Amir Ohana’s historic appointment to the speakership of the Knesset, as the first openly gay man ever to occupy the position, already is a symbol par excellence of Israel’s flourishing democracy and commitment to human rights.
Israel’s new government has been met with worldwide praise. The Israel haters who came out in force to condemn Benjamin’s Netanyahu’s new government as “the most extreme in Israel’s history” were forced into silence when an openly LGBTQ man instantly became one of the most powerful people in Israel. A news anchor last week expressed to me her excitement, on-air, that in a Middle Eastern country a gay man was about to reach the highest levels of power. And this was in an interview I was doing for Sky News in Australia.
Ohana’s appointment also presents a major fail for the myriad journalists and pundits who have been decrying Israel’s new government for its supposed homophobia. Even the three heads of the Religious Zionism party — whom many in the news media relentlessly sought to portray as gay haters — in the end warmly supported Ohana’s appointment.
Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s new internal security minister and head of the Jewish Power party, tweeted a photo of him being embraced by Ohana, whom he described as “a great man, with a big heart and the right man for this important position.” Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s new finance minister and head of Religious Zionism, expressed no opposition. Even Avi Maoz, recently crucified by the media for opposing the Jerusalem pride parade, insisted that he had no issue with gay people, citing proof from his plans to vote for Ohana.
But, on the horseshoe ends of the political spectrum — among far-left and ultra-Orthodox political leaders — Amir Ohana’s historic appointment was met with strangely similar disdain.
MK Lahav Herzano of Yesh Atid, who also identifies as gay, denigrated Amir’s rise to the Knesset speakership as a “fig leaf” meant to conceal the homophobia of the new government, using the same twisted thinking of people who accuse Israel of “pinkwashing” because it’s the only state in the Middle East that provides full rights regardless of sexual orientation. A similar term was used during an interview with Ohana by a reporter for Israel’s channel 12 news. A columnist for Haaretz questioned the circumstances surrounding Ohana’s appointment, asking “what shame they are meant to cover.”
On the ultra-Orthodox end of Israel’s political spectrum, interior and health minster Aryeh Deri of the powerful Shas party accused Netanyahu of “tricking” him with the surprise appointment. “I headed out immediately after the speech,” Deri was said to have told other MKs. “I can’t understand the charedi MKs who went to hug him after that address.” Defying his own admonition, Deri had hugged Ohana earlier in the ceremony. Deri is fortunate that Amir, who is a close and loving friend to me and my family, is too much of a gentleman to remind Deri of his criminal convictions and prison sentence, even as Deri embarrassed Amir at a great moment of triumph.
Others went even further, with United Torah Judaism MKs Meir Porush and Moshe Gafni covering their faces or turning away from Ohana when he discussed LGBTQ+ issues during his inaugural speech as Knesset speaker. One former Shas MK even suggested in a radio interview that instead of resigning, Ohana should “marry a woman.”
Most shocking, however, were the rabbis who chose to chime in harshly. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem and a former chief rabbi of Israel, excoriated those members of the Knesset who, “thought to be [God] fearing,” still voted for Ohana’s appointment, calling their actions “a shame like no other.” (Rabbi Amar seems to embrace being politically outspoken; last week, he also released a letter condemning Ben Gvir for allegedly violating Jewish law by visiting the Temple Mount.) Others went further, with the influential Rabbi Meir Mazoz describing Ohana as being “stricken with a disease.”
Needless to say, these two influential rabbis disgraced both themselves and the Judaism they purport to represent through their shaming of an authentic Jewish hero, a man whose willingness to risk his life to defend Israel gives these rabbis the freedom to practice their faith in the first place.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that for Amir Ohana, none of this is particularly new. When he became the first openly gay member of Knesset to be elected in an open primary in 2015, several MKs, critical of his being openly gay, had skipped his swearing-in ceremony. “With regard to the issue of LGBT rights,” Ohana joked at the time, “it would be wonderful if their absence would continue.”
