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The Unhinging of Andrew Sullivan ~How one of Israel’s most ardent supporters became a vicious detractor—and why we should have seen it coming.

The Unhinging of Andrew Sullivan


Liam Hoare

Liam Hoare

Freelance writer based in the United Kingdom

click for full bio >>

~How one of Israel’s most ardent supporters became a vicious detractor—and why we should have seen it coming.

The movement for same-sex marriage in the United States owes a great deal to one Englishman in particular. In 1989, when the notion of civil gay marriage was barely even considered, Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay for The New Republic entitled, “Here Comes the Groom: A (conservative) case for gay marriage.” In this landmark piece, he asserted that same-sex marriage would “foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence.” The arguments set forth in his essay became the foundation of the liberal case in favor of marriage equality and the basis of Sullivan’s work for the next twenty years or more.

His dedication to the struggle for equal marriage has earned him much well-deserved admiration, as has his pioneering role in legitimizing the blog as a form of journalism. Since he initiated the weblog The Daily Dish in 2000, Sullivan succeeded in making the practice of blogging credible while it was still in its infancy, and helped mold it into a place where serious ideas could be shared and discussed. By extension, he opened up a space for younger writers to not only blog but accumulate a certain cachet for doing so. Indeed, such is Sullivan’s online following that he has been able to disassociate himself from The Daily Beast – with whom he had a relationship from April 2011 until the end of 2012 – in order to strike it out on his own using a subscription-based model. On November 1, The Dish reported having over 30,000 subscribers which account for some $791,000 in revenue (the budget for The Dish last year at The Daily Beast was $900,000), as well as 1.2 million unique visitors and 7.7 million page-views for the month of October.

All of this is to say that, even after going behind a paywall—often a death sentence for an online publication—Sullivan remains a source of fascination for a dedicated cadre that has followed and evolved along with his own extraordinary if jarring political transformation. Over two decades or so, Sullivan has veered from the Left to Right to the Left, along the way becoming one of the most vehement supporters of Barack Obama, said to be occasionally read by the President himself.

But he has also adopted some even less reputable ideas—and not just his vocal, seemingly obsessive conspiracy theories about Sarah Palin’s child. To have monitored the Dish over the past few years is to have seen it become a forum for ceaseless Israel-bashing. On Israel, Zionism, and the issue of Palestinian statehood, Sullivan—once the most zealous of Zionists—has transformed into someone who today can barely contain his equally zealous, often irrational, contempt for Israel and her American supporters.

It is a werewolf-style mutation that has not gone unnoticed by former friends and colleagues. Sullivan has gone from “wild-eyed Zionist to vitriolic Israel-basher,” the influential journalist Jeffrey Goldberg has written, adding that Sullivan sometimes uses his blog “to disseminate calumnies that can cause hatred of Jews and of Israel.”

Leon Wieseltier, one of Sullivan’s former editors at The New Republic and an ex-personal friend of the writer, has accused Sullivan of “intellectual shabbiness” and “venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews.”

In retrospect, Sullivan’s noxious mix of hysteria and hate seems like a premonition of darker things to come.

Less commented upon, however, is the bitterness and general absence of nuance that have characterized much of Sullivan’s writing from the beginning of his career. The reckless ferocity of his ire and the rapid-fire expression of his views, quotes, and links without forethought show that blogging provides Sullivan with a convenient veil behind which he can hide—the misplaced link and the crude superficiality is in the nature of the form—and an editor-free platform that suits his angry, convulsive writing.

This is not just the case of the one feeding the other—that belligerent rhetoric and lack of curiosity can lead to shifting madly from pole to pole on Israel and the Palestinian question. Rather, it is that these deplorable characteristics manifest themselves in more insidious and troublesome ways; ways that corrupt a writer’s work and call his motives into question.

Sullivan’s undignified ferocity has manifested itself numerous times during his career. One of the ugliest came five days after the September 11 attacks, when Sullivan saw fit to turn his ire against those insufficiently aligned with his own sensibility. “The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column,” he wrote in the UK’s Sunday Times. The same day, Sullivan would blog about “a paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist fifth column that will surely ramp up its hatred in the days and months ahead.” In retrospect, this noxious rhetorical mix of hysteria and hate—the stark division between good and bad and the implication of disloyalty—reads like a premonition of darker things to come.
Andrew Sullivan speaking at the Nonprofit Technology Conference. Photo: Chad Norman / flickr

Andrew Sullivan speaking at the Nonprofit Technology Conference. Photo: Chad Norman / flickr

This particular version of Andrew Sullivan, the one decrying the “fifth-column” among us, was a Sullivan greatly affected by the attacks of September 11 and strongly in favor of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. The trauma of 9/11 appeared to solidify not only Sullivan’s commitment to the centrality of American exceptionalism, but his support of Israel as well.

“The United States’ defense of the only democracy in the Middle East is one of the reasons that I’m proudest of the United States,” he said in a C-SPAN appearance on February 1, 2002. “I admire Israel,” he commented. “I admire the Israeli people, and I admire their tenacity to defend democracy in the face of exactly the kind of fascism that [hit] the United States.”

At the time, Sullivan believed the fates of the United States and Israel were intertwined, their experience one and the same. Israel faces, he said on November 8, 2002 (once again on C-SPAN), “the same problem that we do of terrorism, of suicide bombers, of people who are not interested whatsoever in making peace with Israel but in destroying Israel.” Hezbollah, the PLO, and other Arab states propagate a “fanatical, Hitlerian anti-Semitism,” he asserted. “These surrounding powers want Israel to be destroyed. Almost none of them even acknowledge its right to exist and are fomenting terrorism against its civilians which is exactly the same as the terrorism fomented against us.”

Taken in the context of these remarks, Sullivan’s transformation over the past decade is indeed remarkable. Fast forward to January 6, 2010 and Sullivan is “sick” of Israel—not just the government, but of the nation and its people. “I too am sick of the Israelis,” he wrote,

for their contempt for the interests of their most important ally, their continuation of brutalizing colonization of the West Bank, their shameless ethnic engineering in East Jerusalem, their pulverization of Gaza, the direct manipulation of domestic American politics by their ambassador, and on and on.

“I’m sick of having a great power like the US,” he continued, “being dictated to in the conduct of its own foreign policy by an ally that provides almost no real benefit to the US, and more and more costs.” Israel, he asserted on October 5, 2012, is an “ungrateful ally,” rather than a victim of those who, as he once put it, won’t “even acknowledge its right to exist and are fomenting terrorism against its civilians.” Worse still, he now wrote, Israel has become “a liability, undermining US foreign policy in the most important struggle we still face: Jihadist violence.” Not yet finished, Sullivan would add,

We give the Israelis everything they ask for and they give the US nothing in return. In fact, they have operated as a foe, not friend, greeting Obama with the Gaza assault, deliberately destroying Obama’s Cairo outreach to the Arab-Muslim world with their settlement policy, confirming every conspiracy theorist in the Middle East, and in a particular moment of hubris, the Israeli prime minister lectured the US president in front of the cameras in the Oval Office as to what US policy should be. My view is quite simply that Netanyahu, in alliance with neocons and Christianists, has had one main policy these past four years: getting rid of Obama so he can control Greater Israel for ever and get the US to bomb Iran for him.

The style of this rant is the same that Sullivan has always practiced; it is the enemy that has changed.

In Sullivan’s mind, Israel has gone from virtuous to irredeemable, from an object of love to an object of contempt. Disillusionment and disenchantment would be one thing; Israel, as the product of a dream, or a spectrum of dreams, will always have a slight taste of disappointment about it, whatever one’s ideology. But to veer from one extreme to the other, from blazing light to total darkness, cannot be the result of a rational evaluation of any country. Something else, something more sinister, is at work here.

The irrationality of Sullivan’s devolution shows itself in the manner of his turnaround. It has a great deal to do with context and not a lot to do with fact. When Sullivan wrote in August 2001 that, “The notion of a negotiable peace with the murdering hoodlums who run the PLO was always a fantasy,” it was in the midst of the second intifada. In June of that year, 21 Israeli teenagers were murdered when a suicide bomber exploded himself in the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv. In August, another suicide attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem killed 15 civilians. This, as well as the failure of peace negotiations at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001, makes Sullivan’s reaction ugly but understandable.
Sullivan frequently uses the Road Runner quote “meep meep” when he thinks Republicans have gone off the rails. Illustration: Jed Hunsaker / Picasa

Sullivan frequently uses the Road Runner quote “meep meep” when he thinks Republicans have gone off the rails. Illustration: Jed Hunsaker / Picasa

But in the years since, Sullivan’s views have shifted 180 degrees while Israel’s security situation has not changed a great deal. While the looming, unpredictable danger of suicide bombings in restaurants and nightclubs has been suppressed, it has been superseded by the looming, unpredictable danger of rocket attacks, mostly from the Gaza Strip but also from Sinai, southern Lebanon, and the Syrian-controlled sector of the Golan Heights. More generally, no Arab nation has recognized Israel’s right to exist since 1994, and the Arab Spring has made an unstable and unpredictable neighborhood even less stable and predictable, especially in Egypt and Syria.

