Last week, I walked through the streets of Jerusalem a cursed man. Solely due to my decision to attend Jerusalem's gay pride parade, I had become the target of a sort of witchcraft that I'd always assumed was inimical to Judaism. A group of rabbis from the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit sect issued a statement several days before the event addressed to the parade goers: "To all those involved, sinners in spirit, and whoever helps and protects them, may they feel a curse on their souls, may it plague them and may evil pursue them; they will not be requited of their transgressions from heavenly judgment." The day of the march, protesters lined the route, shouting "Go to a Shrink" and holding signs such as "Go Away. Your sickness should be healed, not flaunted." Earlier in the day, the police apprehended an Orthodox man carrying a pipe bomb.
Several weeks earlier in Tel Aviv, the coastal party spot and gay capital of the Middle East, the pride festivities included the floats, loud disco music, and scantily clad men that have become de rigueur for such events around the world. But here it was a muted affair. Only 2,500 people participated--a number dwarfed by the 7,500-man police and military security force lining the short, 500-meter length of the parade route. Snipers positioned themselves on rooftops, and helicopters buzzed overhead.
Such is the nature of holding a gay pride event in the holiest city in Judaism. The chief organizer of the march told me that while her organization "does not police the event, we ask the participants to come dressed." Volunteers passed out sheets of paper instructing parade-goers to be clothed, positive, and not hold signs offensive to "the religious. The respectful attitude of the marchers was not met in kind by their opponents, but, fortunately, none of the threatened violence occurred. Indeed, the very fact that this march took place is a tribute to the vitality and strength of Israeli democracy.
The day before the parade I met with Noa Sattath, executive director of Jerusalem Open House, an organization seeking to increase visibility of the city's gay community and which sponsors the march. On the landing outside her office, an observant Jewish man sat reading prayers quietly next to a wooden sign spray-painted with the word for "Enough!" in Hebrew ("Die!" transliterated into English). Sattath has received many death threats over the years; last year she had a personal bodyguard, an accoutrement she did not want to deal with this time around.
Between frequent interruptions on her cell phone (one informed her that New York Congressman Jerry Nadler endorsed the parade from afar) Sattath told me of the struggle it had been to mount this year's march. Two years ago, a crazed Orthodox Jew stabbed three parade participants, and last year, fearing similar violence, the Jerusalem police mandated that, instead of a parade, the pride event be held as a rally in an open-air stadium. The day before last year's rally, followers of the deceased ultra-right wing Rabbi Meir Kahane (whose political party, Kach, was declared racist by the Israeli government and banned in 1986) held a "Beast Parade"--comprised of goats and donkeys--while holding signs declaring "Enough Uncleanliness." Asked about this charming display, one of the organizers said of the animals: "They, alas, haven't committed any sin." This year, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski tried to obstruct the parade, calling it a "provocation." That gays are somehow responsible for the sort of violent homophobia witnessed at the 2005 parade is not altogether different from the argument that Jews are culpable for anti-Semitism, but this is a comparison lost on the religious Jews calling for hellfire and brimstone upon Jerusalem's "sodomites" who merely want their fellow citizens to recognize them as equals.
Unfortunately, it is not just the ultra-Orthodox community that has opposed gay pride events in Jersualem. Even liberal stalwart (and newly-elected President) Shimon Peres proved feckless; one of his spokesmen said last week that, "He has in the past publicly stated that Jerusalem is a city that is holy to three religions and that it has enough problems." Ha'aretz reported that Peres promised to oppose the parade in exchange for the votes of Knesset members belonging to religious parties. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has an openly gay daughter, also expressed opposition to holding a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, because of the city's "special sensitivity." Such a stance--having no problem with a gay pride march in principle but disapproving of it in Jerusalem--assumes that there is something morally wrong with homosexuality, and that such an event would tarnish the holiness of the ancient city.
Along the same lines, an Israeli parliamentarian sponsoring a bill that would have banned the parade complained that, "Jerusalem has a special status as the capital, and as an international city that is important to three religions. Some people...want to destabilize the relations between the communities instead of building a harmonious and peaceful life in the city." Yet, if anything, the annual gay pride parade has created an unlikely ecumenical alliance of fundamentalist Muslims, Christians, and Jews based on hatred toward gay people. Before last year's parade, for instance, Hebron Fatah activists Sheikh Abu Sneineh and Azmi Shiukhi declared that the rally would perpetrate a "moral massacre," against Jerusalem. Given the organizational affiliation of these men, they ought to have a better understanding of the word "massacre."
But in the end, the march took place, a victory in and of itself. Each and every person wishing to participate had to go through a security checkpoint and be screened. Opponents, in addition to harassing the marchers from behind the police barricades along the route, held a separate protest event on the other side of the city. And while I've often viewed the excesses (the go-go boys, the disco music, the lewd behavior) of gay pride parades in America with disdain, I've come to realize that's the luxury of living in a society where homosexuality is more accepted. Participating in the Jerusalem march--edging through the gauntlet of hecklers held back by soldiers bearing machine guns--carried a real feeling of societal accomplishment and provided a stark contrast to the silliness of most pride parades in America or Europe. The Jerusalem march, unlike those wild bacchanals elsewhere, was not a debauched celebration of gay life, but a mere statement that gay people exist and have to be reckoned with. For that reason alone, it was a momentous occasion in which to participate.
Supporters of the Jerusalem march constantly framed their arguments in the context of Israeli democracy. Hagai El-Ad (the founder of Magi, an acronym for "Israeli Gay Party," which he hopes will one day be represented in the Knesset) told me that the parade's "existence is a victory for freedom. Its existence proves that Israel is a democracy." In a region of the world where homosexuality can be met with state-sanctioned death, Jerusalem's sixth annual gay pride event is yet another testament to the freedom, openness, and diversity of the Jewish State.