From a balcony three floors above Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, out of sight of pedestrians who aren't looking for it, flies the rainbow flag of gay pride. Inside is the Jerusalem Open House, the local gay community center. Opening the door, one of the first things one saw early last week was a hand-painted sign on the wall reading: "Countdown: 70 days until WorldPride 2006."
The Open House, which is organizing this second international gay pride festival - the first was in Rome in 2000 - agreed to call it off last August out of deference to police commitments in Gaza and northern Samaria for the disengagement. Opponents of the festival, led by the Jerusalem municipality and Orthodox Jewish, Muslim and Christian clerics, congratulated themselves for having thwarted this "abomination" with their outraged opposition. Jerusalem gays, however, vowed that this was a postponement, not a cancellation, and that the week-long festival would happen this year.
Barring a tragedy or a miracle, depending on one's point of view, the organizers will make good on their promise; they are hard at work getting things ready for Jerusalem WorldPride 2006, scheduled for August 6-12. They expect it to attract at least thousands of gays from around the world to the Holy City, as well as tens of thousands of gays and their sympathizers from around the country.
The Open House won a huge victory in Jerusalem District Court on May 28, one that seems to assure the festival will go on as planned despite the intent of the Jerusalem municipality, led by haredi Mayor Uri Lupoliansky, to prevent it. Judge Yehudit Tzur ordered the municipality to handle the festival as a legitimate city event, and to give the Open House NIS 350,000 for expenses. The municipality, she ruled, "must treat this community with equality, out of recognition of the supreme value of equality and out of respect for the values of tolerance and pluralism, which are at the heart of democratic society."
Yet at least publicly, the municipality's policy toward WorldPride is one of non-recognition. The municipal spokesman's office refused a request to interview the mayor for even five minutes by telephone, saying he was too busy. The request to interview anyone from the mayor's office on the matter of the gay pride festival was likewise turned down.
The Open House has sent repeated letters to the mayor's office, seeking some sort of cooperation in preparing for the festival, but has gotten only a cold shoulder.
"The last letter we got from them was in April, and it states clearly that the mayor of Jerusalem objects to WorldPride happening in Jerusalem and he doesn't want to speak to us," says Noa Sattath, chairperson of Open House.
The lone homosexual in the Jerusalem City Council, Sa'ar Netanel of Meretz, has been given much rougher treatment by the mayor and his aides and allies.
"A couple of weeks ago I spoke in council about the need for the city to cooperate with WorldPride, whatever they think of it, and it set off a whole uproar," recalls Netanel. "Council members yelled out that I was a pervert, that I should go back in the closet. One of the mayor's advisers, Aharon Agassi, was coming up behind me to say something to bother me, so Lupo [Lupoliansky's nickname] says, 'Aharon, be careful, don't get behind him, it's dangerous.' The deputy mayor, Eli Simhayov, joins in, 'Don't do it with him from behind.' The same homophobia, the same incitement, they haven't learned anything."
Despite such verbal abuse, Netanel remains on speaking and often friendly terms with his Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox colleagues, and from what he can gather, they are of two minds about WorldPride.
"Some of them are up for battle, they're saying they can't let this happen, that they have to fight it. Yair Gabbai [a city councilman with the National Religious Party] wrote the mayor that he should appeal the court decision to the Supreme Court, that the police should forbid the parade as a disturbance to the peace, just like they forbid Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, and that he's going to start a new organization called 'Jerusalem Is Not Sodom' and apply for city funding, too," says Netanel.
"The others don't believe it will happen, that it won't get the necessary permits, that the police will stop it," the councilman says.
In City Hall, I asked a pair of haredi men there on personal business their opinion of WorldPride. One turned to the other and made a brief remark in Yiddish that included the word "shmutzik," meaning "dirty." Pressed for a more elaborate response, one of the men, who identified themselves only as followers of the Stone-Karlin hassidic sect, said in Hebrew, "We don't want to talk about it. We don't want to recognize it. We don't want to deal with it. We don't want to mention the word, we don't want our children to know about it. This is the Holy City and such a thing shouldn't be allowed here."
WHILE THERE have been many predictions of "tens of thousands" of gays coming from overseas for the week of events, headlined by an August 10 rally and march through the capital, Sattath expects the great majority of them to be Israelis, with probably thousands, not tens of thousands, coming from abroad. One of the problems in luring visitors to Jerusalem, of course, is their fear of terror, she notes.
Still, more than a dozen international gay, Jewish and Christian groups are planning to send "missions" to the festival, Sattath points out, naming the Philadelphia Jewish Federation, San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, New Israel Fund and United Church of Christ among the "straight" religious groups. Gay synagogues represented in Jerusalem will include Beit Simhat Torah of Manhattan, Or Hadash of Chicago, Sha'ar Zahav of San Francisco, Etz Haim of Fort Lauderdale and Beit Haim Hadashim of Los Angeles. Several pastors from the international gay Christian organization Metropolitan Community Church also plan to be there, as well as representatives of various international civil rights groups.
While Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders have shown support in the past for gay pride parades in Jerusalem and are counted among the friends of Jerusalem WorldPride, Sattath acknowledges that no Orthodox Jewish nor Muslim religious groups are part of this coalition. She's well aware that leaders of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity and Islam banded together last year to form an iron wall of opposition to the would-be Jerusalem WorldPride 2005 - "I'm proud that we, if nothing else, could be a unifying force for them," Sattath says jokingly - but senses that religious opposition has cooled since then.
"You're not seeing leaders from the three religions joining in common cause against us this year, there have been no new 'pashkovilim' [denunciation posters on walls in haredi communities]," she notes.
A key reason for this, she suspects, is the memory of the stabbing of three gay marchers by an ultra-Orthodox man at last year's Jerusalem gay pride march. Some 100 haredi protesters tried to break through police lines to get to the marchers, and one succeeded - Yishai Schissel, who stabbed three people, though none fatally.
"I came to murder on behalf of God. We can't have such abomination in the country," he reportedly told police interrogators.
"Even the ultra-Orthodox religious leaders did not mean for violence to occur, yet they saw the result of their [incitement], so I think that in the religious community the incitement this year has been less," Sattath says.
THE SITE OF the WorldPride festival is chosen by organizing committees of major gay pride festivals in worldwide cities. It is no coincidence that Rome was picked for the the millennial year, or that Jerusalem was the second city chosen. The international gay community means to send a message.
"The most vocal opposition to gay rights is faith-based," Sattath notes. "By coming here to Jerusalem we're saying that there is an alternative religiosity and spirituality that are not homophobic."
WorldPride will be much more religious than an ordinary gay pride festival; one of the seven days is set aside for a "WorldPride Multifaith Convocation." Organizers from Jerusalem Open House are sending out the message that sexually provocative dress and undress at the festival, which featured at least during the first Jerusalem gay pride rally in 2001, will be unwelcome.
"I think if you look at pictures from last year's gay pride parade and those of the previous years, you find that the dress is very modest," says Sattath. "We truly intend this to be a very respectful march. It will be held in the evening, when it won't be very warm, so it won't invite people to be dressed immodestly. We're certainly not telling anyone how to dress, but we are calling for a respectful and dignified march. We welcome everyone but we ask people to respect our wishes."
Yonatan Leibowitz, an Open House organizer familiar with Rome WorldPride 2000, says the festival greatly liberalized gay life in the Italian city, and he expects WorldPride 2006 to do the same for Jerusalem. Although the Vatican remains a powerful anti-gay influence in Rome, the presence of some 250,000 gay visitors proved a "show of power" that gave local homosexuals a new self-respect and local heterosexuals a new respect for them.
"I'm sure that Jerusalem after WorldPride will be an entirely different city," Leibowitz predicts. "The residents of Jerusalem will no longer have the option of considering gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders as a marginal population, something that can be hidden, and instead will see that this is a community with a lot to offer Jerusalem. Many of the people marching will be religious Jews, Muslims and Christians."
Sattath calls WorldPride an "incredible gift" to Jerusalem - an opportunity for the capital to show a softer side to the world, which will definitely be watching, instead of the "quite bleak" image of violence and discord it ordinarily presents.
HOWEVER, opponents of the parade cite an opinion poll showing that three-quarters of the city's residents don't want it in their midst. And a small, wholly unscientific sampling of opinion in the Old City bears this sentiment out.
In the Muslim, Armenian and Christian quarters, most vendors approached said they'd never heard of WorldPride.
"But now that you mention it, I'm in favor of it," says Muhammad Awad, the Muslim owner of a souvenir shop in the Armenian Quarter. "Maybe it will help them." By them, he means gays.
Help them in what way? "Help them to stop what they do. It's not right," Awad replies.
A priest in black robes from the Latin Patriarchate waves his hand in dismissal and keeps walking when he hears the words "gay pride festival in Jerusalem." It was the day after US President George W. Bush called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
"I don't like Bush," says the priest, turning back to make a parting comment, "but I'm with him on this."
In the Christian Quarter, Mansour, a Muslim dealer in leather goods, refers to homosexuals as "animals." Even the prospect of tens of thousands of customers coming to the Old City doesn't soften his opinion against Jerusalem WorldPride. "For money, I will take part in an offense to my God?" he asks rhetorically.
So far there has been no determined religious or popular campaign against WorldPride, but as the countdown to August 6 continues, it seems unlikely that this vacuum will remain unfilled. Sattath notes that while the municipality couldn't be more uncooperative, local police "have been extremely helpful to us in all our annual parades. We have an excellent, ongoing relationship with the police, and it's the police, not the municipality, that gives the permit to hold the march."
She expects at least passive resistance by the municipality, noting that Lupoliansky tried to prevent last year's gay pride parade from entering city parks, but a court order overturned that and Jerusalem parks, mainly Independence, was filled with some 10,000 gays on parade.
"The municipality can make life difficult for us, but we have a legal team prepared for that. I'm quite certain we can overcome any obstacles they put in our way," says Sattath. "WorldPride in Jerusalem is not for the faint of heart." n