Nor have the problems that bedevil the Israeli-Palestinian peace process altered. The occupation and the settlements, for example, were a secondary concern for Sullivan in 2001. Now he sees them as “brutal colonization,” in response to which all aid to Israel should be suspended. It is true that the settlements today are larger and the settlers more numerous, but their rate of expansion has not changed since Sullivan was largely indifferent to the issue. The moral and legal status of the settlement enterprise has not changed either, which is to say, if it is illegal and immoral for Israel to construct houses and build roads in Elon Moreh today, the same was true in 2001.

Since the conditions on the ground in Israel are largely the same, it seems that something has changed in Sullivan, and not the country he now despises. To be fair, this has been true of Sullivan’s positions on a great many issues, but as in the past, these changes appear to be more emotional than intellectual. His slide from interventionism to isolationism, for example, is clearly tied to his disgust over the way in which the intervention in Iraq played out, particularly the substantial loss of American lives and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. In a recent appearance on CNN, Sullivan called the Iraq War “the most catastrophic disaster in American foreign policy,” cutting off Leon Wieseltier, who was advocating intervention in Syria, by saying that Wieseltier’s arguments “sound if as the Iraq War never happened.” Sullivan now appears to see all American policies in the Middle East through the prism of Iraq.

But on Israel specifically, his hatred has more to do with the 2008 election and the extent to which Sullivan became enthralled by Barack Obama and appalled by his opposition (to the point that he publicly embraced a conspiracy theory that Sarah Palin faked her last pregnancy). Sullivan’s view of Obama in regard to the Middle East was almost messianic. “President Obama is one the best things to happen to Israel in a long time,” he said in an October 6, 2011 videoblog, saying that the president had within him the potential to bring peace to Israel and Palestine and somehow succeed where all his predecessors had failed.

“As long as Netanyahu is Israel’s prime minister,” Sullivan wrote in 2012, “Israel is not our ally.”

Having found a hero, Sullivan—as he often had in the past—also found an enemy: It was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, Sullivan now believed, had thwarted and undermined Obama’s efforts. “As long as Netanyahu is Israel’s prime minister,” he wrote on October 5, 2012, “Israel is not our ally.” On November 16 of the same year, Sullivan asserted that the failure of the Netanyahu government to “seize the opportunity Obama offered them four years ago—indeed to treat the United States president with contempt combined with an open attempt to elect his opponent—will haunt the Jewish state.” It seems that so long as Obama is president and Netanyahu prime minister, Sullivan will have nothing good to say about Israel and will cease defending their actions, however justifiable they may be.

Sullivan’s vitriolic rhetoric also seems to be fueled by something that his writing makes embarrassingly clear: The truth is, he doesn’t know very much about Israel.

He is, for example, very angry about the rise of religious Zionism as represented by the Bayit Yehudi (“Jewish Home”) party. But he seems to know little or nothing about the historical schisms in Israeli society—which is often intensely divided along political, religious, and ethnic lines—that have both supported and opposed that rise. Nor does he seem to grasp how these divisions contribute to the make-up of the Knesset and the workings of Israel’s political system. Most surprisingly, he seems remarkably uninterested in finding out.

Photo: Big Think / YouTube

Photo: Big Think / YouTube

Sullivan’s completely erroneous coverage of Israel’s most recent general election displayed all of these flaws in their most extreme form. In a January 18, 2013 post entitled, “Israel’s Fundamentalist Temptation,” for example, he wrote:

Next week’s Israeli election will almost certainly mean the end of even the illusion of any two-state solution ever happening—and of a secular country able to make peace with its neighbors, let alone relent in its aggressive repopulation of the occupied territories. It looks as if it will empower the fundamentalist, racist far right in ways we have not yet seen. Which is to say: If you fear a nuclear-armed theocracy emerging in the Middle East, Iran should not be your only worry. The slick and truly modern theo-fascism of a man like Naftali Bennett bears all the hallmarks of modern fundamentalism. Including its tendency toward violence when challenged.

This prediction proved to spectacularly wrong. There were indeed gains for Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party, but the biggest story of the 2013 elections was a spectacular surge in support for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party, whose platform favored the two-state solution and an avowedly secular approach to Israeli politics and governance. Labor, Hatnua, and Meretz—all of which are secular and firmly in the peace camp—also made gains. The official policy of the government coalition that followed became, in spite of the inclusion of Jewish Home, one of negotiations with the Palestinians the outcome of which would be a division of the land and a Palestinian state. Hardly the death of the two-state solution Sullivan predicted.

What is truly bizarre, however, is that Sullivan’s views appear to have been completely unaffected by the outcome of the elections. Indeed, Sullivan continued to advance his theory that Israel must be saved from imminent theocracy. “In America, Obama has saved us by defusing the theo-authoritarians,” he wrote on January 24. “In Israel, no Obama has yet emerged since Rabin.” It is very difficult to understand what Sullivan is trying to say here. In what way is Obama like Rabin? How did Rabin “defuse theo-authoritarianism”? Rabin certainly challenged both the religious and the secular Right over the peace process, but reducing the role of religion in Israeli life and politics was never part of his agenda; certainly, Rabin was never identified with the issue. Put simply, Sullivan appears to know little or nothing about Rabin and his policies.

Sullivan’s newfound hatred of Israel is buttressed by a startling ignorance about the country and its policies.

Nor does Sullivan appear to know very much about Israel’s long term policy goals. In a May 7, 2012 post entitled, “Greater Israel and ‘Soft Ethnic Cleansing’” Sullivan claimed that Israel’s ultimate desire is a one-state solution in which the Palestinians will be expelled. “I think that’s where Israel is eventually headed: ethnic cleansing by a variety of means,” he wrote. And it got a great deal uglier. Israel, he said, had sealed “its abandonment of the Western tradition for pure tribalism—and worse.” Needless to say, such statements have a very ugly pedigree indeed.

Putting that aside for now, the post made clear that Sullivan hasn’t really been observing the Israeli political scene at all. The one-state solution is a minority view in Israel, publicly advocated by widely disliked politicians like Moshe Feiglin and other polarizing figures. Indeed, members of Otzma Le’Yisrael, which is perhaps the most extreme Right-wing party in Israel, were unceremoniously voted out of the Knesset last January.

Andrew Sullivan at Gettysburg College. Photo: Gettysburg College / YouTube

Andrew Sullivan at Gettysburg College. Photo: Gettysburg College / YouTube

The truth is, the two-state solution is now a mainstream, largely consensus issue in Israel. In other words, the political Left has essentially won the argument over territory and peace. Today, the Israeli center debates only the process and the contours of the final agreement. “The settlement movement failed during the first Palestinian uprising,” historian and analyst Yossi Klein Halevi said in a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. “Israelis realized then the price of the occupation; that there was no such thing, as settler leaders promised, as a benign occupation. That kind of illusion went in the late 1980s.” Prime Minister Netanyahu has now endorsed a two-solution and negotiations toward that goal. Even if Sullivan does not trust the prime minister, the significance of such a move by the leader of the Likud should be obvious to any knowledgeable observer of Israeli politics.

Ignorance cannot explain everything about Sullivan’s views, however. As Leon Wieseltier titled his critical February 2010 essay on Sullivan in The New Republic, there seems, sadly, to be “Something Much Darker” at work.

Ironically, one of the most telling displays of this appeared in Sullivan’s reply to Wieseltier, under the equally ironic title “Something Much Sadder.” He slammed, “This assertion that I subscribe to some dark conspiracy theory that ‘the Jews control Washington.’”

I’m sorry but this really is a vile lie, a stark accusation of anti-Semitism, unsupported by any evidence…. I have also noted that many, many other powerful lobbies exist…. But somehow criticizing AIPAC is something forbidden for non-Jews—for fear of being labeled an anti-Semite or, if you are Jewish, a “self-hating Jew.” I refuse to be cowed by such bullying tactics.

The term “bullying tactics” is an especially telling one. It is a theme that comes up again and again in Sullivan’s writings. Put simply, Sullivan seems to believe that in criticizing Israel, AIPAC, or their Jewish-American supporters, he and others are saying something that must be but, paradoxically, cannot be said, even when it is put in shockingly ugly terms. When Maureen Dowd, for example, implied in a column last September than Dan Senor was the “puppet master” behind Paul Ryan’s foreign policy views—a claim redolent with stereotypes that can only be called appalling—Sullivan could not wait to leap to her defense.

“You are not allowed to say this in Washington without being accused of anti-Semitism,” he complained. “Let me repeat: you cannot write this. If you are a columnist and blogger, like, say, Tom Friedman or yours truly, the consequences are an immediate accusation that you are another Hitler.” Such self-pity is frankly difficult to understand when the things Sullivan claims he isn’t allowed to say or write are in fact being said and written by himself, as well as read and shared by others on a blog he owns and profits from.

