organization for religious gay men, and Bat Kol, the organization for religious lesbian women, have been marching in Pride parades in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa for the past four years.

“In the past few years, we realized we bring a different and unique voice to the march, especially in Tel Aviv,” says one of Havruta’s chairmen, Daniel Jonas, explaining how their presence helps bridge Judaism and the LGBT community. “We represent something else, more moderate, more communal,” he says.

He admits that the parade’s debauched atmosphere doesn’t totally jive with their taste – “It’s not exactly something you’d see in a synagogue” – but the visibility is important.

“Pride attracts many people and lots of media,” Jonas points out. “So many young religious people around the country are exposed to us. After Pride every year, I get tons of calls from people who realize they can contact someone.”

As wonderful as Pride Week is, it’s typically a week apart, much like the community doing all the dancing. Though there has been real movement, across the globe, toward the recognition of the civil and human rights of the LGBTQ community, we still have a mighty long way to go, not least in not insisting that the people line up neatly with the colorful stereotypes. As Haaretz reporter Brian Schaefer notes, “the delegation of proud, God-fearing religious gays and lesbians appearing in the parade… remind us that sexuality and spirituality are not mutually exclusive.”

Indeed, they are not. I would even suggest that they are, or can be, deeply and essentially linked, and that it is a mitzvah of the first order for straight Jews to welcome our LGBTQ brothers and sisters with open arms, and stand with them in their struggles.

The Jewish and LGBTQ narratives share a crucial parallel: The personal, in-the-flesh knowledge of being a stranger in a strange land. I’m grateful to Havruta and Bat Kol for their participation in Tel Aviv’s Pride events—they’re praying with their feet, and likely saving Jewish lives as they go.


P.S. For my money, the single most “Tel Avivi” moment of the video comes at the very end, when the performers happen to run into a couple of women just doing their morning yoga.


Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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