The murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki at Jerusalem Pride on July 30 made the ground beneath Israel shake. Coming hours after the immolation of young Ali Dawabsha in his home in the West Bank village of Duma, “the Jewishness of the criminals, coupled with the fact that the crimes were ostensibly committed in Judaism’s name, shattered the Israeli public debate,” Haviv Rettig Gur observed in the Times of Israel.
“What sort of person launches himself on innocent teenagers, slashing frantically with a knife until, in the few seconds it takes for police to wrestle him to the ground, seven lie bleeding in the streets of Jerusalem?” Gur asked of Yishai Schlissel, who had stabbed several marchers at Jerusalem Pride in 2005 and was released from prison three weeks before the 2015 event. “Where do such expressions of extremism come from, and how do we as a society tackle them?”
The ultra-Orthodox identity of Schlissel—who during his recent indictment declared, “Whenever there is a Gay Pride Parade [you should] stop the blasphemy against God”—has started a national conversation about religious attitudes toward homosexuality. In Orthodox discourse, gayness is repeatedly referred to as a toeiva, an abomination, as a headline in the English-language Yeshiva World News, which ran after the Jerusalem stabbing, demonstrated.
After Banki’s death, leaders in the national-religious (that is, those who combine Zionism with Orthodox Judaism) and ultra-Orthodox communities found “they had to say something,” Gal Uchovsky told me recently at Eighteen:22, a three-day think tank in Salzburg, Austria, for Jewish LGBTQ and ally activists. (The name of the event derives from the infamous passage in Leviticus.) Uchovsky is known in Israel as a forceful advocate for gay rights and for his work with his partner, the movie director Eytan Fox, on Yossi and Jagger, Walk on Water, and (my personal favorite) The Bubble.
“Surprisingly, all the important rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox Jews came out and condemned the murder, with no exceptions, which is a big step for them,” he said. A small number of ultra-Orthodox have attempted to initiate a dialogue with the LGBTQ community.
The main focus of public and media attention, though, has been on the national-religious community and their political party, Jewish Home. After the Pride stabbing, Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett—the minister of education—doubled the budget for Israel Gay Youth, which provides educational programming and social groups for LGBTQ youth. Bennett was due to address a rally held in Gan Meir, the Tel Aviv park where the city’s LGBT Center is located, but his appearance was abruptly cancelled when the mere mention of his name was greeted with deafening boos.
“All hell broke loose,” said Uchovsky, the person who told the crowd that Bennett was due to appear. He understood the reaction. “Whenever a person like this wants to come and speak at a rally, it’s a very good thing and a big step for him. On the other hand, people are very nervous and edgy at this point, and they’re not paranoid to think that he’s using them to wash his conscience. They want to know that he’s not just coming to take the stage but he’s going to say something of meaning.”
Since Bennett became leader of Jewish Home in 2012, he has tried to expand the party’s support beyond its national-religious settler core. He brought in Ayelet Shaked, a young secular woman from Tel Aviv who had worked in high tech, to be his No. 2, and he sought to rebrand Jewish Home as a party for all Jews, not just religious ones. Bennett succeeded in revitalizing the party, but he still has two big problems, especially when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
First, there is a gap between his Bennett’s rhetoric on inclusivity and his party’s policies. During the last round of elections in March, Jewish Home was branded as homophobic by the center-left opposition because of its stance on same-sex marriage. Second, there is another gap between Bennett’s words and those of some of his party members. Jewish Home Member of the Knesset Bezalel Smotrich, who organized the “Beast Parade” protest against Jerusalem Pride in 2006, called Pride an abomination after this year’s stabbing and later claimed that gays control the Israeli media.
Yinon Magal, another secular MK from Jewish Home, attended the rally at Gan Meir but chose not to speak. “The next morning, when he spoke on the radio, he said, ‘Well, I’m for gay marriage, but I think the family is a man and a woman,’ ” Uchovsky recalled. “No, fuck you. The people who think the family is a man and a woman are the enemies of the LGBTQ community.”
On the left, the Pride attack encouraged Itzik Shmuli, a Labor Member of Knesset, to finally come out as gay. His sexual orientation had long been an open secret and the subject of discussion in the press—although Shmuli was never named. Uchovsky was his chief critic. Before the last election, Uchovsky wrote an open letter calling on Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog to deal with the “elephant in the room” that was Shmuli by forcing him to come out or leave the Knesset.
“I thought the fact that he was in the Knesset for two years, in the closet, was a disgrace,” Uchovsky said, noting that Shmuli was out prior to entering political life. “You have a right, which is a demand, to be responsible, and as a member of parliament, your right to be responsible … is stronger than your privilege to be private about something your grandmother doesn’t feel good about.”
Last week was the start of the new academic year in Israel. The year’s theme, as decided by the education minister, is “mutual and personal responsibility”—tolerance and how to prevent violence and racism in society. The evolution of Bennett’s language has been notable, but it has not yet resulted in tangible change. LGBTQ Israelis don’t need gestures like this from Bennett, but rather for him to work fiercely to root out expressions of extremism within his own party and community, encourage a new open and tolerant approach toward homosexuality, and cease to pose an obstacle to LGBTQ rights legislation.