It should also be noted that Sullivan’s assertion is clearly not true. Critiques and, indeed, conspiracy theories about the “Israel Lobby” have been repeated endlessly since the beginning of the second intifada, showing up on mainstream news channels, in mainstream newspapers and publications, all over the internet, and—most famously—a widely read book by two prominent professors. Claims of silencing and censorship by Sullivan and others simply do not accord with the facts.

Indeed, Sullivan himself has become one of the most diligent critics of Israel’s American supporters while remaining consistently popular and admired. The power of the Israel Lobby and the American Jewish Establishment (such shadowy organizations are always capitalized lest readers fail to understand the extent of their ostensibly enormous influence) has become a frequent subject on the Dish. Most recently, the subject came up in regard to the debate over American intervention in Syria and AIPAC’s decision to support Obama’s policy of targeted strikes on the Assad regime’s chemical weapons facilities.

Without providing any concrete evidence, Sullivan theorized that what AIPAC really wanted was to push “Obama to war against Iran,” and in so doing resurrect “a neoconservative foreign policy that will effectively undo a huge amount of the progress this president has so far managed to build.” All of this seemed inevitable to Sullivan, since voting against engagement in Syria is “something many Republicans and perhaps a few Democrats will be prepared to do. But turn down AIPAC? That’s another matter entirely.” As everyone now knows, the United States did not strike the Assad regime. AIPAC’s immense powers apparently failed on this particular occasion.

Photo: Daily Dish / YouTube

Photo: Daily Dish / YouTube

Interestingly, whenever he writes inaccurate and at times inflammatory stuff like this, Sullivan almost always appears to feel compelled to assert that he isn’t doing a thing wrong. At times, there seem to be more articles on the Dish justifying posts on the Israel Lobby than on the supposed Lobby itself. For example, in a post published on April 25, 2012 about how the NRA and AIPAC are discussed in the media and Congress, he wrote:

Yes, language describing nefarious lobbies behind the scenes pulling strings to get their way has been used in the past by anti-Semites. But if that kind of language is barred with sole respect to the Greater Israel Lobby, then the debate is effectively crippled—which is, of course, the point. For so long, the anti-Semitism card has been disgracefully, cynically played so that we can be stopped from debating the undemocratic distortion of our politics by special interest groups—in this case arguing for a foreign country’s brutal pounding of a de facto refugee camp.

Sullivan’s claims sound simply bizarre when juxtaposed with such ugly and at times hysterical rhetoric. He condemns anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and then all but engages in one by accusing Jewish groups of undemocratically distorting American politics. In other posts, he has referred to the United States as a “slave of the expansionist Jewish state,” as if America were not by far the most powerful country in the world; referred to “the Greater Israel lobby’s grip on Congress”; and accused U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power of giving in to “the powers that be” when she repudiated earlier statements about Israel and the peace process. The implications of Sullivan’s claims about the extent of Jewish-American and Israeli power are, quite frankly, deeply disturbing.

There is something even more disturbing about certain things Sullivan has said that hint at far uglier beliefs. Sullivan once made a point of writing, for example, that “the Greater Israel lobby” complained about Chuck Hagel in “this familiar, exhausted, ridiculous whine.” Then there is his catalogue of posts about circumcision, which he refers to as “the barbaric practice of involuntary male genital mutilation.” To comment on where all this is coming from is best left to a former friend of Sullivan’s, who said, “Watching Andrew’s descent from steadfast defender of Israel and brave opponent of anti-Semitism into an ‘Israel Lobby’ conspiracy theorist and disseminator of anti-Semitism has been a sad spectacle.”

It is indeed a spectacle and it is indeed sad. I was reminded of just how sad when, on the day the anti-gay marriage Defense of Marriage Act was finally struck down, Sullivan took to the Dish to pen something beautiful and eloquent about the historical significance of the decision. To have same-sex marriage “recognized by the wider community,” he wrote, “protected from vengeful relatives, preserved in times of illness and death, and elevated as a responsible, adult, and equal contribution to our common good is a huge moment in human consciousness.”
I remember being told in the very early 1990s that America was far too bigoted a place to allow marriage equality—just as I was told in 2007 that America was far too bigoted a place to elect a black president. I believed neither proposition, perhaps because I love this country so much I knew it would eventually get there. I trusted the system. And it worked. From 1989 (when I wrote the first case for this on the cover of a national magazine) to today is less than a quarter century. Amazing, when you think of how long it took for humanity to even think about this deep wound in the human psyche.

As well as being poignant and true, there was something deeply tragic about this piece. It was a reminder of an Andrew Sullivan of another time and place; an Andrew Sullivan that doesn’t exist anymore. Today, we have an Andrew Sullivan who has largely given up on his intellectual integrity and forgone his greatest talents in favor of a ferociously violent hostility toward Israel. On this subject, his writing has become shabby, vapid, and shallow; his blog has become a forum for crankiness and conspiracy, a space where links to respected columnists rest alongside quotes from hate-sites like Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada. The truth is, Sullivan’s writings on Israel are now very nearly unreadable.

It is at once disheartening, befuddling, and downright maddening. It is time that he was told: On this subject, enough.

Andrew Sullivan declined to be interviewed for this article.

Banner Photo: StuckInCustoms / flickr  



Why Gay Marriage—Not AIPAC—May Determine Whether Bibi Bombs Iran

Why Gay Marriage—Not AIPAC—May Determine Whether Bibi Bombs Iran

Supporting Israel requires American evangelical Christians to square their theological beliefs with the modern Jewish state. Can they?

By Lee Smith|November 6, 2013 12:00 AM

Christian Evangelicals march in celebration of Sukkot in Jerusalem on Oct. 6, 2009. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

With the Geneva talks between Iran and the United States kicking off on Thursday, the common working assumption among Middle East experts and other members of the foreign policy establishment is that the outlines of a deal are already in the bag. Such a deal—which is expected to be framed as a “partial” or “interim” agreement that will be announced sometime before the end of the year—will leave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a historically tough choice: either watch helplessly as the Iranians move toward a nuclear bomb, or risk Israel’s friendship with its longtime superpower ally with an attack on Iranian nuclear sites.

Bibi’s possible choice of a military option would be premised in part on the assumption that Israel enjoys a strong bedrock of support in the United States—not Jews, but Christian evangelicals. The problem with the assumption that Israel can rely on its Christian supporters—and the majority of Congress that is reliant on their votes—is that some younger evangelicals are now tilting against support for the Jewish state. Oddly, the issue that may decide whether Israel can count on the United States in the future is not President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, but the evangelical schism on the issue of gay marriage.

American evangelical support for Israel is based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, in particular this passage from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 12, Verse 3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” The political expression of the mainstream evangelical exegesis of this passage is John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, which is the country’s largest pro-Israel organization—a fact that is hardly surprising, given that, according to the recent Pew study, more evangelicals believe that God gave Israel to the Jews than American Jews do, 82 percent to 40 percent.

“It’s partly a matter of self-interest,” says Peter Pettit, a professor of religion studies specializing in early Bible and Jewish-Christian relations at Muhlenberg University. “Evangelicals translate this to mean that Christians who bless Israel will be blessed by God. If we want our nation to be strong, blessed by God, then our foreign relations with Israel have to be a blessing.” The problem, says Pettit, is that they never explain their hermeneutic principles. “They read God’s message to Abraham as a message to modern-day Christians in America. They never explain why that’s the case but just take it as self-evident. Can you apply this kind of reading to the rest of the Bible? If so, you might run into problems.”

One obvious problem is that, for Christians, a literal interpretation of the Bible is keyed to the New Testament, which announces God’s covenant with man through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The people that evangelicals are supposed to bless, the Jews, don’t believe in Jesus as the messiah. At a certain point, evangelical support for Israel based on a literal reading of scripture has to confront the thorny question: Why support a state that by definition rejects Christ?

“That’s precisely the question some pro-Palestinian evangelicals are asking,” says Dexter Van Zile, Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. “Evangelical support for Israel and the fact that Jews don’t believe in the risen Christ is always going to be in tension,” says Van Zile.

Another reason pro-Palestinian evangelicals are gaining some ground, as Robert W. Nicholson explained in a long, thoughtful essay last month in Mosaic, is “the growing influence of Middle Eastern voices within evangelical Christianity,” including Christian Palestinian clerics and activists. In a June 2011 Pew survey of evangelical Protestant leaders, 30 percent of evangelical leaders sided with Israel and 13 percent with the Palestinians, with almost half expressing equal sympathy for both. The effort to erase Jesus’ Jewish identity and turn him into a Palestinian, one who suffered at the hands of the Romans and the Jews, just as Palestinians currently must endure the depredations of the Israeli occupation, is the motive force behind the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences, the last held in Bethlehem in March 2012, with another scheduled for spring 2014.

However, the real issue that might be changing the complexion of the evangelical movement and its support or Israel isn’t eschatology—that is, how the world ends—or even Middle Eastern politics. Rather, it’s a strictly American affair—one that has moved the dial on historic changes in American history before: Protestant sectarianism. Contrary to what many liberals believe, and many conservatives like to pretend, the fundamentalist movement, like Judaism, is not a unitary political or theological force. Evangelicals lack a single guiding leader, as Catholics have in the pope, and as a result schisms in their movement have played a large if often understated role in American history. One such historic schism may be opening up beneath the feet of the pro-Israel community right now.

