Jerusalem World-Pride organizers didn’t have much of a choice. When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the revised dates for the withdrawal of Israeli settlements in Gaza, organizers promptly postponed the event.
“Tolerance, pluralism and equality are WorldPride’s guiding principles. Holding WorldPride during the Gaza pullout would do injustice to those values,” Jerusalem Open House (JOH) chairperson Noa Sattath stated in the May 14 announcement. “We have taken this decision out of consideration to the most difficult political climate expected in Israel this August.”
Though Sharon was likely unaware of it, when he postponed the date for the pullout to Aug 16, it caused a scheduling problem for Jerusalem WorldPride, originally slated for Aug 18 to 28. It will now take place Aug 6 to 12, 2006. The change meant huge costs for organizers and visitors who planned to attend the celebrations, which was scheduled for the height of the tourist season.
The postponement indicates the complexity of planning a massive Pride event in a country with as tumultuous a political climate as Israel’s, not to mention a city as divided as Jerusalem. The city is one of the most contested points in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with both factions claiming ownership. It has consistently been a stumbling block in sensitive negotiations over where a border between Israel and a proposed state of Palestine would begin and end.
This is precisely the reason their city is a fitting spot to hold a queer Pride event, say organizers.
“Jerusalem is holy to three of the world’s major religions,” says JOH board member Michal Hamo. “Whether you are religious, secular or somewhere in between, Jerusalem has a feeling that is unlike anywhere else in the world. So it offers a unique setting.
“Holding WorldPride [in Jerusalem] will highlight the inclusivity of the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer] population and assert that love and human rights transcend cultural and ethnic boundaries. The WorldPride message of ‘Love without borders’ has special significance in an area that has been witness to so much conflict.”
Though Tel Aviv has a gay district as well as bars and clubs that cater to queers, Jerusalem is far more conservative, with one gay bar in the entire city. Which prompts the question: on the eve of such a hotly-contested moment in Israeli history, in such a conservative city as Jerusalem, are WorldPride organizers concerned that having a queer event could do more harm than good?
“JOH has been serving the LGBTQ community for seven years,” Hamo says. “Based on this experience, we’ve learned that almost everything we do can be labelled controversial, that nothing can be taken for granted.
“Take, for example, the first Pride march we held in 2002. Some voices within the community expressed fears that the march may result in a backlash reaction from the general population, that Jerusalem isn’t ready yet and won’t accept such public visibility of the LGBTQ community. But the 2002 Pride went safely and was a huge success. As a social change organization, we work to make Jerusalem and our area a better place. This can only be achieved through groundbreaking work and through visibility.”
Organizers point out that the first WorldPride event, held in 2000, was considered controversial as well. The celebration was held in Rome and was accompanied by loud proclamations of protest from the Vatican.
Ironically enough, the announcement of WorldPride in Jerusalem did manage to unite the Jerusalem’s three main religions – but not in the way organizers had hoped. In March, conservative clerics and rabbis representing Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths held a press conference to denounce the event and ask the Israeli government to shut it down. Thus the three faiths, so often in conflict, were united in opposition to increasing queer visibility.
“We have enough tensions in our small country,” rabbi Yona Metzger told the Chicago Tribune. “Adding tension to tension and creating a new provocation will inflame all the religions of the world…. We call on the organizers: Please, do not harm the sanctity of Jerusalem. Preserve its character, its peace, its brotherhood… and cancel your plans.”
Despite resistance, organizers point to the support from other religious groups at home and abroad, including progressive rabbis and the Metropolitan Community Church. “It’s a strange combination,” says JOH Palestinian outreach coordinator Haneen Maikey. “But they were only a few [opponents], and we expect to have thousands in support of the event.”
Hamo agrees. “Such challenges only highlight how important it is to bring WorldPride to Jerusalem, in order to fight bigotry and hatred and to promote tolerance and pluralism. This only makes us even more dedicated and motivated in our work toward this goal.”