Lavender power: Israel’s tinder box?

  • Geoff
Furious protests currently going on in Israel, with people demanding LGBTI rights and the option to surrogacy, bring the spotlight home to what it was to be gay in apartheid South Africa. This was for many years illegal, punishable by fines and jail terms. Same-sex marriage, of course, was totally unimaginable at the time. With worldwide shifts in social mores, how do things stand?
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jul 26, 2018

Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006. Our Constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the fifth country to legalise same-sex marriage. Couples can adopt children and arrange in vitro fertilisation and surrogacy. Other countries allowing same-sex marriage include Belgium, Canada, Argentina, England and Wales, and the United States.

But legal legitimacy doesn’t automatically translate into gay acceptance, particularly in black rural areas and townships. Even before the question of same-sex marriage – let alone surrogacy or children – comes up, black lesbians face the horror of so-called “corrective” rape. Rapists believe they can “fix” women not conforming to conservative gender norms. South Africa has one of the highest rates in the world of violence being inflicted against women because they are lesbians.

But it is not just in South Africa, and not just a contemporary issue. In the US during the Cold War in the 1950s, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy led the Federal government to target gay men and lesbians, accusing them of endangering public morals and linking them to communists. In a movement known as the Lavender Threat, hundreds of people were persecuted, bullied and lost their jobs because they were suspected of being homosexual.

What about LGBTI people in Jewish communities? When the US Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage was to be legally binding in all 50 states, American Jews celebrated. Surveys showed some 77% favoured its legitimacy. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish streams – which together constitute most religiously identified US Jews – supported it.

Among South African Jewry, which has traditionally been a conservative community, greater acceptance of gays is apparent in recent years. Prominent community rabbis have welcomed gay people in their synagogues, without explicitly condoning homosexuality.

Rabbis still refrain from conducting same-sex marriages, however, either because of personal reservations or because the policy of their Jewish stream does not allow it.

The Jewish community has shrunk by half since its 1970s heyday to only some 60 000 people, and it lacks diversity compared to the five million-strong American community. In the US, Jews wanting to remain in the Jewish fold have numerous options, such as egalitarian minyans, similar to the Orthodox shtiebls which have sprung up in South Africa, but with a more liberal slant.

Back in Tel Aviv, touted as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities, legalisation of same-sex marriage and surrogacy seems, ironically, a long way off. That is despite the protests and the festive gay pride parade of 250 000 people earlier this year, for which the city closed major roads.

Civil marriage is absent. All Jewish marriages must go through the Orthodox-controlled rabbinate, which follows the halachic injunction against homosexuality.

The Haredi parties’ political and religious power, however, rests on key positions in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet. Will the gender rights protest be the tinder box that ignites a new direction in Israel’s politics?


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