One year after the murder of teenager Shira Banki, at least 30 suspects were arrested for attempting to disrupt Thursday’s annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, which attracted a record 25,000 participants amid unprecedented security.
Following Banki’s death at the hands of religious zealot Yishai Schlissel last July, hundreds of heavily-armed police officers from a breadth of units, aided by a helicopter, cracked down on any disruptions, seizing two knives, police said.
Hours before the parade began at Liberty Bell Park, police announced that Schlissel – who stabbed Banki, 16, and six others, days after being released from prison for committing a similar crime 10 years earlier – was rearrested for conspiring with his brother to carry out more attacks from prison.
A knife seized by police at Thursday’s Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. (Courtesy of Jerusalem Police)
Holding a rainbow-colored gay pride flag, Omer Barsheshet, 16, said he traveled from Ashdod with his boyfriend to Jerusalem for the parade to honor Banki’s memory.
“Last year Shira was murdered, and it’s super important for me to be in this place just to support the gay community,” he said. “I am a little nervous, but the security here is f----- crazy, so I feel safe.”
While waiting inside a cordoned-off Liberty Bell Park for the parade to begin, Sarah Shwarz, a heterosexual woman in her 60s, said she felt compelled to attend this year’s procession because she is exacerbated by the poor treatment of the LGBT community in Jerusalem.
“I’m very sick and tired of the atmosphere that we have here, and even though I’m older than the other participants, I felt the need to go on the street and show people that not all Israelis are intolerant and hateful,” she said.
“I have very good friends in the gay community, who I love, and I wanted to show them my support.”
Walking with a cane following a recent double-knee replacement surgery, Paul Jeselsohn, 66, said he traveled with his husband from New York to march in the parade after meeting with members of Jerusalem Open House, the capital’s sole gay advocacy group, at his LGBT synagogue, Congregation Beth Simcha Torah.
“They asked us not only for financial support, but to support them in this march because of what happened last year,” he said, noting that he flew to Israel with another gay couple who also attended. “So we planned this several months ago to support them.”
Yoav, a heterosexual Orthodox 19-year-old resident of Kfar Saba wearing a yalmuka and gay pride t-shirt, said homosexuality and Judaism does not present a conflict in his eyes.
“As an Orthodox person, I should be supporting this parade and supporting the rights of gay people and equality in Israel – especially after the horrible murder of Shira Banki,” he said. “I see it as my religious duty to be here and support the [LBGT] community.”
Asked to comment about the vocal intolerance and condemnation from members of the ultra-Orthodox community, Yoav said such attitudes are antithetical to Jewish values.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “It’s unreligious, it’s ungodly, and it’s disgusting to hear things like that. As a religious person, I think it’s your duty to support every minority group, and to help them get equality.”
Jerusalem resident Or Bitan, a 25-year-old lesbian, said she attended the parade with members of the gay youth organization IGY (Israel Gay Youth).
“I think this is the most important gay pride parade in Israel… because it is the most political one,” she said. “So, I think it can most influence the government and show that we are here in Israel, and that people can’t ignore us.”
Bitan continued: “We are here, this is who we are, and we’re not going to disappear. This is our country as well. We serve in the army and we pay taxes just like everyone else, so it’s important to show ourselves.”
Itay Ahon-Zada, an openly gay 14-year-old, said he came to the parade to defy ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have condemned him.
“A lot of rabbis are against the gay community, and I think that we need to stand in front of them and say what we have to say, because we are a community with a lot of attacks on us,” he said, noting that he and his boyfriend have been assaulted in the capital.
“We can’t walk in Jerusalem with our boyfriend or our girlfriend without being attacked. So, I think we need to be here today to say that we are not going anywhere – this is our country, this is where we want to live, and I want to go with my boyfriend in the street without being attacked.”
“That is why I am here today,” Ahon-Zada continued. “And to say that I am proud.”
Donning a miniature rainbow-colored umbrella hat under a powerful sun, medical school student Or Yaakov, 28, said he forsake studying for his exams to attend the parade to support the capital’s largely marginalized LGBT community.
“This is my city,” he said. “I grew up here, and it’s important for me to march here and to support this cause here, where many people who are gay or bisexual like me can’t really be openly proud. And our mayor did not even support this parade. That is really sad that that is the way it is.”
Yaakov added that it is important for the government and municipalities to show support for all citizens.
“Even though Tel Aviv is pretty gay-friendly, most of this country isn’t,” he said. “And we should encourage gay people not just to move to Tel Aviv; they should be supported and encouraged where they grew up, and to feel safe and welcome there.”
“I don’t feel very safe now walking with this hat here,” he added.
For his part, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who was roundly condemned by left-wing politicians for not marching in the parade due to the offended sensibilities of his largely right-wing and haredi constituency, said he “understood the pain and criticism” directed at him.
“I have chosen a different way of honoring the memory of Shira z"l, who was a sweet, young girl murdered because of a boundless hatred,” Barkat said before the parade. “The Jerusalem District Commander of the Israeli Police and I paid our respects to Shira by laying a wreath at the site where her life was cut short.”
Barkat added: “I hope, with all my heart, that we come together, on this day, against every manifestation of incitement, hatred, and violence, and that we unite around the right of every individual and community to exercise their freedom of expression, regardless of gender, race, or religion.”
Meanwhile, across the street from Liberty Bell Park, roughly 200 meters from where Banki was murdered, dozens of members of Lehava and the ultra-Orthodox community loudly protested the march behind metal partitions manned by at least a dozen heavily-armed officers.
Holding a large placard reading “We stand strong for traditional marriage, preserving family sanctity, and giving every child an opportunity to have a father and mother,” Orthodox Jerusalem resident Yosef Shalom Rabin explained why he is protesting.
“What I’m upset about here is not so much that people have homosexual issues – I understand that God created some people like that,” he said, as a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews wrapped in tefilin sang psalms.
“What I’m upset about is that people want to promote [homosexuality] as an ideology and try to make us recognize them as something normal, instead of accepting reality and realizing there’s a problem here… That’s outrageous and an abomination!”
He continued: “These people suffer from an extreme case of Western liberalization, and see no lines and do anything they want. And it’s not by chance that almost every religion, not just Judaism, denounces homosexual relations.”
Teenaged friends Chaim and Daniel, both 16, traveled to the protest from Modi’in.
“I’m here to protest something that is disgusting in the eyes of God, according to my religion, in the city of God, right in front of His face – like a kilometer away from the place where his Temple used to sit,” said Chaim.
“It bothers me because it is a slap in the face to God… If they want to be a gay person walking around Jerusalem by themselves and not showing off their sexuality, we don’t have a problem with it, but you don’t have to shove it in the face of God.”
Clarifying that he is not homophobic, Daniel said he also strongly objects to public displays of homosexuality.
“Mainly, my problem is that I don’t like seeing [homosexuality] in public, and they’re kind of parading it around, showing it today,” he said. “We don’t have a straight pride parade, so there’s no point to this other than to boast and show off.”
“Secondly,” he continued, “I’m not religious, but I do believe in Judaism, and as Chaim said before, basically it’s a slap in the face to God, desecrating God straight in his face.”
Benzi Gopstein, head of the radical Jewish group Lehava, which is openly anti-Palestinian and homophobic, said the police arrested several members of the organization.
“We think the Holy city is not the place for a march like this,” said Gopstein. “This is a holy place… and the police arrested people wearing Lehava t-shirts, not allowing them to come to the demonstration.”
While Gopstein said he condemned the murder of Banki last year, he nonetheless described the parade as a “problem for Jerusalem,” adding that “the police should not allow this march.”