Acceptance of gay rights is as close to consensual as any issue in the Jewish community. Excepting the Orthodox, three-quarters of American Jews support same-sex marriage, and the majority of Jewish groups back gay rights. When President Obama expressed his personal feeling that “same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the news was welcomed by the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. Even two Orthodox groups were muted in expressing their “disappointment” in the president’s words. The Orthodox Union took some solace from Obama’s favorable reference to New York’s same-sex marriage law, which protects religious liberties, and Agudath Israel was relieved that Obama left the definition of marriage to the states.
Israel, meanwhile, has embraced the gay civil rights agenda in ways that outpace even some of our most liberal states. In a remarkable address to the gay rights Equality Forum in Philadelphia, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, celebrated Israel’s tolerant policies on family benefits for same-sex couples, anti-discrimination measures within the army, and enthusiastic municipal support for Tel Aviv’s annual gay rights parade. Israel’s gay community, said Oren, “is part of the fabric of Israel’s diverse and vibrant society. Together we are soldiers, professors, legislators, jurists, factory workers, health-care providers, and educators. Together, we are not gay or straight or bi or transgender, but merely, proudly, Israelis. And together we want peace.”
Oren also refers to, and refutes, the anti-Israel activists who say that Israel uses its pro-gay rights agenda to “pink-wash” its treatment of the Palestinians. Single-minded in their condemnation of Israel, such activists feel it essential to belittle the cause of gay rights to elevate the grievances of the Palestinians. We prefer to view Israel’s progressive stance on gay rights as a good harbinger for a just and equitable settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: If, in a country as religiously and politically polarized as Israel, its lawmakers are able to stand behind a cause as historically controversial as gay rights, it is only a matter of time before they stand behind a solution to the minefield that is Palestinian statehood.
Or, as Oren declared, Israel is “a work in progress, but we are also a work of progress.”