Over twenty years ago at a High Holiday Service in Irvine, Rabbi Mordecai Liebling addressed the subject of homosexuality. When some of the congregants said it wasn’t normal behavior, he calmly replied, “Actually it is quite normal. About 10 percent of every society throughout the ages has been homosexual.” Silence!
And silence is perhaps how, in the past, many in our community have responded to the issue of LGBT rights. Our government has made some progress; as has Israel, which maintains the most advanced laws toward homosexuality in the Middle East.
However, while Israeli society in general is very positive toward LGBT communities, “there are still hotbeds of hatred and of homophobia,” said Tom Canning, a spokesman for Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. LGBT people in Israel are regularly victims of discrimination. “It can be violence, it can be rejection of services, it can be slurs on the street,” Canning added.
As if to underscore that reality, in late July, Shira Banki, a 16-year-old Israeli teen marching in Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade to support friends, was fatally wounded after being stabbed by Yishai Schlissel, a Haredi man from Modiin Ilit. He had stabbed three participants in the 2005 Gay Pride March and was recently released from prison after serving ten years of a twelve-year sentence.
After his release, Schlissel returned to his hometown, where he distributed hand-written pamphlets calling on “all Jews faithful to G-d” to risk “beatings and imprisonment” for the sake of preventing the parade. Knowing his history, why didn’t anyone take steps to prevent a repeat of his actions? Why was he released early, and allowed to post his plans for others to see?
The following Saturday at a rally for tolerance, Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau (cousin of the Chief Rabbi of Israel) said, “Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”
Lau also took aim at those in the religious community who offered only lukewarm condemnation of the fatal pride parade attack in Jerusalem. “It is unacceptable that after Thursday night’s stabbing, someone should come and say that he condemns the act because ‘a Jew doesn’t stab another Jew,’” he said. “That is racism. A Jew does not stab another human being. Period!”
Rabbi Jason Miller, member of “Rabbis Without Borders” asserts that extremists who consider themselves religious Jews grossly violate the core principles of the Jewish religion, citing the Torah as the blueprint for their brutality. “If we Jewish people call on Muslims to rail against Islamic extremism, then we in the Jewish community must heed our own call. We must stand in opposition against those who tarnish Judaism through their hate and bloodshed.”
Is it not a responsibility of all Jews to stand with the oppressed? Yes, being an ally can be risky. Giving up the privilege of safely standing on the sidelines cost Shira Banki her life. But we must honor her, as we do Michael Schwerner, Jewish martyr of the US Civil Rights movement, by working for change so her death will not be a meaningless tragedy. Zikhronah livrakha. (May her memory be for a blessing).
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.