(JTA) — The line between respecting diverse religious beliefs and violating the rights and dignity of gays and lesbians is at the center of a debate between gay advocates and the PJ Library over a children’s picture book featuring a family with two fathers.
“The Purim Superhero,” by Elisabeth Kushner, was published by Kar-Ben Publishing last year after the manuscript won a contest for Jewish-themed books with LGBT characters sponsored by Keshet, a Jewish LGBT advocacy group. It’s about a boy who turns to his two fathers for advice after his Hebrew school classmates tell him he can’t dress up as an alien for Purim.
PJ Library, the popular program that distributes free Jewish children’s books in North America and beyond, selected it as one of its featured books this month, but as an extra book distributed only to those who requested it — which, apparently, many parents did: All 2,200 copies PJ had purchased were requested within 36 hours, according to an article in The Boston Globe.
An activist wearing a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin joins protesters on the opening day of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. / Getty Images
As the winter Olympics open today, there has been a crescendo of condemnation in the West of Russia’s many human rights violations. Sadly, in spite of all the attention Vladimir Putin’s discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians and the environment of violent homophobia have received, the situation has not gotten any better. We published our editorial on Sochi back in November with the hope that the International Olympic Committee and sponsors like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s or the large network covering the event, NBC, might try and apply some pressure on Russia. But sadly that has not happened, and with the exception of a few token words from Putin, gays and lesbians feel even more embattled now just as the parade of athletes begins.
The Jewish community should feel a sense of déjà vu as it witnesses the government-sponsored persecution of LGBT people in Russia. We should respond with a statement of determination nearly as familiar to us as the Shema: Never again.
In the 1960s, with our awareness of the Holocaust very fresh in our memory, American Jews took seriously Soviet scapegoating of Russian Jewry and the efforts to destroy the Russian Jewish community. In 2013, in Putin’s Russia, gays are the new Jews.
In his assault on democratic institutions in Russia, Vladimir Putin is counting on xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Western and anti-immigrant sentiments to turn the Russian people against anybody perceived to be different. Government-run media supports these policies. The precious few independent media outlets cannot compete with Putin’s huge propaganda machine. This, along with the infamous new law banning the spread of “nontraditional sexual relations,” all but silences LGBT people in Russia.
Act Up’s slogan “Silence = Death” comes from recent U.S. history, when coming out and speaking out were essential to changing public views of homosexuality and to mobilizing response to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. If you are gay in Russia in 2013, it is no longer lawful to affirm who you are, even in front of your own children.
The latest video from the Russian Neo-Nazi group “Occupy Pedophilia” has hit the Russian social media site, VK.com.
The video follows the same format of the gay-bashing torture videos that the group is (in-)famous for: a bully taunts, assaults and humiliates a gay man lured by a fake personal ad. Only this time, the victim is Alexander Bohun, a recent contestant on the Ukrainian version of “X Factor.”
What’s also notable is that, in addition to a rainbow flag painted onto Bohun’s head, the young man’s tormentors drew Jewish stars on his body. It is not known whether Bohun is actually Jewish — though this hasn’t mattered to Russia’s militias and thugs, who have targeted people for appearing Jewish just as it has targeted people for appearing gay. What does matter is that it shows that Jews need not be Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“First they came for the Communists…”) to stand up and take notice of the daily torture of LGBT people in Russia. To “Occupy Pedophilia,” gays are foreigners are pedophiles are Jews. There is no distinction in their feeble minds, and there should be no distinction in ours either.
The chief rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, has so far remained silent on this anti-Semitic aspect of the anti-gay violence sweeping Russia. Will he speak up now? Probably — he’s a staunch Putin ally. But he is also a prominent Chabad-Lubavitch leader. Will Chabad’s American leadership demand an end to this anti-Semitism? Or does the intermingling of Judaism and homosexuality somehow erase the anti-Semitism of these thugs?
How many more people have to be tortured with Jewish stars painted on their chests before the American Jewish community rises up in outrage, and demands that the Chabad organization take a stand in Russia?
For the first time ever, the Forward 50 was launched with a profile celebrating a gay Jewish woman — and the kvelling was just starting for gay Jewish achievers.
Edie Windsor made the Top 5 for her role in the fight for marriage equality: on June 26, she won her suit at the Supreme Court, a decision that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
While the most visible victory for gay rights this year, it was far from the only one, a fact reflected in this year’s list. Six of the honorees are gay, reflecting a more general acceptance of gays in the wider Jewish community, as well as the prominence of Jews in the struggle for equality.
“As a former F50 honoree myself, I think it’s a combination of two factors,” Jay Michaelson, author of “God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality,” wrote in an email to the Forward. “The struggle for equality is among the great civil rights issues of our time, and so it’s natural that those involved with it are recognized in this way.”
Three of the honorees won their place on the list because of their work promoting LGBT issues. As executive director of Keshet, Idit Klein has turned what started as a grassroots group advocating the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jewish life into a national organization that has educators in more than 200 communities around the country; Alan Van Capelle has a long record of fighting for gay rights and headed a New York lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights lobby before stepping in as CEO of Bend the Arc.
