Ah, summer in the Holy Land—Mediterranean beaches, buses of birth-right babes, all the hummus your pita can hold and, all too often, war. Last summer it was a war with Gaza; this summer, one glance at the headlines suggests that Israel is at war with herself.
Two acts of terror committed by Israeli Jews last week—the firebombing of a home in a Palestinian village, which killed an 18-month-old boy, and the stabbing of six marchers in Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade, including a 16-year-old girl who later died of her injuries—illustrate the deep and dangerous tension tearing Israel apart from within.
Though ancient Israel was composed of 12 tribes, modern Israel, as President Reuven Rivlin remarked this past June, is fast becoming a state of four tribes—secular Jews, religious Zionist Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs, all of them inimical to each other and even to affiliates of their own group.
“The stabbing was not random,” Alon Harel, a law professor at Hebrew University and leading Israeli human-rights advocate, himself a member of the gay community, told me from his Jerusalem home.
“There’s an inherent fear and hatred at the foundation of some of Israeli society. Admittedly, murder is rare. But it’s a possibility given the kind of cultural undercurrent and extreme politics characterizing Israeli society and the growing general hostility. The violence of Israel in Gaza and the West Bank isn’t isolated from the violence taking place against gays or refugees. They feed each other.”
Harel noted, however, that the stabbing was unexpected by virtue of the assailant’s identity. The alleged stabber, Yishai Schlissel, is a member of the Ultra-Orthodox “tribe,” a group which usually keeps to itself.
Major hostility towards the LGBT community in Israel usually simmers among “Chardalim,” the small community that is a fusion of the Ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists: extreme in both their nationalism as well as their orthodoxy.
This is not the first attack of its kind for Israel. Schlissel himself served 10 years in prison for stabbing participants in the annual Gay Pride Parade in 2005. The year 2009 saw a shooting resulting in the deaths of two people and injuries to at least 15 others at the Tel Aviv branch of the Israeli LGBT Association, “Bar-Noar.”
“I don’t think there is a sense of daily fear,” Harel tells me. “But there is a sense of knowing that it’s possible. Unlikely, but possible.” Oddly, this description is often how Israelis describe Palestinian terrorism: an unlikely possibility.
Asked about the perceived conflict between gay rights and religion, he added, “Among seculars and the modern Orthodox, there is a feeling that homosexuality is OK even though it’s a sin. No one beats up those who sin by not keeping the Sabbath.”
Harel was once proud of Israel’s record on LGBT rights. In the ’90s, the country’s Supreme Court was quite advanced relative to Western countries—but since then, Israel has not moved at the same rate, and is now behind the times. The ’90s were also the Oslo years where it seemed as if peace with the Palestinians was on the horizon. Feelings of security, prosperity and a greater willingness to become part of Western world, which marked this era, are no longer present in Israel after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin and the Second Intifada. Instead, these feelings have been replaced by a growing sense of nationalism, religiosity, and tribalism.
And so now, for many Israelis, Harel says, one’s stance towards the LGBT community has become a short-hand to identify which tribe one belongs to. “It’s like anti-Semitism in the 19th century, in that regard. Like abortion in the United States. It’s a litmus test for one’s stance on general social issues.”