* * *

The evangelical movement was divided most significantly with the Scopes Monkey Trial when Darwinism split fundamentalists who believed in the literal interpretation from modernists who while they were committed to a life of faith didn’t want to isolate themselves from the modern world. The issue that divides younger evangelicals from the older generation today—the contemporary version of the Scopes Monkey Trial—is gay marriage. “The younger evangelicals are embarrassed by the faith of their fathers,” says Van Zile. “They don’t have a problem with gay marriage, but the teachings are so clearly laid out in the Bible that you can’t really come out in favor of gay marriage without excommunicating yourself from the evangelical movement. So, what message can you send to show that you’re not one of these retrograde, conservative, gay-hating evangelicals? One way they’ve found to go against the conservative tide is to embrace anti-Zionism.”

This is hardly the first time that Christian Zionism has sat on the fault line dividing American Protestants. In the early part of the 20th century, Darwinism was the main issue, but Zionism was also part of the debate—because of how the idea reflected differing concepts of America and its place in the world. Many progressive Protestants believed the Great War had shown that nationalism was the scourge of modern history, a lesson further underscored by WWII when ideologies based on blood and land slaughtered millions in Europe. Any form of nationalism—even a nationalism advocated by those who suffered most dearly in Europe—was a retrograde force to be resisted at all costs. Evangelical support for a Jewish homeland was also founded on a fundamentalist reading of scripture—which, from the perspective of the modernists, was the same sort of ill-conceived hermeneutic that had led evangelicals to back the wrong side in the Scopes decision.

The upshot of the American Protestant civil war was that the fundamentalists, who sided with William Jennings Bryan, came off as the big losers. Not only did the Scopes trial show them to be ill-educated boobs who were ridiculed by H.L. Mencken, their support of Zionism also showed them to be bad Christians. From this perspective, God calls his servants to transcend nations and national interests and embrace all mankind in a grand ecumenism. Zionism, on the other hand, was a particularist doctrine, about one nation, the Jews. Today we’re seeing the same sort of debate hashed out among Evangelicals around the issue of gay marriage.

The apparent irony of course is that Israel is one of the most gay-friendly countries in all the world. Indeed, just last week one Israeli faction introduced a law legalizing civil marriage that would extend to same-sex couples. However, just like every other aspect of Israel’s free society—from its free-market economy, free press, equal rights for women and minorities—that might be expected to win admiration from Western progressives, Israel’s actual record on gay rights and gay marriage is unlikely to affect the debate between American evangelicals. That’s because the argument has nothing to do with Israel, but rather with Israel as a symbol within the context of inter-American debates about what this country should look like—as is the case with almost every other American debate concerning the Jewish state, from the very beginning of American debates about the ingathering of the Jews.

If there’s one upside to the recent rift between evangelicals it’s that American support for Israel has less to do with what Christians, evangelical or otherwise, think about Israel than what Americans do. The men and women who founded this country drew their inspiration from the examples of the determined men and women who populate the Old Testament. In turn, Israel came to model itself in part after America’s adventurous and pioneering ethos. The kinship between the two countries transcends governments and even God; it is an inextricable part of the cultural DNA, individually and together, of both nations.

“Hannah Arendt” by Julia Kristeva— Kristeva on Arendt


Kristeva, Julia. “Hannah Arendt”, (translated by Ross Guberman), Columbia University Press, 2003.

Kristeva on Arendt

Amos Lassen

When I was a graduate student working in feminist literary criticism I was introduced to the writings of Julia Kristeva, a world famous psychoanalyst and critic who is professor of linguistics at the University of Paris VII. I was so smitten by her writing and ideas, that I began an intensive study of the French language so I could read her in her own voice and she became my personal goddess. The joke around the university bookstore was whenever there was news of a new Kristeva book, there was a general announcement to call Lassen and there was a time before Hurricane Katrina that I owned everything she had published. My mind was geared to interpret any new idea from two points of view, the Kristevan and the Foucaldian as I was also studying Foucault’s theories on the raising of gay consciousness and while the two philosophers were worlds apart in thought, they were the holy couple in my mind. Many times I trod on shaky ground and then, I moved on and both writers became part of my past. For whatever reason I decided to change my academic interest to the study of the language of the Torah and with that existential philosophy and feminism went on the back burner.

Then after seeing the new film about Hannah Arendt, I decided that the time had come to return to my original area of interest and I began to read everything I could on one of the most reviled people in the history of the Jews and discovered that my old hero had written a book about Arendt. I believe I was actually shaking when I opened the package that Kristeva’s “Hannah Arendt” came in and I found myself victim to several sleepless nights as I literally devoured every word. I should have realized that an Arendt phase was coming when a couple of years ago, I read Deborah Lipstadt’s observations of Arendt in her “The Eichmann Trial” (2011). The true importance of what Lipstadt had to say, however, remained in the back of my mind until I saw Margarethe Von Trotta’s film, “Hanna Arendt”. I was actually lucky enough to see the film some weeks before it went into general theatrical release and immediately reached the conclusion that there was material there for a wonderful course about the woman that has been portrayed as an anti-Semitic Jew. Arendt was not an anti-Semite; rather she saw things in ways that her fellow Jews could not accept.

Kristeva reminds us that still today some 35 years after Arendt’s death that we are still trying to deal with her, a woman every bit as controversial as Charlotte Corday and Ethel Rosenberg. Kristeva looks at Arendt through her life as a world citizen and as one of the seminal 20th century philosophers (who just happened to be a woman). What she gives us (Kristeva) is an elegant and sophisticated look at Arendt and at her life which was filled with historical and philosophical insights. Her basic theme is as just as I had expected to me, a look at a female genius. Kristeva talks about three major issues— first; she explores Arendt’s critique of St. Augustine and her biographical essay on Rahel Varnhagen which shows how Arendt was totally committed to writing about and recounting lives. The second issue is about Arendt and Judaism, anti-Semitism and Arendt’s own ideas about “the banality of evil. Finally thirdly Kristeva shows Arendt’s own intellectual journey with emphasis on social phenomena and political events and how they became part of Arendt’s life.

Kristeva had access to Arendt’s correspondence with her one time lover Martin Heidegger and with her second husband Heinrich Blucher as well as Arendt’s diary. In that way Arendt becomes a visionary in academia and in a world dominated by men.

 I see this book as, in part, a tribute to Arendt, one of a series in which Kristeva looks at female genius. Kristeva brings her considerable scholarly arsenal, which includes linguistics, literary criticism, philosophy, feminism, aesthetics, cultural studies, and psychoanalysis. In particular, her psychoanalytic bent makes for an incisive look at Arendt because as she says she was “gripped from the start by that unique passion in which life and thought are one…. [She] consistently put life–both life itself and life as a concept to be analyzed–at the center of her work.”

I have no doubts that Arendt is and remains one of the 20th century’s brightest intellectual luminaries. In The Human Condition” and “Eichmann in Jerusalem, she wrote her accounts of philosophy with a unique penchant for narrative and personal reflection, vivified by her extraordinary life. Kristeva uses Arendt’s life to illuminate her thought. By turns she examines Arendt’s use of narrative, her thoughts on being Jewish and anti-Semitism, and her political philosophy. This is an intellectual biography of a woman with a passion for life and thought and who was able to unite the two.

Kristeva delineates certain aspects of Arendt’s political philosophy, including her idea of the political, the vita activa/vita contemplative distinction, and the influences of various thinkers, especially Aristotle and Heidegger on Arendt’s body of work. Kristeva’s focus is on Arendt’s conceptions of language, the self, “political space,” and the body, addressing all with a particular focus toward their deployment and usage in political life.


Out In Lubavitch— Growing up and coming out in the Chabad Lubavitch community of Crown Heights

Out In Lubavitch

Growing up and coming out in the Chabad Lubavitch community of Crown Heights

by Chaim Levin

The atmosphere buzzed with energy and talk about who we are as Chassidim and disciples of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe at a farbrengen (gathering) for a former classmate’s birthday a few months ago. While familiar with these affairs, I hadn’t been to one in quite awhile. As at any good farbrengen and after a few shots, I started talking about growing up Chabad and gay. Some did not deign to acknowledge the topic at all; others approached it with anxiety and trepidation. It is simply not normal to discuss such things at these get togethers — but, hey, I didn’t become an activist by remaining silent. After we started peacefully discussing different aspects of homosexuality in the Jewish community, I tried to make an important point. I observed to an individual, who had expressed homophobic leanings and tried to minimize the issues that LGBTQ people face within more orthodox communities, that, while I may very well be the only out gay person sitting at this table of 20, it is very unlikely that I am the only gay person there. He tried to refute me claiming that he knew for a fact that I was the only person there — the all too common, blanket, unfounded denial that feeds alienation and isolation of queer people within the Chassidic community.

But, my statement was assured; we are here, many still struggling in silence and fear, and we are not alone.

