by Corinne Blackmer — Southern Connecticut State University
April 14, 2012 – 14:32
I’ve recently had the honor of interviewing the famous Jewish lesbian feminist, Lillian Faderman, author of Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendships between Women from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century, Odd Girl Out: A History of Lesbianism in the Twentieth Century, and Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir, among many other works. I had originally met Lillian when I was her student at the University of California. I was interviewing Lillian for a book I am writing called For I Believe with a Perfect Faith: A History of LGBT Jews in Judaism. Like me, Lillian is Jewish, a feminist, a lesbian, and a writer. During my interview I asked her a question I regarded as important and inevitable: What were her views on Israel, particularly given the fact that her mother was a Holocaust survivor, and what were her experiences of views on Israel in the lesbian—in particular Jewish lesbian—community?
I do not believe I was prepared for the passion of her response. For Lillian, support for Israel was as necessary as clean air to breathe. If her mother, after the Holocaust, had not had the option or the recognition that Israel represented (and represents) all would have been far, far worse, and Jewish people in Europe as in the United States could expect a continuance of the indifference and persecution that they had experienced previously. As Lillian explained, her mother suffered from severe mental illness, brought on by unrelieved suffering, and, like those who had managed to survive the Holocaust deserved to have a unique Jewish homeland. For Lillian, who is a secular Jew, this was not a matter of religion, but rather of culture, identity, and peoplehood. As far as the lesbian community was concerned, she found the dominant attitudes expressed distressing. It did not appear to her that “Israel could do anything right,” and, in one case, the attitudes were so negative that she walked out of one conference panel that, on the subject of Jewish lesbianism, touched upon the subject of Israel. Lillian believed this overly negative and one-sided attitudes among many (if not all) Jewish lesbians had several causes: (a) homophobic and heterosexist attitudes among Jewish families, which, in turn, prompted reflexive anti-Semitic self-loathing or non-acceptance of Jewishness (and, more so, Judaism) among Jewish lesbians; (b) a reflexive support for anything deemed politically correct or leftist without sufficient consideration for the consequences or realities of adopting specific political stances; (c) ignorance about Israel and the historical specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; (d) ignorance about the ramifications and the intransigence of anti-Semitism worldwide following the Holocaust; and (e) lack of reliable information about Israeli policies, politics, achievements, and histories.Lillian invited me into an organization called SPME (Scholars for Peace in the Middle East) and recommended that I read a book called Jewish Communities in Exotic Places, which I did soon thereafter. I swiftly understood why she had recommended the book. We know a great deal about the experiences of Ashkenazi (or European) Jews both before, during, and after the Holocaust. However, we know comparatively little about non-European (Sephardic) Jews who hail from lands in the Middle East, the Far East, and Africa. Much that has been written is in Hebrew and remains untranslated in English. A consistent theme ran through the depictions of Jewish culture and history in places like Kazakhstan, Iran, Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq. While they had originally been welcomed in and, indeed, encouraged to migrate into these lands, they had subsequently experienced discrimination and persecution, often leading to forced exile from their homes. Their place of destination was not Europe or the United States but, rather, Israel, which provided them a secure homeland in a familiar geographical location that they had lost. Israel was a vitally necessary place as a refuge from persecution. Finally, these Sephardic Jews have been expelled in contemporary, post-Holocaust times by governments that fiercely oppose Israel (and have organized boycotts against her), and whose press, albeit heavily censored, regularly runs extreme anti-Semitic opinion columns and cartoons, many which look like they are drawn straight from Nazi Germany. I told Lillian that, as the result of my specific experiences I was not anti-Israel and, in fact, regarded my pro-Israel stance as part and parcel of my identities as a lesbian, a feminist, a Jew, and a supporter of democratic states. This did not mean that I opposed the peace process or, for that matter, Palestinian statehood. I have an unblinkered recognition that anti-Semitism, the oldest prejudice in the world, was not likely to disappear, even under the counter-pressure of the Holocaust, and that a prior claim on the land existed which was valid if, in some quarters, troubling. I also told her that as the result of my support for Israel I, as a lesbian and feminist, had come to recognize that the Republicans are not invariably “wrong” on all issues, and that conservatism, which has a more measured and cautious view of human nature and history, had an undeniable validity in some cases. I had become