Words matter

Words matter

Last week we observed Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning for the Jewish people. In Israel this week, there is additional cause for mourning, following the shooting deaths of two patrons at Tel Aviv’s youth club Bar-Noar.

While the shooter has yet to be apprehended and the precise reason for the shooting has yet to be determined, it would appear that the patrons were targeted specifically because they were gay. The club is known as a haven for gay youths.

To their credit, people on all sides of Israel’s political and religious spectrum have spoken out condemning the tragedy.

Still, soul-searching is in order. So, too, is an appreciation of irony. According to religious tradition, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. – one of the tragedies commemorated on Tisha b’Av – is attributed in part to “causeless hatred.” Yet the disparagement of gays (Jewish and non-Jewish) continues to be a theme in Israeli right-wing politics.

In the wake of the shooting came a statement by a Shas spokesperson affirming that the party “is shocked and pained, and it condemns the murderous crime against the gay community.”

Yet Shas statements before the incident were quite different, constantly referring to gay people in a derogatory manner – for example, dubbing the Gay Parade the “filth parade.”

Religious leaders need to be careful about what they say: Their followers are listening closely, as we learned all too well and too painfully with the death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a religious extremist.

Whether the shooting in Tel Aviv will prove to be another Stonewall, in that it forces the country to confront how it treats its gay population, it should certainly raise the consciousness of all segments of the community.

It is vital that Israel’s religious leaders recognize the power of their words. When those words are used to teach tolerance and compassion, they are invaluable. When they teach that some are less equal than others, they are dangerous.

Significantly, an American Orthodox rabbi spoke out against anti-gay rhetoric at a vigil in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, which attracted more than 200 participants (see story, p. 30).

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom called for the Orthodox community to create a “communal pledge” that “we will not create a climate of gay bashing” and “enforce [that pledge].”

May his words be heard in Israel as well.