Many people from frum/Orthodox communities have contacted me seeking guidance and advice. Like me at one time, they’ve felt alone and had never spoke to an out gay person. They’ve thought it might just be a phase that would hopefully go away if only they met the “right girl”. Trying my best to be objective and honest, I answer their questions about what it is like living as I do with the “whole world” knowing and how people have reacted towards my being openly gay.

It hasn’t always been a picnic. Coming out especially in Chassidic communities can be detrimental to one’s self, family and overall sanity if not prepared. Sometimes I feel as if I were pushed out. I had confided in a friend while at yeshiva in Brunoy, France, at the age of 16 (yes, I really was a Brunoy boy). Soon the entire school of more than 400 found out about me. Publicly humiliated by some and ignored by most an ocean away from home, I was seen as a diseased person who did not belong. During those 8 trying months at yeshiva, some denial about the gossip and hatred helped me to survive, not to mention the support of the very few who I would dare say were real Chassidim — those who, despite the fact that they had never heard of such a thing in their lives, remained my friends and were supportive of me, genuine, accepting and inviting unconditionally.

Still I felt isolated and was unaccepting of myself until, paradoxically, I sought out reparative ‘therapy’, hoping to become straight in order to be accepted by the only community I had ever known. I had never interacted with anyone who wasn’t a fellow Lubavitcher until I was 18. Trying everything I could to assure my place in my family and community, I inadvertently ventured into the outside world, met others who were struggling and developed a somewhat different perspective. I learned there were other kinds of Chassidim and Jewish people out there — ones like me. I found myself exploring a new world. Yet, I did not fully accept who I am until I was 20. Some skeptics and critics try to convince me that by living my life honestly, I’m hurting my family and my soul. Until I was 20, I had wrenched, wrung and racked my soul, praying, pleading, begging for some miracle to turn me straight during weekly trips to the Ohel (the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s resting place). The best thing that ever happened to my soul was finding peace when I stopped fighting against, not a “desire” or “inclination” as some would describe it, but an inalienable part of me.

Even though I was able to accept myself, experience made me pessimistic about my community. Fortunately though, living in Crown Heights has gotten easier and easier by the day. Today 6 years after I was outed, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by people on the street, patting on the back and letting me know that they’re supportive of me and my journey. And, once dismissive, long time family friends have told me on many occasions, “Chaim, I love you and accept you as you are.” A very Lubavitch attitude indeed. This is the message Chabad tries to spread and instill around the world — that every single Jewish soul is worthy, a ray of light with something to offer. Still, I never thought I would experience this attitude usually reserved for those who drive to shul on Shabbos and but nonetheless try to return to Orthodoxy at Chabad houses around the world — certainly, not among our very own friends, family and community in Crown Heights, in “the Rebbe’s schunah” (neighborhood).

In Crown Heights, I have occasionally had the great displeasure of bumping into people like Molly Resnick, whom many consider one of the greatest, most public examples of intolerance and bigotry within the Lubavitch movement today. Nonetheless, the voices of the Molly Resnicks are being drowned out by the people, including my own family, who have grown, not just to tolerate me, but to embrace me fully for who I am.


“Once a Chassid, always a Chassid” is often heard at the Chabad schools, camps and farbrengens. Still, I do not consider myself as religious as I once was. However, when I started dating someone a year and a half ago, I did take some pride in having grown up Orthodox and being able to tell him about it. He had grown up in a rural area with no Jewish upbringing or identity, but, the more I told him, the more interested he became in Judaism. A year later, he bought his first pair of tefillin in a Crown Heights Judaica store as I stood with him eagerly, despite the negative experiences I had had.

Some people have facetiously identified me as the Rebbe’s shliach (emissary) to the LGBTQ community — no doubt others would argue.

Six years ago, I could have never imagined being gay Jewish voice nonetheless welcome at farbrengens. I didn’t think I’d be proud to walk the streets of Crown Heights even despite some intolerance. The negative voices are slowly dying out, and more positive and accepting voices are being heard louder and louder. Everyone should be able to live openly and honestly without pretense nor fear of losing family, friends and community. I truly hope and believe that there will come a day when anyone who is LGBTQ can be accepted as they are and know that they are not alone.

I was delighted to be invited to write about growing up Chabad and gay for a blog devoted to issues relating to the Chassidic community, sometimes discussing more controversial issues, such as “why do some people attack Chabad?” The blogger informed me that, while this piece “brought him to tears” and despite his sympathy for gay people, he cannot publish it because he doesn’t want to get too “political.” He explained “they believe it’s against halacha (religious law) and that’s what I mean by political,” elaborating “because gay sex is against halacha, it becomes a difficult issue to deal with.”


Of course, I did not mention any personal, private behavior considered a violation of halacha. I discussed having found after much difficulty some acceptance within the Chabad community. I discussed not hating, but loving our fellows, not oppressing the weak, and not standing idly by as another’s life is in danger. As have many others, I had struggled with suicidal ideation because I felt hated and unwanted and was oppressed; the danger is real. These are important issues that must be dealt with. I hoped to shed some light on the experience of growing up gay within Chabad and give a voice to those suffering in and because of silence. Many community leaders have ignored us and pretended that we don’t exist, and others equate our mere existence with unspeakable violation of halacha.

Ironically, the blogger had questioned whether the ending was too positive and “preachy” prior to deciding not to run it. Now, I cannot help but have some doubt myself. Still, I am proud, and I am hopeful. I am impressed with the blogger’s sympathy and consideration despite his religious convictions, but I fail to see how a story of finding some acceptance could controvert those convictions. His refusal does not actively affirm halacha, but passively disaffirms thousands of gay Jews who are still living in fear.

Testing My Faith—- I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort. By Matt Goodman

Testing My Faith

I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort.

By Matt Goodman|November 30, 2012 7:00 AM|
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The clinic looked like many clinics I’d visited before as part of my work around HIV and AIDS: rainbow flags, earth-tone décor, and stacks of literature urging people to “Know Your Status!” and “Get Tested!” This time, though, I was in the clinic as a patient, getting tested for HIV, and that made my heart race.

My finger was pricked to draw blood for the test, and I was sent to the empty waiting room for 20 minutes to await the results. I’d come in feeling guilty, but now that guilt was replaced with a sharp sense of anxiety. Vulnerable before a power I could not change, I felt like it was neilah and the rabbi was urging me to make my final appeal. What does one do during those moments while your fate is being sealed?

I turned to God. At that moment in the waiting room, he was the only one who could help and comfort me.


Every Dec. 1, World AIDS Day gets a lot of people thinking about HIV, but I didn’t need a special day to think about it. It’s been on my mind for years, wrapped up in a whole complex of guilt and anxiety. Like any other Jew, I trace those feelings, which led to that moment in the waiting room, to my mother—specifically how she handled my coming out six years earlier. In fact, she had been the one who prompted me to come out in 2006 at age 17. My parents had been divorced for four years, and I was living in Atlanta with her.

One afternoon during my senior year of high school, she asked, “Are you gay?”

I had known since I was 12. I had always felt different from the other guys I grew up with—I never fit into the football-playing crowd that talked about girls more and more as they got older. Instead, as I reached middle school, I realized I was attracted to those guys. I spent a year struggling with it and pleading with myself to change, but by 14 I accepted it and a year later came out to my friends. The rest of the students in our southern, conservative prep school made assumptions, because of my natural flamboyance, and I didn’t correct them. By 17, I had a boyfriend, my first amorous dalliance. I wasn’t exactly in the closet. Still, I hadn’t planned to tell my mother yet, because I didn’t want to share my dating life with her; but then she asked. And so I answered her honestly: “Yes.”

She broke down, sobbing that I was “going to die of AIDS.” That was her first reaction.

Later that afternoon, she came back into my room and hurled a Costco-sized box of condoms at my head. “You’re not dying of AIDS on my watch!” she screamed.

My mother’s words would resound in my head for years to come. I didn’t want her to be right. From that moment on, my guilt and anxiety around getting tested and knowing my HIV status became fully operational.

The ironic part is that my mother-instilled guilt about sex and anxiety about my HIV status rarely led me to get tested myself. I was too scared. It wasn’t like I used intravenous drugs or had a sex life filled with anonymous one-night stands. I didn’t have many sexual partners and always used protection; my guilt and anxiety had conditioned me to be extremely cautious. I knew the risk of infection from what I was doing and knew it was pretty slim. Yet, I couldn’t let the anxiety go. I’d imagine finding out that I was HIV-positive, my dating life imploding, my desire for the perfect Jewish family shattered. My own dream of a husband, two kids, and a well-decorated house in Brookline, Mass., would go up in smoke. Then I’d think of my previous partners. What if I infected them? How would I tell them?

Maybe my mother, in that annoying way, was once again right. Maybe I was going to die of AIDS. I was worried that I was positive, yet too scared to find out for sure.

The first time I got tested was unexpected. I was a freshman at Boston University and went for a regular check-up at the student health clinic. The experience was uncomfortable due to the doctor’s awkward bedside manner. His questions about my sex life went beyond what I considered to be professional, inquiring about my coming out, whether I’d told my parents, and, most awkwardly, what sexual position I preferred. (I don’t think I even responded to that final question.) He concluded the exam by suggesting I get a full battery of STD tests. I couldn’t say no, even though what I most wanted to do was just leave. The results came back negative, but I didn’t share them with anyone and attempted to bury the memory of the whole experience in the back of my mind.

