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Will Israel's Gays march in the Holy City?

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Message Amir Tibon

Throughout its history, many special people have walked the streets of Jerusalem. In the year 30 A.D., after being condemned to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Jesus was forced to march along the route known today as the Via Dolorosa. In  the year 1517, Ottoman soldiers marched through the ancient walls of the city after occupying it. In 1967, Israeli soldiers entered the Old City, running down the historic alleys leading to the Western Wall. 

In the summer of 2007, however, the biggest question in Jerusalem is whether the gay and lesbian residents of Israel's capital city will be able to walk without fear through its main streets, protesting for equal rights. Last month, a coalition of civil rights organizations declared that they intend to hold a "Pride Parade" in Jerusalem, including an organized march through the city center, on June 21st . Religious Jewish and Muslim groups, in a very unusual display of cooperation, have promised to do "whatever it takes, including violence", to stop this event, which they refer to as "mass heresy".  

Gay Rights – not in the Holy City

 Israel claims to be the most liberal country in the Middle East, and at least on the issue of gay rights, this is true. Israel was the first country in the area to officially declare that homosexuality is not a crime. It was the first country to have an openly gay Member of Parliament, as well as the first to allow openly gay men and women to become officers in its military. In recent years, great progress has been achieved in the struggle to establish equal financial rights for gay couples. However, the country still does not recognize gay marriage, and in many segments of the population – especially among religious Jews and Muslims – homosexuals still live in fear and denial.  

Most Israeli gays live in Tel Aviv, the economic and cultural center of the country. The annual Tel Aviv pride parade is funded by the municipality, and attracts thousands of people every year, making it the biggest gay event in the Middle East. 

But when it comes to Jerusalem, the picture isn't so rosy. In a city holy to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – three religions in which most factions view homosexuality as a dangerous sin – a "pride parade" arouses frightening tensions. 

Two years ago, when the small but proud Jerusalem gay community marched through the secular neighborhoods of the city, a Jewish religious extremist ran into the crowd and stabbed three young marchers, causing them severe injury. Last year, when gay organizations announced their intention to march again, tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews started violent riots that lasted for weeks. The demonstrators blocked the main roads of the city, threw bricks at cars, and injured dozens of policemen, journalists, and innocent civilians. The police decided to cancel the event 

"A threat to freedom of speech" 

"This year, there is no way we are giving up the parade", says Noa Satat, chairwoman of the Jerusalem Open House, a major gay rights center. "The police provided us with official authorization to hold a pride parade on June 21st". Satat adds that "Last year, when the police asked us to give up the parade and settle for a small demonstration in a sports stadium outside the city center, we respected that request. Now it is time for the religious groups to show some respect for the law. That's in everyone's best interest".

 Eli Gabay, a member of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) from the religious party Mafdal, also believes that obeying the law is in everyone's best interest. And for that reason, last week he proposed a legislation that would allow the mayor of Jerusalem to cancel the pride parade. The current mayor is an ultra-orthodox Jew, and his objection to the pride parade is no secret. If the bill is approved by the Knesset, he will have a legal right to cancel the parade

Justice Minister Daniel Friedman has announced strong opposition to Gabay's proposal, and left-wing parliament members have called it "crazy and outrageous". But since the religious parties make up the majority in the Knesset, the bill was approved in the preliminary voting stage. Next week it will reach the final voting stage.  Noa Satat says that if such "anti-democratic" legislation is approved, it will only encourage more people to join the gay protest. "This bill threatens the right of freedom of speech. It is hard to believe that such a law has been proposed in a democratic country in the year 2007". 

"This Promiscuity Must be Stopped" 

In the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods of the city, preparations are being made for another round of clashes with the police. "We don't trust the Knesset or any other part of the secular state on this issue. We can only trust ourselves. This terrible promiscuity must be stopped", says Yehuda Menachem Yosef, 26, a resident of the ultra-orthodox Meah Shearim neighborhood. 

"I don't think opposing the gay event has anything to do with religious extremism", he adds. "This is a matter of showing respect for different beliefs. The gays have their own city, they can march and do other things as much as they like in Tel Aviv. But Jerusalem a holy, spiritual city for millions of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. This is a city of believers, not a city of hedonists, they should respect people and avoid this parade".

What would he be willing to do against the parade? "In general I'm against violence", he says, "but I know people are very angry, they don't want this social disease to have a bad influence on their children". 

Most Jewish, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders in the city have spoke out strongly against the parade. However, other voices, perhaps more reasonable, are also heard in this debate. For example, the voice of Rabbi Aric Ascherman, a reform rabbi and the founder of "Rabbis for Human Rights", a group of leftist rabbis from all over Israel.


"As rabbis, we have different opinions on the basic issue of same-sex relations", says Ascherman, "but we all agree on one thing: the hatred and incitement against the homosexual community is dangerous, anti-democratic, and has nothing to do with the spirit of Judaism".

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Amir Tibon lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, and works as a copy editor for Walla - a popular Israeli news website.

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