Hearing this story, I was immediately impressed by Ohana, who spent 12 years in the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) working tirelessly to protect Israeli lives. I blasted these MKs for offending a man who has given his life to the Jewish state and chosen to run with Likud, a party known for its warmth to religious communities and its trademark Jewish pride. Just one year after his election to the Knesset, Amir would be honored by my organization, the World Values Network, at our annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in 2016 in Times Square in Manhattan.
Then, in 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Amir Ohana to lead the Ministry of Justice, marking another step in Amir’s smashing of the political ceilings for Israel’s LGBT community.
That Israel’s first openly gay minister arose from Likud, I argued shortly after this appointment, proved first and foremost that Ohana himself was a politician driven not by a need for popularity but by convictions and belief. By joining Likud, Amir had rooted his political positions in what he believed to be true and just, even if wasn’t necessarily trendy.
Amir proved his mettle further when, after it was announced that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry would be distributing more than $20 million to American Jewish campus groups that do nearly nothing to defend Israel on campus, he joined me in writing an op-ed taking on American Jewish giants Chabad and Hillel, demanding anti-BDS action from groups receiving Israeli financial support.
But it’s also especially important to note that the existence of ultra-Orthodox homophobes says nothing of the true stance of Judaism or the Torah.
Some people of faith insist that homosexuality is more sinful than other transgressions because the Bible calls it an “abomination.” But they forget, or intentionally omit, the fact that the word “toeivah” — abomination — appears approximately 122 times in the Bible, at times describing eating non-kosher food (Deuteronomy 14:3); a woman returning to her first husband after being married to a second (Deuteronomy 24:4); and bringing a blemished sacrifice on God’s altar (Deuteronomy 17:1). Proverbs goes so far as to label envy, lying, and gossip “an abomination to [the Lord]” (3:32, 16:22).
Judaism also does not condemn anyone for being gay. And while there is a commandment for men to refrain from gay sex, as well as a commandment for men to marry and have children, there are 613 commandments in the Torah. When Jewish gay couples tell me they have never been attracted to members of the opposite sex and are desperately alone, I tell them, “You have 611 commandments remaining. That should keep you busy. Now, go create a kosher home. Turn off the TV on the Sabbath and share your meals with many guests, as did Abraham. Pray to God three times a day, for you are his beloved children. He desires you and seeks you out. And God loves you.”
I should add that Amir has two beautiful children with his spouse Alon, whom my family remembers from when they were just babies.
Thankfully, other comments from other religious and political leaders rose to defend Ohana and reflect the Torah’s true intrinsic tolerance and compassion.
Chief rabbi of the United Kingdom Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who is soon to be knighted by King Charles III, went on Israeli television to criticize Ohana’s critics, telling them that every human being was created in God’s image and that love of a fellow Jew was a cardinal principle of the Torah. “I don’t think this is a liberal position,” he told veteran Israeli news anchor Amnon Levy. “This is the Torah’s position.”
“‘Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God].’ Every person is created in God’s image,” tweeted Bibi Netanyahu, condemning all statements against the LGBTQ+ community and Amir Ohana. “That is the fundamental belief that was given to humanity thousands of years ago by our people, and it is the fundamental belief that guides us today.”
Always the quintessential mensch, Ohana has reportedly decided to hold his tongue on the entire matter and maintain his policy of “not attacking rabbis.” With his signature class and sensitivity, he tweeted, “It is better that I fail a hundred times in senseless love for Jews, than once in senseless hate of Jews.”
He’s not worried. His primary and general election victories, and now his appointment to serve as speaker of the Knesset, has already proven to Amir Ohana what he always knew to be true: No amount of critics can stop a man driven by a love of Israel with a rock-solid commitment to dedicate this life to their welfare and protection.
Amir, if you’re out there reading, know that this rabbi, your friend Shmuley, could not be more proud of you. You are a hero of the Jewish people, and I remain grateful for all you have done to keep our nation safe. May God protect you, keep you, and watch over you always.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “The Israel Warrior” and “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell.” Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.