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Why do so many Jews support gay marriage?

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The law enacted last week, allowing same-gender couples to legally marry in the District of Columbia, is a governmental matter. Yet, as a member of the clergy, I’ve been asked over and over again about my religious opinion on the matter.

Of course, the spheres of spiritual and civil life often overlap. The Hebrew Bible includes many laws, such as those governing commerce or damages, which would be considered civil law in today’s society. Further, the text demands its adherents step into the public sphere when the rights of historically oppressed groups are threatened. Members of the Jewish community have a long history of supporting – and working toward – civil rights for many who were once considered voiceless in society.

The rabbinic body of Reform Movement in Judaism, the denomination through which I was ordained, voted, in 1977, to oppose any legislation that would limit the civil rights of gay men and lesbians, quite a bold move at the time. In 1996, a smaller body of the same group, while denying religious marriage as it was traditionally understood, encouraged its members to welcome homosexual individuals and couples into their congregations and work toward inclusiveness at a time when parity seemed impossible. During this same year, the movement’s leaders affirmed the rights of gay men and lesbians to have access to the institution of civil marriage.

Four years later, in 2000, the Reform Movement’s rabbis voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing the movement’s clergy to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies. It’s important to note that the Reform movement is not the only Jewish denomination that is supportive of either civil or religious marriage (or both) for same-gender couples. Members of the Reconstructionist Movement in Judaism as well as some Conservative Jewish leaders have also affirmed and worked toward civil and religious rights in this area.

Even if you’ve never read the Bible, you’re likely aware of the verse from Leviticus (18:22) widely understood as banning male homosexuality. The verse is often translated: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” Though the word abomination is an imperfect, and perhaps somewhat harsh, translation of the Hebrew original, the verse is correctly understood in its sociological context as placing homosexuality on the category of things that ought not be done.

With Jewish law so firmly in the “no” column, why have I and many of my colleagues said “yes” so loudly and clearly? I can only answer for myself, though I know that at least some of my views are shared by colleagues.

In the stage version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the main character, Tevye, in lamenting the encroachment of modern life on his small, yet comfortable existence, laments to his wife, “It’s a new world, Golda.” Judaism, though steeped in tradition, is an evolving religion. It is impossible for me, as a 21st century American Jew, to live by a strict interpretation of laws that were first introduced in a societal context completely foreign to modern experience not to mention current knowledge of gender and sexual identity formation.

I support civil and religious marriage not despite my understanding of Jewish tradition but because of it.

In the biblical story of creation, human beings are said to be made btzelem elohim, in the image of God. If we are all created to reflect God’s goodness, then I believe we should all have equal access to God’s bounty. Loving relationships are part of that bounty. In the second telling of the creation story, a partner is formed for Adam, the first man, because “It is not good for a human being to be alone.” Though not all in our society have found partners, it seems like unspeakable cruelty to deny some who have the right to live and affirm that partnership.

Judaism is a religion based on a covenantal relationship – one between God and a people – and highly values covenants and oaths. In Judaism, marriage is known as kiddushin, or holiness. If two people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, choose to sanctify their relationship and publicly and legally affirm their commitment to one another, it not only strengthens their individual bond, it serves to make our community stronger as well.

Rabbi Toby Manewith is with Bet Mishpachah. Reach her via betmish.org.

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A hero has fallen: A tribute to Mike Berman

Former HRC board co-chair was a sophisticated political adviser

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(Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A great hero has fallen. He was a gift to many but all should know that he was one of the greatest gifts ever to the LGBTQ community. Mike Berman was among the most sophisticated political advisers in the history of this country. For the past three generations he has advised presidents, and an army of elected officials, strategists, and operatives. Mike was among a handful of straight people elected to the board of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest civil rights organization working to advance gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality. He was so trusted, he was then elected to co-chair the board of that institution. 

Like so many, I feel so blessed and grateful to have had the benefit of Mike’s wisdom and insight throughout my tenure as president of the Human Rights Campaign. He went on to be a key adviser to each and every HRC leader and a true champion of equality. 

He told us that to know us was to love us and how to slay political dragons in a new way.  A life-long Democrat, his political acumen was brilliant and rooted in finding practical solutions across political lines. He understood back in 1995 (when my tenure began) that over time, most Americans would shed their bias and come to see LGBTQ Americans as worthy of dignity and equality. 

