Publications aimed for a queer Jewish audience, like any niche-aimed work, tend to concentrate on certain themes. There are your coming out to your community publications, there are your famous-queer-Jews publications, there are your “my story” publications.
And then there is another trend: a deep, heavy, nearly-overwhelming concentration on Israel.
Israel is everywhere in the queer Jewish community – and we’re not talking objective or straightforward discussions here. (Mention “pink-washing” and things might not go so well for you.) “Look at the equality and glory of Israel” is a message almost ubiquitous in the queer Jewish community – of course, with a heavy dose of hasbara (Hi AIPAC!), nationalist feel-good rhetoric, and reproduction of racist stereotypes. Almost always, one finds highly distorted truths. To a certain point, I – the son of a mother raised in Israel – do not completely mind. But in fact, I mind quite a lot.
To a point, this focus is simply annoying – and exclusionary for those who are even mildly critical of Israel’s government or its policies, for it has developed a culture of “you’re with us or against us.” There’s also the point at which it is obsessive – it feels as if nothing else is discussed.
And what I’m concerned with is that this obsession comes at the expense of discussing queer Jewish experiences right here, right now in the United States.
Of course, it can already be argued that the American Jewish community is dangerously obsessed with Israel, to the point of damage to our own communal health. As one Israeli filmmaker aptly said, Israel is “too cherished.” Yet, in my own experience, I find that the wider American Jewish community is less concentrated on Israel than the queer Jewish community.
There is also the problem that much of the funding available in the Jewish world is centered around funding for politically conservative Israel experiences. Witness the success of Birthright, or the “Zionist” Tikvah Institute in the settlement of Ein Prat.
Now, how does this trend manifest itself? Firstly, Israel-themed and –centered programming become the centerpiece of ostensibly “open-house” events again and again. For example, at a conference I attended in 2012, the theme was supposedly “advocating our identities” – but really appeared to be “advocating Israel as the model” and “quashing criticism of Israel.” I and other attendees not only felt unsafe for our own opinions, but also felt that there was not enough space for us to discuss constructing and maintaining better communities here, or for other topics of interest.
In addition, many resources on being queer and Jewish seem to center on looking at “queer Israel” or “Israel as the model of LGBTQ equality.” I’ve seen many a Hillel make their “queer-friendliness” center not on how that specific Hillel is queer-friendly … but how Israel is queer-friendly. Meanwhile, there is comparatively less celebration for events here at home, such as when the USCJ creates a same-sex commitment ceremony or when a gay Jewish man is elected to the US Congress!
And when these topics come up, they are dismissed, not noted, or even (maddeningly!) re-contextualized into an Israel context.
Now, I get that this problem is a symptom of a wiser cause, as noted above. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. After all, we queer Jews want to talk about right here, right now. In the USA.
Face the facts: our lives are here, our Jewish practice is here, our daily experience as Jews of the rainbow spectrum is here. No number of pictures of the (admittedly gorgeous) men at the Tel Aviv Pride Parade will undo the fact that, to be honest, we’re far more interested in finding a shidduch in Morningside Heights, Evanston, Squirrel Hill, or Germantown. No amount of LGBTQ tours of Israel will completely solve the awkwardness some of us feel around the line likrat hatan al kalah. And whilst I am sure that Israel has a “bangin’” gay club scene, you know what is also awesome? The work of LGBTQ students to create safe spaces at Yeshiva University.
I cannot claim to have the knowledge or magic power to fix this trend now. Nor do I want to see Israel swept off the discussion table – rather, I would like to see it continue to be discussed, perhaps with less focus and certainly with more diversity of opinion.
Let’s talk about creating and maintaining queer Jewish spaces right here at home. The lack of discussion on making such events and places more accessible for transgender people, frum people, and survivors of sexual assault should be addressed. And what of making rainbow Jewish events more financially accessible? Despite the presence of financial aid, such conferences and retreats are still expensive – and beyond the reach of many interested parties.
Let’s continue to discuss making wider spaces safer and more welcoming of and accustomed to our presence. Homophobia is still a daily reality in Jewish communities across the religious spectrum right here in the USA. And beyond that, can we discuss things such as the annoyance one feels when someone tries to shidduch you with yet another opposite-sex partner, or feeling totally out of place at singles’ events? Let’s also celebrate our achievements in this regard – such as the rejection of “reparative” therapy by the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America.
Israel, of course, should not be abandoned as a topic of discussion – but nor should it be coddled or cosseted as a topic. Let’s start having a broader conversation on the things that are difficult to discuss – the occupation, pink-washing, and widespread homophobia in Israel among them. The community should also stop excluding those queer Jews such as myself whose opinions on Israel don’t toe the line – rather, we would like to be welcomed and listened to. Of course, not at the expense of other topics.
Jonathan Paul Katz is a student at the University of Chicago.