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Joshua Tranen: On Extremism and the Control of Bodies

Two acts of terrorism stir up memories of the West Bank and homophobia.


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Image from the US Embassy to Tel Aviv Flickr.

By Joshua Tranen

On Sunday morning I woke to the news that Shira Banki, the sixteen year old girl stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox Jew while marching in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, had died from her wounds. She was murdered. The week prior, a Palestinian household in the West Bank village of Duma had been firebombed by Israeli terrorists. The terrorists spray-painted a Star of David on the home, signed their work with “nekama,” the Hebrew word for revenge, and left the Dawabsheh family burning alive, an infant son, Ali, already dead. He was murdered.

Watching these events unfold from America, six thousand miles away from Jerusalem or the West Bank, I find myself in an uncomfortable position. Less than two years ago, I was living in a settlement in the West Bank, learning in an Israeli yeshiva, or religious seminary, and lapping up the words of rabbis who, in their defense, condemn both attacks, but nonetheless believe that Judea and Samaria will once again rule strongly—and preferably Palestinian-free—and that same-sex relationships are a toeva, an abomination.

I prayed to God for eight years to turn me straight, and when that didn’t work, I prayed to God that he would kill me so I would not have to live my life alone.

To say that I have changed in the two years since yeshiva is not enough. It is true that since my return from the West Bank, I have come out of the closet and now live as a gay man, left Orthdox Judaism for a more secular lifestyle, and changed my personal and public politics about the West Bank and the Occupation.

But watching these two events unfold, and listening to the seemingly tone-deaf commentary of Orthodox acquaintances on social media, I feel, if not responsible, then implicated in the murders of Shira and Ali.

The formative years of my life were structured by the shackles of homophobia. When I was nine years old, the egalitarian and pluralistic Jewish day school I attended closed down its middle school. My lesbian mothers were faced with a difficult decision: send my older sister and I to the Orthodox Jewish day school—a school aligned with a movement that we did not belong to and was openly hostile to LGBT people—and thereby secure a Jewish education for their children, or send us to public school, where, within a few years, my parents feared my sister and I would lose our Jewish connection. They chose the former.

Surrounded by Orthodox friends inviting me to their houses for Shabbat, religious youth group trips to other cities and states, summer sleep-away camps with a religious, zionist bent that imbued me with, for the first time, a sense of belonging, and enthusiastic Judaic studies teachers, it is not a surprise that my impressionable elementary-school self wanted to become an Orthodox Jew. And a few years later, when my sister also fell under the same beckoning call to observant life, the two of us decided to make changes in our religious behavior together.

At first, our mothers looked on in horror. We would no longer eat off of the dishes in the house? We wouldn’t dine with them at our favorite restaurant, the one with homemade spaghetti noodles? What did my sister and I mean, when we said we would no longer drive in a car on Saturday? But in the end, my parents not only acquiesced to our changes—after all, they had been the ones to send us to an Orthodox school, what did they expect?—but they did the most heroic and selfless thing I can imagine: they joined an Orthodox synagogue so that we could all pray together as a family.

But the question of homosexuality still remained. I remember in the first months of the fifth grade, in class at my new school, when my Bible teacher proudly told the classroom about rabbis she knew who had donned sackcloth—the garb of mourners—and prayed publicly in the streets of Jerusalem during a pride parade. I remember when my parents were, at first, denied membership to an Orthodox synagogue because of their sexuality, when my friends were not allowed to play at my house because my parents were gay, and later, when I found out that my yeshiva, in recruitment interviews, asked prospective students what they would do if their best friend came out to them. Those that said they would hug and accept their friends, without immediately reminding them of the laws barring same-sex relationships, were denied admission. Or maybe my problems first began when I learned that the punishment, in Jewish law, for sex between men is death.

I needed a place that could save me and I didn’t want to let anything stand in the way.

So I learned quickly to hide—to hide the truth about my parents to anyone I met outside of my hometown, to hide my sexuality from myself and the world. I made up a history for the father I never had—the details culled from the real lives of my mothers—and presented it as fact to unsuspecting interlocutors who had simply asked, What does your father do? I hid my sexuality behind the Jewish laws of Shomer Negiah, which mandate that unmarried men and women are forbidden to touch one another, even to hug or high five. I prayed to God for eight years to turn me straight, and when that didn’t work, I prayed to God that he would kill me so I would not have to live my life alone.

