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Israel: Everybody is a Minority

Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, is an outspoken man, but he knows when to hold his fire.

He condemned the killing of an 18-month-old Palestinian child in an arson attack in the West Bank by suspected Jewish settlers last Friday as “terrorism”, but he did not say that the suspects were from the extreme wing of the “national religious tribe”.

Rivlin has not yet commented publicly on the knife attack on Gay Pride marchers in Jerusalem the previous day that wounded six people (one of whom, 16-year-old Shira Banki, has now died of her wounds). But if and when he does, he will not point out that the killer, Yishai Schlissel, belongs to the extremist fringe of the “Haredi tribe”, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not even recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

It would be wrong to use language that paints all the members of the tribes in question as accomplices in these murders, because they aren’t. Even if some of them sympathize with the actions of the murderer (and some probably do), it would still be a political mistake to alienate them further from the mainstream of Israeli society.

But maybe we should rephrase that last sentence, because in Rivlin’s view there no longer is an Israeli “mainstream”. There once was, when secular Jews, mostly of Eastern European origin, formed the majority of the population and everybody else belonged to “minorities”. But higher birth rates among those minorities have turned the secular Jews into just another minority—and he says they should really all be seen as “tribes”.

He said all this two months ago, in a startlingly frank speech to the Herzliya conference, an annual event where the country’s leaders debate issues of national policy. “In the 1990s,” he told them, “Israeli society comprised…a large secular Zionist majority, and beside it three minority groups: a national-religious minority, an Arab minority, and a Haredi minority.

“Although this pattern remains frozen in the minds of much of the Israeli public, in the press, in the political system, all the while, the reality has totally changed,” he continued. “Today, the first grade classes (in Israeli schools) are composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, about 15 percent national religious, about one quarter Arabs, and close to a quarter Haredim.”

The demographic changes, Rivlin said, have created a “new Israeli order…in which Israeli society is comprised of four population sectors, or, if you will, four principal ‘tribes’, essentially different from each other, and growing closer in size. Whether we like it or not, the make-up of the ‘stakeholders’ of Israeli society, and of the State of Israel, is changing before our eyes.”

The most important implication of this change is that barely half of the children now in Israeli primary schools will grow up to be Zionists. The Arabs will not, of course, but neither will the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe that the Zionist project to recreate Jewish rule in Israel is blasphemous. Only God can do that, by sending the Messiah, and the Zionist attempt to hurry it along by human means is a rebellion against God.

Neither of these “tribes” even serves in the military, once the great unifying Israeli institution. Arabs are not conscripted for military service, and very few volunteer. In practice, the Haredim have been exempt from military service for all of Israel’s history as an independent state, although parliament passed a law last year that seeks to end the exemptions.

The Zionist tribes are also divided between the secular Zionists and the “national religious” tribe. The latter reconcile their Orthodox religious beliefs with the Zionist project by arguing that it was God who inspired the early Zionists in eastern Europe to build a Jewish state in Palestine, even if they did not realize it themselves. Most Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and most of their supporters in Israel proper, belong to this tribe.

All these former minority tribes are to some extent alienated from the secular, liberal-democratic Zionist assumptions that underpin Israel’s current political structure. A few members of each tribe are already so alienated that they turn to violence, like the settlers who attack Palestinian children, the Israeli Arabs who run amok and kill Jews, or the Haredi fanatic who attacked the Gay Pride march.

President Rivlin, “Ruvi” didn’t say that explicitly—it’s too upsetting—but he was pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. The current secular Zionist domination cannot continue; the other tribes must also come to feel safe and welcome in a different kind of Israel. Specifically, in a “one-state” Israel that includes all the territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

Rivlin, though an Orthodox Jew, doesn’t really belong to any of these tribes: his family has lived in Jerusalem for more than two centuries. He doesn’t believe that the “two-state solution”—one country for Jews and one for Palestinian Arabs—is viable any more, if it ever was. So he is driven to the “one-state solution”, which requires reconciliation and cooperation between all the tribes.

It’s so radical that it almost makes sense. It’s just hard to believe that it could actually happen.

