Jerusalem Open House:Prevention of homophobic terror attacks lies in education

In the days following last week’s stabbings at the capital’s Gay Pride Parade, the Open House community center has been operating in crisis mode.

Remembering 16-year-old Shira Banki, who was stabbed at last week’s pride parade and succumbed to her injuries on Sunday. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Remembering 16-year-old Shira Banki, who was stabbed at last week’s pride parade and succumbed to her injuries on Sunday.
A dozen volunteers clad in rainbow flags trickled into the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance on Sunday afternoon. They were sweaty, they were tired – but their eyes were still bright with hunger and determination following their demonstration in front of the Education Ministry.
In the days following last week’s stabbings at the capital’s Gay Pride Parade, the Open House community center has been operating in crisis mode, with staff trying to handle the media while providing a safe space for community members and support for the stabbing victims’ families.
However, its mission remains the same since its founding in 1997: to change hearts and minds, and fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and recognition.
At the conclusion of Thursday’s parade, the Open House immediately repurposed itself as a staging ground for volunteers and community members wanting to take action in the aftermath of the fatal attack.
Imri Braun, 19, has volunteered with the organization for more than a year. Having been an usher at the parade, in charge of 100 people, he didn’t leave the Open House for three days following the attack.
The center, he says, has become his second home.
Open House spokesman Tom Channing says the institution has received support from rabbis and Jewish federations around the world asking how they can help – though he adds that there’s still incitement on social media and people asking why the LGBT community is marching in the Holy City.
“We are also Jerusalemites, so when people ask, ‘Why do this in Jerusalem?’ they’re saying, ‘There’s no room for you here,’” he maintains. “If we don’t have pride in Jerusalem, you’re limiting freedom of speech to specific areas, for specific people about specific topics.”
The center’s main focus for the next few weeks is to provide support for the community. Regular programming is canceled for the next two weeks, and a mourners’ tent for the community has been set up in Zion Square throughout the shiva mourning period for 16-year-old stabbing victim Shira Banki, who died of her wounds on Sunday.
“The focus [of society right now] is on police mistakes [in failing to prevent the attack], and not on homophobia. [But] if society is homophobic, the LGBT community is a target,” says Channing. “No amount of police will prevent the next attack. The only way to prevent an attack is through education.”
However, the Open House’s push for gender and sexuality education has met with resistance from the municipality. Though the organization has established an educational program, Channing says it hasn’t been able to implement it because “schools don’t want us there.”
On Sunday, the first work day after the attacks, two of the Open House’s board members met with Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a move the minister initiated.
“We saw it was an important attempt at the request of the minister. Bennett didn’t know of the Jerusalem Open House before the meeting, and didn’t know of our work in Jerusalem,” says Channing. “Our board members told him about our work, and he promised to consider our request to have the support of the Education Ministry in entering schools in the coming year.”
Bennett has previously come under criticism from the LGBT community over his Bayit Yehudi Party’s vocal opposition to same-sex marriage.
Braun, who graduated high school last year, says he came out when he was 16. But he adds that if he were in school today, he wouldn’t feel safe coming out.
Braun was among the demonstrators standing in front of the ministry during the meeting. He says he would like to see every municipality across the country implement mandatory sexuality courses in every school.
“We don’t have time to waste – there’s one month until the children are back in school.
Students need to feel safe, and now they can’t,” he says. “We want change, and education on gender and sexuality, and not just in the heteronormative way.”
Though Channing is optimistic about the implementation of educational programs in the upcoming school year, Open House volunteer Anna Kleiman isn’t as hopeful.
Since the government is going on a three-week recess this month, she fears no one will care in a month when the government resumes.
“We need to keep screaming, ‘This is an injustice!’ and anyone who hears can go to their jobs or school and speak up,” she says. “This is Bennett’s responsibility. He cannot continue the way he talks or way he treats us.”
The municipality’s stepchild?
At the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which serves the capital’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population, the atmosphere is akin to army headquarters on a battlefield.
