Friday, July 25, 2008

The Fagelah Factor

On Wednesday, July 23rd, when the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee met to take a new look at the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for the first time in 15 years, things went a little differently than planned. Desperately demonstrating a level of sexual ignorance that would embarrass an Irish setter, Elaine Donnelly -- the erstwhile President of the Center for Military Readiness -- actually managed to shock the Congressional representatives and military veterans in the room with her brazen bias and smarmy stupidity.

"Would you please tell me, Miss Donnelly, why I should give one twit about this woman's sexual orientation, when it didn't interfere one bit with her service?" asked Connecticut's Republican congressman, Chris Shays. Demonstrating a severe case of hoof-in-mouth disease, Donnelly insisted that allowing gays to serve in the military was essentially endorsing "forced cohabitation" in military barracks and transforming the phrase "relax and enjoy it" into military policy.

Donnelly's claim that gays in the military would also lead to an increased spread of HIV caused Arkansas Democratic Congressman Vic Snyder to state: "By this analysis . . . we ought to recruit only lesbians for the military, because they have the lowest incidence of HIV in the country."

Faced with such a pompous producer of phlegm wearing basic pearls while proudly pontificating on matters about which she is profoundly misinformed -- oh, hell, let's just call Donnelly a stupid bitch and get it over with -- some of the people in the room had to pinch themselves to make sure they weren't dreaming. And yet, in a perverse way, Donnelly's pathetic testimony proved to be a zesty appetizer for Nitzan Giladi's Jerusalem Is Proud To Present.

This documentary, soon to be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, chronicles the political tug of war that occurred when plans for a World Pride celebration in Jerusalem in 2006 caused a religious firestorm of nearly Biblical proportions. On one side of the fence are a courageous young lesbian named Noa, a Palestinian drag performer who must flee Hamas or die, a young Israeli man who was stabbed by a crazed orthodox Jew during a previous gay pride celebration in Tel Aviv, and the owner of a gay bar in Jerusalem who wishes that members of the city's warring tribes could get along on the outside as well they seem to inside his nightclub.

Not only has the openly gay member of the Jerusalem city council received numerous death threats, his elderly mother continues to receive threatening calls from rabidly homophobic Jews. Since many orthodox Jews do not read or watch Israel's mass media, hate messages inciting them to take action against gays are posted by religious fanatics on walls in the holy city. Noa doesn't flinch when ultra-orthodox Jews leave death threats on the answering machine at Jerusalem Open House (which basically serves as the holy city's LGBT community center). With idealism and a strong sense of self-esteem, she is determined to work within the system to secure the rights which belong to every Israeli (straight or gay) by law.

Then, of course, there are the older conservative women who are leafleting against gay pride, the Mayor of Jerusalem (who disappears every time he might be asked an embarrassing question), and an obnoxious orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn -- an oily trombenik who, in ways that might make Jerry Falwell look pure, has made it his self-righteous mission to unite the Christian, Muslim and Jewish spiritual leaders of Jerusalem against any kind of gay demonstration in their holy city. Throw in a few farmers whose homophobia places goats on a higher plane than gay Jews, and you have the makings of a fine confrontation.

Is it refreshing to discover that Christians aren't the only people filled with hatred for homosexuals? Somehow, I doubt it. As one watches a group of orthodox Jews terrorizing the openly gay city councilman as he sits in the back of a taxi, one can't help but be saddened by the realization that these Jews are so blinded by their fear, hatred and fury that they can't even realize how closely their behavior resembles that of the very Nazis who persecuted their grandparents' generation.

The Amish may forego electricity, but at least they're not violent.

There are, of course, some flashes of humor. I particularly liked the moment when a young woman asked if she could sit in the Mayor's chair after he had refused to meet with a group of gays during World Pride.

"I'd just love to see his face when you tell him that a lesbian rabbi sat in his chair!" she says.

Such moments of levity, however, are rare when compared to the somber determination with which Noa and her colleagues (who filed suit against several right-wing religious figures and accused them of incitement to murder) must journey to the Supreme Court to reinforce the concept that Israel is a land ruled by law. Originally scheduled for August 6, 2006, Jerusalem's gay parade was postponed until November due to the sudden eruption of war with Lebanon that summer.

If ever you wanted to see footage of orthodox Jews behaving badly, look no further than Giladi's documentary (which won the Movies That Matter Human Rights Award at Amsterdam's 2007 International Documentary Film Festival). It's an extremely powerful piece of film which does a remarkable job of giving equal time to both sides of a controversial story. What you see onscreen, however, will not always be pretty, witty and gay.

Nowhere near as compelling as Jerusalem Is Proud To Present, but an interesting documentary nonetheless, is It Kinda Scares Me, in which filmmaker Tomer Heymann doubles as an drama coach assigned to work with high school juvenile delinquents. Part of his goal is to develop enough interest among these disenfranchised "youths at risk" to keep them off the street until they can graduate and/or get inducted into the Israeli army.

The teenagers are, of course, filled with macho braggadocio. "How hard can it be to write a play?" one of them asks. When asked to write about what he knows, the young thug reaches for the stars:

"My girlfriend's pussy is like a black pistachio. No, wait.... maybe this would be better.... My girlfriend's pussy is like the burnt edges of a puff pastry!"

And thus we learn the value of arts education in secondary schools.

As the experiment progresses, the teenagers slowly begin to deal with basic issues of trust. They soon realize that, while Tomer may be getting all kinds of dirt on them, they know very little about what makes Tomer tick. To even the playing field, the drama coach tells them that he is gay and waits to see how the young men will deal with the news.

The results include moments of anger, denial, curiosity, and a few genuine surprises that rock their adolescent world as they prepare for the premiere of their play. Rest assured, the reputations of such legendary gay playwrights as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Terence McNally, Harvey Fierstein, Christopher Durang and Arthur Laurents will not be threatened by the results.

No comments: