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Showdown Looms in Jerusalem As Critics Blast Gay-pride Demonstration

August 10, 2006
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While Israel is gearing up for a wider military offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon, another battle is coming to a head between gay-pride activists and their opponents in Jerusalem. Organizers of WorldPride 2006, an international gay pride event being held this week in Jerusalem, say they’ll protest hatred against their community Thursday near Liberty Bell Park in downtown Jerusalem, despite being denied a permit by police.

In July, Jerusalem Open House organizers delayed a controversial parade in the streets of Jerusalem — the original centerpiece of the WorldPride week — largely due to the political and regional turmoil that has consumed Israel in recent weeks.

Organizers say they’ll reschedule the parade once Israel’s war with Hezbollah ends, but in the meantime have chosen to hold a protest in the parade’s place.

"It’s a protest against hatred, a quiet, peaceful protest against ongoing violence and incitement against our community," said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of Jerusalem Open House, a center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that has organized the weeklong WorldPride event.

It’s "expressing our voice in a democratic way, publicly in Jerusalem for human rights, tolerance and equality," he said, "a voice that should be echoing in Jerusalem these days."

Jerusalem District Police officials say they refused to allow the protest after organizers could not guarantee control of the crowd or that participants would not block traffic.

Organizers could not say how many people would participate in the event, estimating 1,000 to 10,000 people, a police spokeswoman said.

"The police are dedicated to its obligation to preserve freedom of expression and, on the other hand, its right according to the law to make conditions to prevent a severe violation of public order, which could happen at this event," a press release on the district’s Web site stated.

If the protest takes place without permission, police would weigh their actions and steps, the spokeswoman said. She declined to elaborate.

Opponents, who worked hard to try to prevent the parade from taking place in Jerusalem, said they were offended that a protest was scheduled and said the Orthodox Jewish community would not let it go down without a massive counterdemonstration.

"This is the defining moment, the shot heard around the world, whether Israel will be the Holy Land or the homo-land," said Rabbi Yehuda Levin of Brooklyn, who spearheaded opposition to the parade and represents more than 1,000 rabbis from the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada and the Rabbinical Alliance of America. "We can’t just turn our cheek to homosexual militancy," he said. "This will be the battle of Lexington and Concord in the struggle for morality and decency."

Levin said he feared the protest would become a de facto march since WorldPride participants likely would walk to the site from their hotel. Holding the protest after the parade was called off, and against the wishes of police and what he described as a majority of Jerusalem’s population, is very deceptive, he said.

El-Ad, who estimated that roughly 1,000 participants would attend Thursday’s protest, said they have a legal right to hold a peaceful protest and said he wasn’t aware of any plans for counterprotests.

"It’s a protest against hatred," he said. "Who would want to protest for hatred?"

Meanwhile on Wednesday, a few hundred participants from around the world attended the Jerusalem WorldPride Multifaith Convocation, entitled, "Reclaiming Our Faith and Our Heritage."

In a keynote speech, Chai Feldblum, director of the Federal Legislation Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, argued that "gay is good" and suggested that engaging in a moral debate about sexual orientation in the political realm could help achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.

Until gay sex is seen as morally equivalent to straight sex, "there’s going to be an inherent limitation in terms of how much equality you are going to get," said Feldblum, who launched the Moral Values Project two years ago.

Conservatives have managed to equate moral values with conservative values in the political arena. While critics are contesting conservative conceptions of what is moral in terms of sexuality, that discourse has yet to move to the political realm, she said.

Rabbi Camille Shira Angel of San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav was one of many American rabbis that traveled to Israel for WorldPride 2006.

"There are so many feelings — to be here in a time of war, to be able to stand in solidarity with Israel, to have brought 19 Sha’ar Zahavniks to deepen their relationship with Israel — fills me with great joy and pride," Angel said.

While this is a time of fear, it also is a time to work for peace and justice for all people and to overcome the fear, threats and incitement that have come from some in the fervently Orthodox community, Angel said.

As a conference speaker mentioned, it’s easier to be pro-Palestinian today than to be pro-gay, Angel said.

"Why are we more frightening to people’s sense of well-being than terrorists?" she asked.

First celebrated in Rome in 2000, the WorldPride event initially was scheduled for last summer in Jerusalem, but was postponed because of the Gaza withdrawal last August.

Jerusalem did host a local gay-pride march in June 2005 that organizers said attracted about 10,000 people from around the country. Three participants were stabbed by a fervently Orthodox man, who received a 12-year prison sentence.

Last month, a small number of anonymous fliers were found in the fervently Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood, offering a reward of some $4,500 to kill a homosexual.

So far, WorldPride 2006, in which "many thousands" of people from all backgrounds and faiths are expected to participate in a series of events through Saturday, is going very well, El-Ad said.

"I think it’s a very powerful experience for all taking part in this groundbreaking week in Jerusalem," he said. "The seeds that we have planted this week in Jerusalem will bring many fruitful initiatives to our community." ?

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