For the last month, the topic on everyone’s lips across the state of Israel has been one strangely familiar to the ears of the modern American. No, not Islamic extremism or the prospect of a nuclear Iran, but gay rights. In response to a multifaith, broad-based effort spearheaded by the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, organizers were forced to seriously curtail plans for a gay pride parade through the heart of Jerusalem.
This may be a happy day for interfaith dialogue, but it is a sad one for Western democracy. In an all-too-familiar sequence of events, this November has seen an event celebrating many of the ideals of any modern democracy, including free speech, tolerance and the right to live in accordance with one’s sexual orientation, give way to threats of violence amidst overtones of theocratic bigotry.
The main argument of the parade’s opponents centered on the supposed special status of Jerusalem as a city of unique religious value to the three major monotheistic religion. In many ways, this unique status was precisely the reason it was necessary to hold a parade in Jerusalem. A major, if unspoken, goal of the parade’s organizers seems to have been to demonstrate that Israel is a place where open expression of identity in a way that has become the norm throughout the West is a basic right.
The event, which was re-planned as a rally at a university soccer stadium, ended up highlighting two things. The first was the formidable political muscle of the religious sector within Israeli politics. The second, however, was both more subtle and disturbing. It was a confirmation of the general tension that exists between intolerant minorities and a generally tolerant mainstream within modern liberal democracy. How can society respond to the challenges of an intolerant minority without becoming intolerant itself?
The first part of the answer is theoretical. Participation in society is implicitly based upon acceptance of a sort of social contract. Except in the most extreme circumstances, one must abide by the laws and values of society or work within the system to change them. Thus, it is within the mandate of the state to protect its citizens and their rights. This is done through the processes of lawmaking and political election ideally based solely on public welfare and at a remove from religious fiat. In this light, it is incumbent upon the state to actively free itself from the manipulations of a loud, if small, political group.
Practically, for Israel this should have meant a discussion with the Ultra-Orthodox community about the privileges it receives within a largely secular democracy. It should not be too oppressive to point out to this community that as long as a march does not encroach upon explicitly and entirely religious enclaves, it is right and even necessary that whoever wishes be allowed to make his voice heard. It should have been made clear to the leadership of this community that it was not only the government’s job to defend marchers, but their fellow citizens’ responsibility not to attack them.
Obviously, in other scenarios — the contemporary United States comes to mind — various minority groups have found ways to set the political agenda from within the system. While this is still morally troubling to many, there is less to be done about it. Perhaps the only way to prevent such manipulation is to ensure widespread participation in government. Only when everyone in a democracy takes the political process, as seriously as does, for instance, the Christian Coalition, will the policies of the government be in line with the will of the people.
Even though this month’s events are troubling to those who have looked to Israel as a beacon of progressive democracy in the Middle East, it is still important to note that the event did take place and was by all accounts quite successful in its new format. This stands in stark contrast to other nations in the Middle East. It is my hope that one day, frank and open discussions about such issues will be taking place across the Arab world. If that day comes, the world will have truly been made safe for democracy. Until then, the best we can do is guard our own democracies closely in the hope that our values may be those of tolerance and our policies firmly independent of sectarian interest.
Jacob Abolafia is a freshman in Davenport College and the Yale Friends of Israel freshman liaison to the David Project.