JERUSALEM—Last week’s WorldPride, organized by Jerusalem Open House, the gay community center in Jerusalem, aimed to confront religious oppression practiced by the conservative branches of the three religions that call the city home. It was the second event of its kind, following the 2000 WorldPride in Rome, which challenged the Catholic Church’s stance against equality for homosexuals. The gathering was originally planned for 2005 but had to be rescheduled to avoid the chaos that was expected to follow Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Then the war in Lebanon started, and Jerusalem’s city government, under Orthodox Mayor Uri Lupolianski —already opposed to WorldPride, believing it out of touch with the city’s conservative nature—forced the cancellation of the spotlight event: a march through the streets.
Because of the war, the administration claimed it couldn’t provide enough soldiers and police to protect the participants. This wasn’t a cop-out: Last year, during the city’s annual gay pride march, 18-year-old Adam Russo was stabbed by a member of the city’s ultra-Orthodox, right-wing Jewish community. With this in mind, Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of Jerusalem Open House, said he “could not guarantee the safety” of anyone at the rally that replaced the march.
This year, only a handful of the religious right came near the protest. Though he refused to identify himself, one was New York Rabbi Yehuda Levin, who has preached against WorldPride and petitioned Jerusalem’s leaders to stop the event. He was accompanied by Jerusalem City Councilwoman Mina Fenton, another longtime opponent of the event. She called WorldPride “disgusting in wartime,” when “our sons are giving their lives, and blood is pouring in the north.” She said gays should be put to better use helping soldiers in Lebanon or bringing food to families living in bomb shelters.
Nevertheless, atop a small hill in the middle of Liberty Bell Park, a few dozen rally-goers unfurled a large pink banner declaring, “Jerusalem Is for All.” The church steeples of Mount Zion in Jerusalem’s Old City, lit gold by the late afternoon sun, pierced the brilliant sky behind them. Signs were a mix of Hebrew, English, and Arabic—some in all three. Everyone snapped photos to send back home to friends who chickened out of coming to Israel after watching too much CNN.
Several groups then began to insert themselves into the event, including Tel Aviv-based Queeruption, which opposed WorldPride because the organizers would not take a direct stand on the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the war in Lebanon. They carried a few Lebanese flags and signs showing pictures of dead children in rubble. Many WorldPride attendees vehemently opposed both the war and the occupation of Palestine, so at first the anti-war messages were received with interest. Rosza Levitsky, a member of Queeruption, said, “I’m here as a queer Jewish New Yorker to protest in an anti-war event and [against] the occupation on the West Bank.”
Within minutes, more groups unaffiliated with WorldPride hijacked the event, turning it into an anti-war rally. They included Red-Pink, a gay Communist organization whose members clutched rainbow flags along with their anti-war signs. A few carried a large cardboard sign that read, “Tear Down the Wall,” a nod to a Berlin most were too young to remember.
One young man carried a sign saying gays want to come out of the closet, not come home in coffins. The anti-war message was a play on the Hebrew word aron, which can refer to both “closet” and “coffin.” Eventually, the anti-war group monopolized the attention of the police and the media as they shouted slogans, some against the government of Israel. A few stood near the sidewalk shouting, “1-2-3-4, we are against the war; 5-6-7-8, sodomy is great.” As a few WorldPride leaders pleaded with them to be respectful of the event’s main purpose and stay within the area sanctioned by the city, the police rushed into them.
The police didn’t behave violently, but a few protesters were slightly injured. The anti-war faction played to the cameras, striking Kent State poses. Many members of the orderly Jerusalem Open House contingent made an early departure, taking their “Jerusalem Is for All” sign with them.
Later that night, El-Ad decried the muddying of the event’s message. The vigil was originally intended to fight back “against months of incitement with the forces of religion.” He said, “We asked [participants] to deliver on their promises to us that they would be a positive part of the statement we were making.” Once he realized that the gay anti-war groups wanted to take over the event, he explained, “We had no choice but to end the protest.” Still, El-Ad feels that he “has planted a seed” in Jerusalem and Israel.