A curse on difference: gays vs zealots in Israel

Jan McGirk
17 November 2006

After a week of death threats against Israel's homosexuals, law-enforcement officials were braced for pitched battles on Jerusalem's streets on 10 November 2006, but a last-minute compromise between ultra-orthodox rabbis and the lively Israeli gay community stopped the blood from flowing. A public gay-pride march was called off and participants were shifted to a closed venue on the city's outskirts.

The 3,000 police guards ringing the Givat Ram sports stadium (part of Hebrew University) almost outnumbered the audience attending the gay rally inside. Nearly half the crowd was comprised of heterosexual Jews enjoying a free hip-hop concert performed by Snake Fish while they boogied in solidarity with beleaguered gay-rights activists.

A couple of drag queens hosted the event after attempting a short sprint in stilettos on the athletic track. Under the autumn sunshine, in a half-empty stadium, the partying seemed a bit strained until a lone fanatic rushed the stage to place a yarmulke on the head of a drag queen belting out a gay ballad. A security guard yanked him off unceremoniously by the seat of his pants, and the show went on.

Jan McGirk is a journalist based in Jerusalem. She was formerly southeast Asia correspondent for the Independent

Jan McGirk wrote nine articles on Thai politics, Kashmir and the Indian Ocean tsunami between April 2005 and June 2006. More recently, she has reported from Israel:

"Israelity check"
(31 July 2006)

"A blow to Israel's heart" (16 August 2006)

"Christians and Zionists: apocalypse row in Jerusalem"
(13 October 2006)

This year's rainbow rally had become the focus of much righteous ire. Israeli media fizzed for weeks with news of the country's sixth annual gay-pride march, when homosexuals would be permitted to strut through central Jerusalem regardless of pious objections to such a rowdy display. Some 12,000 security troops were duly placed on standby.

The rally came two days after nineteen Palestinian civilians were killed in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun by a dozen shells fired by the Israeli Defence Forces. In the aftermath, Jerusalem's police were taxed to cope with eighty separate intelligence warnings about possible attacks on Israeli targets. The security at the relocated rally ensured that a clash between gay pride and religious revulsion was averted.

Officers did stop five Jewish men armed with brass knuckles and knives as they approached about thirty gay activists in Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park on the morning of the rally. Noam Federman, an anti-gay agitator, bellowed warnings against touching these homosexuals and risking Aids. Meanwhile, a Palestinian-American from Chicago was beaten, then shoved down a flight of stairs at his east Jerusalem hostel and left unconscious. The attacker claimed his brutality was sanctioned by the Waqf (Muslim religious authority).

An army surveillance blimp and security helicopter hovered over the city for hours on Friday until the rally ended. No Palestinian was allowed to enter Jerusalem except those with residence permits for the east of the city, so participation in the rally was tacitly restricted to Israeli Jews and a few Christians.

A common cause

Israel has long been hailed as the most gay-tolerant society in the middle east. In fact, gay rights is one of the few common causes that some Israelis and Palestinians can share. But tension between religion and secularism is growing inside Israel, where the tourism board has openly courted the "lavender shekel" by marketing Tel Aviv's gay clubs and spas.

In an ironic counterpunch, intolerance of homosexuality anywhere near the sacred precincts of Jerusalem has been the only thing on which feuding fundamentalists from Judaic, Christian, and Islamic faiths could all agree. Even the Vatican weighed in, ordering its envoy in Israel to request a ban on the march because it would "be offensive" to believers of these three faiths.

In 2005, an ultra-Orthodox zealot ran amok and stabbed three gay marchers under a hail of excrement, stink-bombs and rotten vegetables tossed on the parade route from rooftops and balconies. In the days leading up to the 2006 event, the rhetoric grew more heated than ever.

"Stop the Sodomites. It's an abomination," read hand-lettered posters. Blazing tyres and garbage fires blackened the sky. Rioting was routine in the ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, where local youths in curly forelocks hurled eggs and stones at police and passing cars, and more than 100 arrests were made.

An anonymous group of Jewish extremists pasted up signs that announced a 2,000-shekel bounty for each gay man or woman killed on the day of the rally. Ultra-orthodox rabbis threatened to amass more than 100,000 protesters and bring Jerusalem to a standstill (ultra-religious Jews now make up about half of the Jewish population of Jerusalem). Police issued advisories that some protesters had booby-trapped apples with razor-blades and would hurl these weaponised fruit at the marchers.

