Young, gifted and gay in Jerusalem

Assessing the winds of change in the city’s LGBT community, and what has been accomplished since the pride parade stabbing last summer that shocked the nation.

LGBT supporters flood the capital’s streets and wave custom pride flags, after the murder of Shira Banki at the city’s pride parade last July (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
LGBT supporters flood the capital’s streets and wave custom pride flags, after the murder of Shira Banki at the city’s pride parade last July
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
To be “young, gifted and black,” as in the famous Nina Simone song from the 1960s, might be part of Roi Grufi’s credo – with a slight tweak to “young, gifted, gay and Mizrahi” – expressing the reality of his life in conservative Jerusalem.
Grufi points out that in no circumstances would he walk hand in hand with his partner in the streets of the city.
“People may make hurtful remarks – it is not tolerated. And I’m not talking about kissing, but just holding hands. That is not something one does here,” he says.
Today, married to his partner and living in an apartment they purchased in one of the capital’s secular neighborhoods, Grufi adds that “the public in Tel Aviv is much more accepting, inclusive,” but admits that this could also mean that “in Tel Aviv, people just don’t really care who you are and what you do, as long as you don’t bother them; so there’s also the reverse side. Yes, there is a high amount of indifference, which enables gay people to not feel threatened.”
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the capital has still not totally recovered from the attack during last summer’s pride parade that claimed the life of young Shira Banki, who attended the parade out of solidarity with gay friends. The fact that the murderer, known to be mentally unbalanced, was the same person who stabbed three participants at the same event 10 years before made it all the more painful. Yishai Schlissel not only never expressed remorse for his act in 2005, but even publicly announced his intention to do it again as soon as he was released from prison.
Yet for many members of the LGBT community, Schlissel is only one aspect of the problems they face here. While in haredi society the official attitude is to ignore the mere existence of the gay community as much as possible, the general atmosphere in Jerusalem is one that doesn’t make the community members feel secure.
“Jerusalem is a right-wing city, with a largely right-wing community, mostly religious to different degrees and very conservative,” says Grufi. “It’s not that there are no LGBT people who have right-wing views, of course, but the overall feeling is that it is not the most tolerant community. That makes the atmosphere one in which a gay person doesn’t feel at ease and cannot feel at home from the get-go.”
However, a few things that have happened – some prior to the stabbing of Banki, but most after her death – in the city center and at the municipality may indicate some winds of change.
While the stabbing itself occurred on the pride parade route, the city center and more precisely, Zion Square, have become the eye of the storm. Since Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014, dozens of young people, with the help of dialogue expert Hagai Agmon-Snir of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center on Mount Zion, have turned it into a sparring spot, often dominated by bullies – most of them identified with Lehava, a far-right Jewish extremist movement.
But if violence, even if primarily in the form of verbal exchanges, prevailed until the murder, something changed after it, with key players seeing a chance to change the discourse – namely the Yerushalmit movement, with its dedicated activists like Sarah Weil, an LGBT community activist and founder of the Women’s Gathering, a Jerusalem-based cultural event directed toward the lesbian, bisexual and transgender women’s community.
Weil was involved from the outset in the attempt to find ways to seize the opportunity of what went on in Zion Square, in order to give visibility to the LGBT community and bring significant change for the better. She stresses that while Jerusalem is mostly a safe city, “there is still a big problem with general societal ignorance and its resultant homophobia.”
Queer culture, she explains, is for everyone, as “queer people have been... reinterpreting and expanding gender and sexual norms, creating new expressions of sexuality. That progress has seeped into the general community, and heterosexual people are benefiting from a much more fluid sexuality.”
Born and raised in a Reform environment, Weil became attracted to Orthodoxy but finally distanced herself from that society.
“I find myself at the intersection between traditional Judaism and the modern world; I am constantly trying to integrate these different worlds. If you’re honest,” she says, “you see that there is a conflict between traditional Judaism and the modern, secular world – and that is not a conflict I am prepared to disregard. It is an important conflict. Judaism needs that struggle. It will force us to search for and mine new interpretations of the Torah; it will keep the Torah a ‘wellspring of life’ and not let it become a dead, rigid book.”