Since the stabbings at the city’s Pride Parade last Thursday afternoon – followed by the death on Sunday of 16-year-old victim Shira Banki, who had come to accompany a homosexual friend – the place has been open almost 24 hours a day. Dozens of volunteers and members of the staff and board are there, talking about the incident and people’s feelings, as well as offering counseling and psychological support.
The general feeling is shock, which has only grown as time has elapsed.
Dana Sharon, the recently elected president of the Open House’s board, confirms that the situation is still highly sensitive, adding that the main task of the center’s staff and volunteers is to pinpoint those among the community’s youth who are in distress and need support and professional intervention.
“But many Open House volunteers just keep coming here, as if this is the only place they feel they want to be at this moment,” she says. “This includes quite a few who, ordinarily, wouldn’t spend so much time here.”
Asked about support from the Jerusalem Municipality’s welfare department, Sharon says that so far, the center hasn’t received any offers of help from city services. She adds that the municipality refused the center’s request to link the department’s after-hours emergency hotline to the Open House for calls from LGBT community members.
A meeting with high-ranking municipality staff is set for this Sunday afternoon, but it is not yet clear what will come of it.
The relationship between the Open House, which opened in 1997, and Safra Square is characterized by a long history of ups and downs – mostly downs. Former mayor Ehud Olmert tried at first to ignore the institution, but during his second term decided to include it in the list of associations and community organizations receiving municipal funding – though that only happened after an appeal to the High Court of Justice. Olmert’s successor, Uri Lupolianski, represented the haredi sector, which was against granting money to what it considered an abomination. He tried to avoid funding the Open House, but ultimately, almost at the end of his tenure at Safra Square, he was forced to give something – again, under orders from the High Court.
When Nir Barkat was elected mayor, many were convinced he would usher in a new era in the municipality’s relationship with the LGBT community, but in practice there have been relatively few changes. Barkat never said he wouldn’t include the Open House in the list of associations his administration financially supported, but his enthusiasm for doing so was not very convincing. The municipality ultimately decided to place the Open House in the funding category that provides money solely for rental fees; the center cannot use taxpayer shekels for any other purpose.
“That’s a real problem for us,” says Sharon.
“We usually rely on donations, which do not always cover the cost of all of our activities.
We urgently need permanent support.”
The Pride Parade is one such activity, she says. “The Pride Parade is not budgeted, and we rely exclusively on donations for it. It’s the same for the various groups we have here – for new immigrants (including English-speakers), [and] we recently opened a new group for seniors, who never had any place to talk about their identity. There are groups for parents of gays, groups for youth of various ages and various activities. All these cost a lot of money, even if most of the activities are made possible through volunteers.”
In summary, she says, “we do get support from the municipality, but in a way that makes us feel like a stepchild. We’d like to reach a more official status.”
Another issue that bothers Sharon and her staff is that they do not have the benefit of official city council representation.
“We always have city council members who walk with us at the parade and even participate in the speeches, yet it has always been on a personal basis, never through an official representative of the city or the mayor. This is also something that hurts us.”
Barkat himself was abroad when Thursday’s stabbing occurred, but a spokesman for the mayor issued a letter of support afterward.
“The municipality embraces the Open House in this difficult time, and the mayor, who is still on his official work trip abroad, has expressed deep sorrow over the death of Shira Banki, and has informed the director of the Open House that the municipality will continue to help with anything that’s needed,” the statement said.
The attack has evidently sparked strong emotions both in the country and abroad, says Sharon.
“If throughout all our years of operation we had donations here and there, since Thursday it has been a flood,” she says.
“People just want to help, send money and engage to continue to help. That’s wonderful, but sadly the circumstances are so tragic. Clearly we need to rely on steady funding.”
A municipality spokesman, meanwhile, stated that the Open House received support on a regular basis, in accordance with the criteria applied to all city community centers. Jerusalem welfare services are offering psychological help for LGBT community members, and the city hotline is also available, he added.