Reporter's Notebook

Year on, progress on LGBT acceptance in settlement bloc appears to stall

Parents eagerly attend gathering at West Bank outpost seeking tools to help children struggling with their sexuality, but municipal officials not on board with initiative

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

An Israeli teen wrapped in an LGBT Pride flag near the settlement of Efrat, June 3, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
An Israeli teen wrapped in an LGBT Pride flag near the settlement of Efrat, June 3, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

SDE BOAZ, West Bank — Bounding up the poorly paved, narrow road to the Sde Boaz outpost on Monday evening, I couldn’t help but immediately notice how the scenery provided the perfect ostensibly paradoxical backdrop for the event on religious LGBT youth that I had traveled from Tel Aviv in order to cover.

A pair of soldiers were walking back from their guard post at the edge of the wildcat community of mostly mobile homes located on one of the West Bank’s highest hilltops southwest of Jerusalem, on land that neighboring Palestinians say belongs to them.

But inside the boutique guesthouse that the troops walked past, some 30 head-covered Israelis had gathered for a presentation on making room for non hetero-normative individuals — a particularly progressive idea for any Orthodox space, be it east or West of the Green Line.

Last June, I covered a nearly identical version of the now annual event that served as the basis for an article on the hesitant movement of religious Israelis — specifically those in the Gush Etzion Regional Council — toward LGBT acceptance.

Nearly a year had passed and I was interested in receiving a status update, particularly on the support group that had just been formed to serve LGBT youth in “the Gush,” as the bloc of suburban-like settlements south of Jerusalem is known.

Israelis listen to Rabbi Rafi Ostroff (seated at couch to left) and Jonathan Maman (seated to right of him) at a home in the Sde Boaz outpost during an event on LGBT youth in the religious community. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Of course, movement on such issues takes time, but in this case, what recent progress there was had been met with an equal amount of pushback.

Like last year’s event that had been hosted in the large nearby settlement of Efrat, Rabbi Rafi Ostroff opened the gathering with an address asserting that one’s sexual identity is not a choice and that members of the community should treat those struggling with the issue as their own children who cannot be neglected.

Ostroff, a youth educator and head of the Gush Etzion Religious Council, argued that teens who lean closer on the spectrum to heterosexuality should be encouraged to pursue such relationships, but clarified that those who do not should be supported in finding partners of the same sex and in “following as much of the Torah as possible.”

Next to Ostroff, on a couch surrounded by attendees seated in wicker chairs, was Jonathan Maman, a religious educator and LGBT activist, who also spoke at the 2018 Efrat event. This time, instead of sharing his personal coming out story, he discussed the dangers of being gay in an Orthodox community, whose silent (at best and antagonistic, at worst) approach to the issue has left such youth “statistically” vulnerable to self-harm, drugs and unsafe sexual encounters.

What followed were a series of questions from parents in the room eager for tips on how to best respond to a child who confided in them about their sexual identity.

“What do you say if he tells you he’s not completely sure?” “What if it is someone else’s child that confides in you? “How do you balance the child’s ‘coming out’ with the family?”

Religious participants in the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem, Sept. 18, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In their questions, it was clear that the attendees — mostly mothers from the adjacent religious settlement of Neve Daniel, with a handful of husbands and an equal amount of teenage girls — came to Sde Boaz intent on receiving the tools necessary to help a long-neglected subset of their youth.

One woman said she had never heard of the Gush’s LGBT support group and asked where she could find information about it. This was when the optimism some might have felt in the room appeared to hit a snag.

Maman said that municipal officials have been supportive of the group he runs to a fault, offering buildings to host meetings, but refusing to take it officially under its wing or post about it in message boards because “the conditions aren’t ripe.”

In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel the day after the event, he disclosed that it had been held in Sde Boaz, even though most of the attendees were from Neve Daniel, because the rabbi of the latter community barred the gathering from being held there.

The call was held as official school and municipality notices were going out to residents informing them of the death by suicide of Netta Hadid, a 23-year-old transgender woman who grew up in the Gush Etzion settlement of Alon Shvut.

She was found dead in Tel Aviv on the same night as the Sde Boaz event. However, to the frustration of her friends and LGBT activists and allies, notices about her death referred to Netta as Yitzhak — her name given at birth that she stopped going by when she transitioned.

A gay couple has a wedding ceremony under a hupa during the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, July 21, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Reflecting on how the issue has evolved over the past year, Maman made clear that there were certain points of growth that he does not take for granted: The Gush’s LGBT group has steadily grown to 20 individuals between the ages of 18 and 23 that meet twice a month. (Maman said he is still forced to refer minors to resources in Jerusalem, as his group is not qualified to cater to children)

Area yeshivas have become more sensitive to the subject over the past year and have “turned a blind eye” when students are referred to the Gush LGBT group, according to Maman.

“The mere establishment of the group is a de facto improvement, but on the other hand it has led to the rise of negative voices that are responding to something that is no longer taboo,” he explained. “The question is whether no longer being taboo [and coming under attack as a result] is something positive. I tend to think that it is.”

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