A conservative Muslim imam called his followers to demonstrate inside the ancient walled city in order to divert policemen, who would otherwise be protecting the march from gay-bashers. "Not only should these homosexuals be banned from holding their parade," said Sheikh Ibrahim Hassan, who is based at a mosque near Damascus Gate, "but they should be punished and sent to an isolated place."

The controversial Rabbi Eldad Shmueli contended that a "divine hand" had halted the hedonism by causing Israeli shells to go astray in Gaza, and stirring up fears of Palestinian vengeance attacks in the capital. A similar scenario had transpired in August. "When they wanted to hold this international abomination parade last summer, the war in Lebanon came along to stop them," the rabbi said. "And now again, they were about to hold it - and suddenly comes this event in Beit Hanoun ..."

One devout band of Jewish protesters herded dogs, goats and donkeys through the city centre on the eve of the parade, and quoted scripture from the Old Testament that condemned homosexuality and bestiality in subsequent verses.

The gay onslaught

Organisers from Jerusalem Open House, a low-profile gay advocacy group, insisted that their march was more about free expression than free love, and specifically discouraged lewd costumes and exhibitionist behaviour in the streets. Elena Canetti, the lesbian spokeswoman for the group, said: "This is bigger than gay rights. It's now about whether we respect the rule of law in Israel, or give in to threats of violence. We don't want to offend anyone, just to let people know we are here."

This did little to propitiate the devout, including evangelical Christian groups, objecting to overt displays of homosexuality anywhere near religious sites. Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, said: "This city's long history makes this event very provocative for people's feelings and beliefs. It's too 'in-your-face'." Prayers, petitions, and curses were all employed in a last-ditch attempt to halt the gay onslaught.

In an isolated incident, some militant gays retaliated by shattering windows and spraying graffiti at a suburban Tel Aviv synagogue: "If we cannot march in Jerusalem, you cannot walk in Tel Aviv," they had scrawled.

Itai Pinkas, a city councillor and a gay community leader, told Israel's Ha'aretz that the counterattack was a "malicious provocation". "Such violent acts have not and will not be used as a means in the just struggle for attaining full civil rights (for gays)," he said.

Citing security concerns, police considered outlawing any gay presence on 10 November, but Israel's supreme court upheld the gays' right to free expression. Prime minister Ehud Olmert backed the religious communities' right to show their disapproval of homosexuality, even though his 33-year old daughter, Dana, is a radical lesbian and a former activist in a group called the Black Sheep.

The antagonism became so volatile that one rabbi vowed to use black magic to curse the principle gay organiser, Noah Satat, for defiling the City of David with debauchery. The arcane death curse is specified in the Kabbala. This powerful pulsa denura (lashes of fire) was supposedly invoked with success against two prime ministers: Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated two months later) and Ariel Sharon (who suffered a crippling stroke and has slipped into a prolonged coma).

Triangles and ribbons

Some objectors were concerned that the date of the march coincided with the sombre anniversary of Kristallnacht. They reckoned that a frivolous sex parade would besmirch the memory of the brutal pogrom on 9-10 November 1938, when 101 synagogues were torched and thousands of shops looted after Joseph Goebbels incited Nazi youths to riot against the German Jews. The Israeli press skirted over the fact that homosexuals once were forced to stitch pink triangles onto their jackets and that, just like the Jews, European homosexuals were incinerated by the thousand at labour camps during the holocaust.

Traditionally, homosexuals are shunned by Haredi Jews, and are banished from their families if anyone learns about their transgression. Rabbi Yehuda Levin, who represents the Orthodox Rabbinical Alliance of America and Canada, flew in from Brooklyn to denounce the gay march.  "They are not," said Levin, "being tolerant of our feelings." Overriding his mistrust for other faiths, the rabbi recruited the prominent Palestinian Islamic cleric Taissir Tamimi to condemn the gay march. A week later, the ultra-religious mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, faced another challenge to his tolerance when he met his gay counterpart from Paris, Bertrand Delanoe. 

Already, Dana Olmert has gone on record about the Israeli government's lack of nerve in facing down vicious threats on civil liberties from the religious right. Loyally, she declined to mention her father by name. On Israeli army radio, the articulate professor recounted her experience at Friday's gay rally, which she attended with her partner.

"It was somewhat sad to be gathered in a closed, guarded area, like a corral," the prime minister's daughter recalled. "At the entrance they asked us to don a pink ribbon, in order to distinguish those who had undergone a security check from those who had not. The fact that we were distanced from the public indicates that something in the war of intimidation, in the threats of violence, worked. This is what made this event a bitter victory, if there is any victory at all here."

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