Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Falsettos and MassResistance

A little background here.

I went to a high school in Massachusetts known as CCHS.  While not everyone who walks the halls, student or teacher, is a commie-liberal, a lot of us are (or were, if we graduated or otherwise left).  We've had a gay-straight alliance for a long time; we have several out teachers and students, we're allowed to dress however we want, we cast men and women into whatever roles make sense in the schools plays, and we can take whomever we want to the prom.  And honestly, even if we have people on different ends of the political spectrum, generally, everyone felt like things were all right.

Several months ago, the gay-straight alliance held a panel of out teachers, who spoke about their experiences growing up.  I didn't know about the event, and read about it later, and it was a really emotional experience for me because I knew a lot of the teachers, and one of them had been a friend and mentor to me while I was a student.

I was extremely angry, later on, to see that a hate group called MassResistance, which is based in my home state and was involved in opposing same-sex marriage back in 2003, had heard about the event and written horrible things about it, claiming that parents were upset that their children had been exposed to something so horrible.  Never mind that no one was required to attend this event, and never mind that if such parents do exist in our liberal towns, they're in the tiny minority and not representative of the parents of the student body as sa whole.  I was pissed off, but since there was nothing that MR could do besides whine, I brushed it off.

Recently, though, MR has come back into my life to piss me off again.

CCHS put on a play called Falsettos, which I have never even heard of.  They already did the play, so it's not like I can go watch it and see what it's like.  But there's an all right synopsis on Wikipedia.  In general, I think it's safe to say that the play is about a non-traditional Jewish family, where some characters are in gay or lesbian relationships.  Sounds ... well, as a LGBT-ally and a Jew, I don't really have so much of a problem just from reading the synopsis.  And even if I didn't feel as if the play could capture my experiences of being Jewish, that doesn't mean it's wrong.  My Jewish experience is not the universal one, after all.

MassResistance is unhappy about this play.  Very unhappy.  They took some video of the play.  This is prohibited.  CCHS does its own filming of theater productions and then offers copies of the video at a small price.  The video taken by MR was taken illegally.  Additionally, the majority of the students in the play, just based on probability, are minors.  The video by MR was taken without their consent, and posted on Youtube without their consent.  MR used the footage to create a little video about how depraved and deviant the production is.  Students are currently trying to get Youtube to permanently remove the video.

Meanwhile, MassResistance is interfering in other ways.  One of the members happens to be a resident of the town that our (regional) school is in.  She is basically petitioning the town to punish the school for putting on the play.  Here's what we're looking forward to at the town meeting:
To determine whether the Town will vote to condemn the production of the play “Falsettos” with public funds by Concord-Carlisle High School in 2009, and urge the regional school committee to discipline the employees of the school district responsible for this play, urge the regional school committee to issue a letter of apology to the Rabbinical Alliance of America, and urge the regional school committee to promote positive role models and students which encourage responsible citizenship rather than controversial sexual behavior, or take any other action relative thereto.

Petitioners Explanation: This article allows Town Meeting to take a vote on whether or not to condemn the high school production of a lewd play called “Falsettos,” which defamed the Jewish religion and people in a public building with public funding, using underage students as actors in December 2009. This article also allows Town Meeting to submit the following requests of the regional school committee: 1) reprimand school employees who were responsible for this play; 2) issue a letter of apology to the Rabbinical Alliance of America; and 3) take action to promote positive role models to students consistent with the high school’s mission and Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 71, Section 30.
Let's take a look, yes?

Like I said, our school is very well-known for being progressive, and our theater department doesn't shy away from that.  When my younger sister starred in Dracula, there were only a handful of male castmembers.  Because there were so many excellent female actors who auditioned, many of them were cast in lead roles intended for men (including the lead role of Dracula).  Additionally, during my tenure at CCHS, we put on The Laramie Project, and extraordinarily moving play about the death of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally murdered in Laramie several years ago.  The administration actually decided that every student needed to see the play, and so in addition to the usual shows, additional shows were put on during school hours, so we could all see it.

Our school is committed to community and to acceptance (not just tolerance).  By insisting that our school encourage "responsible citizenship" as opposed to "controversial sexual behavior," MassResistance is setting up our school's mission in opposition to another part of our school's commitment to excellent.  That is, part of responsible citizenship in our school is accepting our classmates and members of our community; our school is opposed to creating a hostile environment for any student, including LGBT students.

