For those of you who haven’t been following the news lately, Israel has been a hot mess. After I came back from vacation from Romania- a peaceful, mountain-filled vacation- I turned off the airplane mode on my phone. And saw 200 Hamas rockets hit my friend’s Kibbutz near Gaza, that Netanyahu’s government had banned gay surrogacy, and that his friends in the Knesset passed a law downgrading Arabic and non-Jewish citizens. Also, Israeli police arrested a liberal rabbi for performing a (non-legally-binding) wedding at 5am. Befitting of some of our more theocratic neighbors- and perhaps more authentically Israeli than we’d care to admit.
In the course of just 48 hours, I felt like my entire identity was under attack. As a Reform Jew, I can’t get married here with my rabbi. As a gay person, I now have no affordable legal way to build a family. And I can’t get legally married. As an Arabic speaker and lover of Druze and Arab culture, I saw my identity and my friends under attack. Somehow, the people doing the attacking- Netanyahu and his allies- somehow think they are the victim. As if it’s 1939 and the entire world is out to get them. While in the meantime, they are the ones sitting in positions of power, using that power to persecute innocent people.
The word for this phenomenon is “siege mentality”. The idea, psychologically speaking, is that you feel the entire world is against you, so you act irrationally, refusing to see gray space, and delineate between “us” and “them”. And boy you’d better hope you’re not a “them” because you become a living target. For unbridled and illogical hatred. We’re hardly the only society to experience this and it has a special intensity here.
That’s partially because siege mentality has deep roots. Often in a combination of trauma (the Jewish people has had a lot of that), nationalistic feelings, and according to many studies, religiosity. Not the kind of religiosity where you simply enjoy celebrating holidays and connecting with God. But the kind of religiosity that bleeds exclusivism and at times paranoia.
As a PTSD survivor, I can relate. On some level, siege mentality is about siege. When you feel you’re under attack- as our people has been for centuries for no logical reason- you hunker down. You put up walls to protect yourself. Mentally mostly, since as a minority you often have no other recourse. Though, as we see with time, some of these walls become quite visible and physically manifest.
What at one time was a useful skill to be able to protect ourselves has now become a liability. Not because we have nothing to protect ourselves from- we traded 2,000 years of Christian persecution in Europe for some pretty rough neighbors. Iran and Syria are hardly puppy dogs. And you certainly can’t blame all their societies woes on us- though some people find creative anti-Semitic ways to do so.
What is harder to admit for those who engage in siege mentality paranoia is that sometimes they, we, you, me, people- do make mistakes. That in fact, while the Palestinians have dangerous streaks of extremism, they are not the Nazis. And not all of them want to kill us- even though some do. That Arab citizens of Israel are by and large law-abiding citizens whose roots here often go back hundreds of years. And that for every extremist among them, you can find dozens of productive, kind, responsible citizens.
Which leads me to today. Today there was a Druze demonstration in Tel Aviv. I went- anyone who has read my blog before knows I LOVE Druze 🙂 . The Druze are feeling increasingly angry with Prime Minister Netanyahu for relegating them (and other non-Jewish minorities) to a second class status. Despite, in their case, having served in the military for 70 years- like any Jewish citizen. Their loyalty to this country is not only being ignored by this government, it is being thrown in the trash. A shame and a serious error.
The rally was invigorating. Over 100,000 people crowded Rabin Square- for the first time I heard Arabic on the loudspeaker right in the center of Tel Aviv. Since I spend a lot of time with Druze, I even bumped into two different Druze friends at the rally. I stand with you my sisters and brothers- we will win.
Why has our Prime Minister, when facing *real* threats from Iran, Syria, and Hamas, decided to make the Druze our enemies? Why has this government diminished and attacked Reform Judaism? Why does this government deny basic human rights to the LGBTQ community and all non-Jewish minorities in this country? Something, by the way, many Israelis like me are working to fix. For ourselves and all who we love.
Because Prime Minister Netanyahu is living in a contorted fantasy. More like a nightmare. In which someone’s difference becomes a source of anxiety. Rather than a challenge to overcome and learn from. To build a better society.
Which leads me to the title of this blog. I am a gay Jew. Always have been. Being one is not so easy- I’ve discussed it here many times before. In the States, I often felt like the odd Jew out at LGBT events (not to mention that some are starting to ban Jewish pride flags). And at many Jewish events, I was in the minority as a gay person. Often while the singles meat market churned around me. It was lonely at times. And sometimes, worse. I once had a guy dump me because I didn’t eat pork…I didn’t need to read between the lines because it wasn’t particularly subtle.
