Gay rights activist says she’s optimistic about community’s future in Jerusalem

Sarah Weil is the founder of the Women’s Gathering, a Jerusalem-based cultural event directed toward the lesbian, bi and trans women’s community.

SARAH WEIL (right) and Jewish educator and trans-activist Yiscah Smith wrap themselves in a flag at the rally in Jerusalem Saturday night (photo credit: Courtesy)
SARAH WEIL (right) and Jewish educator and trans-activist Yiscah Smith wrap themselves in a flag at the rally in Jerusalem Saturday night
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After the stabbing at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem on Thursday, it was the first time Sarah Weil felt scared walking through the Holy City with a pride flag.
“I never felt afraid, being gay in Jerusalem,” the activist says. “I can pass as a straight woman, that’s how I’ve survived in this community, to avoid confrontation and live my life. But walking around with a gay flag in Jerusalem, I received insults and was worried that someone would throw something at me from a moving car. One person yelled at me ‘animal,’ in Hebrew, one group of teenage boys passed me and said, ‘You should burn in hell.’”
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The 31-year-old is the founder of the Women’s Gathering, a Jerusalem-based cultural event directed toward the lesbian, bi and trans women’s community. Today, she also works at Elijah Interfaith Institute, an international organization that promotes dialogue between religious communities, education and research.
“My work in the gay community is also needed in the interfaith community. We need to have this same tolerance between religions.”
The pride parade is an essential event, Weil argues, it brings the topic of homosexuality in society into the discourse. “The momentum of the parade, the gruesomeness and the horror of the [stabbing] of the attack, it forces us to talk about the issues, that’s the positive.”
Weil explains that criticism of the Pride parade in Jerusalem mostly has people saying they can accept homosexuality, albeit with the caveat that people keep their relationships in the privacy of their homes and that having it on display is disrespectful to communities and people who don’t agree.
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“When I explain that the reason they’re saying this is actually because of the years of pride parades that brought visibility to LGBT community, it is a revelation for them… only a few years ago, many of these people, they didn’t even know that gay people existed. The pride parade is absolutely essential for letting the larger community know that we are here, that we exist, and to advocate for tolerance and equal rights. Hopefully, one day we won’t need it anymore.”
Weil says there was absolutely a failure on the part of police to not be aware of and stop Yishai Schlissel from stabbing six people. On Sunday, 16-year-old victim Shira Banki died from her wounds. Schlissel, from Modi’in Illit, is a convicted felon who had just been released after serving 10 years in prison for the stabbing of three people at the 2005 gay pride parade.
She continues that she was saddened by the police response at the Jerusalem anti-violence rally Saturday night that, while trying to maintain the peace and protect those gathered, they applied collective punishment to the religious community by profiling them and not permitting more to enter. At the barricades, she says the police stopped an Orthodox rabbi she was with while she was holding a pride flag. “I had to tell them that he was okay, that he could come in with me.”
While the parade and rally are good as one-time events, Weil says there needs to be follow-up to really make an impact.
At the end of the rally, when the police barricades went down and the people dispersed, Weil stayed for four hours having intense discussions with ultra-Orthodox community members who weren’t allowed in, but came after and engaged in conversation.
Two things happened. First, the haredim that approached Weil felt compelled to distance themselves from Schlissel, saying his act of terrorism doesn’t represent the religious community.
However, they then continued to say really vile things, attacking the gay community for its affront to religion.
Yet, for Weil, the most positive thing about their interactions was that they stayed. “They didn’t stay because they wanted to continue to berate me, but I believe they also wanted to hear my opinion."
“For most of them, their opinion of the gay community stems from what they see in the media and the general homophobic cultural climate. They think the gay community is just naked men dancing on a float like they see in Tel Aviv, and that the gay community represents all the values that they are against. Most of them have never met a full flesh-and-blood gay person."
“The pride parade and the rally are one event, but it needs to spur face to face discussion and action.”
Weil applauds Rabbi Benny Lau and all the religious leaders who came out to the Jerusalem rally on Saturday and said definitively that this type of hate speech must be wiped out. “We need to stop it at the root before it can express itself like it did at the pride parade on Thursday,” Weil says paraphrasing Lau’s speech.
“This kind of speech creates the environment within which a person who is a little bit nuts,” she continues, “will not only speak violently, but will actually take it and do something active, this is what has to be addressed, these kinds of speech that demonize and incite hatred for the other.”
In Israel for 10 years, Weil came from a traditional, religious Jewish background, arriving in the country to study Torah at a haredi women’s seminary.
“I struggled very deeply with my sexuality, I prayed everyday for hours for hashem to change me and to live a normative religious life. Failure after failure, I realized that I had reached a point where I had a very clear choice to make. On the one hand, the shame was so great, and my inability to overcome my desire was so weak, that I thought the only way to live with myself would be to kill myself. On the other hand, I could accept that ‘I’m flawed,’ according to the ideology I believed at the time, and instead live a life as close to the Torah as possible. I chose the latter, with a lot of support and, ever since, have been struggling to integrate both my religious and gay identities. This is one of the driving factors behind my activism in the gay community.”
Weil is optimistic about the future.
“If we can create a more tolerant and pluralistic society here in Jerusalem through dedication and perseverance to open hearts and minds, this positive change can happen anywhere.”
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