When I went to live in the West Bank after high school graduation, I was clueless to the realities of inequality, racism, and segregation that permeate existence there. I was looking instead for a welcoming community where I could learn how to be the intellectually rigorous (within predetermined limits bound by Orthodox Jewish law, of course), spiritually observant Jewish man I always dreamed I would be. I looked to my yeshiva to provide the place where, if I could pray enough, God might still turn me straight. Looking back, I don’t know how I could have overlooked the racism that clung to every aspect of life in the West Bank: the separate bus lines and stations for Jews and Palestinians, the checkpoints where I was never once stopped, the imposing gray security wall. I guess it’s true that we can delude ourselves into seeing—or, in my case, not seeing—what we want to see. I needed a place that could save me and I didn’t want to let anything stand in the way.

It took several years of depression and subsequent introspection, hours of therapy, and months of anti-depressants, to come to a disturbing, yet honest understanding: the acts of men like Yishai Schlissel, the attacker in the Jerusalem gay pride parade, and the yet-unnamed terrorists of the Duma attack, are intimately connected. That my life of hiding, my life of being silenced before I ever spoke about my parents or my own sexuality, and the discomfort I feel when reflecting about my blind perpetuation of racism in the West Bank, stem from the same source.

Terrorists like Yishai Schlissel and the Duma firebombers believe in a universal truth of Jewish religious and/or national ideology. The two realms often come packaged together, but both individually demand a regime of total control: a control over bodies and space, over who and what is allowed where, when, and how. Yishai Schlissel, however “extreme” people paint him out to be, responded, however opaquely and skewed, to a legal and textual tradition that demands death for gay people. The attackers of Duma, again, however “extreme” other settlers in the West Bank, in an effort to distance themselves, frame them to be, responded to a very real legacy of occupation, racism, and hatred. In both instances, the Jews responsible for these acts of terror turned to their traditions to decide who was allowed where, when, and how, and acted upon their drawn conclusions.

I woke up on Sunday morning to the face of a sixteen-year-old girl that had been murdered. Last Friday I woke up to the news that a Palestinian infant had been murdered. The hardest part about reading the newspaper articles and the social media posts that followed these attacks was that I knew—I had seen and experienced—the ideologies that, taken too far, had provided the ammo for these acts. But was it enough just to acknowledge and identify what had gone wrong, and how? Did I have a further responsibility towards Shiri? Towards Ali?

It is the only way I know how to make, however late, justice a reality for Shira and Ali.

I have not returned to Israel or the West Bank since I left almost two years ago. I have muted almost all communication with friends and rabbis whom I learned with in yeshiva—I did not want to endure the pain of a conversation which I could not imagine to be a conversation at all. What were they to say to me—that they would “tolerate” me? Or worse, reject me? My fears of rejection by Orthodox peers only intensified and coalesced this past April, when, after coming out to the roommate I had lived with for eight months, he moved out of the room within a day of returning from spring break, taking with him all the accessories he had supplied for the dormitory room, and leaving the food I had stored in his mini refrigerator laying on the floor to spoil.

By the time I came out to the rest of my Orthodox friends, I already knew I was transferring out of my Orthodox college. All of my most observant friends were supportive, but I never asked what they thought about the Jewish laws surrounding homosexuality—did they think that I was really one of the most threatening sinners? I never asked because I didn’t want to know the answer. Or maybe because I already did.

The attacks in Jerusalem and Duma have left me no option but to break my public silence on these subjects. I can see the connection between these two attacks—I can only hope that by pointing it out I have made an observation that could lead to change in this world, even of the smallest amount. My fear is that I am too late.

To speak the truth about the connectedness of these attacks, their roots in ideologies that allow no room for dissent, no room for anyone else to sit at the table, is the only way I know how to fight back against the racism, homophobia, and control that have taken these two lives. It is the only way I know how to make, however late, justice a reality for Shira and Ali. And it is the only way I know how to explain the pain I have known in my life—to have my own nekama, my revenge.

Joshua Tranen is an undergraduate at Yale University, studying English literature and LGBT studies. He is an editorial intern with Guernica. He tweets at @JTranen.

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