In many ways, Mike was one of the key architects of how HRC was able to forge relationships and garner support from unlikely parts of the political spectrum. I learned so much from Michael about the way social change actually takes place. He more than anyone understood that progress cannot be made and this nation will not be healed unless both parties come together around shared values. In our time, that feels like an impossible formula. Yet the majority of this ruthlessly divided Congress voted to uphold marriage equality last year. 

In addition to the LGBTQ community, Mike was a true believer in female leadership. He helped a legion of women rise to positions of power in Washington and beyond. He did so for the sheer joy of watching women rise in politics and as captains of industry. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Duluth, Minn. His father was Bob Dylan’s godfather. (You have to love a state that can produce Bob Dylan, Prince and, of course, Mike Berman!) He was also a beloved gentleman. There was nothing more special than a lunch and a rose at I Ricchi, one of his favorite D.C. restaurants.  

Each year, Mike would host a special Valentine’s Lunch for a wide variety of women, all dear friends and colleagues. Even in the face of medical challenges, he soldiered on. The invitations to this year’s Valentine’s lunch went out last week. 

I am a direct beneficiary of Mike’s love and counsel. The Human Rights Campaign family will forever cherish him. Our love and support goes out to Mike’s family, friends and his wonderful wife, Debbie Cowan. 

Elizabeth Birch is former president of HRC.

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Commentary

The war in Gaza impacts all of us and democracy too

ICJ case accuses Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in enclave.

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Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip head towards Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (YouTube screen capture)

Editor’s note: The International Court of Justice on Thursday began to hear legal arguments in South Africa’s case that accuses Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

BY JULIE DORF | As a leader in the LGBTQI+ movement and co-chair of the U.S.-based foreign policy organization the Council for Global Equality (CGE), I am calling on my colleagues in the progressive foreign policy community to urgently discuss alternative policy solutions to our government’s support of the deadly war in Gaza and collectively begin demanding solutions that respect the dignity, rights and security for all. 

The Council for Global Equality (CGE) works at the intersection of international human rights, U.S. foreign policy and LGBTQI+ communities. We primarily focus on influencing the U.S. government’s policies, programs and foreign assistance to do more good in the world, recognizing that our democracy typically only does the right thing when its citizens demand it — whether through elections or ongoing civic engagement by organizations such as ours. We also recognize that, deservedly or not, the United States wields outsized power in the world; as responsible citizens of this mighty country, it is therefore incumbent on us to actively engage and try to direct its power towards good. Our organizational principles include key tenets such as “freedoms abroad and freedoms at home are linked,” “democracy can only be rooted in secular, inclusive values,” “equal treatment is at the heart of human rights” and “one population’s rights cannot transcend those of another.” The full statement of principles is on our website.

When Hamas launched its terrifying attacks in southern Israel on Oct. 7, followed by Israel’s revengeful response in Gaza, I thought at first that this was not a CGE issue. As a progressive Jew, I was mostly consumed by my own relationship with the ongoing occupation and I feared for my friends in the region. I was horrified and heartsick, glued to Al Jazeera and other news sources. But I was not at all surprised by the attack, except perhaps that it had taken this long for a major uprising by Palestinians. I reached out to activists, friends and family in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt. I felt no contradiction being equally upset by the loss of lives on all sides and holding multiple truths at once. Yes, Hamas is a terrorist organization that brutally murdered my people. Yes, Israel has been occupying, persecuting, and actively undermining a Palestinian state for its entire existence. And yes, the government of the United States and its Jewish community have both been enabling this horrible injustice for as long as I can remember. This crisis was just more of the same but on a much, much more painful scale.

My position on Palestine and Israel 

I grew up in a staunchly Zionist environment, visited the region multiple times (Israel and the West Bank and Gaza,) and evolved through my human rights career into a proud Jewish anti-Zionist. I believe in the land of Israel being a vital, safe and sacred homeland for Jews and Muslims, as well as for Christians, Druze, Armenians, Samaritans and others. 

I do not, however, believe in a Jewish supremacist state, which is the way that Israel’s current policies have been constructed, believing that only by having a majority of Jews in the country of Israel can it be a secure Jewish “homeland.” I believe it can and must be a secure homeland for different religions simultaneously. Indeed, if you’ve ever visited Jerusalem, you know it already is a homeland for Jews, Christians, Muslims and Armenians (albeit not safe.) Yes, Netanyahu is perhaps the most far-right authoritarian leader we’ve seen in Israel. But long-time policies from urban development, road construction and water to the separation wall and vast numbers of political prisoners, and other Israeli government policies have been constructed to maintain the supreme rights of Jews over Palestinians. These policies that are intended to maintain inequality by ethnicity are simply inherently incompatible with a genuine democracy. At this moment in the world, when democracy needs to be actively defended in so many countries, an exception clause for Israel is both indefensible and counterproductive. 

