‘We couldn’t let that moment pass’

Taking a fresh look at Pride 2016 and Jerusalem’s LGBT community, one year after Shira Banki’s murder at the parade, and the movement toward a new type of activism.

‘This meeting between a visibly LGBT person and haredi people was unprecedented’: An post-parade stabbing ‘encounter’ in Zion Square (photo credit: NOAM FEINER)
‘This meeting between a visibly LGBT person and haredi people was unprecedented’: An post-parade stabbing ‘encounter’ in Zion Square
(photo credit: NOAM FEINER)
The Pride March in Jerusalem is unlike any other in the world: one part celebratory parade, one part serious march for tolerance and inclusion.
Last year’s march, on July 30, 2015, erupted in violence when Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox man with mental health issues who had been released from jail just one week prior, stabbed six people. Shira Banki, 16, attending the march with her friends, lost her life.
Ben Katz, a senior board member of Shoval, an apolitical organization that hosts dialogue sessions between lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and religious education and mental-health institutions, remembers his experience last year.
“It was crazy and chaotic and was handled very quickly once it happened. I felt very personally attacked and also incredibly disappointed with my own community of supporters, because in my time of crisis I felt very alone. I think everyone who is LGBT has some sort of experience like that; that’s part of what motivates me personally in my work for Shoval. A lot of our conversations with people are about the difference between being supportive in words from a distance and being supportive when it involves potential action,” he says.
“The clear positive effect of last year’s march is that people see that we’ve got a real problem here,” Katz continues. “All my friends and even teachers who I work with say how shocked they were that there was violence last year. What I say to them is that when I was running away from a religious fanatic wielding a knife under a rainbow flag in Jerusalem, I felt a lot of different things, but there was not a moment I felt surprised.”
THE OUTRAGE and horror one year ago was palpable. How could the police have released Schlissel a week before the Pride march, when he had openly talked about his desire to commit this kind of violence and had even tried to do so 10 years prior?
Etty Hadad, senior board member of Bat Kol, a religious lesbian organization in Israel, recalls, “It was my first time marching in Jerusalem, and you don’t see that kind of thing in Tel Aviv or New York. But it was festive, and I was excited and emotional.
“Then we saw a bunch of cops, and I heard something on their radios. I told my friend that something was going on and there had probably been a fight. We didn’t realize at first that it was a stabbing. We went to the original finish line, and everyone was shocked and sad. It was very intense,” she recounts.
“For weeks after that,” she continues, “I remember telling all my gay friends in Tel Aviv that they have to come this year to Jerusalem and how important it is to be there; how happy I was to have attended, despite the outcome.”
After the unthinkable happened, Pride attendees continued the march in their own ways. Some took to the city center and protested the violence by marching in circles.
“Activists from [the Jewish extremist group] Lehava were shouting at us and so were other people,” Hadad recounts. “We were responding that how could they be shouting after what had just happened? We actually had some conversations with religious young people that were better. I think that we opened the minds of at least a few people that night, which is something.
“A bunch of friends came all the way from Rehovot just to march spontaneously around the city center with us. It wasn’t organized, it was just people who had been there at Pride and wanted to keep going. For me, that was the most emotional moment. It was saying that we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, and there’s nothing wrong about it,” she says.
For Sarah Weil, program coordinator of the Yerushalmit Movement, the trauma she suffered at last year’s Pride march was a gateway to a new kind of activism.
“The way that I responded to the trauma was not to close myself in but to do the exact opposite: to go out and be visible as an LGBT person in Jerusalem,” Weil explains. “I went out into Zion Square with a massive rainbow flag and stood in the center of the square. That was the way that I coped, by going out and engaging with others who would be my ‘enemies.’"
“I was flooded by groups of mostly young haredi men, but also women, who eagerly ran up to me, wanting to explain that the man who committed this terrible act did not represent them. In the same breath, they also told me that what I was doing was wrong and that I’m an abomination who is desecrating the holiness of the city."
“This meeting between a visibly LGBT person and haredi people was unprecedented. The haredi leadership tells their population to stay away from gay people. The fact that they wanted to come and talk to me showed that there was something happening, something new. I felt an opportunity for dialogue – an opening for connection that was rooted in shared pain,” she says.
That pain came from two different places but, nevertheless, allowed the dialogue to take place. The ultra-Orthodox were pained at being misrepresented in the public sphere, while Weil was pained at being attacked for her sexual orientation and gender identity. The shared feelings opened up the possibility for dialogue that may otherwise never have happened.
“When do you see an LGBT person engaging a verbally homophobic individual who is cursing them? You don’t see that!” Weil exclaims. “People usually just walk away from each other. But this enabled that to happen. For me, it was a life-changing experience. I realized the incredible, transformative power of these encounters.”
For the seven days following last year’s Pride march, Weil and many others sat shiva for Shira Banki in Zion Square. It was a space for mourning but also for healing and supporting one another. During this period, Weil continued to see the incredible power of face-to-face dialogues between LGBT community members and haredim and other passersby. The Meeting Place, as it is now called, continues to this day, every Thursday night in Zion Square.
