Gay rights organizations said that the right of Israelis to freedom of expression had been dealt a serious blow on Wednesday after the Knesset passed two preliminary readings of bills aimed at banning gay parades in Israel.
The first bill, proposed by MK Eliyahu Gabai (NU-NRP), would give the Jerusalem Municipality the right to ban parades and protests which "hurt the public order, public feeling or for religious sensitivity."
A second bill proposed by the Shas Party would go further and ban all pride parades anywhere in Israel. The bills passed by wide margins of 40-23 and 41-21, respectively.
Both bills would have to pass through a Knesset committee and second and third readings before they go into law. Therefore it is unlikely that they would affect the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade scheduled for June 21.
Left-wing MKs and activists from the gay rights association Open House were quick to slam the bill as "unconstitutional" and promised that even if it became law, the High Court would invalidate it.
"This is a dangerous bill, which could damage the bedrock of Israel's democratic principles because of narrow political interests. We will continue to fight it in parliament and through the Gay Pride Parade," said Noa Sattath, chairwoman of Open House. "Looking past the pride parade, this creates a precedent where Jerusalem is the only city where freedom of speech answers to the will of the mayor. I feel that we and democracy in general are being harassed."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement Wednesday saying that he did not support Gabbai's draft legislation, and that he didn't think there were any grounds for legally restricting the right of protest in Jerusalem.
At the same time, Olmert - who has a daughter who is openly gay - said that he did not believe Jerusalem was the "natural place" for the Gay Pride Parade because of the city's "special sensitivity."
Olmert also declined to direct the coalition on how to vote on the bill, giving all the coalition members freedom of vote. All of the presidential candidates, who are currently vying for the support of the religious MKs ahead of next week's vote, were absent from the vote due to the sensitivity of the bill.
Gabai defended his bill, saying that the "freedom of expression is not the freedom of incitement, it's not an invitation to provocationâ€¦ Those who want to allow such a parade in Jerusalem confuse freedom with anarchy."
"Each person's orientations are his own business and belong to the private realm, as do homosexual tendencies. There is no need to display them in public," said Gabai.
"Jerusalem has a special status as the capital, and as an international city that is important to three religions. Some peopleâ€¦ want to destabilize the relations between the communities instead of building a harmonious and peaceful life in the city."
Meretz Faction Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On vowed to work against he passage of the bills, saying that the freedom of vote granted to the coalition members demonstrated the government's ineptness and their willingness to deny freedom of expression.
"A two-edged sword has been turned toward the community. The Knesset is crazy, with a crazy government where the tyranny of the majority is more important than human rights," she added.
Under current law, only the police have the authority to ban public gatherings. Last year, the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade was delayed several times and finally replaced by a closed rally at a stadium after a number of violent protests by haredi Jews.
At the 2006 Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, a haredi man ran into the crowd and stabbed three participants, wounding one seriously. The man was later sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Religious groups have already begun protesting this year's planned parade, led by an umbrella group calling itself The Committee to Stop the Abomination Parade. The group has already put up posters calling on people to do "practically anything" to stop the parade.
The group has also filed for a police permit to hold a rally at the entrance to Jerusalem on the same day of the parade.