Ramat Gan wine shop owner battles city over rainbow flags

“There’s an aggressive silencing of the Jewish voice in the public sphere,” the merchant’s attorney said.

By David Isaac, JNS

For several years, a Ramat Gan store owner has found himself under fire from the municipality for opposing LGBTQ flags adorning the city’s thoroughfares, including in front of his shop, during the annual Pride Month (June).

Facing thousands of shekels in fines, he and his attorney say he is the target of selective enforcement in a clash echoing a wider cultural war against religion in the Israeli public square.

Amnon Goldis, the owner of a small boutique wine shop, “Kosher Wine Or Ganuz,” felt compelled to act three years ago when gay pride flags appeared along Ramat Gan’s Jerusalem Boulevard, where his store is located. His protest took the form of banners he placed above his storefront. The first was simply the Jewish creed, “Shema Yisrael”: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

But Ramat Gan, located just east of Tel Aviv, came down hard on Goldis. In 2020, he received a call and a letter from the municipality warning him to remove the sign immediately or face a fine. Goldis refused, telling radio station Kol BaRama at the time: “I made it clear to the municipality that I do not intend to take down the sign. They can issue fines, make committees—I am not taking down this sign.”

Goldis then made the Shema sign permanent, placing it where his store sign had been. Essentially, he changed the name of his store.

Each year a new sign followed. In 2022, there was Zechariah 13:2, “And the spirit of impurity I will cause to pass out of the land.” This year it’s a combination of Ezekiel 9:4 and Ezekiel 8:6, “that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof … even the great abominations that the house of Israel committeth here, that I should go far off from my sanctuary.”

The city has fined Goldis over $1,000 so far, and his protest has garnered some attention. He has been on television and his shop has been visited by Knesset members, who offered moral support.

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His attorney, Menashe Yardo, couches the issue as one of free speech, arguing that the LGBTQ flags offend his client’s religious sensibilities and that he has every right to protest. “The Ramat Gan municipality covers the city in hundreds of LGBTQ flags, naturally provoking the conservative religious public. At the same time, it doesn’t allow them to express an opposing position,” he told JNS.

Yardo also takes issue with the city’s methods, saying it’s cynically using a municipal bylaw to silence his client. The signage bylaw requires a permit for any new sign. He noted that his client even applied for a permit this year, but that the city didn’t provide it.

“Plurality of opinions is the cornerstone of the liberal and law-abiding society in the State of Israel,” Yardo said in a letter to the municipality last month. “Silencing opinions under the authority of a municipal bylaw is patently illegal.” He called on the mayor to stop fining his client, warning that they may seek compensation through the courts if the fines don’t cease.

Double standard

Yardo, who works for Honenu, a Zionist legal aid society, said that the group mostly focuses on helping represent Israelis who run into legal trouble in connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but for “the last few years, Honenu finds itself more involved in internal cultural issues, combating phenomena as in this case, where there’s an aggressive silencing of the Jewish voice in the public sphere.”

A double standard has existed for many years when it comes to the treatment of left- and right-wing protests in Israel, according to Yardo. He noted how the anti-judicial reform protests have successfully shut down major highways for half a year with little sign of enforcement, “but when the right wants to protest, then suddenly public order becomes sacrosanct. Every regulation is sacred, like with my client. The bylaws must be upheld. When the left protests, then it’s freedom of speech that’s sacred.”

Goldis, who is haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, agreed. “There is a real war on Judaism here, there is a silencing of voices.” He told JNS that his opposition to the LGBTQ flags mainly stems from his religious faith. “First of all, it’s because I am a Jew.”

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“The attitude of Jewish halachah [religious law] is certainly negative toward homosexuality. I think that to hang this flag in the State of Israel is disgraceful. I also don’t understand by what authority they put flags celebrating sexual deviance out on all the streets,” he said.

For Goldis, there’s no doubt that he’s being unfairly targeted by the city because of the intent of his signs. “They said there should be a connection between the contents of the sign and what’s in the store. Walk around Ramat Gan for a bit. You’ll see lots of signs that have nothing to do with the products the stores are selling. The city was just looking for a way to censure me,” he said.

Although the city ignored repeated requests from JNS for comment, (Goldis surmised that with elections coming up, city leaders are eager to avoid bad publicity), it has repeatedly denied that it is motivated by anything other than a desire to enforce its signage laws.

“It should be noted that all the claims in your letter are untrue and unfounded. The municipality of Ramat Gan enforces the municipal by-laws in order to maintain public order and the well-being of the city’s residents and outside considerations aren’t involved,” said the city in its June 22 reply to Goldis’ attorney, which was supplied to JNS.

‘Can they read my mind?’

However, in something of a contradiction, the city has made clear it disapproves of the nature of Goldis’ signs. Perhaps stung by negative publicity after Knesset members Orit Strock and Michal Waldiger of the Religious Zionism Party visited Goldis’ wine shop last year, the city responded that the motives behind the hanging of the signs “don’t align with the wonderful values of Judaism” and that Goldis was exploiting Jewish sources to “deepen hatred” and “gain publicity” in order to increase store sales. It described Goldis as a “contentious man” willing to lie and manipulate “time and time again.”

“How do they know? Can they read my mind?” Goldis asked JNS. “It’s chutzpah on their part to claim such a thing. My reasons are completely different. And sales have decreased for the last few years. People don’t want to enter a ‘war zone.’ There are problems now between me, the city and the gay population. They come in swearing. They spit.”

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In truth, there’s much more to Goldis than meets the eye, and little of it squares with the picture the city paints of him. For one thing, the wine store is a kind of hobby for Goldis. He’s actually a microbiologist specializing in fertility research.

And while he looks as if he’s to the religious manner born, he wasn’t always observant. He grew up in a “somewhat traditional” home, becoming a ba’al teshuvah, one who “returns” to his faith, when he was 35. He said no specific event prompted his decision to adopt Orthodox observance.

Amnon Levi, the host of a Channel 13 evening show covering current events, was surprised when he asked Goldis in 2020 why he opposed the gay flag. Goldis told him he objected to seeing it placed on an equal level with Israel’s state flag, for which men fought and died. (Goldis was referring to the fact that the LGBT flags generally flew on one side of lightposts running down the center of the city’s major streets. Israeli flags flew on the opposite side of the posts.)

It turns out Gordis is a war veteran, having served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces Golani Brigade. He was shot in the chest during the First Lebanon War. After emergency field surgery, he was evacuated to Haifa’s Rambam hospital.

Goldis shows no sign of giving in, and asked by JNS how he would like the clash to end, he said, “Next year, to see not a single one of those rainbow flags; that they’ll all be taken down. In their place, they can put up another flag with a Star of David, or an image of the menorah or the altar from the Temple, or a picture of a Torah scroll. Any of those would be fine. This is, after all, a Jewish state.”