Gays and the Law

23 December 2013

Gays and the Law

By Gwynne Dyer

After a decade when the struggle for equal rights for gay people made great progress, it looks like the counter-revolution is underway. In the past six months, there have been major defeats for gay rights in Africa, in Asia, and even in Europe.

In June, the Russian parliament passed a law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” that effectively makes it illegal to speak publicly in defence of gay rights, let alone hold gay pride events.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, warned the following month that same-sex marriage (barely discussed in Russia) is “a very dangerous sign of the Apocalypse.” In a 2013 poll, 16 percent of Russians said that gay people should be isolated from society, 22 percent said they should be forced to undergo treatment, and 5 percent said they should just be “liquidated”.

In Australia, on 11 December, only a week after a law making same-sex marriage legal in the Australian Capital Territory came into effect, the federal High Court overturned it and 27 gay marriages were automatically dissolved. “Whether same sex marriage should be provided for by law is a matter for the federal parliament,” said the judges, and should not be decided by the courts.

On the same day, in India, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 ruling by the Delhi High Court that had struck down the infamous Section 377, which said that a same-sex relationship is an “unnatural offence” punishable by a 10-year jail term. The ruling only applied to the National Capital Territory, but it was widely assumed that other Indian courts would follow suit. However, the Indian Supreme Court has now jumped the other way.

The judgement actually said only that the law has to be changed by parliament, not by the courts. But meanwhile all the gays who were encouraged by the Delhi High Court ruling to come out of the closet are going to find it harder than ever to live like normal citizens.

Finally, on 19 December, Uganda’s parliament passed a law imposing life imprisonment for some homosexual “offences”. The private member’s bill also makes it a crime punishable by a three-year prison sentence not to report gay people to the police.

“I am glad the parliament has voted against evil,” said David Bahati, the MP who sponsored the bill. “Because we are a God-fearing nation, we value life in a holistic way. It is because of those values that members of parliament passed this bill regardless of what the outside world thinks.”

When you set it out like this, it looks as if a global counter-offensive against gay rights is underway, but it’s not as bad as it looks.

Uganda’s prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, opposes the new law and claims that there was not a quorum in parliament to pass it. It may be cancelled on that argument, or President Yoweri Museveni, who is conscious of the international damage to Uganda’s reputation, may simply veto it. This is not yet a done deal.

Africa is the most anti-gay continent – 37 out of 52 African countries have laws that criminalise homosexual acts – but many of these laws are a legacy of the European colonial occupations and are not vigorously enforced. Some of the biggest African countries, including South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Egypt, have no anti-gay laws. The glass is considerably less than half-full in Africa, but it is not empty.

In Asia, anti-homosexual laws are rare except in Muslim-majority countries. India was the great exception to that rule. Section 377 was an embarrassment to the Congress government, which was quietly grateful to the Delhi High Court for striking it down.

The government has already filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision on the grounds that it “violated the principle of equality.” On the other hand, if a new law is actually required to kill Section 377, it is unlikely to risk outraging conservative opinion by passing such a law before next year’s election.

In Russia, the battle for gay rights is already almost a century old. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1917 after the revolution, recriminalised under Stalin in 1933, decriminalised again in 1993 – and homosexual relationships are still legal, although President Vladimir Putin is playing populist politics with his “anti-gay propaganda” law.

As for Australia, the issue is about the “last gay right”: same-sex marriage. The new prime minister, Tony Abbott, has already said he opposes it, so there will be no new legislation there soon. But most Australian states already permit civil unions or other legal devices that effectively give same-sex partners the same legal rights as other couples.

So do most other jurisdictions in the developed world, and in the past decade sixteen countries, including almost all of Western Europe, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and sixteen US states, have gone further and legalised same-sex marriage. (So has New Zealand, just as Australia was re-banning it.)

The tipping point was passed some time ago, and the clock will not be turned back. Homosexuality is still illegal in 83 countries, but even including India they account for only one-third of the world’s people. Without India, they would have a mere sixth of the planet’s population. The global glass is more than half-full.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 6 and 8. (“Patriarch…liquidated”; “The judgement…citizens”; and “I am…thinks”)