Around the same time, I started to engage more deeply with religion. I’d grown up in a secular family, but while I was in college, I got involved with Conservative Judaism, and later Orthodox Judaism. Ultimately, I was drawn to Orthodoxy for its theology, practice, and community. I spent the summer of 2009 in Israel, studying at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. The summer of 2010, I returned to study more. As I got more involved in Orthodoxy, my worldview started to change. While I never questioned my sexuality or sexual activity, I did start to view life through whether other things, from friendships to career choices, were kosher or Jewish or in line with mitzvot. While I didn’t view this negatively at the time, my life got more restricted and insular.

In early 2011, when I was a senior in college, I experienced a near-lethal allergic reaction to antibiotics that depleted my white blood cell count to Bubble Boy levels. The doctors feared the worst: leukemia. But the minute the doctors mentioned that I might have a “compromised immune system,” my mind instantly shot instead to HIV. My fear of HIV far outweighed my fear of leukemia. My mother’s dire warning, playing on repeat in my head, matched the tempo of my pounding heart. The doctors decided to perform a full battery of tests for seemingly every hematological illness imaginable, which I assumed would include HIV/AIDS. I hadn’t been tested since that first bad experience in college.

While I waited for the results in the hospital, I called my father, himself a doctor, to ask him my most pressing question: “Could this be an immunodeficiency disease … like HIV?”

My father and I never had the relationship that facilitated the “I’m gay” conversation. In fact, I was still officially in the closet to him, so I felt the need to code my language in a poor attempt to disguise my urgent request. He still got the picture and responded with what sounded like a disinterested “No.” I felt the guilt and anxiety subside slightly. Four days later, when my white-blood-cell count returned to normal, the feelings resumed their dormancy. This second test pacified my raging guilt and anxiety for a while. Yet it also reinforced the fact that I didn’t actually know my status because I didn’t know if the “battery of tests” included an HIV/AIDS test specifically. I assumed it did but never wanted to check to make sure.

The day after that test, I moved abroad to Switzerland for my last semester. It was not easy living and traveling abroad and being Orthodox—between the food, Shabbat, and the chagim. Often times I found myself without a community and alone. It started to seem like Orthodoxy was keeping me from realizing what I wanted in terms of my career goals and personal interests. So, I stopped keeping Shabbat, watching what I ate so closely, and believing that mitzvot are check marks on a list that is required to consider myself a Jew. I realized that I didn’t need to be shomer mitzvot to reaffirm my commitment to God and the Jewish people. I chose my secular life over being Orthodox.

But I never lost my faith. I still believe in God, pray, and celebrate the chagim in my own way. I still believe that there is a lot of truth and resilience to be found in Jewish tradition.

This summer, I was working for the U.S. Department of State in Mexico, and LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS were two of my portfolios. I met with numerous advocacy groups dedicated to both issues and talked endlessly about testing campaigns, treatment options, and HIV/AIDS patient discrimination, even visiting clinics and centers where I met HIV-positive patients. Each meeting and visit brought a new wave of guilt and anxiety over my own unknown status, leaving me feeling hypocritical discussing these issues and programs when I myself was willfully ignorant. I was given a tour of one facility where they proudly showed off their waiting room for people who were waiting to hear their results. I looked at it with a mixture of fear, anxiety, and desire to be in there. I saw it as a preview of the end of a tunnel that I wasn’t willing to go through yet.

A few months later, back in Washington, D.C., I got an email from my graduate school, with the subject line: “Free HIV tests!” Like clockwork, the guilt began and the horror score that chimed the ignorance of my status played.

But I’d had enough. It was time to confront my guilt, fear, and my mother’s prediction. I frantically Googled rapid HIV testing centers and went the next day.


With the 20 minutes ticking away in the waiting room, I remembered all those seminary girls I used to jostle over Egged buses in Israel—oblivious to the world around them while they furiously recited Tehilim—and I decided that I needed to do something. Like on Yom Kippur, I needed to show a commitment to the Power so as to warrant inscription in the Book of Life. I couldn’t find Tehilim for my iPhone, so I settled instead on daf yomi—something I never even did when I was studying in Israel.

So, there I was, in an LGBT HIV/AIDS clinic, surrounded by condoms, rainbow flags, and reassuring pamphlets about life with HIV/AIDS, reading a section of the Talmud about candlewicks in Aramaic. Within minutes, the anxiety was banished and the horror score that chimed a death sentence slowed. I felt like I was again performing my end of the bargain with God. I was making a sacrifice. It was by no means a religious reawakening, but it was definitely a salve. And then, just like that, the candlewick discussion was over and the gates were closed. The results were in.


Baruch Hashem,” I said to myself. Scientific reasoning for my negative results aside, my status reaffirmed my belief in a higher power when your life stands a chance of being significantly altered. I might go to Starbucks on Shabbat, and I might ignore the lard in my tortillas. I might lie with men like other men do with women. But when it all comes to the end and I can’t change anything: He is still all that I’ve got.


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Instead of Chinese food this Christmas–let’s dance

New York’s hottest party for gay jews!  This year… at XL!

December 24, 2012
512 West 42 Street
New York City
DJ Steve Sidewalk
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Building True Acceptance— By helping gay kids, synagogues and Jewish schools can make the community better for all of us

Building True Acceptance

By helping gay kids, synagogues and Jewish schools can make the community better for all of us

By Marjorie Ingall|November 14, 2012 7:00 AM|


Jeanne Schwartz called her husband John at work one afternoon in June 2009. “Joe has taken a lot of pills,” she said. Their 13-year-old son Joe, who’d just come out as gay at his middle school, had tried to commit suicide.

In Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle To Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality, John Schwartz tells Joe’s story, as well as his own and his wife’s. This is a family memoir, not a self-help book. But like Schwartz’s earlier book Short (which I raved about in Tablet a couple of years ago), Oddly Normal mixes personal anecdotes and science reporting in a way that adds resonance to both. A national correspondent for the New York Times, Schwartz tells us about his son’s difficulties as a gay teenager while also examining research into gayness, homophobia, and teen suicide.

Jeanne and John had suspected Joe was gay since he was 3. He’d loved pink and rhinestones and Barbies and fabulousness; for Halloween he asked to be “a disco yady.” Joe later said that he’d known he was gay since he was 8. But knowing who you are isn’t the same as being comfortable with who you are. He called the burden he struggled with “the secret,” and for a long time he refused to name it, even to his parents.

Even though they tried to help their son in his secret struggle, John and Jeanne may inadvertently have made it harder for Joe to accept who he was. When Joe started kindergarten, for instance, Jeanne quietly put away all his Barbies and their spectacular outfits. She worried that if Joe talked to kids at school about his love of all things glittery (his favorite word was “prettiful”), he’d be teased. Joe wondered where his treasures had gone, but his parents told themselves that at least they’d let their son’s plastic castle draped with beads, his trove of costume jewelry, and his prettiful crystal globes remain in his room, so he could enjoy them in private. They meant well, but as Schwartz ruefully writes in retrospect, “We had built his first closet.”

There’s a lesson here for all parents—even well-intentioned, open-minded ones. And it’s a lesson that Jewish institutions, leaders, and teachers should heed as well, as they wrestle with notions of inclusion, acceptance, and tradition. Being tolerant doesn’t necessarily mean being helpful. We may tell ourselves that the Orthodox are the ones who need to pay more attention to the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning kids, but guess what: A lot of us—even those of us who consider ourselves accepting—are doing a mediocre job.


Joe, who’s now 16, survived the suicide attempt. In the book, John tells the story of how he and Jeanne grappled with how best to help their son afterward. Joe had trouble with impulsiveness, anger, and certain teachers, in addition to his “secret.” His parents got advice (sometimes conflicting) from psychologists, researchers, and all kinds of therapists, as well as an ad hoc group of friends and colleagues John refers to as The League of Gay Uncles.

One of those “uncles” is Mark Kaiserman, then the Schwartzes’ rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, N.J. “Mark is much younger than me, but he brought a sense of calm and wisdom to our discussions about Joe,” John Schwartz told me in an interview. “After the suicide attempt we went to him, and he had a lot of good advice for us, with a sweetness we would always treasure.” For years, Schwartz attended a weekly Torah class led by Kaiserman. “One of the enduring intellectual pleasures of my life is this study group,” Schwartz said. “And we spent a lot of time on Leviticus, discussing and debating the text. I didn’t just pick up the Cliffs Notes. I am a proud member of the Reform tradition that says that Judaism is a living faith. It doesn’t mean you go all loose and floppy—‘Oh, I’ll do the rules my way’—but it does mean there is a grand tradition of adaptation; it’s thoughtful and reflective.” He paused. “I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with combining wool and linen in a single garment.” He paused again. “And I eat chicken parmigiana.”