a more balanced and tolerant person as the result of having an openly lesbian and pro-Israel Jewish identity. At the age of seventeen, in 1973, I had been visiting family in Israel and contemplating making my aliyah (moving permanently) to Israel. In the socialist democratic government of Israel, higher education was free and students given significant support (in exchange, of course, for service to the country in the military or civilian sectors). I also was keen on the idea of living in a Jewish state which was highly multi-cultural, and the only democratic state in the entire region. I wished, in addition, to make a contribution to my people, of whom I was—and am—so proud, and whose civilization I felt—and feel—to be so valuable and necessary within the world. Most of all, I wished for a life that upheld and helped to support and grow vibrant Jewish civilization. Three months into my stay in Israel, right before I was to leave (after Yom Kippur) for a temporary return to the United States, the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out. Suddenly, I found myself in a besieged country that had been attacked by Syria and Egypt on its northern and western borders, respectively. The feelings of panic, determination, and readiness for sacrifice were completely unlike anything I had experienced—then or now—in relation to United States’ wars—all of which have been abroad, and not concerned with matters of immediate survival of the country. I continue to believe strongly that it is an extremely unfortunate thing for a country to lose a war, even if it survives to tell the tale, and I believe that the United States had made—and continues to make—the grave error of getting involved in unnecessary and counterproductive wars of choice, as opposed to wars of necessity. There was no question of necessity, however, as I rushed to volunteer for whatever position I might be needed to fulfill and therefore it came to pass that I found myself on a convoy of trucks, moving at 120 miles per hour, headed into the Sinai-Egyptian front of the war near a place called Chinese Farm that became the locus of an extremely important and destructive battle. The Israelis had been badly underprepared for the onset of war, and it took almost two weeks before the war, on both fronts, turned decisively in their favor. This struggle also resulted in unparalleled loss of life, and was a matter of pure survival of the State of Israel, per se, rather than a war about which one could choose or not to become involved. I was humbled and forever changed by my experiences as an assistant nurse (without formal training of any form) in an outpost hospital in the Sinai desert, and saw the face of modern battle upfront and for myself. The destruction planned by the enemies of Israel, and their intent not to attack but rather to annihilate Israel—then at an historical moment in which the Holocaust was only three decades in the past—forever shaped my fundamental allegiance to Israel, as well as my recognition that there could be no peace other than a just and secure one—with a democratic Palestinian government, which has still not occurred. In addition to my first hand experience of unimaginable aggression against Israel by enemies who plotted her annihilation, I had come from a family that was not homophobic, that supported my identity as a lesbian, and that believed that non-homophobic policies and practices were fully consistent with and integral to the proper understanding of Jewish law, history, and culture. Therefore, I identified my lesbianism with as opposed to against my Jewish identity, and I perceived Judaism, as a religion, as calling, ultimately, for my full inclusion into and acceptance by the community of practicing Jews, of which I counted myself a member. History has borne out my convictions, as Judaism, of all the major monotheistic faiths, has over the years developed policies and practices that are the most affirming to the full humanity of LGBT Jews than any other branch of monotheism. This outcome is directly related to the structure of Jewish law, or halachah, which is an historically responsive and dynamic set of statutes and practices. Israel has one of the most vibrant economies in the world, and can be called the world leader in promoting entrepreneurship and innovation in advanced technologies—particularly to do with communications. Israel leads the world, as well, in de-desertification, or technologies that save our planet by reclaiming productive land from the encroachment of deserts. It also leads the world in technologies of alternate energy and now is in the process of converting all automobiles into carbon-free electric automobiles and mass transport. Finally, it is a beacon in the Middle East to LGBT people who find themselves the objects of intolerance and persecution, including death or imprisonment, in most Middle and Near Eastern countries, none of which provides the democratic vehicles of protest and free speech that leads to an expansion of LGBT rights and that, even within the adverse religious climate of the United States, has produced stunning civil rights victories over the past thirty years, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and marriage or civil union rights in many of our more progressive states. Thus, LGBT organizations in Israel are a beacon and refuge to LGBT persons in the entire region, particularly LGBT Palestinians.