Pride Month, Israel and Us

A personal message from Rabbi Deborah Waxman.

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month in the United States, and this year it arrives with some important milestones in the movement for LGBTQ equality. It is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots of late June 1969. Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton issued Proclamation 7203 in recognition of Pride Month. In the Reconstructionist world, 35 years ago the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College began to admit and ordain gay and lesbian rabbis, and a little more than 25 years ago, the movement-wide Homosexuality Commission voted that affiliated congregations should become kehillot mekablot, communities welcoming to gay Jews.

Personally, it is my privilege and delight to work in a Jewish movement that thrives on combining the depth of Jewish traditional wisdom with the insights of contemporary progressive values. The leadership our movement has shown on LGBTQ issues over the years and the risks we have taken are among our greatest contributions to Judaism and to a multi-faith progressive religious worldview, demonstrating that we are, indeed, deeply rooted and boldly relevant. For me personally, the ability to become a rabbi, to lead a Jewish movement and to marry—legally or religiously—the woman I love was all at one point within my lifetime unimaginable. I feel so grateful to have risen to leadership in a movement that has championed all of these and other pathways.

There is much to celebrate in the LGBTQ community in these times. Despite the anti-LGBTQ backlash we see taking place at the highest levels of government in the past few years, we also see growing acceptance, appreciation and inclusion of people across the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation in North America, Israel and other parts of the world. Younger people are building on the successes of the past to make such inclusion entirely normative.

In Israel, we see progress in the form of the largest number of LGBTQ Pride marches ever this year—12 twelve in all, including more than 10,000 people participating in the Jerusalem march. Reconstructing Judaism frequently supports the work of civil-rights organizations like the New Israel Fund that work incredibly hard to fight for equal rights for LGBTQ people and families in Israel. As is the case in the United States and Canada, the road to full equality and dignity is long in Israel, and there are setbacks along the way, but the overall direction is forward.

As is often the case these days, at the intersection of several progressive movements we see conflicts emerge over symbols and ideology. Most recently, there has been controversy over the decision of organizers of the DC Dyke March to prohibit the inclusion of rainbow flags that include a Star of David on them. Spokespeople for the group assert that they are pro-Jewish but anti-Zionist, and that any symbols that are strongly evocative of the Israeli flag are unwelcome due to the group’s commitment to stand in solidarity with Palestinians.

I can’t say strongly enough that I believe this decision is a mistake. I highly recommend Rabbi Rachel Timoner’s op-ed in The Forward, “Fellow Dykes: We Must Be Both Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine.” Rabbi Timoner took part in the first Dyke March in 1993, and her views hew very closely to my own. She responds in her piece to a Washington Blade op-ed by two Jewish DC Dyke March organizers explaining and defending their decision.

Rabbi Timoner writes, “Banning Jewish stars on flags is not just anti-Zionist but anti-Semitic. Let’s not forget that we are living in a time of perilous anti-Semitism, in which two synagogues were subject to murderous anti-Semitic attacks. In Brooklyn, where I serve as a rabbi to a large congregation, we are in the midst of an epidemic of random and unprovoked assaults on Orthodox Jews by seemingly unrelated people of diverse backgrounds. Anti-Semitic violence only becomes possible in a climate of normalized anti-Semitism. This decision contributes to that climate.” I agree entirely with Rabbi Timoner. I urge the DC Dyke March organizers to reconsider their ideological stance, and their analysis of the meaning and significance of the Jewish symbols.

That said, I also worry about what happens when the Jewish community becomes intensely focused on controversies like this because that focus can serve to distract the Jewish community from a greater ongoing threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state—namely, the ongoing expansion of the settlement enterprise, the denial of Jewish religious pluralism in Israel and the attack on different forms of personal freedom and civil rights that extremist right-wing leadership in Israel continues to advance.  

We must object to decisions that contribute to the normalization of antisemitism and to anti-Israel purity tests on the left, for sure. And we must also be mindful of the fact that it is the far right that is carrying out what the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg refers to as “the unmaking of Israel” as a Jewish and democratic state. The far right has actual state power in Israel and a green light from a U.S. administration dominated by groups like Christians United for Israel, which want the State of Israel to serve as an instrument for the fulfillment of their own messianic beliefs. These are forces that are actively remaking Israel in ways that threaten Jewish unity and diaspora support for Israel far more than any other political force.  

So I urge us to try to do both—to “walk and chew gum” at the same time. Our movement is allied with other progressive religious movements and multiple progressive social movements. Even as we advance many elements of their platforms, this means that it is far more likely for our members to have personally painful experiences interacting with the intense anti-Zionism and periodic antisemitism in parts of the left than they are to have parallel experiences of painful exclusion while participating in political activism on the right. (There are more Reconstructionists who go to pro-LGBTQ marches than who go to pro-Israeli-settlement marches.) The moral work of this moment includes standing up for ourselves and our beliefs in the intersections of progressive movements. And it also requires us to keep our eyes on the prize and to recognize threats to what we value most in their correct proportions.

The vision our movement has put forward for decades now—of a democratic and secure Israel living at peace with a democratic and secure Palestine, an end to the military occupation of another people, and an end to all violence against Israelis and Palestinians—is gravely threatened by multiple forces. We must prioritize the greatest threats to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and also maintain and strengthen our alliances with other groups working for a redeemed world, both in solidarity and in challenge.

Blessings to all and may Pride Month serve as a reminder that all human beings everywhere are created B’tselem Elohim, in the Divine image, and that social movements for change happen through brave and complex solidarity with allies.

I want to thank my friend and colleague Rabbi Maurice Harris, Reconstructing Judaism Israel affairs specialist, for his significant contribution to my thinking and our work in this area.

For some additional resources, please see:

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