Pride, prejudice and Pyrrhic victories

As things are going, in a few years there probably won't be an open gay community left in Jerusalem.

By
November 2, 2006 22:05
Pride, prejudice and Pyrrhic victories

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A last-minute intervention by the Supreme Court might still prevent the Jerusalem Gay Parade from marching next Friday. For months already, the battle has been raging in the media, the courts and in Knesset committee rooms. To listen to the spokespeople on both sides, you would think that this was a full-scale war, with dire consequences for the city's character and future. In fact, it is little more than a skirmish - a sideshow with minor, if any, importance. The real struggle for the capital has been going on elsewhere for years. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 90s, there was a war over Shabbat observance in Jerusalem. Every weekend, battles took place (around the Ramot Highway, Bar-Ilan Street, cinemas, restaurants, coffee shops and 24-hour convenience stores) between thousands of haredi adults and children and the police and small secular groups, determined to allow traffic and business carry on despite the holy day. A lower-key, but no less persistent, campaign was waged against the sale of pork and other non-kosher delicacies in the capital, and a number of delicatessens were torched. Toward the end of the last decade, the fighting petered out. The mainstream haredi leadership decided to refrain from large-scale demonstrations, investing its efforts in lobbying through political back-channels and in the much more effective field of real estate. The only group left in the fray was the small, extremist Eda Haredit. As a result, you can catch a movie on Friday night or a matinee on Saturday; go for a bacon sandwich or shrimp in any one of dozens of restaurants and pubs; and drive on Shabbat on any road that doesn't pass through exclusively religious neighborhoods. On the other hand, there are now far fewer secular Jews in Jerusalem who are interested in spending their weekends in such a fashion. The haredim have realized that time and demographics can achieve far more than other methods. Former secular areas like Ma'alot Dafna and Romema are now closed off on Shabbat; no one who drives a car on the day of rest lives there anymore. Neighborhoods like Ramot Eshkol, Givat HaMivtar, Ramot Alon, Neveh Ya'acov and Pisgat Ze'ev are rapidly undergoing the same transformation. And by the end of the next decade, if current trends continue, French Hill and the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus will remain a small secular enclave in northern Jerusalem. Even if cinemas are allowed to remain open seven days a week, they can't survive without customers. A few weeks ago, one of the oldest movie theaters of the city, the defunct Edison on Strauss Street (for many years an outpost of Western culture, a stone's throw from Mea She'arim), was bulldozed to make way for a yeshiva of the anti-Zionist Satmar sect. A wide range of economic and social factors have combined to cause an exodus of non-haredi singles, couples and families from these areas. There are some Jerusalemites - politicians, businesspeople, academics and planning officials - trying to come up with various plans and projects to reverse this trend. But meanwhile, much time is being wasted on the bickering over whether the Safdi Plan to build new neighborhoods to the West of the capital is environmentally sound. IT IS hard to understand what is really behind the fracas over the gay pride parade. From the point of view of Jewish Orthodoxy, homosexuality is anathema, to be sure. Other than a few rabbis with a modern outlook, most leaders of the religious community - until very recently - steadfastly refused even to talk about the subject openly. It has always been totally taboo in the haredi media. (Even now, they're referring to it as the "abomination parade."). Journalist and former MK Ya'acov Eichler, a panelist on the Popolitica current-affairs TV program, would leave the studio whenever the the issue of homosexuality came up. Of course, the religious population has its own share of homosexuals. But this fact was always swept under the carpet (though the ultra-Orthodox still eulogize Dr. Yaakov Dehan, an open homosexual, who was their main activist fighting the Zionist hegemony over the Jewish community in Palestine in the 1920s. The date of his assassination by the Haganah in 1924 is commemorated to this day). Some leaders, notably Rabbi Yaakov Alter, the powerful Admor of the Gerrer Hassidim, still believe in the denial policy and have refused to sign the petition demanding the parade's cancellation. But they are now in the minority. Most others, including Rabbis Ovadya Yosef and Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, respectively