With that in mind, Weil also organizes encounters for women – straight and lesbian alike – as well as special Shabbat programs (Shabbat Shela), each time in another city venue, attended by a growing number of participants.
With these issues in her background, Weil stepped into the events at Zion Square and quickly became involved in the discussions about how the area might be transformed. Together with the Yerushalmit Movement, she helped create a new initiative, dedicated to the memory of Shira Banki. The movement meets every week in the square to facilitate dialogue and mutual respect between people from different sectors of Israeli society.
Recently, the municipality announced a competition for the structural redesign of the square; Weil notes that in the beginning, this project was not connected to what was happening there in the evenings.
It took time and the involvement of Deputy Mayor Tamir Nir (Yerushalmim) to reach the meeting point.
From there, the idea came to life to dedicate the renovated square as a space of tolerance in memory of Banki. “The redesign will engrave the memory of Shira and the values she stood for in the heart of Jerusalem, and root the LGBT community in the story of the city,” asserts Weil.
FOR SARAH Kala-Meir, CEO of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH), the situation is even more complicated.
“Since the murder of Shira, things have calmed down somewhat, and it seems and sounds as if the danger is gone; the public discourse is that we shouldn’t be afraid.”
“But that’s only on the surface,” she cautions.
“There is still a lot of fear, not specifically linked to the haredi sector, but there is a lot of fear and insecurity, and we do as much as we can to help the youth and the older members of the community to overcome these fears.”
Kala-Meir points out that while there hasn’t been any known, official support from the ultra-Orthodox community in aiding Schlissel’s act, there is a feeling that despite lack of proof, he may have had some support, as it is clear to her that he couldn’t have committed the crime on his own. However, she concedes that today the major threat doesn’t seem to come from the haredi community but from religious right-wing activists, mostly youth identified with Lehava, “but for now, they seem to be busy elsewhere.”
The Jerusalem Open House was founded in 1997 under mayor Ehud Olmert. At the beginning, Olmert tried to ignore its existence and refrained from granting it any municipal support. By the second year of its activities, Olmert, whose daughter is a lesbian, changed his attitude and began to give the pride parade a kind of welcome, becoming more engaged in supporting JOH activities through the municipality. Tough opposition from haredi representatives in his coalition at city council prevented it for a while, until it was proposed that the JOH be listed as a community center and receive funding as such.
For many years Olmert, followed by mayor Uri Lupolianski and Mayor Nir Barkat, have tried to avoid funding the JOH, but today it receives a budget of NIS 200,000.
Yet Kala-Meir maintains that considering that the organization’s total budget is about NIS 1 million, the municipal support is far from sufficient.
“It is not only the money but the help in human resources that we need. For example, the municipality sends us a part-time social worker for youth, but it is still not a permanent position.”
Over the years, and despite tough opposition from the haredi sector – though coming from other sectors as well – the annual Jerusalem pride marches organized by the center have morphed into large human rights demonstrations, presented as aiming at a much larger target than LGBT rights and incorporating issues of tolerance and human rights.
In 2006, after a few years of very quiet parades that did not appear to bother even the haredi sector, the JOH’s then-CEO Hagai Elad decided it was time to broaden the scope. The JOH hosted an international parade, World Pride, resulting in violent riots in the haredi sector, which opposed the idea that gays from all over the world would come to “desecrate” the holy city.
Not just haredim opposed it, however, as an unexpected ad hoc coalition was formed between representatives of the national-religious sector and Muslims in the city, united in preventing World Pride. It finally took place in a closed area, the Givat Ram Stadium, since police declared they couldn’t provide full security to the participants.
In 2005, after his first pride parade stabbing, Schlissel was convicted of three charges of attempted murder and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Released in 2015, his first action was to attack again, injuring six and murdering Banki. Yet again, the haredi Schlissel was not the only one who opposed the parade. Radical right-wing activists Hillel Weiss, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir declared a “holy war” against those participating in the parade and predicted that it would cause violence. Earlier, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) organized a parade of animals, comparing them to the “beastly gay parade.”
