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8 min

World Pride in Israel

Queer people meet in the shadow of a growing conflict

UNDETERRED: Adam Russo (left) with fellow marcher Sarah Billauer. Russo was stabbed while marching in last year's Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Credit: Michael Luongo

According to Hagai El-Ad, executive director of Jerusalem Open House, World Pride was intended to counteract “incitement against gays and lesbians” by conservative branches of Jerusalem’s three main religions. Despite the protests of religious right wingers and a war only 80 km away, El-Ad and the rest of the Jerusalem Open House organizers somehow managed to bring people together for a global pride celebration.

When I first arrived in Jerusalem, Haneen Maikey, the Palestinian coordinator for Jerusalem Open House, recommended I visit Shushan, the local gay bar. Here, at least superficially, Jews and Palestinians seemed to get along.

There was even a Hasidic Jew the night I went, hiding in a corner, still wearing his heavy black clothes and hat, his curls dangling from his temples. A drag queen shook her breasts in front of him, but he simply ignored her. After this interesting sight, my attention focused on a group of young men dancing on a small platform. They weren’t professional dancers; they just liked to perform when a good diva song came on. One man was especially full of life, and when I got the chance to talk to him, I was surprised by who he was.

It was Adam Russo, who was stabbed during last year’s Jerusalem Pride March. He had come close to death, and he told me he thought canceling the parade this year was a good idea.

“We don’t want to commit political suicide,” he said. “People will use it against us. It will set us back. They think we want to have a party during the war, when it is not a party.”

I was surprised to accidentally meet someone nearly martyred in a city with such a rich history of martyrdom. “I wish the circumstances were different and not just because of the parade,” he said. To him, the forces working against gays in Jerusalem are akin to greater forces in the Middle East.

“Just like Hamas and Hezbollah, it’s religious terrorism,” Russo said of Jerusalem’s religious orthodox powers. “It’s terrorism against our freedom here.”

Russo is only 19, yet he’s intelligent and outspoken. I wondered if it were circumstances that drove him to be this way, or if he is simply a particularly strong individual. For whatever reason, he was singled out and stabbed by an Orthodox maniac, and that gave his words even more credence.

I would continue to run into Russo at events all over Jerusalem during the week, and he would be the same, a mix of youthful hope and heavy commentary.

Held Aug 6-12, Jerusalem’s was the second World Pride ever. The first was in Rome in 2000 during the Catholic Jubilee, put on by Italian gay rights group Mario Mieli along with InterPride, an international consortium of gay pride organizers. It challenged Pope John Paul II’s views on homosexuality as millions of Christian pilgrims visited Rome. The main event, with a few hundred thousand participants, was a march through Rome, along an ancient imperial path.

Here in Jerusalem, a similar march was to be the key event, to take place on Aug 10. But because of the war, Jerusalem’s government cancelled it, saying there were not enough soldiers to protect marchers. This was no meaningless claim considering the attack against Russo last year. The night before, El-Ad warned he “could not guarantee the safety” of rally goers.

There was a palpable tension in the air that Thursday. Young people from Jerusalem and day-trippers from Tel Aviv, about an hour away, had already begun to gather in Liberty Bell Park, the event’s location, by the time I got there, about 20 minutes early.

El-Ad and the rest of the staff of Jerusalem Open House were chatting with a few of the nearly 400 police in the park. Noa Sattath, one of the board members, mentioned to me, “When we say ‘last minute’ in Israel, we really mean last minute.” They were still negotiating with the police, even if it seemed all had been said and done beforehand.

From what I observed, at least four soldiers were on horseback, waiting virtually hidden on the edges of the park in a grove of olive trees. This all might have seemed ominous, but as I passed through the crowd, I overheard Associate Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest GLBT synagogue, telling the 35 members of her congregation who came that police were “here for your protection” because of the ultra-Orthodox religious right. Yet overall, at this early stage, the mood was peaceful and joyous.

The police had little to do at first, since only a handful of the religious right showed up. One was a babushka-wearing old woman who ran screaming in Hebrew at the crowd until she was taken away.

Though he refused to give his name to me, I recognized ultra-Orthodox New York Rabbi Yehuda Levin who has been trying to stop World Pride from happening. He was accompanied by Jerusalem City Councilwoman Mina Fenton, a longtime opponent of the event. She called World Pride, “disgusting in wartime,” when “our sons are giving their lives and blood is pouring in the north.” As the event comes a few days after the Jewish holiday of Tish’ah b’Av, which mourns the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in ancient times, Fenton declared that “God is going to take vengeance,” and that Jerusalem would “be destroyed again.” She said a lot more than that, ironically using terminology dehumanizing to gays and lesbians in a manner similar to what the Nazis had used to disparage Jews before the modern state of Israel was created.

The pair was virtually unnoticed by the rest of the crowd. Some people held a large pink banner on a nearby hilltop which read, “Jerusalem is for all.” It was a beautiful sight, not just because of the words, but because the words on the banner were so appropriate to the setting. The church steeples of Mount Zion in Jerusalem’s Old City, lit gold by the late afternoon sun, pierced the brilliant sky over the banner holders’ heads.

Members of LGBT synagogues and churches from around the world unfurled their own banners, as the flags of Israel, other nations and rainbow flags flew behind them. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, also of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, commented “I think this is going to be a statement that Jerusalem belongs to all of us,” adding, “we think our presence makes the city even more holy.”