leaders of Sephardi and "Lithuanian" (Ashkenazi non-hassidic) haredim, have lent their names to the campaign. There is still disagreement over whether to organize a counter-demonstration, since the rabbis don't want their followers "sullied" by "unclean" sights. But whatever the decision, this is clearly a departure from the previous policy. The readiness of the mainstream haredi leadership to take up the battle is a clear sign that, despite their still being a minority in the capital, they believe the gradual haredi takeover of Jerusalem - epitomized by the election of Mayor Uri Lupolianski in 2003 - is now irreversible. Above all, their insistence on preventing the parade is a show of strength, proving that the rabbis, not the police, the Supreme Court or any other manifestation of the Zionist state, rule the holy city. They are taking a considerable risk here. If the parade is eventually allowed, they will have shown the limits of their power; provoked a backlash from other, more powerful secular groups; and, by acknowledging the "gay threat," allowed the homosexual community to make inroads, especially among the younger generation, emboldening closet haredi homosexuals. It might have made more sense for them and their cause simply to have ignored the parade. Because, as things are going, in a few years there probably won't be an open gay community left in Jerusalem; it will have moved elsewhere. THE CAMPAIGN being waged by national-religious rabbis and politicians is even stranger. Within this community, there is a deep dilemma regarding the correct attitude toward homosexuals. But at least there is as close as possible to a consensus on the ownership rights of the Jewish People over Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine circumstances under which they would be willing to cede any degree of control to representatives of other religions. Yet in this case, there seems to be a general willingness to cooperate with anyone who is prepared to come on board, including bitter Jewish ideological opponents - such as the anti-Zionist zealots, Neturei Karta - and groups such as the Islamic Movement. I'm convinced that many of them cringed when they heard sheikhs describe the parade as "another plot of the Zionists to defile Al-Quds." But they went along with them all the same. They are also shooting themselves in the feet from another direction. A sizable group within the national-religious community has been working for years to overturn police policy, backed by the courts, to forbid organized Jewish prayers on the Waqf-controlled Temple Mount. This is one case where the cause of freedom of speech and worship has lost the day to considerations of "public order," with the court accepting police claims that the prayers would provoke uncontrollable riots. How ironic that this is exactly the tactic being used, unsuccessfully so far, to try and prevent the gay pride parade from taking place. The police have been spreading rumors about threats of extreme violence next Friday, and would clearly be pleased with a new ruling barring the parade. The Temple Mount Faithful members, who are also at the forefront of the battle against the parade, might rejoice at this victory, but they will have added yet another precedent for prohibiting prayer on the Mount. The leaders of Jerusalem's gay community are obviously pleased at the enormous amount of publicity their parade has been receiving. But they are aiming for a Pyrrhic victory. Jerusalem is not the most difficult Israeli city for gays to live in. The capital has a vibrant gay scene, with a number of bars operating peacefully, while the Open House social center is funded (under a Supreme Court order) by City Hall, where there is an openly homosexual City Council member. Of course, there is some degree of homophobia, and a number of cases of harassment - but no more, and probably much less, than can be found in many other places around the country. THE GAY movement scored a number of significant legal victories in the Barak Supreme Court. New Chief Justice Dorit Beinish doesn't seem to be the person to reverse that trend. Like it or loath it, Israeli homosexuals have it better than their counterparts anywhere else outside North America and Western Europe. Marching next week through the center of Jerusalem might seem to them to constitute yet another victory, but the parade is only three hours out of 365 days. The rest of the year, the homosexuals, along with the rest of secular Jerusalem, are losing hands-down. Even if their opponents were to give up and ignore the parade, that trend wouldn't change. If the gay community really cares about the city, there are more immediate targets. That's if they want anyone left in Jerusalem to fight for their rights a decade from now. anshel@ejemm.com

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