Yet over the years, the capital's gay parade has seemed to reach a wider audience, attracting many straight attendees who choose to show support for their friends. Most of the change can be attributed to the work done by the JOH, especially in terms of education at various levels. Kala-Meir says that its programs include education and social work for men and women of all ages who have come out of the closet or have yet to do so, and for their relatives who want to know more. The organization also founded Israel’s first LGBT health clinic.
“We have groups that work on the socio-psychiatric aspect of their needs, and others that develop and promote social aspects of encounters. In fact, we have reached a point where you can hardly find a free evening at the JOH to schedule some activity,” she says.
Kala-Meir says that her major concern is to provide understanding for the larger audience – parents of gays, friends and young people afraid of deciding who they really are.
“For that matter, we have special education programs, which we provide in schools, including religious schools that invite us to talk to the students,” she adds, noting that the educational work is done despite the lack of support and inclusion from the municipality’s education administration.
Another remaining task is the issue of young Arab residents facing serious difficulties – including threats – in their communities. While there is one group for young Arabs at the JOH, Kala-Meir notes that the main problem is to find enough volunteers to work with gay Arab youth.
Recently, a new aspect has shed light on the issues at the JOH. Like Grufi, who for five years has been an active member and an educator and coordinator for youth groups there, Kala-Meir – who is straight – is of Mizrahi origin, as was former CEO Elinor Sidi.
“I was certainly not chosen for the position because I am Mizrahi,” she details. “But [how LGBT people are treated in that community] is definitely an emerging part of the discourse.”
Grufi says that despite the generally negative attitude toward gays among the Mizrahi community – especially the older generation – the sense of profound connection among members of a family will ultimately transcend any reservation they may have.
“One family member in particular was, in the beginning, strongly against my way. He even tried to convince me to go to a rabbi who, according to him, could help me get over my tendency,” says Grufi.
“He eventually dropped that, though he continued to express his opposition to my being gay. Nevertheless, he attended my wedding with my partner. The sense of belonging to the same family was stronger than all his reservations and opposition.
“My mother’s first act, when I told her I was gay, was to hug me tight. So while some of the strongest opposition may still be found in the Mizrahi community, this is exactly the same community in which, after all, a gay person can feel the most accepted. It may sound strange, but it is true.”
In fact, Grufi – who came out of the closet at age 19 – created a Mizrahi group at the Hebrew University during his studies there. At one of the evenings he organized, he proposed a program of ethnic queer culture.
“At the end of the evening, there was a sort of pageant of participants who had henna in their hands, as is the custom in the ceremony before the wedding eve in Mizrahi tradition,” he recounts. “But there was no wedding in the end, and for some of us gays participating in this evening, it was heartbreaking. It was a very touching moment through which empathy could touch our community.
“I guess it did make a difference for many of the participants.”
THOUGH THE city’s LGBT community has generally been dispersed – composed of many different groups and circles not connected to each other – Banki’s murder brought people together like never before. There has been a sharp increase in LGBT activities and in particular, a new trend of cooperation between different groups.
On the night of March 8, for the first time in Jerusalem, all the organizations and groups serving LGBT women joined together to produce an International Women’s Day celebration. The evening hosted different female voices – religious and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish, young and old – along with music and dancing. “It was an amazing feeling to see so many diverse women all coming together in solidarity,” enthuses Haya Shalom, a longtime LGBT activist and founder of the group Yerushalmiyot 40+, for women over 40.
Another positive development in the capital’s LGBT landscape is the Jerusalem Gay Student Association, which creates a supportive community for LGBT students through events and activism. “Last year, after the horrifying incident at the pride parade, the understanding of the need of a supporting community increased. We therefore initiated the ‘pride coalition,’ with the aim of bringing different Jerusalem LGBT communities together,” says JGSA head Leshem Brosh.
He concludes on a hopeful note: “Our first joint activity will be for Purim, on March 24 at the First Station.”