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Arizona rabbis who stood for LGBT rights at home refuse comment on Israeli rabbi who bars renting to lesbians

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Rabbi Yaakov Ariel (Photo: Nir Kafri via Haaretz)

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel (Photo: Nir Kafri via Haaretz)

In May, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, the municipal rabbi of Ramat Gan, Israel, made a statement against renting property to lesbians on a popular online forum.

According to Ynet News:

In the section “Ask the Rabbi” of the Yeshiva website, a user published the following query: “A young woman is interested in renting my property, however, she has informed me that she is in a relationship with a woman. Is there a religious prohibition preventing me from leasing the apartment in light of her relationship situation?”

Rabbi Ariel, a senior member in the religious-Zionist movement, whose name was even mentioned as a its candidate for the position of Israel’s chief rabbi, responded to the question by saying that “If they are renting as a couple – don’t lease. If only one of them is renting than you can lease, but if you have another offer, take it.”

The Times of Israel reported that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni rebuked Rabbi Ariel, writing “the statements of Rabbi Yaakov Ariel prohibiting renting apartments to lesbians are not only morally and socially wrong; they should also be forbidden on a legal level.”

Israeli LGBT and progressive religious groups denounced Rabbi Ariel’s statement as well.

Chairwoman of the Orthodox-Jewish feminist organization Kolech (Your Voice) Ayelet Vider-Cohen said in response to the event that “the women of the LGBT community have equal right in all aspect of life – both in the religious sector and outside of it. This type of religious ruling is contrary to the Jewish world view which advocates respect for any man or woman.”

Mickey Gitzin, executive-director of Israel Hofshit (Free Israel) – a group promoting religious freedom in Israel – contacted the mayor of Ramat Gan, Yisrael Zinger, Wednesday, demanding he fire the rabbi.

“Ramat Gan is a city of different groups which include a big gay community that wants to be reassured that its tax money is not used to fund the salaries of public servants who use their authority to encourage discrimination and violation of LGBT community’s rights,” Gitzin said.

Despite criticism and calls for his removal, Rabbi Ariel remains in his position and Tzipi Livni’s call for banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation remains unfulfilled.

Incidents of this sort are not uncommon. In 2010, fifty rabbis “signed a declaration calling for Jews not to let Arabs hire apartments in their communities.” Politicians including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the declaration as racist, yet no disciplinary action was taken against the rabbis nor was any legislation passed to prevent implementation of their decree.

While visiting Phoenix, Arizona, my hometown and Ramat Gan’s sister city, I requested interviews from several prominent rabbis for comment on Rabbi Ariel’s statement.

Earlier this year, five out of the seven rabbis I petitioned, as well as several dozen other faith leaders, lawmakers, businesses and community leaders, including the two previous Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain, had signed an open letter in opposition to Arizona’s euphemistically-named Religious Freedom Restoration Act, SB 1062. Had it passed, the bill would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT citizens on the basis of freedom of religion. The state legislature passed the bill and Governor Jan Brewer waited six days to veto SB 1062 after the National Football League threatened to move the 2015 Super Bowl from Glendale, Arizona.

My queries to the rabbis received little response.

Rabbi Dean Shapiro

Rabbi Dean Shapiro

I had originally contacted Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel, the synagogue I attended from childhood through my teenage years, requesting an interview about his social justice work.

Rabbi Shapiro, who is openly gay and raises two children with his partner, has been active in the movement for marriage equality in Arizona. After Governor Brewer vetoed SB 1062, Rabbi Shapiro wrote on his public Facebook page “We declared ‘NO BIGOTRY IN OUR NAME’ and we were heard!”

Rabbi Shapiro initially agreed to be interviewed. However, when I informed him that my article would be published on Mondoweiss, he rescinded, writing in an emailed response, “I don’t think I have anything to contribute to a site as comprehensive as that one.” Minutes after I received his email declining my request, Rabbi Shapiro posted an article to his public Facebook page about his advocacy for same-sex marriage in Arizona.

I wondered if Rabbi Shapiro considered himself apolitical in terms of Israel? A quick scroll down his public Facebook page proved the contrary. Rabbi Shapiro has posted numerous links to political topics involving Israel, including former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and current CNN analyst Michael Oren’s Los Angeles Timesop-ed “Israel isn’t, and will never be, an apartheid state,” as well as a photo captioned “Honoring Israel at the AIPAC Annual Dinner,” presumably from his attendance to the 2014 AIPAC Annual Dinner in Phoenix.

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami.

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami.

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami, whose rabbinical thesis is entitled “Jewish-Christian Relations: From Tolerance to Pluralism to Partnership,” responded in three numbered points in which he praised Israel’s perceived democratic character, however did not directly address Rabbi Ariel’s statement.

Rabbi Schneider dismissed Rabbi Ariel’s bigoted statement as a mere different worldview, writing that “Israel is a modern democratic country, however, there are populations within the whole who don’t see the world in the same way.”

He continued: “This leads to an inherent tension within society between religion and state. This tension can get complicated, however there are courts and a democratically elected parliament that attempt to resolve this tension.”

Rabbi Schneider’s final point praised the Israel’s LGBTQ rights as “very advanced – it even recognizes gay marriage from the United States.”

