Eighteen:22’s Global Jewish LGBTQ Conference – But Whither Israel?

©Eighteen:22/Picture on the Fridge
©Eighteen:22/Picture on the Fridge

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

A group of people were traveling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself. His companions said to him: ‘Why are you doing this?’
Replied the man: ‘What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under my own place?’
Said they to him: ‘But you will flood the boat for us all!’

Eighteen:22 – a three-day think tank hosted in Salzburg which has brought together young Jewish LGBTQ and allied advocates from around the world – is indeed a truly global conference. The fellows come from twenty-two different countries. 25 percent come from a non-Ashkenazi background, 20 percent from an interfaith family, 15 percent identify as queer, trans, or non-binary, 10 percent are Jews of color, and just over 50 percent are men.

But in what ways are LGBTQ Jews from around the world truly all in the same boat?

In one of the opening sessions of the gathering, participants were invited to introduce the situations for LGBTQ Jews in their respective countries. What became evident, almost immediately, is that while there are concepts of LGBTQ solidarity and Jewish fraternity (albeit somewhat fuzzy notions), there is no such thing as the global Jewish LGBTQ experience.

Tomi Büchler, a project director with The Jewish Agency based in Budapest, spoke about the contrast between the LGBTQ Jewish experiences in Poland and Hungary. “When it comes to legislation, Hungary is twenty years ahead of Poland,” he later told me. “But when it comes to the Jewish community, I think that Poland is more accepting, more liberal, and more open minded than the Hungarian community,” noting that Poland has already had a gay rabbi, for example.

“I never had any illusion and I never believed there was a singular [global Jewish LGBTQ experience],” Robert J. Saferstein, founder and co-chair of Eighteen:22, told me. “My hope was that we would be able to create the forum that would allow for a plurality of voices to share [their] perspectives.”

What is true is that the disparate experiences of LGBTQ Jews worldwide reveal that their lives are largely defined by two key relationships. The first is that of Jews and LGBTQ people with the state. The gay Jewish experience in Russia, for example, is especially terrible because of persecution of gay men by the present regime. On the other hand, LGBTQ Jews from the United Kingdom find themselves in a better position because of progressive human rights legislation, not just on marriage equality but LGBTQ discrimination more broadly.

The other important dynamic is that of LGBTQ Jews with the wider Jewish community. Going back to Russia, it was proposed that the marginalization of queer Jews was a product of the absence of a strong Reform tendency in Russia, and that control of the religious establishment rests in the hands of Chabadnik rabbis whom Putin has empowered. Indeed, essential to the global LGBTQ Jewish experience is the relative influence of Orthodoxy as a religious movement within local Jewish communities.

“Most Jewish children today are growing up in Orthodox families,” Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of Jewish Queer Youth which works within the Orthodox community in the United States, told me during one of the open space sessions. He added that the influence of Orthodoxy is “pervasive and ubiquitous” in countries like Israel, Australia, South Africa, many countries in Europe, and American cities like New York.

The challenge, then, is how to help children growing up in the Orthodox community and make sure that Orthodox ideology doesn’t impose itself upon state law. Essential to this, Levovitz explained, was a smarter use of philanthropic money – making sure it gets to Hasidic LGBTQ youth and children in isolated national-religious communities in Israel who are most at risk – and engaging with Orthodoxy using their own framework while no longer tolerating anti-LGBTQ discourse.

“It’s very silly to expect Orthodoxy to reinterpret anti-LGBT texts,” he said, adding “there’s some stupidity on the Jewish LGBT side [when people] say, ‘Oh, the Orthodox need to reinterpret halacha.’ They just don’t understand that Orthodox people deal with problematic texts every day and don’t apologetically reinterpret them to satisfy our own morality – but it doesn’t mean we don’t challenge the morality.”

That there is no such thing as the global Jewish LGBTQ experience becomes clearest when it comes to Israel. At this conference, Israel is the pink elephant in the room. Eighteen:22 is a global gathering that is being conducted in the language of the Diaspora, not in the sense that the lingua franca is English, but in terms of the way LGBTQ Jewish identity is being conceived. (Indeed, one might venture that the conception of LGBTQ Jewish identity that is dominating discussion is not so much of the Diaspora but the American Diaspora, and the language that of North American queer discourse.)

For, understanding the LGBTQ Jewish experience in Israel and the Diaspora requires grappling with two very different sets of questions. After all, in the Diaspora, the intersection between Jewish and LGBTQ identities is the intersection between two marginalized identities. Understanding LGBTQ Jewish identity is to comprehend what it means to be a minority twice, to grasp the possibility of being doubly outcast, and the campaign for acceptance is to demand a place at the table both from the Jewish community and its institutions and from the state.

In Israel, however, the Jewish community is the state. Jewish and LGBTQ identities are no longer two minority identities that can be compartmentalized – LGBTQ Jews are a Jewish minority within a Jewish state. Not only does this alter, or even do away with, the very notion of intersectionality in the Westernized sense, but the impact this has on the struggle for acceptance is tremendous. It turns two arguments – between LGBTQ Jews and the Jewish community and LGBTQ Jews and the state – into a single internal Jewish and Zionist debate, one that is visceral and has larger implications in terms of what it means to exercise Jewish power in a Jewish state, and what in Israel should constitute Judaism.

That Israelis and American Jews speak two different languages when it comes to LGBTQ rights has come through in sessions throughout the conference. Sarah Weil, founder and executive director of Women’s Gathering Jerusalem and Queer Israel, sees it in part as an issue of translation, that even speaking in English words like ‘pinkwashing’ simply mean different things in the Israeli and American contexts. But it also has to do with discussing the issue of LGBTQ rights in an entirely Jewish space – Israel – versus the Diaspora.

“In Israel, increasingly gay rights is being spoken about in the context of Judaism and the Torah, and as a Torah value, and there are more and more – and this is something that we’ve seen in the wake of the terrible attack on the gay pride march – Orthodox rabbis coming out and saying they stand with the gay community against this violence,” Weil assessed. In the United States, the discourse is not connected to religion in this way; rather, it’s solely a human rights and civil rights issue.

What Eighteen:22 has helped to do, in Weil’s opinion, is open its fellows up to other perspectives and experiences, and bridge the language barrier that exists between all people and all communities, including Americans and Israelis. “I think this is a great opportunity for everyone to come together and open dialogue face-to-face and reveal that we have differences in our discourse,” she said.

“American LGBTQ discourse, language, and framing generally dominates the LGBTQ framing of conversations,” like those conducted at Eighteen:22, Saferstein told me, while rejecting my premise that discussions had been dominated by Americans themselves. The agenda of the conference was influenced by those who applied and who volunteered to lead sessions. Saferstein added, “You can only control so much when you open up the floor and the space to the group.”

In future gatherings, Saferstein expressed to me a wish to see discussion opened to remove potential barriers between people from different countries and have an honest and frank dialogue. “Creating an international forum where the plurality of opinions can be expressed both freely and authentically presents a number of challenges; the differences in cultural norms, language barriers, issues of (mis)translation, and defining what does and does not constitute a “safe” space. We must be mindful of these different backgrounds, for they may potentially lead us to make incorrect assumptions. It is my hope that the spirit of advancing positive change at Eighteen:22 will allow us the space to be vulnerable, to take risks, and to challenge each other – for this is how we grow.”