But then the mood changed drastically. Several groups inserted themselves into the event, including Tel Aviv-based Queeruption, which was against World Pride and had held a counter-conference the whole week. They held a few small plaques with messages about the war in Lebanon and the occupation, some with pictures of dead babies, and were joined by other groups like Red-Pink, a gay communist organization. One of these demonstrators wore a rainbow-coloured sign in English, Arabic and Hebrew, like a gay Rosetta Stone. It declared that gays want to come out of the closet, not come home in coffins. Someone explained to me it was a play on the Hebrew word “aron” which means both closet and coffin.

Eventually, the anti-war groups became extremely provocative, attracting the attention of both police and the media. Some of the protestor’s chants were funny; “One-two-three-four, we’re against the war, five-six-seven-eight sodomy is great.” As a few World Pride leaders pleaded with them to be respectful of the event’s main purpose and stay within the zones of the park already agreed to with the city, the police rushed in.

The police could not rightly be described as violent, but certainly some from the group of protestors were slightly injured. Others played to the cameras, staging fake deaths in 1960’s Kent State style. I climbed a tree to get a better view of the commotion and now I bear the scrapes from the olive tree branches.

Eventually, “somewhere between two and four” people were arrested, according to unofficial estimates the police gave me. I was so engrossed in the action I hadn’t realized that the peaceful Jerusalem Open House contingent, numbering about 500, had left so as not to be drawn into the chaos. But it didn’t seem to matter. Some of the locals who spoke Hebrew told me that since the anti-war agitators were themselves rainbow flag carrying homos, the police made no distinction.

Later that night, during a concert of local pop stars that was part of the World Pride program, El-Ad and I had a conversation about the rally.

“There are many people here with many different messages,” he told me. “When activists are facing a situation as complex as the one we are facing, then the diversity of voices is both natural and wonderful. At the same time, World Pride and the specific events have specific messages.” He added that the vigil was originally intended to go “against months of incitement with the forces of religion.” He was outwardly happy, World Pride in general was going well, but this was a terrible glitch. It also was, unfortunately, just about the only event to which local Israeli media paid any attention.

All seemed forgotten the next day during the religious close, a Shabbat ceremony overseen by Rabbis Kleinbaum and Cohen. Over 200 people gathered on the rooftop of the Hebrew Union College overlooking the Old City as the sun set over Jerusalem, casting a golden glow to the walls and towers behind the rabbis. Rabbi Kleinbaum spoke of the war, wishing peace “within this city, for all of its residents; for this country, for all of its citizens; within this region, for all of its neighbors; and for all of the world.”

Without the war, World Pride would have been larger, with 20,000 to 40,000 expected. Most daytime events were heavy on religion and politics and numbered only a few hundred attendees. While people came from every inhabited continent, the majority were American and Canadian Jews and local Israelis. Art shows, film festivals, and club events with Israeli and international drag stars added an exciting touch to each evening, bringing out the local gays who had no interest in the daytime’s heavier topics. El-Ad put total numbers of attendees throughout the week at “some thousands.”

War was a constant topic of conversation and was also why there were almost no Muslim voices, save for those with Canadian accents like Irshad Manji, the author of the controversial book, The Trouble With Islam.

Fatima Amarshi, a Canadian of Muslim heritage who is the executive director of Pride Toronto was also there. She said it was tough to come to Israel given the war, but that she was “here to support a sister queer community. We would not boycott parades in New York, or parades in San Francisco because we did not like the politics of Bush.”

In her view, Jerusalem Open House also addressed issues beyond simply gay and lesbian ones, such as the protest against the Barrier Wall that keeps Palestinians out of Jerusalem. Including broader human rights issues in the programming was necessary, she said, because Jerusalem is a “complex city of politics, not always easy to digest.”

But that night during the Shabbat ceremony, peace seemed at hand. Once the sun set, everyone passed into the open patio overlooking the now floodlit Old City for wine and conversation.

Aviva Lazar, the vice president of the Vancouver Pride Society was among those in the crowd and she offered me her reflections.

“I am glad that I came. It’s quite moving. Being so spoiled in Vancouver, it’s an eye opener, for one, how good we have it,” she said.

Lazar was with Karen Tulchinsky, a Vancouver writer who read in Jerusalem’s gay-friendly cafĂ© Tmol Shilshom from her book, The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky, about Russian Jews in Toronto. This was Lazar’s fourth time to Israel, but she said “I was not here as a queer the other times.”

While Israel has various gay rights laws, Jerusalem’s atmosphere differs from that of Tel Aviv. Lazar said, “I forget to be cautious. I forget people look at me. I forget where I am and that it might not be safe. I haven’t felt threatened, but it’s always in the back of my mind.”

Lazar wore a rainbow yarmulke knitted by her cousin especially for this trip. Technically, it’s for men not women, so it’s a bit of drag. “I just wear them because I like them. And I’m butch,” she said. Lazar’s attitude reflected some of the ideas coming out of Jerusalem’s World Pride, which examined religious dogma with an eye to repurposing it for a modern, gayer world.

Only time will tell what the future will hold for Jerusalem, but El-Ad feels that World Pride at least “has planted a seed.” Anyone who reads The Bible, Torah, or Koran knows that events over time in this holy, eternal city have changed the world.

The new Gospel of Jerusalem’s World Pride still waits to be written.