Kaiserman, now the interim rabbi at a congregation in California, told me, “You can argue with someone that they’re misreading the text or that times have changed. But no argument will be compelling to someone who insists that being gay is an abomination.” He went on to explain: “With my community I have the same conversations I would about any social issue I’m on the left about. The Torah is not an obstacle to believing what I believe. Subjecting someone to a life of misery and shame and humiliation and lying is not the way we intend for people to live.”

But even in left-leaning communities, acceptance can be more theoretical than actual. Joanna Ware, lead organizer and training coordinator for Keshet, an organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life, said, “It’s great to have our hearts in the right place, but we need the skills and tools to figure out how to make acceptance real. It’s great for a rabbi to think, ‘If I were asked to officiate at a same-sex union, I’d be open to it,’ but if he doesn’t communicate that, he won’t be asked. It’s one thing for Hebrew school principals to respond to bullying, but something else entirely to be proactive. Our leaders need to think, ‘What is the community I want to create, and how do I foster norms that facilitate this kind of environment?’ ”

For example, congregations and religious schools could consider ways to engage cool sixth-graders to model the way to behave for younger students. Synagogues should think about language, communication materials, how often leaders speak specifically to LGBTQ inclusion. Ware said, “A lot of times we hear, ‘We welcome all people!’ but then it turns out, ‘Oh, we didn’t mean people like you.’ That can be true of Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews with disabilities, interfaith families.”

Ware says that religious schools can support a climate of acceptance by sending a clear message that they value all students. “We need visibility in a visual sense. For instance, LGBTQ safe-zone stickers are physical indicators that say this is a safe space for all kids.” And we need to accept that words can seriously wound. Schwartz points to a 2010 study that found that more than 72 percent of gay students said they frequently heard slurs like “faggot” at school, and almost 90 percent had heard the word “gay” used in a negative way. Nearly 87 percent reported they were distressed by the language (as Joe was). So, teachers, support staff, custodians, and parents all need to play a role in nipping such language in the bud.

“Judaism should be associated with support,” Ware said. “One way is for religious schools to be clear, in words and actions, that this is where you can be protected to be yourself.” Ware tells the story of a gay man who recalled being teased by Hebrew school classmates for being, in his words, “not the most masculine kid.” When he was around 10, another student muttered, “I don’t want to sit next to that fag.” The teacher literally dropped her books and made it unequivocally clear that that such language and behavior were not acceptable in the community or in the sanctuary. “What was striking to me,” Ware said, “was what the student said: ‘I was terribly embarrassed at the time, but when I look back now it was the first time anyone stood up for me, and it was in my synagogue, in a Jewish community … and because of that the Jewish community has always felt like a safe space for me.’ ”

Little gestures like that can have huge impacts. “In the shul where I’m currently working, they’ve always had women light the candles,” Kaiserman said by way of illustration. “That’s the tradition. I said, ‘But what if it’s a single father whose child is having a bar mitzvah?’ They said, ‘Oh, then Grandma lights them.’ I said, ‘What if it’s a gay couple?’ They’d never thought of it, because they’d never had it. But they are positively inclined toward acceptance, so they were open to the reminder that some of the models we have about how to do things don’t work in the light of gay and lesbian families and kids.”

Creating an atmosphere of true acceptance helps everyone. Keshet offers a poster for Jewish schools presenting seven Jewish values on which to build inclusive Jewish community. They are:

Kavod: Respect
Shalom bayit: Peace in the home
B’tzelem Elohim: In God’s image
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: Communal responsibility
Sh’mirat halashon: Guarding one’s use of language
Vahavta l’reicaha kamocha: Love your neighbor as yourself
Al tifrosh min hantisbur: Solidarity

These values support all kids, not just gay kids. But sadly, some conservatives view all efforts to encourage mutual respect through a homophobic lens. This October, the American Family Association led a boycott of Mix It Up at Lunch, an annual event begun by the Southern Poverty Law Center 11 years ago, designed to encourage kids in school cafeterias to sit next to other kids with whom they don’t usually sit. Mixing up the usual cliques, the theory goes, will help bullies and passive bystanders start to see potential victims as people, and thereby lessen the prevalence of bullying. But the AFA declared that the program was designed specifically “to establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools” and convinced around 200 of the 2,500 participating schools to drop it. As faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert pointed out on his nightly TV show, “It’s a devious plot: Get kids to learn that despite our outward differences, in our hearts we’re all pretty much the same. That leads to open-mindedness, which leads to open-pantsedness.” (This year’s event took place Nov. 13.)

Despite the homophobia of groups like the AFA, the casual brutality kids are capable of and the benign cluelessness of many well-intentioned Jewish liberals, it’s important to note that not every LGBT kid is destined for trauma. As Schwartz told me, “Some kids come out and it’s no big deal. For others, it can be a fraught and difficult process. My best advice for parents is to go back to Dr. Spock and say, ‘Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.’ I’m not saying I know more as a parent than someone else. But I can say it’s up to everyone to be good parents in the way they know best.” Indeed, how we parents respond to our children’s sexuality can have a major impact on how happy they are. A study by Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that LGBT kids who experienced rejection from their parents were six times more likely to suffer from high levels of depression and were eight times likelier to have attempted suicide than peers from families who didn’t reject them.

Acceptance of LGBT people is growing. A 2001 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans said that gay or lesbian relations are “morally wrong,” and 40 percent found them “morally acceptable.” Only a decade later, those numbers had flipped: In 2011, 56 percent said LGBT relationships were morally acceptable and 39 percent said they were morally wrong. Schwartz cites statistics showing that the number of Americans supporting gay marriage went from 27 percent in 1996 to 53 percent in 2011. The world only spins forward, as last week’s victories for same-sex marriage and gay elected officials demonstrated.

As for Joe, he’s doing well. He read and gave notes on his father’s manuscript. He’s out and proud, doing theater, playing Dungeons and Dragons on weekends with friends, doing fine in school. He can still be fragile, but so can a lot of us. And we all deserve support. As Ware put it, “We need to say to all kids, ‘Who you are is fabulous; you are made in the image of God.’ That’s part of what the sacred work of our Jewish community is about.”

“A Strange and Separate People” by Jon Marans— “Betrayal and New Beginnings”

Marans, Jon, “A Strange and Separate People”, Chelsea Station Editions, 2012.

“Betrayal and New Beginnings”

Amos Lassen

I was very lucky to have been able to see Jon Marans’s “The Temperamentals” when I first moved to Boston last spring after having read the script. Quite naturally I was anxious to read his new play “A Strange and Separate People” especially because it contains two of the topics I am especially interested in—religion and homosexuality.

A Manhattan couple suddenly finds itself teetering on destruction when a gay doctor takes up his religious beliefs with a strong passion and begins to question what love really means. The play is an intimate drama with just three characters and looks at the issues that exist between Orthodox Judaism and gay men, a subject I am very familiar with. However the main question is not unique to Judaism alone but to every gay person who is spiritual and wants to live a life that encompasses both sexuality and religious belief. This is about an Orthodox gay Jew but it could be about any person who embraces his religion and his sexuality and tries to find a place where the two can co-exist.

The world of the Orthodox Jew is strange to those who have not lived it (which I have done and still do, to a degree although I have been a reform Jew for about seven years now). It is a world centered on the 613 commandments that are presented to us in our holy texts. It is also a world of tradition, obedience and liturgy. More than that, however, it is a world of respect and herein is the problem for many—is it truly possible to be in both worlds at the same time?

The three characters here—Stuart Weinstein (in his early 30s, handsome, Jewish although not so observant when we first meet him, a doctor with a sharp mind and wit), Phyllis Berman (mid 30’s, a tad prudish, private but has the ability to rage) and Jay Berman (Phyllis’s husband, tough and self-centered) all discover that their world is about to be challenged by love. Each of the characters reaches a point at which he must introspect and then decide upon choices to be made. Additionally each character is what we have called in literature, the “other” meaning that they are not totally absorbed into one group or another. Because Phyllis has an autistic son, she does not fit into the typical Jewish world, Stuart, because he is gay also does not fit that world or the New York gay community because he is Jewish and Jay also has a disconnect from both worlds because he has been living a life of deceit.

The play is very, very timely because with the discussion of gay marriage that has taken this country by storm, religions have begun to issue statements that contain their points of views and while some are beginning to accept homosexuals, Orthodox Judaism is still in the midst of a very heavy debate about the issue. This is a story of struggle that involves love and faith and sexuality and we watch as three individuals embark upon personal journeys with the hopes of finding their places in this world.

What we read here is very personal for me as I have experienced so much of it in my own life and I suppose that I am still dealing with some of it. I have been able to find my own place in Judaism (I think) yet the question will always remain as to whether Judaism has found a place for me. Here in Massachusetts I am able to live a full Jewish life as an openly gay man but was certainly not able to do the same when I lived in Arkansas. Those who are dealing with the issues know exactly what I mean and I really think that it is necessary for a person to prioritize which facets of himself are the most important to him.

