Marching for their rights

Focusing on legislation, this year’s gay pride parade will end at the Knesset in Jerusalem.

Gay rights balloon rainbow 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Gay rights balloon rainbow 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When it comes to gay pride events in Israel, it’s almost impossible to ignore the huge differences that exist between the marches in the country’s two largest cities.
This past June, a record-breaking 100,000 residents and tourists turned out for Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade.
Mayor Ron Huldai lauded his city as the most gay-friendly in the world and was proud that thousands of tourists had flocked to the city to enjoy the beach, parties and general laid-back and liberal atmosphere.
As a show of support to the gay community, the Tel Aviv Municipality dedicated NIS 590,000 to the pride events this year and invested another NIS 225,000 in a campaign to boost gay tourism in the city.
In contrast, the Jerusalem Municipality is not involved in funding the upcoming Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance, which will take place on August 1, and has invested nothing in bringing tourists to the event, which last year attracted some 4,000 participants.
The disparity may seem unusual, considering Jerusalem is the capital and has a larger population than Tel Aviv. But then again, those two populations have very different characters, and the pride events have largely opposite aims.
“Jerusalem Pride is not necessarily a celebration, but more of a protest for the rights that we don’t enjoy,” explains Elinor Sidi, executive director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH) during a phone interview from her office in Jerusalem.
The JOH is a grassroots activist community center, providing direct services to all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals in Jerusalem and the surrounding communities. The center has been hosting the annual March for Pride and Tolerance since 2002, despite strong opposition and the municipality’s refusal to fund its activities.
“This year we are going to talk about legislation,” explains Sidi. As a way of expressing that theme, the march will begin at Independence Park and end at the Knesset, instead of at Liberty Bell Park, where the march has ended in previous years. Afterward, participants will gather outside the Knesset to listen to speeches from members of the LGBT community. Top-level politicians such as opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) and Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On are also slated to speak.
This will be the third time the march is ending at the Knesset. Sidi says it is necessary to end the day at the country’s political center because there is not enough being done to advance legislation supporting the LGBT community.
“We do enjoy several privileges and freedoms, and the situation is better here [Israel] than even the US,” she says. “We can join the army with no problems, and there are certain laws in place.”
However, she and her team believe the country’s decision-makers need to do a lot more.
As Jerusalem is the political capital of the country, it’s important that the serious issues be addressed there, she explains. According to the JOH executive director, the Knesset needs to treat homophobia as a problem.
The issue of homophobia has always been a central theme of the Jerusalem Pride March, but ever since the 2009 shooting attack at Tel Aviv’s Bar Noar community center for LGBT teens, which left two dead and 15 wounded, the issue has been even more heightened.
Instead of holding the pride march in June, which is internationally recognized as LGBT Pride Month, the JOH decided to move it to August to remember the date when the tragic event took place.
While the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance puts a significant emphasis on national issues affecting the LGBT community, there is also a strong focus on matters affecting the city itself. Due to objections from the municipality over the years, holding such an event has been difficult, and it has taken organizations such as the JOH years of struggle to make it happen. In the past decade, the nonprofit has submitted no fewer than 10 petitions against the municipality to be allowed to protest.
After all those efforts, in the past two years, “someone has understood and got the message,” says Sidi. Since 2011, instead of being forced to go through the courts as in previous years, the march has been allowed to take place without the need for petitions.
Sidi hails this as a success and praises the decision.
However, she doesn’t believe that this change of attitude took place because of secular Mayor Nir Barkat and his municipality team; rather, she believes the changes came about because the JOH petitioned the court and fought for its rights there.
She is also convinced that the municipality has had nothing to do with the decrease in the number of protests that the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has held in the past few years.
In 2005, a religious protester stabbed three marchers, and in 2006 there was violent rioting in one of Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhoods ahead of the parade.
Although there have been small protests in recent years, there has been nothing on the scale of what took place in 2005 and 2006. Sidi puts this down to haredi leaders not wanting to kick up too much of a fuss, because it draws attention to the event and means their children start asking questions on a subject about which they would otherwise have known nothing.
“They are keeping the yeshiva boys in yeshiva,” she explains.
Despite certain criticism, the municipality stresses that it supports the rights of the city’s LGBT community.
“The municipality feels that it is important to support the Open House and does this by budgeting thousands of shekels towards its activities,” a municipality spokesperson says. “The mayor even met with and will continue to meet with representatives from the [LGBT] community and the Open House to discuss with them the advancement of a number of different issues. His door is always open to them.”
Regarding the change in policy a couple of years ago, the spokesperson says: “In 2012 there wasn’t any type of legal disagreement, the mayor gave his support at a council meeting that satisfied the full demands of the Open House as he has also done in the past. For this he received a lot of praise from the executive director of the Open House.”
Realizing the severity of the opposition from the religious community, previous JOH executive director Yonatan Gher began engaging in direct communication with religious communities. According to Sidi, this dialogue has proved successful.
“When you have direct communication, violence is reduced,” she says.
While it’s the pride march that always receives the most attention, there is also a week of activities taking place starting Sunday, July 28. Labor MK Stav Shaffir will be participating in an open conversation titled “Community and Politics,” and there will be a political panel at the JOH including representatives from Labor, Meretz, Likud, Yesh Atid and Hadash. On the cultural scene, a Pride Film Festival will take place at the city’s Cinematheque, and there will be music and dance nights at clubs such as Mikveh and Video Pub.