But Michaelson identified a second trend at work, namely that “more LGBT people are out of the closet — there were almost certainly past honorees whose sexual identities were unknown to us.”
Three of the honorees reflect precisely that: Glenn Greenwald, Harvey Fierstein and Mitchell Davis were all chosen for their outstanding contribution to their respective fields: Greenwald for breaking one of the biggest stories of the last decade; Fierstein for his Midas touch when it comes to Broadway hits, and Davis for his achievements in the tasty realm of Jewish food. In the past, they would have been recognized for their achievements, completely independent from their sexuality, but with a part of their identity cloaked in silence.
It’s a small step in the right direction.
The Kremlin’s self-styled flag experts have declared that the flag of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region —which bears an uncanny resemblance to the rainbow gay pride symbol — is in fact 100% kosher, Buzzfeed World reported.
The flag, designed in 1996 for the Birobidzhan region, boasts colorful stripes on a white background. It was under review for its possible violation of Russia’s ban on LGBT propaganda.
“Regarding the similarity of this flag with the symbol of the gay movement, we explain that not every rainbow image is linked to sexual orientation,” Georgy Vilinbakhov, a Kremlin advisor, wrote in a letter published by local website EAOMedia.ru.
“Obviously, the above described flag, the flag of the Jewish Autonomous Region, whose foundation is a white cloth, has nothing to do with that,” he wrote. “This flag does not contradict the current law of the Russian Federation and so there is no basis to cancel or change it.”
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, or region, was designated by Stalinist Soviet authorities in 1934 as a “Jewish socialist republic.”
Interviewed by the same local outlet, the flag’s creator, Alexander Valyaev defended his design. “On its flag the gay movement uses seven stripes, not six,” he pointed out. “The rainbow is a divine symbol, taken from the Bible. God threw the rainbow from the sky into the wilderness of the desert as a symbol of hope.”
The Supreme Court’s decisions around marriage rights may have elated gay and lesbian Jews and their allies. But for LGBT Jews in the Orthodox community, the ruling might have the opposite effect. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations issued a statement reiterating Judaism “forbids homosexual relationships”; Agudath Israel went a step further, claiming the “sanctity” of marriage “may have been grievously insulted by the High Court.”
Enter Shlomo Ashkinazy. A quiet but pathbreaking activist, Ashkinazy has counseled gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews about reconciling “untenable contradictions” in their religious and sexual identities. Most recently, he’s leading a video storytelling project for Eshel, the New York-based organization which advocates for acceptance of LGBT Jews in Orthodox communities.
Ashkinazy’s personal activism stretches back much farther. In the 1970s, he became the nation’s first openly gay social-work graduate student. And in 1985, he became founding principal at the Harvey Milk High School, the first public school for LGBT students in the country.
On the heels of historic high-court decisions on civil rights for LGBT people, the Forward caught up with Ashkinazy from Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, where he lives with his partner Michael.
They’re back! And just in time for Toronto’s Gay Pride parade on Sunday, June 30.
Who’s back? None other than Canada’s most high profile anti-Zionist gay organization — Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).
Formed by Toronto LGBT activists on the platform that Israel exists as an apartheid state and oppresses Palestinians — including LGBT Palestinians — QuAIA has fomented controversy every year since 2008 when it first announced its intent to participate in Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade. Despite pleas from the Jewish community to stop QuAIA from marching, and despite efforts by some city councillors to withhold grant money to Pride Toronto organizers unless they keep the agitators out, QuAIA has managed to participate in the city’s Pride Parade four out of the last five years. Pending any extraordinary and highly unlikely intervention from Toronto City Hall, they’ll be marching again on June 30.
Ongoing efforts by QuAIA opponents to halt the group’s inclusion on the basis that the term “Israeli apartheid” violates Toronto’s human rights policy and Ontario’s Human Rights Code, have been unsuccessful.
And a recent statement by Toronto’s chief lawyer which acknowledges that the words “Israeli Apartheid” violate neither the city’s human rights policy, nor appear to violate the province’s human rights policy, all but guarantees that QuAIA will again be part of the festivities.
Opponents of QuAIA, like myself, are not pleased. Its supporters, however, certainly are. Tony Souza, a member of QuAIA, was quoted in the May 27 Toronto Star saying, “Every single report that comes out says we don’t violate any hate laws…. we certainly don’t ‘hate’ anybody. We just want justice in Palestine.”
“The Pines is to gay people what Israel is to Jews. It’s the spiritual homeland.”
That’s how journalist-turned developer Andrew Kirtzman described The Pines, a largely gay male enclave on idyllic Fire Island, the 31-mile-long strip of land just south of Long Island, about a 1-1/2-hour drive east of New York City.
“There’s just a sense of history in the air, almost tangible but not quite,” Kirtzman told The New York Times this week as Fire Island continues recovering from Hurricane Sandy. “You just feel like you’re part of some kind of grand creation meant solely for gays.”