From left: Julie Dorf, the now Association for Civil Rights in Israel Executive Director Noa Sattath and then-Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance Executive Director Hagai El-Ad protest at a checkpoint outside Bethlehem, West Bank, during Jerusalem WorldPride in 2006. Dorf is the co-chair of the Council for Global Equality. (Photo courtesy of Julie Dorf)

My political positions on Israel and Palestine have stirred up great pain and conflict in my family and community. But I have been committed to talking to my own people — in this case, American Jews — about these issues because that is where I can have the most influence to make change, however small that may be. Many progressive Jews — and particularly younger generations — share my beliefs but are afraid of being ostracized from their Jewish communities or families or being labeled a “self-hating Jew.” I know that I am a proud Jew. 

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism

I am also no stranger to antisemitism — even working in the LGBTQI+ global movement, I have experienced my share of antisemitism. It mostly takes the form of microaggressions, such as comments about “your banker friends in New York” or “I won’t succumb to your Jewish guilt moves.” Then there was the moment when a presenter at a queer conference on closing civic space in Poland used a political cartoon from a local newspaper that had a picture of an Orthodox Jew with a huge nose, wearing a Star of David that said “NGO” on it — but didn’t recognize that NGO was overlaid on a profoundly antisemitic image. Or the time when someone posted a conspiracy theory full of lies that “co-religionist George Soros” was somehow connected West Bank settlement building on a large global queer listserv, and the moderator of the list told me that my concerns were unfounded and that “the post was not antisemitic.” And I’ll definitely never forget when an activist in Malaysia who had never met a Jew before asked to feel my head for my horns. At least they asked for consent!

Today’s genuine rise in antisemitism around the world is more overt and scary. I’m used to armed security guards at the entrances to Jewish institutions such as our schools, museums and synagogues to guard against the occasional violent act of antisemites. But this increased level of hate speech, online antisemitism, Nazis in public and murder threats are understandably terrifying my community. This is precisely why the distinction between this very real rise in antisemitic violence and anti-Zionist expression is critical to distinguish.

It is dangerous for Jews and others to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism because that conflation misdirects attention from genuine antisemitic violent threats and increases polarization in a year when our unity to protect democracy is more important than ever. Further, it is terrible for the freedom of thought and speech, undermining legitimate calls for justice for Palestinians and silencing people from expressing their true thoughts and reactions. All these things are harming U.S. foreign policy and making U.S. citizens less safe. 

We can agree to disagree about the connotations of “from the river to the sea” or the word “intifada,” but it is not inherently antisemitic to wish for equality in that location or to desire a one-state solution to the conflict between the state of Israel and the stateless citizens of Palestine or to wish to organize peaceful resistance to oppression (such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.) This is legitimate political discourse, essential to finding a peaceful solution to this ongoing conflict, whether that be a one-state, two-state, confederated or some other solution we haven’t yet imagined.

A Free Palestine poster on 17th Street in Dupont Circle on Oct. 23, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Further complicating matters, progressives tend to minimize antisemitism because of Ashkenazi white skin privilege and class privilege, whether real or imagined. Yet Eastern European Jews weren’t considered “white” for many decades, Sephardic Jews are still not considered “white,” and there is increasing visibility of Jews of color. Regardless of the color of our skin, we’ve not been part of any dominant culture for most of our existence as a people — until the creation of the Israeli state. But in the current leftist paradigm of “settler colonialism” as it applies to the State of Israel (which is, in fact, what the early founders of Israel called themselves), often the role of historical and current antisemitism is either dismissed or ignored. This is problematic and limits solidarity. It adds to the lopsided empathy that occurs in both directions and limits civil discourse and healing.

