Israel Won’t Legalize Gay Marriage. Here’s Why.
"A Gay City Deserves a Gay Mayor," proclaimed an ad for candidate Nitzan Horowitz during Tel Aviv’s most recent mayoral election in October. "One Vote That Sends Five Gays to the Council," said another, referring to the Meretz Party list. In this contest between challenger Horowitz and popular incumbent Ron Huldai (which Huldai won), the candidates were said to be trying to “out-pink” each other, both “promising to increase budgets for the gay community and social services for gay youth in distress,” Ha’aretz’s Avshalom Halutz reported.
Does that mean Israel is a beacon of LGBTQ rights in a region generally hostile to them? Not quite.
As the Tel Aviv election illustrates, gay Israelis have made significant legal and cultural strides throughout the last few decades. The ban on homosexual sodomy was repealed in 1988; an ENDA-style LGBTQ employment-discrimination ban passed in 1992; and gays have been able to serve openly in the military since 1993. Tel Aviv has become something of a haven for gay Israelis, even playing host to one of the world’s largest Pride festivals, blessed by Mayor Huldai and other national political figures.
The gains are great—but so are the challenges. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel concludes that the LGBTQ community “still faces various forms of discrimination by government authorities and in the private sector.” In terms of societal attitudes, a recent Israel Democracy Institute survey revealed that it would bother 30.5 percent of Israeli Jews and 46.2 percent of Israeli Arabs to have a homosexual couple as neighbours, including 68.4 percent of ultra-Orthodox and 48.4 percent of religious Zionist Jews.
Enter the marriage conundrum. In Israel, all valid marriages conducted abroad are recognized by the state, and foreign same-sex marriages are recorded for statistical purposes. That means a gay couple that weds in, say, the Netherlands remains wed in Israel. But that doesn’t mean a gay couple in Tel Aviv can walk down to city hall and procure a marriage license. Marriage is an exclusively religious institution in Israel, with separate religious authorities for Jews and Muslims, Christians and Druze. For Israeli Jews, marriage policy is dictated by the Chief Rabbinate, which is under the exclusive control of the Orthodox—and firmly opposed to gay marriage. Since the country has no civil marriage, gay couples seeking to marry within the borders of Israel are out of luck (as are any Jewish Israelis seeking a non-Orthodox marriage ceremony).
In Kosovo, Searching for a Jewish Mosque
I knew the name of the town, Shqiponjë, in which the mosque was located. What I did not know was where Shqiponjë in fact was, nor how to get there. Indeed, it turns out that I might not even have known the name of the town at all. It might be called Jabllanicë, or perhaps Jabllanicë-Shqiponjë. Subsequent investigation has yet to throw up the right answer.
I wanted to get there by bus. Not being among the seven million or so speakers of Albanian, I did what any good traveller would do in such circumstances: write the name down upon a piece of paper, and then randomly hold it up to people at the bus station until someone was foolish enough to aide me. And indeed, I was persuaded onto a bus by someone who, after first doing a lap of the depot to find the right platform, said simply, “Come with me.” I obliged.
This bus wasn’t going to Shqiponjë. First, I was to get off at Deçan, but then it was decided that this wouldn’t be a good idea. My guide subsequently passed me a note. “Listen,” it started. “You should go to Gjakovë and the driver and my friend that is sitting with me, they will help you to find a bus or taxi to go to Shqiponjë. I explain them how to help you. If the taxi so much expensive, they will find for you a bus. Are you agree?” How could I not?
I was handed a fresh piece of paper. On the back it said, “This is write in Albanian and show this to people. It writes that you will go to Shqiponjë, stay one hour and come back to Gjakovë.” As must be evident by now, without these notes and that young lady’s help, I would’ve still been in Peja, stuck in the bus depot with my little slip that said, “Shqiponjë,” and nothing more.
In Kosovo’s Tiny ‘Jerusalem,’ a Struggle To Sustain Jewish Life in Corner of Balkans
PRIZREN, Kosovo – Votim Demiri, President of the Jewish Community of Kosovo, took me to his house in Marash district of Prizren, located at a bend in the Prizrenska Bistrica river, an area of narrow streets and low, sloped red-tiled roofs. In his office, he showed photographs of his family meeting figures of great significance including Shimon Peres. He pointed towards a calendar given to him by the American Jewish Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, about whose work in Kosovo Demiri could not speak highly enough.
Demiri also noted that his house – “the Jewish house,” as he referred to it – forms one point of a triangle in his neighbourhood with two Islamic holy places. Later, he took me into the historic centre of Prizren centred around the old stone bridge that crosses the Prizrenska Bistrica, and noted that the Sinan Pasha Mosque sits within walking distance of a Serb Orthodox church and a Catholic school. “This is our Jerusalem,” he said.
Prizren is more like Jerusalem that one might think. Although it was spared the worst of the Kosovo War’s excesses, Serb forces did systemically clear some Albanian areas of the city, while during Albanian-led riots in 2004 Serbs were burnt out of their homes. “While the town is lovely, animated, and hospitable,” Stephen Schwartz, Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, told The Forward, “Albanians and Serbs do not get along there.” Yet still, “Albanian Sunnis, Sunni Sufis, Catholics, and Jews enjoy a warm sense of common municipal identity in Prizren.”
And it is within this mixture that the Kosovo’s Jewish community resides, who today number 56 in total. Kosovo’s Jews “have not been a significant presence in public life for a long time,” Dr Noel Malcolm, Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, explained to The Forward, their number having diminished even from the 360 or so who survived the Second World War. And yet in Prizren and Kosovo more widely, Jews have enjoyed “a real history of positive coexistence and mutual acceptance in what was a predominantly Muslim society.”
Jonathan Sacks and the Twin Danger Facing Jews
The outgoing Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Sacks, warned attendees at his farewell dinner Monday evening that assimilation and ultra-Orthodoxy – “those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world” – represent a “global danger” to Jews and Judaism.
Assimilation and ultra-Orthodoxy, Sacks said, are phenomena that presently “dominate the Jewish world”. He described the trend of “one young Jew in two deciding not to have a Jewish marriage, create a Jewish home and build the Jewish future” as a ‘tragedy’, while stating that the haredim “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews.”
“This is very dangerous, because if there is anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism in the future, who is going to fight it? The Jews who abandon Judaism? Or the Jews who abandon the world?”
As the spiritual leader of the UK’s Orthodox community, Sacks has reason to be concerned. According to a 2010 study produced by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 73 percent of Jewish households are affiliated with a synagogue, yet the percentage of affiliated households across the denominations has fallen by 17 percent over the past twenty years. Orthodox households still represent over fifty percent of affiliated households, but their number has contracted by one third. At the same time, the percentage of Jewish households affiliated to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue has more than doubled from 4.5% in 1990 to 10.9% in 2010.