How do Fire Island and Israel stack up? With Kirtzman’s claim in mind, The Forward investigated.
Size: 31 square miles
Anthem: Fire Island, (Village People, 1977)
Daily ritual: High Tea at the Pavilion
Boldface names: Calvin Klein, David Geffen
Getting there: Ferry $8.25
Real estate: 2 BR bungalow $595K
Slogan: The Gayest Island in the World
Michael Lucas porn film: “Fire Island Cruising”
Mark Carson was a 32-year-old gay man in New York City, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The place is one familiar to many New Yorkers: the busy corner of 6th Avenue and 8th Street, in Greenwich Village. Just two blocks from the famous Stonewall Inn, Carson talked back to the wrong homophobe, and was shot dead last Friday night.
The expressions of outrage that followed have been both appropriate and predictable. Less predictable, at least from a Jewish point of view, have been the expressions of surprise: many people, straight and LGBT, took to the blogosophere to say how astonished they were that such violence could still be possible, in this day and age.
Really? Consider what would have happened had Carson been targeted for being Jewish, instead of being gay. Shock, outrage, and condemnation would surely pour in from all quarters. But surprise? Probably not. We Jews are used to persecution, and we see it even when it isn’t there. So when it is, it’s a confirmation of our sense of persecution, not a shock to our sense of imperviousness.
That anti-gay violence continues should not be a surprise. The advent of civil rights for African Americans did not end racial violence, still widespread nearly fifty years after the Civil Rights Act. Feminism has not ended violence against women. Indeed, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, to echo President Obama’s historic turn of phrase, legal inequality is only the tip of the iceberg. Submerged beneath it are deep-seated patterns of injustice, privilege, prejudice, and fear.
An unprecedented lawsuit against a Jewish non-profit whose programs aim to “convert” gay men could become a “watershed moment” in history, says the head of a national advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Jews.
The case against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), brought yesterday in New Jersey Superior Court, would also “be a moment like in the Wizard of Oz, when the supposed wizard gets exposed as someone who’s not a good, truth-telling leader, but someone who’s destroying his community,” says Idit Klein, executive director of Boston-based Keshet.
So-called conversion therapy programs like JONAH “are destructive to the individuals they serve, and destructive in their message of bias and false claims of ‘curing’ people,” Klein told the Forward. “They clearly do not work, and have no basis in any kind of valid understanding of human psyche and identity.”
For Orthodox Jews who seek some kind of guidance through conversion therapy, results can be especially “devastating”, Klein said.
LISTEN TO A PODCAST WITH GAY ORTHODOX JEWS DISCUSSING THEIR FAITH AND SEXUALITY
“Gay men who grew up Orthodox and got treated by JONAH have talked about self-loathing, degradation, and damage to their sense of self, not to mention profound damage to their relationship with Judaism and the Jewish community,” she said. “It’s particularly painful for someone who grew up in Yeshiva, studies Tanakh, and relates to text as a source of authority in their lives. To be told ‘something’s wrong with you, it’s against Hashem and Torah,’ has driven people to take their own lives.”
When the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission was founded in 1990, sodomy laws were prevalent. Amnesty International’s platform didn’t include LGBT rights. The United States wouldn’t grant asylum to refugees on the basis of sexual orientation.
The world’s changed since then, and so has IGLHRC. Since earning consultative status at the United Nations in 2010, the organization has been a powerful voice for sexual rights at the international body, often taking on governments with less-than-friendly policies toward LGBT citizens. It’s also become a ferocious watchdog on abuse on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, shining a spotlight on serial human-rights violators across the world.
IGLHRC was founded by a Jewish woman, Julie Dorf. This month, another Jewish woman takes over as executive director. Jessica Stern, 36, had been the organization’s program director, and played a pivotal role in its U.N. accreditation. A native of Setauket, Long Island, Stern lives in Brooklyn with her partner, CUNY Law School clinical-law professor Lisa Davis, whose mother “desperately hopes we’ll get married by a lesbian rabbi.”
The Forward caught up with Stern from her office up the street from the Forward’s still-flooded building on Maiden Lane in Manhattan.
IGLHRC’s been around for 22 years. Now that you’re executive director, what do you plan to change? What do you want to continue?
Never heard of Fred Karger? He doesn’t mind. Most people haven’t — so few, in fact, that the slogan of his unlikely Republican presidential campaign, and the title of his campaign biography, is, “Fred Who?”
As a GOP presidential candidate, Karger is an anomaly. Not only does he have zero name recognition, Karger is Jewish. Plus, he says he is the first openly gay person to ever run for president as a Republican.
“The younger people are complete social moderates and resent Rick Santorum and that type of politics,” Karger said, referring to the former Pennsylvania senator who is known for his social conservatism, particularly on issues of homosexuality.
Karger, who calls himself a Rockefeller Republican, is pro-choice, supports gay marriage, and wants American troops out of Afghanistan. His family has roots in Chicago, where his great grandfather founded the local Jewish federation. Karger lives in Laguna Beach, Calif. and is a member of a Reform synagogue there called Kol Ami.