Though Rabbi Schneider correctly pointed out that Israel does recognize same-sex marriages from abroad, he did not mention that civil marriage does not exist for Israelis, gay or straight.

A Jerusalem Post article describes the motivations for opposition to civil marriage in Israel:

Religious opponents of civil marriage cite concerns that it would lead to an increase in intermarriage with non-Jewish Israelis, as well as in the number of children from such relationships who would fall into a problematic category of Jewish law.

Rabbi Schneider’s praise echoes the language of “pinkwashing,” which Jasbir Puar, Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rutgers University, described in an article for The Guardian as:

a potent method through which the terms of Israeli occupation of Palestine are reiterated – Israel is civilised, Palestinians are barbaric, homophobic, uncivilised, suicide-bombing fanatics. It produces Israel as the only gay-friendly country in an otherwise hostile region. This has manifold effects: it denies Israeli homophobic oppression of its own gays and lesbians, of which there is plenty, and it recruits, often unwittingly, gays and lesbians of other countries into a collusion with Israeli violence towards Palestine.

After receiving Rabbi Schneider’s email, I repeated my request for an interview. Rabbi Schneider did not respond.

Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel.

Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel.

Weeks later, I received an email from Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel, who is a former community and labor organizer and signatory to Opposition to SB 1062 petition.

Rabbi Linder apologized for the delay in response, and assured me I could reach out to him in the future. Short on time for an in-person interview, I asked for comment on Rabbi Ariel’s statement. He declined to comment because his “Israel energies” are being focused on the three missing Israeli teenagers. Rabbi Linder explained, “Part of the challenge of social justice work is a sensitivity to the range of different issues at any one time. This issues is now at the top.”

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, a Chaplain in the United States Army Reserve and one of the first female rabbis in the United States, agreed to speak with me over the telephone. I informed her that none of the Phoenix-area rabbis I had contacted would grant me an interview, nor would they condemn Rabbi Ariel’s statement. She expressed concern that they might know something she is unaware of, and that perhaps she shouldn’t be talking to me. Rabbi Koppell ended the conversation soon after.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell with President George W. Bush. (Photo via http://azrabbi.com/)

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell with President George W. Bush. (Photo via http://azrabbi.com/)

The rabbi’s lack of response to state-sponsored homophobia in Israel fall squarely into the definition of pinkwashing that Jasbir Puar described. Perhaps unwittingly, their collective efforts to combat homophobia in Arizona are co-opted into the Israeli government’s scheme to appeal to progressive causes in order to mute criticism of Israeli human rights violations.

The rabbis who did not respond to emails are:

  • Rabbi Mari Chernow of Temple Chai, signatory Opposition to SB 1062 petition. Temple Chai’s website reads “There is nothing more vital to us than community, which includes the land and people of Israel.”
  • Rabbi Sarah Leah Grafstein of  Spirit of the Desert whose website reads “We are GLBTQ and differently-abled friendly.”
  • Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz of Valley Beit Midrash, who was named one of America’s top 50 rabbis by Newsweek in 2012 and 2013, and is the founder and president of the social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek. Rabbi Yanklowitz has written numerous articles on social justice topics ranging from veganism to prisoner rights.
  • Rabbi Elana Kanter of The New Shul and signatory to Opposition to SB 1062 petition.
Dan Cohen

Dan Cohen is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Palestine. He tweets at @dancohen3000.

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5 Responses

  1. amigo on July 7, 2014, 12:53 pm

    Livni has a problem with not renting to Lesbians but was one of the main leaders of the war against Gaza when 400 children were murdered.

    Give it a rest Livni–daughter of a Zionist terrorist.Runs in the blood , I guess.

    As to the Rabbi and his hypocrisy, move along, nothing new happening here.

    After thought!!! He is perfect for chief Rabbi in the zionist state.He has all the necessary talents.

  2. a blah chick on July 7, 2014, 8:47 pm

    I think their police’s whole “Muhammad was Gay and got honor killed!” set back their pink washing campaign.

  3. tommy on July 7, 2014, 8:56 pm

    Religious identity politics has been practiced by priests for a very long time.

  4. Naftush on July 8, 2014, 7:47 am

    Congratulations are owed to these rabbis for not allowing Mr. Cohen to lure them into his attempt to foment anti-Israel outrage. They surely know that (1) Israel is overall more progressive on LGBT than Arizona, (2) the primary task of any rabbi in Phoenix is retaining and attracting members of an ultra-assimilated Jewish population, not stirring Israel’s political pot, and (3) that Orthodoxy tends to be orthodox needs not be commented on. What Mr. Cohen doesn’t appear to know is that whatever their views on the AZ bill, the non-Orthodox rabbis of Phoenix are a pro-Israel bunch who, to give one example, backed Jimmy Carter into an embarrassing corner several years ago.

    • Mooser on July 8, 2014, 10:21 pm

      Is there supposed to be a point to this comment Naftush. Of course, that you think Judaism in America should be subordinated to the bigotries of Israel (and they have so many!) is pretty obvious, but was that the point you were trying to make? That Jewish Americans are easily suborned by Zionism?

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