Hopeful hints of change toward LGBT Orthodox in Israel

Israel has long been the Middle East’s lone sanctuary when it comes to gay and lesbian equality. Yet even there, pockets of homophobia remain.

Now, it appears, the winds of change have begun to blow.

Until now, many Orthodox Jews in Israel (and elsewhere for that matter) have held rigidly intolerant, occasionally even hateful, views towards homosexuality.

This is no trifling matter. In the recent past, participants in Israeli gay pride parades have suffered violence at the hands of Orthodox anti-gay zealots. Last August, a masked gunman murdered two innocents at a Tel Aviv gay and lesbian teen community center.

No arrests have been made, and there is absolutely no indication that an Orthodox Jew committed this crime. But where a climate of intolerance exists, some extremists will feel emboldened.

Our story on page 15a details a few interesting developments regarding Orthodox attitudes toward religious gays and lesbians in Israel. We see these as tremendously positive, and we encourage further steps in this direction.

Granted, the shift is slight at this point. So far, it has mostly to do with gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews tiptoeing out of the closet, forming organizations while claiming both their faith and their sexual orientation.

In another milestone, the head of a respected Israeli Orthodox yeshiva made a remarkably tolerant public statement about religious gays and lesbians. Rabbi Yuval Sherlow said they should not have to live a lie and that they should feel free to come out without facing loss of community.

True, that’s a far cry from the sort of broad acceptance of LGBT Jews we see throughout most of the Bay Area Jewish community. And the rabbi remains unalterably opposed to the notion of gay marriage.

But it’s a start.

Here at home, we watch with fascination the ongoing federal trial on the constitutionality of Proposition 8. As strong opponents of this measure during the 2008 election, we hope justice prevails in the San Francisco courtroom, and that Prop. 8 is overturned.

Prop. 8 is an epic battle for de jure marriage equality rights in California. This fight will undoubtedly continue in state after state for years to come. But this latest LGBT news out of Israel is not about the law so much as it is about the human heart.

That is where the struggle for tolerance, acceptance and equality must begin. To see some strides in Israel’s most conservative Jewish community gives us hope for the future both in Israel and here at home.