There is no doubt that antisemitism over time, and particularly the Holocaust, played a critical role in the creation of the state of Israel, as well as in the historical trauma and epigenetic fears that live inside so many of us Jews. That trauma was further inflamed by Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7, just as the trauma of the Nakba was reignited for Gazans when Israel’s counter-attacks began and 90 percent of Gazans were forced to leave their homesregularly going without food. It might seem obvious that this sense of collective victimhood does not give license to victimize others, but it certainly creates a major blind spot in Jewish identity. It is overdue for Jews around the world — and especially in Israel — to update our story and live up to our stated values as a people committed to “Tikkun Olam,” or to repair the world. As painful as it is, we must take a hard look at the missteps in the history of Israel and rectify them urgently. We must face the current crisis and rise in antisemitism with the clarity that anti-Zionism is not synonymous with antisemitism. We must also be able to sit with the discomfort or sense of threat from anti-Zionist arguments or even chants, or genuine discourse about a different role for the U.S. vis-à-vis Israel, rather than reflexively labeling all of that antisemitic. 

Legitimacy in global movements

So, when activists in the Middle East began asking queer groups to show up in solidarity with Palestine and, in particular, to join the calls for a ceasefire, I had no problem as a co-chair of CGE to craft a statement on behalf of our organization. It was not only consistent with our stated principles, but it was also a question of legitimacy for us in our global movement. What so many Americans do not quite understand is that much of the world considers Israel a pariah state; as such, the “special relationship” the United States maintains with a country considered akin to apartheid South Africa is very hard to explain or defend. Yet here in the United States, we get a totally different perspective, highly influenced by the commercial media, by mainstream Jewish community institutions (many of which are quite out of step with their own constituents, particularly younger people) and also by the strong forces of the intensely Zionist Christian right (Did you know that Christians United for Israel has more members than AIPAC?) And perhaps, as Peter Beinart posits, as Americans, we identify unconsciously with Israelis because we, too, do not wish to rectify our past treatment of Native Americans in our own founding of our country. This creates a grossly asymmetrical empathy for the “Israeli side” (which, by the way, is hardly monolithic) for many in the United States. 

Yet, for many of us in the fields of international human rights, global development, or foreign policy, we engage regularly with colleagues outside of the United States who have a more balanced concern for the Palestinians. Indeed, we cannot do our work very effectively without such solidarity and trusted relationships. Consequently, it is very difficult to sustain an organizational position that justifies the levels of U.S. aid to Israel (over $3B annually,) particularly the extra $14.5B in military aid for their war on Gaza, some of it circumventing required congressional notifications, which everyone knows by now has overwhelmingly killed civilians and children and over 20,000 people. Then to see that with the U.S. government’s enormous investment, the Israeli military and intelligence could be so arrogantly incompetent, caught without any plan or reasonable response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, makes that incredibly large investment even more questionable. And yet, most D.C. organizations still simply shy away from this issue.

Pinkwashing and impact on the LGBTQI+ movement

For the global LGBTQI+ movement, “pinkwashing” has further enraged many in queer communities across the globe. Pinkwashing is the promotion by the Israeli government (or any other government) of its pro-LGBTQI+ policies to intentionally distract from its human rights abuses against Palestinians (or other horrific rights abuses.) In truth, all the rights that have been disingenuously touted by the Israeli government to show a contrast to surrounding Arab states in the region were hard-fought and won by the country’s LGBTQI+ community itself through the courts, not simply handed to the community by the State of Israel. This has been a key part of the intentional campaign by the Israeli government to maintain an image that the country is more similar to Western democracies and, therefore, more deserving of their support. 

But in many ways, it has backfired when it comes to LGBTQI+ communities and certainly alienated Israeli LGBTQI+ civil society from the global movement, and in particular from other LGBTQI+ organizations in the region. It is considered so taboo to be connected to Israel that no other Middle East or North Africa (MENA) representatives would show up to a queer MENA event if Israeli civil society were even invited. (And, yes, there are LGBTQI+ groups large and small in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco, etc.) Israel’s pinkwashing also helped spawn stronger queer support for Palestinians and for the BDS movement. A clear example of this pinkwashing continues now during the war, when the State of Israel’s official X (formerly Twitter) account showed an IDF soldier unfurling a rainbow flag in front of a tank in Gaza and another one, claiming to be “in the name of love,” in front of a destroyed village. For many of us, this was beyond offensive, it was stomach-churning.  