I do not want to give away anything in the plot of the drama because I want everyone to have the opportunity to deal with the issues here as they come to them. I am quite sure, however, that reading the text is not nearly as powerful as actually seeing it performed but there is a advantage to reading the lines. It gives the reader time to think about so much. Watching the play is a slap across the face; reading it is a slap across the mind.


“Penn State: A Modern-Day Akeda: Did Society Pass or Fail Moral Test on Joe Paterno Scandal?” by Samuel G. Freedman—an amazing analysis (from “The Forward”)

“Penn State: A Modern-Day Akeda”*

“Did Society Pass or Fail Moral Test on Joe Paterno Scandal?’

* Akeda is the Hebrew word for binding and the Abraham/Issac story is traditionally referred to as the “Akeda”. For me this is the most dfficult story to fully understand in the Five Books of Moses.

Worshipping a Fallen Hero: We occasionally face modern-day versions of Biblical tests. Did many Penn State students allow their reverence for coach Joe Paterno to blind them to his culpability in a child sex scandal?

Worshipping a Fallen Hero: We occasionally face modern-day versions of Biblical tests. Did many Penn State students allow their reverence for coach Joe Paterno to blind them to his culpability in a child sex scandal?


By Samuel G. Freedman

Published November 18, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.

This essay is closely adapted from a *d’var Torah that the author delivered on the Sabbath of November 12 at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan.*

The text of parsha Vayera is as familiar as any in the Torah. It includes the Akeda, the passage we read not only in the annual cycle, but also during the High Holy Days. And the story it tells has become, more broadly, part of Western culture, invoked by everyone from Soren Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan.

We already know the outlines of the Akeda. Abraham and Sarah, now elderly, have been unable to conceive a child. In recognition of their goodness, God grants them a son, Isaac. Yet as the boy gets older, God commands Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. Only at the last minute does an angel instruct Abraham to stay his hand, and only then does the Almighty provide a ram to be slain instead.

The Rambam teaches us to consider the Akeda as a metaphor for faith, and declares that Abraham passed the test. If we want to understand the Akeda in a historical context, then we can consider it Judaism’s answer to the pagan Canaanite religion that sacrificed children to the god Moloch.

Like the Akeda, Moloch is part of a wider intellectual heritage. Milton wrote of Moloch in “Paradise Lost,” and Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.” Muslims, like Jews, associate the Valley of Hinnom, where the child sacrifices were made, with hell, because no act seemed more unconscionable.

We know Abraham is not a bad person, and we know this even before he is hallowed in our tradition as Avraham Avinu. In this parsha, we see Abraham go to great effort to feed three strangers. We see him plead with God to spare the people of Sodom. Though he accedes to Sarah’s order to expel Ishmael and Hagar, Abraham gives them bread and water to help them survive in the desert.

Yet this same Abraham is ready to kill his own child, even though God’s command contradicts His promise that Abraham will become the father of a great nation. Abraham, who was willing to intercede for the sinners of Sodom, says nothing to God on behalf of his son. The text specifies that Abraham waited until the next morning to go to Moriah, and yet there is no indication that Abraham had a second thought. Rashi tells us that even after the angel spoke, and the ram appeared, and Isaac was saved, Abraham asked God if he shouldn’t at least wound Isaac, draw blood.

What kind of deviance is this?

If you have children, as I do, then you remember those moments when you bathed them, or when you zipped them into those fleecy pajamas with feet, or when they fell asleep on the couch after Sabbath dinner and you carried them into their beds. When you think of their helpless innocence, like Isaac’s, how can you conceive of lifting your arm, knife in hand, against your child?

Not so with Abraham. When Isaac asks his father where is the sheep for the burnt offering, Abraham lies. He says, “God will see to the sheep.” The truth is, “Isaac, you are the sacrifice.”

What kind of deviance is this?

We might think of the entire book of Genesis as the narrative of humans learning to be human and God learning to be God. The God of the Akeda is, then, if not a false God, an insecure and immature God. He is competing with Satan, trying to prove just how obedient Abraham can be. And maybe God is thinking that if a charlatan like Moloch can get people to sacrifice their children to him, then shouldn’t I, the one true God, be able to demand just as much?

There’s a midrash we need about the Akeda. It’s about who was watching all this happen. Who saw Abraham heading up the mountain with Isaac? Who saw Abraham tying up his own son? Who saw him preparing the fire? Who saw him lifting his knife? And why did no one say or do anything? That’s the midrash I want to hear.

We flatter ourselves in assuming that nothing like the Akeda could happen in our civilized time. We are, of course, totally wrong.

Some of us are old enough to remember the Kitty Genovese case from the mid-1960s. Genovese was a young woman attacked as she returned home one night to her apartment in the Forest Hills section of Queens. And the scandal of her murder was that, as A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times memorably wrote, 38 witnesses watched the attack unfold and essentially did nothing. Nobody called the police until it was too late.

Then we learned recently about another Akeda, this one at Penn State University: a football coach who allegedly abused young children under the guise of his charitable foundation, to the point of a boy of 9 or 10 being raped by that coach in a locker room shower. We learned again of decent people worshipping a false god, or misunderstanding what the real God requires of us. The head football coach, the athletic director, the university president — none of them appears to have acted as quickly and boldly as necessary to halt the abuse. Hundreds of students rioted in the street in defense of the very people who failed a moral test.

The reputations of the legendary coach, Joe Paterno, and of Penn State mattered more than the safety of all those little boys. We’ve seen this scenario before, with the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts and in parts of the Jewish communal and rabbinic worlds where sexual predators have been tolerated or protected.

I know some of you may wonder why a d’var Torah is devoted to current events. Shouldn’t it be about etymology or historicity or gematria? About theology? But what’s important in Judaism isn’t just what we have to say about the Torah, it’s what the Torah has to say about us.

If we comfort ourselves with the interpretation that Abraham, in preparing to kill Isaac, was simply fulfilling his faithful duty, passing the true believer’s test, then the text leaves us with some reasons not to be so sure. Sarah goes away from Abraham, never to rejoin him before her death. And as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has pointed out in a commentary on the Akeda, God never again speaks to his chosen one.

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of such books as “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry” (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

Leveling Leviticus

Leveling Leviticus

Amos Lassen

Those of us who choose to be identified with religion are forced to deal with the question of how to live our lives while facing the issue that we are created in the image of God but that our acts of love are punishable by death by that same God. This punishment rests in the book of Leviticus and some of us have chosen to ignore the writings therein.

Leviticus is the third book of the Five Books of Moses which contain the history and the beginnings of the legal system as we know it today. Traditionally these books are understood as revelations–God’s words written down by Moses and are considered a record of the past as well as an explanation of God’s will for the world. The laws which appear in these five books are the ultimate source of authority and a starting point for what later becomes legal. Bur there is also symbolic power here as well.

What is written in Leviticus cannot be dismissed lightly–the concepts presented are vital to our daily lives–to love our neighbors, dealings with strangers and seeing ourselves created in God’s image. But how do we live when the same text that tells us we were created in God’s image also berates us by saying that our acts of love are punishable by death?

It is here that we must establish a way to come to terms with the holy texts. We can, as so many others have done, interpret the writings to enable us to function with it on its own terms. We can treat the text as historical record and draw conclusions based on the way it functions in a given context. Or we can encounter the writings directly with our emotions and our self-knowledge, allowing it to move us to anger and ultimately to action.

In modern times gay men and women have made themselves a presence in community. If we understand the text historically we have a strong prohibition against homosexuality. The fact that we are told in the book of Genesis that we are created in the image of God, we must assume our identity cannot be an abomination. Others interpret the text as referring to certain sexual acts but not to same sex relationships. By this the text is not relevant to a style of life and love and family of which it was ignorant.

Biblical scholars maintain that in the time of the Bible homosexual acts were forbidden but this does not encompass the reality of the modern world. One of the major problems is the meaning attributed to the Hebrew word “to’evah” or abomination. For some reason this word which was originally meant to connote a forbidden act of idolatry has been used to denote certain sexual practices. In Leviticus the references to homosexuality dealt with cultic practices of same sex relations and not to society at large.

In our encounter with Leviticus, we experience pain, terror and rage. We can imagine the unnecessary damage done to generations of people who were forced to feel shame and guilt and had to hide their feelings while wallowing in shame, guilt and fear all of their lives. But if we can get past the rage we can see the admonitions of Leviticus as tools to educate people about the deep rooted history of oppression and in turn we can use this to break down the wall of silence that surrounds us. By doing this we can transform the Bible from a stumbling block to a path of entry. We become more honest with ourselves and with our community about barriers to our involvement, about our need for separate places of worship and our demand to be accepted as an intregal part of life. To be whole we must acknowledge with what great difficulty how those pieces of our lives fit together. But it is also necessary to demand–of ourselves and of the people around us–that those pieces be made to fit.

It is indeed amazing that words written thousands of years ago still have enough power to affect us today. Words are powerful but it is up to us to make the words that will transform our lives and give new meaning to our existence as gays and Lesbians.

In future blogs I want to look more specifically and in more detail at Leviticus as well as the chapters in Genesis on Sodom and Gommorah and see what can be learned from them.