“There is rampant homophobia in certain sectors of Israeli society, and those sectors are not affected by legal strides that are made for the gay community,” Weil says. “They’re not even affected by education initiatives because we can’t get into those schools. We don’t have a streamlined curriculum in Israel’s education system. We barely have sex education, forget LGBT education. So it’s very difficult to go in the official ways.
“Utilizing the public square, a diverse place where all different kinds of people from all walks of life pass by but never really talk to each other, is the perfect space for encounters. It happened naturally; totally grassroots, as a result of last year’s horrific violence. In the wake of that, a possibility for communication opened,” she says.
“We realized that we couldn’t let that moment pass,” Weil asserts. “We had to take that revelation we experienced during the public shiva, that moment of experiencing the common humanity of the other; we had to harness that.”
ONE OF the biggest changes for Weil over the past year has been the realization that a new kind of activism is required now. Whereas in the past, Jerusalem’s LGBT community engaged in protests against their would-be enemies, now a more open and compassionate approach is required.
“This new way of doing activism is more inclusive and dialogue-based,” Weil adds. “It’s trying to find a common ground with even the people who supposedly hate us and is creating communication where there hasn’t been. That requires members of the LGBT community to open up to people who we have traditionally not been willing to speak to.
“That worked in the past and we needed that stage, but we’ve reached a new level. The stabbing brought our society together in ways that we have never seen. We need new thinking now; a new way of approaching equal rights and achieving integration into our society,” she says.
Another positive change over the past year is an increased interest on the part of non-LGBT or allied organizations. In terms of funding, philanthropists are realizing how important it is to fund Israel’s LGBT community. The movement for a pluralistic Jerusalem has realized integral part of their cause.
“Like the Yerushalmit Movement, before the stabbing, they weren’t really involved in the gay community,” Weil states. “These are religious and secular Israelis and olim, who are all involved in creating a Jerusalem that is inclusive of the other and differences while respecting the holiness and history of the city and still being modern and open to development. The stabbing allowed those kinds of organizations to realize that the LGBT cause is a part of their larger vision to achieve a pluralistic Jerusalem. We must strengthen the LGBT community here. I think that this is an amazing development for our movement.”
The knowledge that there is a vital need for visibility among Jerusalem’s LGBT community has permeated the collective consciousness over the past year. Daniel Jonas, chairman of Havruta, an organization for religious gay men in Israel, affirms, “There have been two major changes in the past year for Jerusalem’s LGBT community. More people became active, and there are more rainbow flags hanging from windows and balconies. You see more LGBT presence in Jerusalem in general. People need to see that we are here. It’s not only in Tel Aviv or once a year in Jerusalem; we are everywhere. Just a few days ago, I got a picture of a rainbow flag in Shiloh. There is a sense that if people see it more, it will become more legitimate.”
Hopes were high for this year’s Pride march, scheduled for yesterday, that it would not only be violence-free but also symbolic of where Jerusalem is now and where it could be in the future. Nadav Schwartz, community coordinator for the Jerusalem Open House, the LGBT activist organization that coordinates the Pride march, says, “Pride in Jerusalem is really about the community. The community takes charge of it and makes sure that it’s going to happen and be the best that it can be. We are expecting a few thousand people to come out, but you never know. There are over 100 organizations involved with this year’s march, which is definitely more than last year. Not only organizations within the community, but we’ve gotten more organizations from outside the community that want to take part.
“Over the past year, I’ve seen much more acceptance, and people realize that what happened last year cannot happen again,” Schwartz continues. “By being silent about it, you’re taking part in the hatred. That’s a positive change, but it’s still not perfect, and there are still those who oppose the march. I always get the question of why we need to march in Jerusalem. I answer that somebody thought it made sense to murder someone else just because they’re different; that’s a good enough reason.”
Many view Pride 2016 as a testament to the fact that Jerusalem’s LGBT community will not be bullied into silence or obscurity. Instead, they move forward together with heads held high, knowing there is much work yet to do.
Miryam Kabakov, executive director of Eshel, an LGBT organization that focuses on creating bridges into Orthodox communities, says, “My hopes for the parade this year are that it will be peaceful and eye-opening for those who need their eyes opened. And for others, it should be a vehicle for feeling less shame and for feeling proud and happy about who they are.”
Kabakov is a featured speaker at the after-Pride Shabbat dinner event, hosted by Bat Kol, Havruta and Shabbat Shelach, a new organization that creates community around the Shabbat table for lesbians living in the capital. The Pride Shabbat dinner has been going on for a few years now, but this year it promises to be bigger than ever before – another sign of the times.
“The greatest change that I’ve seen in our community over the past year, specifically in Jerusalem, is that more and more people are taking responsibility for their lives,” Weil concludes. “More people are getting involved in LGBT activism and community life. More people are wanting to make a contribution, wanting to do something for themselves and their communities. That for me is really encouraging. There have been so many new initiatives started this year. It’s unprecedented, and it’s totally amazing.”
It is no small fact that Shira Banki, though not gay herself, was marching to support her LGBT friends’ right to live their lives. Banki was the epitome of what Pride is all about and what Jerusalem’s future could be: inclusion and understanding of the other.