Debate in the Israeli Parliament, rarely decorous these days, turned into bedlam Wednesday when a liberal member, arguing for equal rights for gays and lesbians in the army, suggested that ancient Israel's greatest king, David, was a homosexual--and quoted the Bible to try to prove it.
Mourning the death of Jonathan in a disastrous battle with the Philistines, David calls him "most dear to me" and says, "Your love for me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women."
But even as Yael Dayan, one of the Labor Party's iconoclasts, began quoting from David's famous lament in the Second Book of Samuel, Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party shouted at her and other liberals: "All of you are sick! All of you should be hospitalized!"
The ensuing tumult surpassed even the angry denunciations of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that have become the regular fare at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. Religious members from all parties called on Rabin and the Knesset Speaker to punish Dayan.
"Chutzpah! Chutzpah! Scandal!" shouted Rabbi Hanan Porat, a member of the National Religious Party. "Get her down from there!"
Rabbi Moshe Maiya, deputy minister of education from the Shas Party, called Dayan "a foul and dirty creature!"
"Who brought her forth?" he asked. "How does she come to sit in our midst? She must take her filth and go."
Shas--the religious party that joined the Labor government, bringing it six vital votes in the Knesset and helping cover its right flank politically--by nightfall was threatening to quit the Cabinet over the affair.
"We will blow up this leftist coalition," Rabbi Yosef Arzan, a Shas leader, declared. "What is being asked of this Knesset today? To remove completely all semblance of this sin (homosexuality) and to (falsify) the Torah of Israel!" Said Maiya: "They (the leftists in the governing coalition) are simply raping all of the people we Israelis hold to be holy."
Dayan, 53, daughter of the late Gen. Moshe Dayan, had called in the debate for an end to discrimination in the Israeli armed forces against gays and lesbians.
But she immediately encountered fierce opposition from members of the Knesset who regard homosexuality as gravely sinful.
Almost unable to speak because of his anger, Arzan accused Dayan of blasphemy in suggesting that the love between David and Jonathan, idealized for centuries as pure and selfless, was actually homosexual.
"A man who lies with a man as if a woman will be cursed and cut off from the people of Israel," Maiya intoned, quoting what religious Jews take as a biblical injunction against homosexuality. "How can she say this? Our salvation as Jews is to come through the House of David."
Dayan was arguing that, despite religious prohibitions and community traditions, many Jewish leaders over the centuries were, in fact, homosexual and actively so. Challenged as she started to read David's lament over Jonathan, Dayan replied, "I am reading this directly from the source."
Dayan was defended by Eli Goldschmidt, 40, who told her shouting critics: "The Bible wrote the truth. You people are not capable of coping with human reality. The Bible knew how to do this. It is too bad you don't."
Dayan did not argue in any detail that David's lament--nearly as much about Saul, biblical Israel's first king, as about Jonathan, Saul's son--proved his homosexuality but said this was her interpretation. Nor did Dayan try to reconcile her view with David's later love of Bathsheba--and the death he subsequently arranged for her husband, Uriah. According to the Bible, David, who died about 972 BC, had numerous wives and concubines as king.
Dayan was both supported and criticized by her colleagues in the Labor Party, reflecting the great sensitivity in Israel and in Judaism over homosexuality.
"It is possible to talk about the rights of homosexuals and bisexuals and anyone else you want--we are for this," said Eli Dayan, leader of the Labor Party in the Knesset but no relation to Yael Dayan.
"But I suggest you too show some tolerance on this issue," he told her, "and take back your words (asserting David's homosexuality)."
Speaking for the government, Health Minister Chaim Ramon said the Israeli armed forces are more liberal than the American military in promoting gays and lesbians to senior posts and that the policy is being reviewed. As to King David's sexuality, Ramon said, "The government has no position on this."
Last week, Yael Dayan conducted a Knesset hearing at which Israeli gays and lesbians testified about discrimination, particularly in government and the armed forces; many who spoke were publicly disclosing their homosexuality for the first time.
Increasingly controversial, Dayan has met twice in recent months with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and sunbathed on a Tel Aviv beach on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
But Ran Cohen, deputy housing minister, said the uproar at the Knesset stemmed not from Dayan's speech but from the political immaturity of its members.
"People there are not capable of discussing an issue with a sexual connotation except stormily and in fury, anger and extreme excitement. . . ," Cohen said. "They should have gotten control of themselves."