On Leprosy, Hair, and Yom ha’Atzmaut

Although I don’t generally post things like this, I think this is an idea that merits sharing outside of my school’s Torah publication. Enjoy! -A

As part of the process of re-purification of a metzora (a person who was stricken with tzaraat, leprosy), the metzora must shave all of his/her hair off before rejoining society and B’nei Yisrael’s encampment. Such an act is not, however, unique to the purification of the metzora — this idea is mentioned in other places, too. For example, when a nazir completes the time that he promised to be a nazir, his hair is also shaved off One can ask: why is hair so significant that it should be such an important part of the process of purification?

Last September, Lady Gaga dedicated a song from her latest album, entitled “Hair,” to Jamie Rodemeyer, a high school freshman who took his own life as the result of being mercilessly bullied. She explained that “Hair” was meant to be a metaphor for high school — in high school, she said, all you have is your identity, your own hair. Once you are stripped of that, you have nothing. Perhaps Lady Gaga, known for her eccentric clothing and hair, is right: one’s hair does seem to play a role in shaping a person’s identity. In literature, for example, hair (especially facial hair) is often used to symbolize masculinity. In Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, facial hair is used to symbolize masculinity, and the gruffness and subhuman nature often stereotypically associated with masculinity. When Rose, one of the female protagonists in the book, shaves her fiancee’s beard off, we draw a connection between his beard and masculinity, a defining part (up until that point) in his identity.

So we see how hair can be considered important to our identities. How does this, in turn, relate to the metzora? Perhaps, if we looked at this from a literary perspective, this is meant to be something to humiliate the metzora by, quite literally, “shaving” him of his masculinity.

However, I would like to look at this from a different perspective. In seventh grade, my Chumash teacher explained that the reason the halakhot of birth and the metzora are juxtaposed in the Torah is to emphasize the fact that one who is purified from tzaraat is considered to have been born anew, just like a newborn baby. The former metzora now is tasked with entering society as a new person, like a baby is to fashion a new life for him- or herself.

Perhaps the aspect of shaving a metzora‘s hair furthers this idea of renewal. In a way, it seems to be a physical manifestation of the metzora‘s rebirth and his or her reentering society as a new person, a baby. By shaving off the metzora‘s hair — his identity — we give the metzora a fresh start, a rebirth, of sorts. We allow the metzora to fashion a whole new identity for him- or herself, and allow the metzora to shed his old identity and whatever gave him or her tzaraat in the first place. We allow the metzora to reenter society, to continue the metaphor, with a completely new “hairstyle,” a new identity.

Today, Jews around the world celebreated Yom ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. On May 5th, 1948, the Jewish people collectively “shaved their hair” and started anew, in a new land of their own. Despite the hardships that the 1930s and 40s brought upon European Jewry, these Jewish communities were able to find shelter in Israel after its establishment, developing new “hair,” a new society, in the process.

On Pinkwashing and Israel’s Human Rights Policies

After Tel Aviv was crowned the “Gay Capital” of the world (beating out New York, San Francisco, and Toronto, all of whom are considered to be the top of the “gay friendly” city scale), a new wave of anti-Israel sentiment emerged: the idea of “pinkwashing,” or Israel’s manipulation of its very good treatment of its LGBT+ population — cross-honoring same-gender marriages performed abroad (even though Israel itself does not perform them as per the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate), allowing same-gender couples to adopt, and even funding (at the city level) a youth center for queer teenagers in Tel Aviv — to mask the, what they often say, is the rampant violation of the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Most recently, a group of LGBT+ Israeli teenagers was set to meet with the Seattle LGBT Commission, to discuss combating homophobia while touring the United States. However, Jason Kirchick reports on Haaretz, they were refused the meeting after Seattle University School of Law Assistant Professor Dean Spade, one of the leaders of the so-called “pinkwashing movement” said that such a meeting would only be reinforcing the pinkwashing done by Israeli society today.

The basis of Spade’s argument is that there is homophobia and transphobia present in both Israeli and Palestinian society, and the use of Israel’s acceptance of the LGBT+ community is an unfair portrayal of society and worsens the PR image of the Palestinian community at the same time.

(As an aside, the idea of pinkwashing is not unique to Spade — Aeyel Gross, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, also supports the anti-pinkwashing movement, as seen in a video from the AP that I cannot seem to find a direct link to right now, but can be found in slide 7 of the slideshow at the bottom of this article from the Huffington Post.)

This is true — there is, without a doubt, homophobia ever-present in Israeli society. And although I’ve only been in Israel for a brief week, I’ve spoken to several leaders of the LGBT+ movement while I attended this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., including one of the founding members of the Labor Party LGBT Circle, the LGBT+ faction of Israel’s Labor Party. While homophobia and rejection of the LGBT+ community does exist, particularly in regards to the religious right, Israel has never sanctioned the punishment of queer citizens for identifying as LGBT+ (as has been done in the territories).

