You might have been forgiven for assuming it was a parade of Israeli youth movements.
Then you’d notice the rainbow flags along with the Israeli flags. Last month’s first gay pride parade in Beersheba, Israel’s largest southern city, was definitely a young people’s happening. With lots of teens and twentysomethings, young families pushing strollers, dogs on leashes, this first ever such gay pride event in what is considered the country’s periphery was clearly a celebration, if a tame one. Unlike the annual Tel Aviv parade, there were no floats with near-naked bodies, no drag queens, and no wild dancing.
An estimated 4,000 people, a majority who had traveled to Beersheba from other cities, took part in the one-kilometer (0.6 mile) march from Soroka Hospital along Rager Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare, ending at the municipality building’s plaza, where the city had funded performances by well-known Israeli musicians.
Security was extremely tight all along the route; in addition to hundreds of police on the ground, helicopters hovered overhead.
No one was allowed to join or leave the march midway. Entry to the main plaza meant passing through airport level security, one line for women, another for men.
Once through security the mood was ecstatic: music blasting, balloons, hula hoops, dancing, hot dog and cotton candy stands.
The scene was reminiscent of a weekend college party. There was only one potential security incident when police arrested two Haredi men along the route, one carrying a knife and the other who tried to jump the barrier into the parade.
Speaking to the crowd later in the evening, Mayor Ruvik Danilovich said, “Beersheba belongs to everyone and I’m the mayor of everyone. This is a beautiful moment for the city… we’ve gone through a productive, important dialogue that has brought people together.”
What the mayor was referring to was the contacts following quite a different scene a year ago when organizers of a similar march canceled the event to protest a High Court of Justice ruling that upheld the police decision to bar participants from marching through the city’s main thoroughfare. Police said they could not ensure the safety of all parade participants in the open thoroughfare.
That decision to ban the parade from the main streets came a year after the pride parade in central Jerusalem when teenager Shira Banki was killed and five others injured in an attack by a Jewish religious extremist armed with a knife. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Beersheba Gay House demonstrated instead outside the Beersheba city hall building to protest the cancellation of last summer’s parade.
That the local LGBTQ community was able to hold the event this year, and march down the central boulevard, was considered a major achievement. “This was a revolution,” said Aya Bar Hadas, head of the Visitor and Events Unit of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Last year was a humiliating experience. It was the first time in my life I felt such rejection. But the event this year went well; everyone had a good time; it was a very positive experience.”
Beersheba, now with a population of 210,000, has developed at a dizzying pace in the past decade, with billions invested in private and public projects. The city is rapidly becoming the country’s Silicon Valley, and Ben-Gurion University has become a world-class university. But its largely Sephardi population has remained conservative.
Not only did the Beersheba municipality agree to the parade route and to fund the entertainment, the city agreed to provide and fund premises for the local LGBTQ organization.
This follows the policy of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa which all subsidize gay rights centers. (The Jerusalem municipality funding was the result of a 2010 ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court against the city denying financial aid to the Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Jerusalem’s LGBT community center. Tel Aviv University law professor Aeyal Gross has referred to that judgment as “a turning point in both its recognition of equality for the gay community and its adoption of the discourse that sets LGBT rights as signifying Israel as a liberal democracy and as distinguishing it from other states.”) Beersheba’s recently opened “Pride House” is a handsome large apartment on gentrified Smilansky St. in Beersheba’s Old City. The center houses various activities, providing space for meetings for groups of all ages, including parents, new immigrants, English-speakers and a Hebrew-language ulpan for newly arrived Russian-speakers.
The organization is still putting the place in order. One room has a large screen TV and shelves with children’s toys. A full-time social worker paid by the city has her own office in the center.
“It’s important that young gay people don’t feel they are alone. This isn’t Tel Aviv, but they can still stay here and feel at home,” explains Pride House spokesman Tzion Raz.
With all the facilities and help the city has now provided, what’s the point of marching? “The fact remains that by virtue of these demonstrations the city knows that this community exists here. It’s a way of showing that we are also citizens with the same rights as everyone,” explains Raz, an industrial chemist.
“It’s still difficult for many of us to find jobs. Society is changing, but not that much. This event is a way of exposing the local residents to part of their own community.”
“We’ve come a really long way,” says Liora Moriel, who was The Jerusalem Post’s Negev correspondent in the 1980s. Recalling the atmosphere in Beersheba, she then says, “Everyone was totally in the closet, both men and women, especially in Beersheba.” Moriel started a Beersheba gay support group. “It was very underground, until the early 90s when it became more open for some.”
IN 1986 Moriel organized a widely attended International Festival of Women and Music, subsidized by the Beersheba municipality.
“I contacted every female musician in the country, and even though it wasn’t in any way a ‘lesbian event,’ some, like Yehudit Ravitz, didn’t want to be involved because they were closeted and didn’t want to be associated with a women’s event. Today, they are all out and don’t have a problem, but, at the time, they were afraid,” she states.
A few days before last month’s march, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev hosted a panel of Knesset members titled “Pride and Politics.” Most of the MKs who took part are clearly identified with the rights of the gay community. All agreed that there have been significant advances in the last 10 years in public opinion, but that there is still a great deal of discrimination.
“The biggest curse hurled today in public is still ‘homo,’” commented Amir Ohana, the ruling Likud party’s first openly gay lawmaker.
Two of the participants on the panel, MK Yael German (Yesh Atid) and MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) sponsored bills dealing with the status of the LGBTQ community in Israel that were voted down by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation this past February.
All the participants agreed that the major problem regarding all issues of civil rights is the fact that there is no separation in Israel between state and religion. “There can be no legislation advanced as long as the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties are part of any government,” declared Ohana.
There’s an important difference between legal and social gains, explains Amalia Ziv, a senior lecturer and head of the Gender Studies Program at Ben-Gurion University.
“It’s very difficult in Israel to introduce progay legislation because of coalition politics. But there have been significant advances socially and culturally; there’s much more visibility and public acceptance,” says Ziv, who specializes in queer studies. “The interesting process is that it’s no longer leftist parties that support a gay rights agenda. A decade ago you wouldn’t hear politicians in the Likud speaking publicly in support of the gay community, and now there are several who do.”