One of the challenges of being a gay Jew is that our identity pulls us in two very different directions. Judaism, even in its liberal forms, is essentially about preservation. It is conservative in the sense that it aims to keep our history and traditions alive. And we know that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen on its own and we will disappear. To become the next Akkadians or Shakers.
To be gay is not to invent an identity- we’ve been around forever, as ancient cave pictures show. It is, however, in modern society, to be an innovative force. Because our identity is crafted on top of the modern landscape and the people who most reliably support our freedom are the most innovative. The progressives. The people who are open to change- rather than focusing on conserving sometimes ineffective or outdated norms.
This is an internal conflict that’s hard to resolve. Because the instinct to preserve and conserve can be quite repulsive to the progressive elements of society. And our desire to feel accepted and change some aspects of our traditions to include us- that can deeply offend conservative sentiments.
This past week, I saw this play out. Before going to Kabbalat Shabbat services, I saw a Facebook post in which a man described how a Jerusalem restaurant refused his friend service because he was gay. Turns out, perhaps not by coincidence, that both Ben Rosen and his gay friend Sammy Kanter, are American rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College. Fellow Reform Jews. In Sammy’s case, a fellow gay Reform Jew. In my experience, my movement, more than any other, strives to balance modernity and tradition and breeds some pretty amazingly self-confident queer people and allies. We’re not perfect, but we’re the closest thing to a home that I have found as a gay Jew. Who likes to conserve and innovate and feel welcome.
I contacted them immediately and have been helping them navigate the bizarre and chaotic world of Israeli politics, press, and advocacy. They both- Ben as an ally an Sam as advocate- really impress me. I sometimes miss the rambunctious and proud progressive Jewish queer identity that flourishes in America. While here, I still encounter (even among some friends in my movement) a sense of deep unresolved sexual shame and conservatism.
I will continue helping them pursue justice. Nobody deserves to be kicked out of a restaurant for who they are. Anywhere. In the meantime, please don’t frequent “Ben Yehuda 2” in Jerusalem. They don’t deserve your business.
How does this tie together? Sammy, if he were an oleh like me moving to this country, would probably live in Tel Aviv. There aren’t a heck of a lot of Reform gay Jews in Jerusalem- for good reason. It’s a deeply conservative city.
So why is he there? He’s there, for a year, for the same reason I’m in Israel: we love our Judaism. And for Jews, nowhere is more Jewish than Jerusalem- black hats or not.
So his desire to conserve his Judaism has landed him- and many gay Jews- in conflict with our queer identities. Because where we wish to conserve and evolve, some people simply want a deep dive into a protective fortress. An idea that Judaism never changes- even while their own practices demonstrate that it does. And which has resulted in untold incitement against their queer brothers and sisters. Including an article this week that called for us to be killed.
How do you bring folks out of that fortress or at least allow it a bit more room to breathe? So that it can still be protective- and not necessarily the same as mine- and recognize that not everything they see as a threat is in fact dangerous. That we have a powerful army and while some people wish us harm, not everyone does. Least of all from within.
I don’t have a solution at hand. Perhaps I can suggest to my friends on the far right (and occasionally those who live with this mentality on the far left) to find counterexamples. Whenever I get nervous about a group of people, I try not to discount my fear, and I try to find some examples of people I feel safe with. So when I just read an article about anti-Semitism in Romania, I recalled a woman there who asked me for klezmer groups because she likes Yiddish. Doesn’t take away from the scary nature of persistent anti-Semitism. And it does give me a nuanced perspective. That makes me feel a little more relieved and better able to protect myself without isolating my mind from the world.
Whether it’s Sammy or the Druze or Arabs or anyone else- I’m not doing this for you. Although of course I am- Sammy is a wonderful person who I’ve only talked to a few times, but already see his great courage and resilience. And sense of humor. And of course my experiences with Druze and other peoples inspire me to reach out and show some love.
But I’m not doing it for you. And I’m not doing it for me. Of course I am, because I’m a queer Reform Jewish Arabic speaker who values diversity. So yeah, I am protecting myself and want a better life for me here where I feel safe and valued and equal.
But then who exactly am I doing this for?
Us. Sammy, the Druze, me. Us. Because we share a bond, we share a love, we share identity, and together, we might not be able to defeat the siege mentality. But we will certainly give it a shot. Because sitting at home complaining, while justified and sometimes necessary, will not alone resolve this pain.
So grab my hand, and let’s give this a shot. Because I don’t go down without a fight and a bit of hope that we won’t go down.
p.s.- the cover photo is of me with a Druze flag. Which looks a lot like a pride flag. So that’s awesome 🙂
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