Monday, January 23, 2012

It's not about homophobia .... It's about JFS. My reaction to the JFS/JONAH/Homophobia scandal....

I tend to write a lot about the British Jewish community, as I grew up there, and because I think it is a fascinating example of what Jewish life might mean outside of one of the major centers (Eretz Yisrael and modern day Bavel - North America). The latest storm in the British tea cup has been caused by a Jewish Chronicle article about an allegedly homophobic class taught at the school, and raises some fascinating questions about what it means to be Jewish in a country which is neither Jewish by definition (Israel) nor has a democratic separation of Religion and State (the US). In the class in question, the students were shown a presentation which gave information about an organisation called JONAH which seeks to "cure" gay men and women from their homosexual tendencies.

Obviously, most of the people I know, including many former JFS students have reacted to the article with disgust, fury, protest and a desire to put right this obvious wrong (just proving that all the people I know are pinko-commies or wet liberals, like me). But I have to ask, why?

Before this liberal-crusader took to the pages of the JC, did anyone think that JFS was a gay-loving pink idyll? Were people walking around with the understanding that JFS, an Orthodox Jewish day school would actively support all students in their choices about how to deal with their developing sexuality? As far as I was concerned, the shock in the article was that anyone might consider this newsworthy.

Whether it pretends to be something else or not, JFS is an Orthodox institution, and whether it pretends otherwise or not, Orthodox Judaism is institutionally homophobic. While there are many minority opinions within the Orthodox Jewish world who actively support gay rights and welcome LGBTQ members and who attempt to find a way to embrace gay Jews while rejecting male homosexual sex, this is still a tiny minority and in no way represents mainstream Orthodoxy. I sometimes frequent one such minyan which challenges my own shul for the title of pinkest in Jerusalem, but as mentioned - this is the minority voice. It is unreasonable to expect an Orthodox institution to accept homosexuality.

So what is my point?

As long as you believe in the idea of faith-schools, you must allow JFS to continue preaching bigotry and hate. I realise that that may sound harsh, but only an actual democratic separation of religion and state and the end of the bizarre idea of publicly funded private community schools will actually be able to stop these private communities continuing to use the education system to promote their values which are inconsistent with a free, fair and democratic society. I say this fully aware of the complete hypocrisy inherent in my words (if I were to live in the UK, I would probably send my own child(ren) to a Jewish day school), but my own hypocrisy and use of the system for my own selfish gain should not mean that we don't recognise the inherent injustice in the current model of schooling. Jewish day schools (as well as Muslim and Christian ones) are a way that a particular community manages to use the universal societal resources for their own gain. They at once, give a good rounded education, and at the same time inculcate the values of the particular community into the next generation. It is fine for a community to demand that their children be educated on the public dime as long as members of that community pay taxes. It is not acceptable that a particular community expect that the society as a whole should Jewishly educate their children. Particularly if that Jewish education is actually at odds with the value system of wider society.

So - am I appalled by JFS's homophobia? Yes, of course I am. Am I surprised? No, of course I am not. Do JFS have the right to teach homophobia? According to the current non-constitution of the UK - absolutely. As long as faith schools are an encouraged practice, the aggrieved parents and students cannot complain that their children have been exposed to an allegedly homophobic viewpoint as part of their child's education.

It is worthy and admirable to attack each small injustice as we encounter it, as the former head-girl of JFS did in her letter to the school (linked above), but each one of these small fights is meaningless without a more holistic approach to building a just, fair and equitable school system which helps educate our youth towards building a free and democratic society.