For Jerusalem LGBTs, Hope Alongside The Fear


Jerusalem — A week after an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six participants in Jerusalem’s July 30 Gay Pride march, Klil Halevy, a 17-year-old Jerusalemite, was still reeling from the tragedy.

“We saw everything,” said Halevy, who describes herself as “pan-sexual.” She and several high school friends attended a memorial vigil Sunday night in Zion Square for Shiri Banki, the 16-year-old teen stabbed to death by Yishai Schlissel, the same ultra-Orthodox man who stabbed participants in the 2005 Jerusalem Gay Pride march.

“We saw five of the six people who were stabbed,” at the bottom of Ben Yehuda Street, where police had set up metal barriers meant to provide a layer of security, Halevy said. “We saw Shira’s blood gushing. We saw two guys jump the killer. I froze.”

Halevy said she now fears being near men with beards — Schlissel, who was transferred to a psychiatric institution this week, is bearded — “which is pretty difficult since I work at the zoo which is filled with religious families with beards. Nice religious families, but I’m scared.”

The teen, who sports several piercings, said she’s “terrified” to show any affection to her girlfriend in public places. Nor does she feel safe enough to venture out into the streets of Jerusalem again dressed as a male, as she did, for the very first time, during the march.

Members of Jerusalem’s LGBT community say the stabbings drove home what they have always felt: that many of the city’s residents are hostile to them and their lifestyle. It’s what makes living a gay life in Jerusalem far different from living one in Tel Aviv, which is seen as far more tolerant towards the LGBT community.

A Hebrew-language video that’s been making the rounds on social media since the murder appears to bear this out.

In the video, the camera follows two man dressed in tank tops walking hand-in-hand through the most popular streets of downtown Jerusalem. Along the way dozens of people turn and stare, and several male onlookers shout “Homo” and curse at the couple.

The video is reminiscent of a French video that was viewed widely in which a journalist posing as a religious French Jew experiences anti-Semitism on the streets of France. The gay couple in Jerusalem experience much more verbal abuse than the Frenchman.

Since the stabbings, the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance has gone into overdrive to meet the needs of the city’s LGBT community, said Open House spokesman Tom Kening.

“What happened in Jerusalem hit a nerve and exposed a lot of the anger, pain and fear that was always there but which we had become a bit complacent about,” Kening said.

Looking back over the past decade “we realized not much has changed. There is still incitement, still delegitimization of our community. There’s a very mainstream — not just ultra-Orthodox — perception in Israeli society that there shouldn’t be an LGBT community in Jerusalem, and if there is one, we should keep our heads down and not be public about it. This feeling has seeped into society, and some suggestive people act on it.”

Kening said LGBT Jerusalemites have experienced a wide range of reactions to the attacks.

“There’s been a lot of communal mourning, spontaneous protests. There was a big rally at Zion Square Saturday night and a vigil there on Sunday.”

The Open House has become a focal point for community members trying to process what happened and organize a response. Since the attack, the grassroots community center has been open nearly around the clock to provide counseling and serve as a refuge.

The administrators decided to temporarily close the center’s HIV clinic to free up psychologists, social workers and volunteers to help community members, many of them teens, traumatized by the stabbings. They recruited additional volunteers, from mental health professionals to community activists, via Facebook.

“We’ve all been in crisis mode, working 20-hour days,” Kening acknowledged.

Kening said representatives of the Jerusalem Municipality reached out to the Open House immediately after the attack, but whether the municipality will heed requests from the LGBT community remains a question mark.

“The municipality promised to meet our needs and we’ve had some discussions” about how to make Jerusalem a more welcoming place for LGBTs, the spokesman said, declining to elaborate. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

The LGBT community has always had a “very complex relationship” with the municipality, he said.

“In recent years it has become more cooperative, but they have never really wanted us to participate in cultural events or other things the city organizes,” he said.

The municipality displayed “a lack of sensitivity” by holding a previously scheduled street party right under the windows of the Open House the day after the stabbings, he added.

“Our community center was full of traumatized kids who’d spent the night on our couches. Then [the municipality] posted a video online showing how Jerusalem was celebrating.”

While the LGBT community didn’t expect the city to stop functioning during the past week, it would have appreciated a reference to the attack on the municipality’s web page and on Facebook, Kening said.

Mayor Nir Barkat condemned the stabbings and said, “We will continue to support all groups and communities in Jerusalem and won’t be deterred by those who try perverse ways to prevent this. Clearly something went wrong here. The police will have to look into this deeply.”

The municipality’s spokesman’s office told The Jewish Week “the Jerusalem Municipality embraces the Open House at this difficult time” and has scheduled a meeting under the authority of the municipality’s head.

“The municipality provides financial support for the Open House each year, according to set and transparent criteria and activities, as it does for other groups which meet the criteria. The mayor’s door is always open for The Open House. There have been a number of meetings in the past and there will be more after he returns from abroad to give aid to the community as needed.”

Jerusalem’s LGBT community members hope some good will emerge from the tragedy.

One positive outcome has been the self-reflection expressed by some Orthodox Jews, including rabbis who visited hospitalized victims.

Last week about 30 young adults, some ultra-Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem, some members of the LGBT community, met in the city center to discuss the tragedy and get to know one another.

During the encounter, which was organized by the Gesher and Chavura Tziburit organizations, a teenage girl from the LGBT community told the group she is experiencing “lots of fear and anger, but I came to try to listen and let it go,” according to Eytan Morgenstern, Gesher’s communications officer.

“One of the young ultra-Orthodox men who came opened up by saying, ‘I don’t feel the need to apologize, I don’t feel that the murder represents me in any way. But just as in the Torah it says that when a murdered person is found between cities, the closest one must take responsibility — so, too, I came here,” Morgenstern said.

“We understand it takes time for attitudes to change, and we think this might be the catalyst,” Kening said, noting that the municipality is now considering whether to introduce an LGBT tolerance educational program adapted by religious LGBT activists.

“There are reasons to be optimistic,” he said.