Essentially, MassResistance wants our school to start promoting heterosexism and homophobia.  That's not going to happen.

Secondly, demanding that the school discipline members of the faculty who were involved in the production is really quite stupid.  First of all, the play was put on in 2009.  That's at least one, if not two years ago (depending on the semester when the play was done).  If there was going to be disciplinary action taken against any of the teachers, it should have already happened.  Second of all, this petition is assuming that the faculty did anything that might violate any school rules.  And considering that our school already has a history of LGBT-accepting behavior and events, I doubt that this play has actually violated anything.

Finally, the insistence that the school apologize to the Rabbinical Alliance of America is part of an incredibly insulting plan by MassResistance to set up their opposition to the play as simply opposition to anti-Semitism, not because they hate gay people or anything like that.  Let's talk about why this makes me angrier than any other part of this completely stupid petition.

As I've gotten older, I've seen more and more bullshit from the right when it comes to Judaism.  Plenty of right-wing folks talk about Israel in a very positive light, about how we need to support Israel, yadda-yadda.  To me, that's not really demonstrating a lack of bigotry towards the Jewish people.  Not only are there plenty of non-Jews in Israel, and not only do plenty of Jews feel no real connection to Israel, but there are plenty of us who aren't happy with the Israeli government.  I happen to be in those last two groups of Jews.  So talking about how great Israel is will not make me think, "Oh, great, someone who loves Jews and wants good things for us!"

And considering the anti-Semitic crap that spews from the mouths of right-wing pundits, or actors like Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen (hey, Charlie Sheen, if Mel Gibson thinks you need help, YOU NEED HELP), and all this bullshit about the war on Christmas, I don't really feel all that welcome in the right wing.  And I mean that just in terms of my Jewish identity.  I'm well aware of the fact that being a pro-choice female socialist who isn't married, doesn't want kids, and loves teh gayz might make me even more unwelcome, even without the Jewish thing.

The point is: the right wing as a group does not give a shit about Jewish people.  Not only that, but they have no problem USING Jewish people to further their own agenda.  I say "as a group" because there are ultra-conservative Jews and Jewish groups, as I'm going to talk about.  But the right wing, as a general whole, really, really doesn't care about Jewish people.  And they have no problem using us for their own ends.

And so we come to the last part of the MassResistance bullshit, the part that really, really sets me on edge.  They want us to apologize to a group called the Rabbinical Alliance of America because, according to MR, the play Falsettos is anti-Semitic.

First, I say "us," when I talk about the town, the school, and the students, because I consider myself still a part of the community, and of CCHS.  Going to that high school shaped and defined who I am now, personally and academically.  I might not visit much anymore, thanks to work, and I might not know many faculty or any students, but damnit, that's my high school, and I'm still a part of it.  MassResistance attacks me when they attack my school.

Second, this group, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, did not contact our school to complain about the play.  That doesn't mean they wouldn't object to it.  But MassResistance is the group complaining about the play.  So by insisting that we apologize to a rabbinical group, they are trying to prove that they're really just concerned about the play being anti-Semitic.  Which makes you wonder--why did you complain in the first place, why does your (illegal) video on YouTube discuss just the same-sex relationships (note: they're discussing same-sex sexual behavior they find objectionable, but I don't think the play actually depicts any behavior, just the relationships themselves), and why does your complaint still address same-sex sexuality, not anti-Semitism only?

By claiming that the play is anti-Semitic, MassResistance is attempting to convince the people of the town that the play is bigoted material, while hiding the fact that MR is really objecting to the LGBT content.  Complaining just about the LGBT themes would be considered bigoted, and so MR is trying to pretend that they're somehow trying to end intolerance, whereas they're really just trying to enforce it.

Next, I tried to dig a bit deeper to find some info on the Rabbinical Alliance of America.  At first, I wondered why MassResistance chose that group as opposed to the Anti-Defamation League, which is an extremely well-known group that speaks out against anti-Semitism (among other things).  While I don't always agree with the ADL (most recently, when they spoke out against the interfaith center being built near Ground Zero; I thought it was pretty stupid of the ADL to speak out against it), they're really the people who jump on this kind of thing.  So I wondered, did the ADL just not know about this?  We're a pretty small town.  Or did they know and just not care because the play isn't anti-Semitic?

