In Jerusalem, gay pride is conservative too

Despite a history of violence against gay people by an ultra-orthodox Jewish man and threats issued by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, some 10,000 gay rights activists marched peacefully through the city, which hosts holy places of worship of all three Abrahamic faiths

June 05, 2023 03:46 pm | Updated 09:44 pm IST - Jerusalem

People take part in an annual LGBTQ Pride parade in Jerusalem, June 1, 2023.

People take part in an annual LGBTQ Pride parade in Jerusalem, June 1, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

A sigh of relief was released by Israeli Police’s top brass after the Gay Pride and Tolerance Parade in Jerusalem on June 1 ended without disturbances. Police estimated that roughly 10,000 people attended, with 2,000 Israel Police and Israel Border Police personal securing the event. Former Prime Minister and current leader of the Knesset opposition, Yair Lapid, and former IDF Chief-of-Staff, Benny Gantz, spoke briefly at the event. The U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, was in attendance as well.

The existence of Jerusalem parade is not to be taken for granted. The 2002 inception was contested by petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court demanding the court stop the parade, which was described as a desecration of Jerusalem, and an insult to the city’s residents, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian and to their co-religionists across the globe.

The residents of the city are largely religious, with the majority its 61% Jewish residents ranging from traditional Mizrahi (Oriental) Jews to Religious Zionists (Orthodox) to Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox). The 39% of Palestinian Arab residents are mostly religious Muslims, with a small Christian minority, and they are by large more culturally conservative than Jews.

At the 2015 Jerusalem parade, Yishai Shilsel, a Hareidi man who had just been released from a 10-month prison sentence for a stabbing attempt at the 2005 parade, stabbed a 15-year-old girl, Shira Banki, to death and wounded six others. He was subsequently fined for compensations and sentenced to life in prison.

‘The parade of perverts’

Prior to this year’s parade, Hamas issued a statement condemning “the parade of perverts”. Hamas spokesman, Abdel Latif Al-Qanua, stated: “The fascist forces of Occupation are organising a provocative parade in occupied Jerusalem on Thursday. We call on our Palestinian brethren in Jerusalem to put up resistance and protect the Arab and Islamic identity of Jerusalem and Masjid Al-Aqsa”.

A picket protest at the starting point of the march was organised by Lehava, the radical “Love Jihad” activist organisation led by Bentzi Gopstein (Leheva’s central focus is on stopping romantic relationships between young Jewish women and Arab men), in collaboration with Rabbi Tzvi Thau (85), the spiritual leader of the Noam fringe political party, who hold one seat in the Knesset and has under 20,000 supporters nationwide. The protest ran under the slogan “Jerusalem will not be Sodom” and was attended by merely 40 people.

MK (Member of Knesset) Itamar Ben-Gvir, the former far-right activist who is now the Minister of Interior Defense, in charge of the Israeli Police, is a neighbor and long-time friend of Mr. Gopstein. But even he, before assuming office, did not support Mr. Gopstein’s anti-LGBT activism.

Prior to Thursday’s parade, Mr. Ben-Gvir issued statements at two press conference with top police brass. “I was phoned by the mother of an LBGT youth. She asked me what will happen with her son at the parade now that I am Interior Defense Minister. I pinched myself and answered: Is it not crystal clear to you that it is my job to ensure that not a single hair of your son’s head will be harmed?”

“I may have a dispute about parading in Jerusalem, but I will never allow any crazy events such as the murder of Shira Banki, of blessed memory.”

The Jerusalem event is attended primarily by liberal and progressive Jerusalemites, from both the secular and Religious Zionist communities. The strategy of the ultra-orthodox Haredi community in combating the LGBT rights movement is to avoid any mention of the parade, especially after the Shira Banki murder by a Haredi man brought much unwanted publicity.

Palestinian LGBT activists do not attend the parade, which does not pass through any non-Jewish neighborhoods, and generally maintain a low profile. All Palestinian LGBT activists I approached declined to comment about LGBT rights in their communities, in Israel, under the Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, or under the Hamas rule in Gaza.

A stark contrast

The character of the Jerusalem parade stands in stark contrast to the central Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade, to be held on Thursday, June 8. While the latter is a flamboyant carnival modeled after its sexualised European inspirations, such an event would be a non-starter in Jerusalem.

At the Jerusalem parade, the fully clothed participants may carry LGBT flags and signs with religious quotations on the importance of love and tolerance and sing religious folk tunes. Few of them have any interest in the libertine Tel Aviv gay bar scene, and their foremost demand would usually be that their religious communities accept the legitimacy of their same-sex families. Israel is a highly family-oriented society, and the demand for a family is prevalent in the LGBT community even outside Jerusalem, a uniquely conservative twist acknowledged by Tel-Avivan leadership.

Tacit tolerance

Twenty years ago, acceptance of LGBT was all but unheard of in the religious community. And while no religious authority, Jewish or Muslim, who professes orthodoxy, can formally permit same sex relationships, a growing tacit tolerance has arisen in some circles. Various NGOs for religious Jewish LGBTs have opened, with some declaring themselves within orthodox boundaries and calling for parents not to shun LGBT children, while others openly call for unconditional acceptance of same sex couples.

The Israeli Ministry of Education has undertaken many educational initiatives, some consensual and some controversial, to ensure the accommodation of LGBT youth within the education system. Even so, these initiatives are largely resisted by Hareidi educators, and other conservative circles.

Palestinian society remains highly conservative on LGBT issues, and in some cases, youth who are discovered to be LGBT are in mortal dangers and must flee to safe-houses in Jewish cities, the locations of which are guarded secret.

Yeshaya Rosenman is the head of the South Asia Project at Sharaka NGO, Tel Aviv

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