Yoav Atzmoni, an IDF soldier, holds a Pride flag while inside the Gaza Strip in November 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli government’s X account)

For all of these reasons, CGE issued our statement calling for a ceasefire in late October. Most of our organizational members were very pleased with its release, except for the ADL, which chose to end its membership in CGE over our differences on this issue. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both long-standing CGE members, have strongly criticized this war, documenting war crimes and other human rights violations, both by the Israeli state against Palestinian civilians and by Hamas against Israeli citizens. But other than those large human rights organizations, the most vocal members of the foreign policy community in Washington have been the large humanitarian assistance providers, which have passionately argued for a ceasefire. The visible resistance by Jewish Voice for Peace and other progressive Jewish organizations, together with Palestinian rights organizations, have been the primary other civil society entities articulating a different vision for U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine. Between the street protests, potentially losing the next generation’s vote, and the upset from federal employees themselves, this does seem to be getting the Biden-Harris administration’s attention, forcing very small shifts toward using its leverage to reign in Israel’s military violence.

Where is the US foreign policy community?

So, where is the rest of the Washington foreign policy community? Clearly, others must have similar concerns for their credibility with partners around the world during this crisis and feel uneasy every day as the news appears. How can we not do better than this to hold our government accountable to our values of equality and justice? Where are the media watchdog organizations and why are they not challenging such asymmetrical coverage of the war? I understand that people are scared to “take a side,” to offend someone, to lose big donors and to lose legitimacy in the eyes of our U.S. government allies. God forbid we get canceled by saying the wrong thing or making a mistake.

But we must do better than that; we must have the courage to advocate for a more balanced U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine and to call on the Biden administration to be a more honest broker in the conflict. If foreign policymakers believe that the United States needs to be Israel’s best friend, to be a trusted nation they will listen to, then we certainly have paid our dues by now. We must leverage decades of expensive investments more strategically and effectively.

It is time for the progressive foreign policy community in the United States, together with principled Jewish organizations, Palestinian leaders and others sincerely invested in peace to come together to articulate a better way forward for U.S. foreign policy. We must demand conditions on U.S. aid, not just on ending illegal settlement building in the West Bank, but on actually dismantling settlements if the U.S.-stated policy goal of helping to create a Palestinian state is sincere. We must condition military aid appropriately to avoid its use in war crimes. We must demand and help secure the release of Palestinian leaders in Israeli prisons who could become the more legitimate, moderate leaders of the next iteration of the Palestinian Authority. This would undermine the Hamas movement far more effectively than the current military campaign is doing by offering better leadership options. We must demand the release of the Israeli hostages in Gaza and the Palestinian political prisoners in Israel. And we must end the immense blank check support of billions of taxpayer dollars to Israel by requiring a genuine restart of peace negotiations. These are just some of the policies that we should be advocating for – the point is that we need to have those debates as a matter of urgency within our own foreign policy communities in Washington.

As an LGBTQI+ U.S. foreign policy organization, we should be a part of those discussions, not just because queer Palestinians and queer Israelis are impacted, and not just because it’s urgently critical for the safety of all Palestinians and Israelis, but because, indeed, we are all impacted. Americans will be safer. Jews will be safer. Democracy might even be safer. 

Julie Dorf is the co-chair of the Council for Global Equality.

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Commentary

Daring to dream: New Year’s 2024

Keep our dreams flying with pride

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(Image by LuckyStep48/Bigstock)

“…if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ that cannot fly.”
Dreams by Langston Hughes

As the ball drops in Times Square to bring
the New Year in, another teen trembles, shakes
from bullying, is enraged when no one calls

them by their name. Haters hiss at drag
storytellers, toast the holidays with dictators.
How can anyone sing Auld lang syne?

Clarence, the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,”
nearly stops caring about getting his wings.
Can even an Old Hollywood angel help

this world amuck in hate and war? You
almost want to write the obit for dreams.
To toss them in the dust bin with dead

batteries, texts from vexed exes, take-out
containers. Yet hope persists. Like a dog
that lives to be 20, though it eats chocolate

daily and is never walked. A dad embraces
his queer son. A trans rabbi conducts
a Passover seder, a queer imam holds

lesbian lovers in prayer. A gay elder
marries his high school sweetheart.
Not much to go on in this time,

a frayed security blanket that barely
covers us. But enough to keep our
dreams flying with pride. Happy New Year!

Kathi Wolfe, a poet and writer, is a regular Blade contributor. Wolfe is the winner of the 2024 William Meredith Award for Poetry. Her most recent collection is ‘The Porpoise In The Pink Alcove’ (Forest Woods Media Press).

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