Israeli gay campaigners have vowed to continue fighting for equality in Jerusalem after a gay pride rally in the capital city last week.
A Hebrew University of Jerusalem stadium hosted 9000 people for a rally last Friday, despite weeks of anti-gay protests and threats of violence from ultra-Orthodox Jews in the area.
Noa Sattath, Executive Director of Jerusalem Open House (JOH), organisers of the event, praised the gay community’s attitude amongst the protests, “Jerusalem Gay Pride was a huge success, and passed peacefully.
“We must continue to advocate for equality and from freedom of speech here. Jerusalem is home to many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I am proud of the way the community faced the violence and hatred directed at us these past few weeks. As a community we didn’t respond with hate or violence, but instead stood dignified and determined.”
Activist leaders, artists and politicians presented inspirational and thought-provoking speeches at the rally. “There is more than one way to be Jewish,” said Sami Michael, an Israeli novelist who presented the opening speech.
Knesset members Dov Hanin and Zehava Gal-on spoke about the struggle for freedom of speech and described relations between the ultra-Orthodox and gay communities as a crucial test for the Israeli democracy.
Adam Russo, the man who was stabbed by an assailant during the previous Jerusalem gay pride march, brought the blood-stained flag he held during the attack and vowed that the community will not be deterred by blood or by violence.
Also in attendance was Dana Olmert, the out lesbian daughter of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Dana Olmert later stated to the media that she was upset that the Israeli government did not do more to support the event.
The JOH reported that a large portion of the crowd were supportive heterosexuals who wanted to express their solidarity with Jerusalem’s gay community. Many held signs reading, “Straights in support of the community,” “We are straight and love gay people”, and “Straights against violence.”
The JOH had originally planned a Pride March through Jerusalem. Anti-gay riots erupted in Jerusalem in protest. “The streets of Jerusalem are burning,” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, of the Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.
“For the past several weeks, ultra-Orthodox protesters have been rioting, setting fires, and throwing stones at passing motorists, police and fire-fighters. They called for the death of the leaders of the Jerusalem Open House, invoking the same rabbinic curse that was levelled against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin days before his assassination. This is bigotry in the name of religion inciting violence against GLBT people. Religious bigots from other faith traditions have expressed support for these protesters and voiced similar sentiments denouncing the JOH march.”
In the end, it was emerging national security issues, not the rioting and threats of violence, which led the JOH to change the march into a rally.
Israeli police had originally planned to post 9,000 officers to protect those at the Gay Pride march. After the Israeli military killed 18 Palestinian civilians in a shelling attack in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli security forces went on a heightened state of alert to guard against a Palestinian attack.
“Our decision to change our March to a rally was due to the fighting in Gaza,” stated Ms Sattath. “In Israel, issues of national security change quickly and dramatically and we at the JOH take this very seriously. We have a social responsibility to our community. After the shelling attack in Gaza, we knew that the new drains on security meant it wasn’t feasible for us to have the March. Gays in Jerusalem are not only gay; we are also part of the community at large.”
Although organisers were deeply disturbed by the anti-gay riots and violence, they noted that the negative reaction to their event attracted international attention to the issue of gay rights in Jerusalem.
“The incitement and violence that preceded our event turned it into one of the most important human rights demonstrations of recent years,” Ms Sattath added.