Could Tension over Gay Pride Rally Put Homosexual Issues on Agenda?

Gay issues have never been at the forefront of Israeli domestic politics — unlike in the United States — but some wonder if that will change after fervently Orthodox protesters used violence to prevent a gay pride parade. Confrontations with police and threats of worse violence to come forced gay-rights advocates to downgrade last Friday’s event from a parade through the city center to a rally, in a cordoned-off stadium on the edges of the capital.

“In the past two weeks, people are talking about the issue as part of a conservative agenda, where before it was never an issue,” said Eran Hertzmann, 34, a high-tech worker from Tel Aviv who attended the rally with his partner, Uri Eik, 37.

The two belong to an organization called Hoshen that tries to educate the general public about Israel’s gay community.

“The idea is to destroy the stigma and show we are all simply people,” Hertzmann said.

Noa Sattath, director of Jerusalem Open House, a group for gays and lesbians that helped organize the rally, said the violence surrounding it did not bode well for social change.

“The fact that people think they can act violently and trample on the rights of a minority,” she said, “is a distressful sign.”

Religious leaders claim gay activists caused the problem by not being sensitive to their concerns. Still, the violence and public statements by Muslim, Jewish and Christian clerics against the event stood in marked contrast to the general Israeli openness toward gay society.

Israel’s army has a more liberal approach to homosexuals than the U.S. military, accepting openly gay soldiers as opposed to the Americans’ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Israeli gay couples are also allowed certain types of legal recognition.

“Still, there’s a lot of work that has to be done with society at large in order to be accepted,” said Rommy Hassman, a leading Israeli gay-rights activist.

In secular Tel Aviv, gay life flourishes. But as one ventures from the center of the country, the acceptance level tends to drop off.

That became apparent in the run-up to last Friday’s event.

The past week saw several long nights of rioting by fervently Orthodox youth in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood. Throwing stones and burning trash cans, they faced off against police to demonstrate their opposition to an open gathering of homosexuals in the city center.

Even the Vatican got involved, calling on the Israeli government to cancel the event, saying it would be offensive to all religions, given the sacred nature of Jerusalem.

The Supreme Court ruled the event should be allowed to take place. In the end, however, the street violence and threat of more to come, coupled with a heightened security alert following the deaths of 19 Palestinian civilians in Gaza from errant Israeli shelling, led to a compromise deal between gay activists and fervently Orthodox leaders to hold a rally rather than a parade, and not in downtown Jerusalem but in a Hebrew University stadium.

There were roughly as many police — about 3,000 — protecting the event as there were participants. Participants were searched for weapons before being allowed inside.

As part of the compromise struck between the two groups, there were no fervently Orthodox protests at the rally. The event went off without serious incident, but police did detain five religious men found at a Jerusalem park with clubs, knives and a gun.

The rally turned into a demonstration for democracy as much as for gay rights. Many heterosexuals at the rally said the violent opposition had galvanized them to come.

“When I saw where the violence could lead, I felt it was my obligation to be here,” said Dvora Jacobi, 63, a chemist from Rehovot.

“Today the police carried out one of the most important tasks in history by protecting you. Over the past several days, there was wild incitement against you, which does not reflect the position of most of the citizens of Israel,” Sami Michael, director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said at the rally.

“Let us be free in our own country,” a young Israeli man wrapped in a rainbow flag roared out to the cheering crowd.

The young man was Adam Russo, one of the three people stabbed at last year’s gay pride march in the capital.

Until last year, gay pride marches in Jerusalem, generally small events, took place quietly and without major protests. But the idea of a gathering came under scrutiny last summer when an international gay festival was planned for Jerusalem, a move fiercely opposed by religious groups in the city.

That festival ultimately was canceled because of societal tension caused by the simultaneous Gaza Strip withdrawal, and after Israeli police said they would not be able to secure the parade and possible fallout from the withdrawal at the same time.

A local march was held instead, where Russo and two other marchers were stabbed by an Orthodox protester.

Hassman, the gay-rights advovcate, said the intense reaction by Jerusalem’s fervently Orthodox snowballed after the attention on last year’s planned international event.

“Jerusalem is becoming more and more Orthodox and religious and I think political leaders were looking for trouble. The easiest way to arouse a public is to find an enemy,” he said. This time the enemy was the gay community.

Nightly television footage of Jerusalem streets blazing and clashes with the police did not reflect well on the fervently Orthodox, he said.

“Now they look like the bad guys, and the gays look like the good guys,” he said.

Among those at the rally who said the government should have spoken out against the violent demonstrations was Dana Olmert, daughter of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert, a lesbian who lives with her partner in Tel Aviv, was especially incensed by comments from Eli Yishai, a Cabinet minister from the Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party, who condemned the gathering and compared the gay community to the biblical residents of Sodom and Gemorrah, who were destroyed for their iniquity.

“I wish someone in the government had answered back to him,” she told Israel’s Channel 10 television.

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