I'm guessing a combination: that they didn't know we were doing the play, and that they wouldn't have cared.  But I wasn't sure, so I emailed them.  I'm waiting to hear back from them (I will call otherwise).  Meanwhile, what could I find about the Rabbinical Alliance of America?

Not a whole lot.  Their website is extremely sparse.  But there was an article on Right Wing Watch, and a bunch of other ones about the Kagan nomination to the Supreme Court.  Here's the gist of what I learned:

The Rabbinical Alliance of America appears to be a large group of Orthodox and highly traditional rabbis and Jews.  The RAA tends to speak out against LGBT-positive events, such as repealing DADT.  They are openly and unapologetically anti-LGBT, using offensive rhetoric I usually see coming from the nastiest people on the right.

Judaism is an interesting religion.  Like many religions, we've got variation everywhere; some people are just more religious than others, and that's how it is.  But we're also extremely decentralized, which means that unlike, say, Catholic folk, we don't have one person or one group telling us what we're supposed to do as a whole religion.  We can't get excommunicated or otherwise kicked out of the Jewish community.  If you don't fit in with your congregation, you find another one.  In fact, it's one reason why I'm not a huge fan of Israel; I'm a Conservative Jewish atheist, and would not be considered Jewish by a lot of Orthodox Jews in Israel, including lawmakers.

So if the Rabbinical Alliance of America finds Falsettos objectionable, it's not very meaningful in terms of whether or not the play is anti-Semitic.  MassResistance found one of the highly Orthodox groups of Jews, who are extremely likely to find the play offensive because of its positive LGBT content.  Saying that the RAA finds the play offensive is meaningless because it's obvious that they would, but not because the play is somehow anti-Semitic--unless you believe that depicting some Jews as LGBT is anti-Semitic.

And considering the number of LGBT Jewish people I know and care about, I find that pretty fucking stupid.

Not only am I waiting to talk to the ADL about their take on the play (if they even care about it), but I also want to speak with them about the RAA, as well as the ADL's position on LGBT issues (the site is pretty clear that it's a very progressive group and supports civil rights, but nothing LGBT-specific).

Why am I investing all of this time and energy on this topic?  Because in April, there will be a town hall meeting to discuss this mess.  I know that I'm going to be there, as well as approximately 200-300 other students and alumni.  And because our town does not have the largest Jewish population (I was one of maybe 5-6 Jewish students in a class of 300 when I graduated), I want to speak up and call MassResistance out.  No one uses my religion to hurt other people.  No way.

I think it's important for me to point out that I'm shying away from, "Well, I don't find the play anti-Semitic, and I'm Jewish, so therefore I'm right."  The fact is that this argument is used all the time for stupid reasons.  For example, "Well, I'm a woman, and I don't think sexism is real, so therefore it isn't."  And, to be totally fair, I haven't seen the play itself.  I'm trusting my high school community right now; I trust that the administration and the theater department would never have picked an actual anti-Semitic play.  And I don't trust MassResistance, and I know I dislike the Rabbinical Alliance of America from what I've read.  I'm inclined to believe that this play isn't anti-Semitic because of these things.

Additionally, for something to be anti-Semitic, it has to be hateful towards the Jewish people.  It doesn't just have to have Jewish characters, or LGBT Jewish characters, or some Jewish characters portrayed negatively.*  It has to actually be hateful.  But, as a hate group, maybe MassResistance doesn't quite get this ...

* This is sort of hard to explain.  If you have a play with all Jewish characters, or mostly Jewish characters, the odds are low that everyone's good and perfect.  And that's okay.  Jewish folk aren't perfect, I promise.  It's when you portray people as bad because they're Jewish, or there's one Jewish character and he or she happens to be demonstrably evil, that's where things really stop working.  But having flawed characters who happen to be Jewish ... I mean, have you been to a Jewish holiday dinner?  We're not all nice, good people!


  1. Great post, Phira.

    I happened on your blog after reading this editorial:


    While I'd love to go: yay, non-Jews looking out for us, I really want to cry: Bullshit. This is all a front for an anti-LGBT agenda.

  2. Phira, the Concord Magazine Blog (http://www.ConcordMA.com/blog) is linking to this article on the post to be published the 20th as a great explanation of the situation, and an expression of some really clear thoughts and feelings. Great job!