The report of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria’s (JCCV) investigation into issues of vilification and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members of the Jewish community was released this week.
Perhaps the only revelation in the “ground-breaking” 16 page report is the statement:
Of concern was the data provided by Hatzolah that indicates approximately one person under the age of 25 and one person over that age within the Jewish community attempts self harm or suicide per month.
From my discussions with Rabbi Mendel Kastel of the Jewish House in Sydney he told me he believed there were around 12 completed suicides per year in the Sydney Jewish community, a community that is comparable in size to that in Melbourne. Both these scenarios are disturbing. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a public conversation in Melbourne’s Jewish community on the topic of suicide prevention.
Disappointingly, yet unsurprisingly, this report has made scant mention of the positive stance on homosexuality and GLBT issues that exist in the strong and vibrant Progressive Jewish community in Victoria. The report takes a biased Orthodox stance on homosexuality at the outset and portrays this as the only Jewish stance on homosexuality. This is entirely disingenuous of the JCCV and is a symptom of the deep and ugly rift that exists between the Orthodox and Progressive sectors of the Jewish community.
The Progressive sector has over recent years becoming increasingly more accepting and inclusive of same-sex couples and GLBT people to the point that they have effectively become the model citizen of how a religious community can remove all barriers and discrimination facing GLBT people. The apex of their acceptance to date came in May 2011 when the Progressive rabbinate called for full marriage equality under Australian law.
Yet the JCCV’s report has taken the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish Law (Halacha) and painted it as the only interpretation of Jewish Law:
The reference group recognised that Jewish Halacha prohibits gay sexual behaviour and, according to orthodox rabbinic interpretation, lesbian sexual behaviour.
The JCCV is not obliged to agree with the Orthodox stance on homosexuality. The JCCV is simply an umbrella organisation representing a diverse and for the most part disparate range of perspectives on Judaism, none of which are absolute. For the JCCV to take a single approach to this issue further strengthens my understanding that they are pandering to their majority Orthodox member-base. They are not representing the entire community that they claim to be the voice of, but only the sector that is strategic for its survival.
The report shows the GLBT Reference Group has no formal representation from the Progressive community. In their official capacity as members of the JCCV executive both John Searle and Anton Block staunchly support the Orthodox community and the Orthodox attitude toward homosexuality. It would have been helpful if this bias had been included in the report, yet it was conveniently overlooked.
The report claims the reference group had a member of Jewish Care and a member of the Australian Jewish Psychologists on it. I would like to know the professional expertise each of these two people brought to the table. My understanding is that the psychologist on the reference group, Dr Ruth Kweitel, has a professional background in dealing with people who have gambling problems. If this person is no longer on the reference group, I sincerely hope the JCCV managed to find a person who has a relevant background in GLBT issues. Despite that, why were these two professionals not named in the report? Are they concerned their professional credibility or reputation will be tarnished by being named in a report investigating GLBT issues? Perhaps they too will become victims of the religious intolerance that exists in the community.
Another claim of the report is that a “third party” introduced the GLBT members of the reference group to the JCCV. I was that third party, as the contact for Aleph Melbourne. Read my blog on how the JCCV engaged this “third party”. It doesn’t look very good for the JCCV when a GLBT support group operating for over 16 years is referred to as a “third party” in the report, and further is completely ignored in the report and by the reference group, without explanation.
Higher on my list of disappointments about the JCCV and their GLBT Reference Group are the GLBT people who sit on the reference group. To be told by the JCCV that they must function within the constraint that Jewish law forbids homosexual behavior is deeply offensive and arrogant and it disappoints me that they tolerated this intolerance. I am most disappointed that Transgender Victoria’s Sally Goldner, one of Australia’s most outspoken transgender and human rights activists, would even sit on a reference group that upholds the belief that all gay men and women are not free to live as equal human beings in a community, to live with the same dignity and acceptance as the rest of society. Her reticence to speak to me or go public about her involvement with the reference group is evidence of her conflict in being on the reference group. Sadly her integrity in caring for the welfare of all GLBT people has been brought into question as far as I am concerned.
Continuing the disappointment is the JCCV’s use of language to describe the people it is investigating:
- GLBT Jews within our community
- GLBT members of the Jewish community
- Jewish GLBT community members
- Jewish members of the GLBT community
- members of our GLBT community
- members of the GLBT community
- members of the GLBT Jewish community
- members of the Jewish GLBT community
The people this report should be talking about are all people in the Jewish community. The problems are not just faced by “GLBT” people. The problems are faced by those people who are not able to talk about their sexual orientation or their gender identity because they have not been empowered to do so, or who believe they are not allowed to do so. They are the invisible people, the ones who are told they must conform, be heterosexual and get married to a person of the opposite sex. They are the people who find themselves in loveless relationships, or in relationships that put them at conflict with their personal desires. They are the children, the siblings, the parents, friends and relatives of everyone in the Jewish community. They are not “members” of any section of the community. They are the entire Jewish community.
I am not pleased about many aspects of this report, however I am pleased this report has been written because if nothing else, it highlights the topic of suicide and mental health issues that religious intolerance of homosexuality inflicts on same-sex attracted people. It also puts GLBT issues on the radar and has created a starting place that can be built upon. I am glad for this as it’s better than nothing.
It was singularly because of my concern for the welfare of both the visible and the invisible GLBT people in the community that I spearheaded the 1999 application for JCCV membership of Aleph. Now some 12 years later my efforts are beginning to pay off and a momentum is building. The road ahead is not going to be without significant challenges, but as the stalwarts of intolerance are increasingly displaced by a younger and more enlightened generation, I am confident that change for the better is inevitable.
I can only hope that the imminent change in JCCV presidency ushers in someone who has the necessary leadership skills, impartiality, competency, professionalism and selflessness to steer the JCCV in a direction that puts the welfare of all the people in the community it represents ahead of their own career prospects and ahead of the sensitivities of its various constituent organisations.