Secondly, as Kirchick points out, no one before the rise of the pinkwashing movement has ever even tried to equate the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza with Israel’s (or the Palestinians’) acceptance of the LGBT+ community. The two are inherently separate issues, and, in my opinion, cannot be equated. While there is an occupation in the Palestinian territories — even Yossi Klein HaLeivi, an Israeli journalist to the right of the political spectrum admits this in an article for Foreign Affairs — there is no reason that Israel’s acceptance of the LGBT+ community should be used in the same equation as the occupation.

Additionally, as Queerty’s Dan Avery points out, the organizations sponsoring the meeting with the Seattle LGBT Commission, chiefly the Association of Israeli LGBT Educational Organizations (AILO for short), is a non-government organzation — it has absolutely no bearing on Israel’s foreign policy, particularly in relation to its treatment or regarding of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Additionally, this delegation was not travelling for political reasons — Avery points out, via A Wider Bridge — that the group was working with PFLAG boards and chapters on combating homophobia and acceptance by parents of LGBT+ children, and HIV prevention and treatment. By refusing to meet with the delegation, the Seattle LGBT Commission missed out on the opportunity to question the legitimacy of the group and even to discuss what can be done in relation to the LGBT+ Palestinian community or other civil rights issues in Israel (even though whether or not asking the delegation about other civil rights issues is subject to a debate that I’m not going to get into here).

However, by refusing to meet with the delegation of Israeli teenagers — many of whom might even disagree with their government’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Seattle LGBT Commission is sending out the message that we, as progressive Americans, cannot effectively enter any sort of discourse surrounding any issues revolving human rights in Israel, lest we lend legitimacy to the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We are sending the message that the two issues are directly connected, even though, I’ll say it again: these are two separate issues that really have nothing to do with the other. You can criticize and praise a country simultaneously: I applaud President Obama’s signing the repeal of Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell, but criticize him for not having ended the Iraq War sooner. See? Was that so hard? By not meeting with the delegation, the Seattle LGBT Commission is sending out the message that some acceptance or social progress is worse than no progress.

The Thriving LGBTQ Life & Cinema in Israel

Although Israel has yet to allow for civil marriages within the country (currently, you must either have a religious ceremony — any religious ceremony — or get a civil marriage outside the country that Israel promises to cross-honor), Israel is still the leading country in the Middle East regarding civil rights for those who identify as part of the LGBT community. In Israel, approximately 3/5 of all citizens support civil marriage for same-sex couples in Israel. Israel is one of five countries (the others are Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Cyprus), where homosexual intercourse between two consenting adults is not considered a crime.

Members of the LGBT community in Israel are protected under anti-discriminatory laws that affect the workplace, allow for adoption of children, allowed to serve as openly LGBT in the military, and are allowed to change their gender through HRT and SRS. In August 2009, when people inside Tel Aviv’s gay and lesbian youth center were massacred, Israeli former-president Shimon Peres and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the violence.

Last year, approximately 70,000 people marched in Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade.

Perhaps what epitomizes LGBT life is Tel Aviv, which is, in turn, epitomized by the flourishing queer cinema in Israel that takes place today — be it Tomer Heymann’s films about the LGBT community (such as Paper Dolls, which discusses a group of Indonesian transvestites working as dancers and cartakers to old Jewish men in Jerusalem) to Israel’s Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival (which is, ironically, floundering), LGBT cinema is thriving in Israel’s film industry.

In 2009, Gay Days, a documentary about the emergence of LGBT life in Israel, was released. Although I have not yet seen the film, you can do what I did and read the wiki on it here.

Earlier today, LGBT films made headlines in Variety. Additionally, Debra Kamin points out, Tel Aviv has become the go-to destination for LGBT nightlife

Tel Aviv, where 70,000 marched in this year’s Gay Pride parade, has long been a place where attitudes and dress codes are laid back and gay clubs are a prominent component of the city’s thriving nightlife.

So confident is Tel Aviv’s tourism association in the city’s appeal to the gay community that it recently launched a massive branding campaign, dubbed Tel Aviv Gay Vibe, hoping to entice gay and lesbian visitors from all over the world.

Tel Aviv hosts an industry that creates, produces and exports a disproportionate number of movies with gay themes and characters.

Despite Israel’s conservative government, Kamin points out, Israelis as a whole have been overwhelmingly accepting of the LGBT community — gays and lesbians were allowed to serve openly in the Israel Defense Forces for far longer than Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell has been repealed.

Although the Jewish Orthodox community (the community that the Israeli rabbinate) has yet to fully accept the legitimacy of the LGBT community (this controversy is for a whole other set of blog posts entirely), the three other major branches of Judaism — Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist — have all accepted the legitimacy of the LGBT community (the Conservative movement insofar as they believe it to be no worse a sin than any of the other sins the members of its community face — their words, not mine). Despite this, however, Israel remains at the forefront of the fight for LGBT equality within the Middle East today.