I had the opportunity to lead a group of New Israel Fund donors to Israel this August, most of whom were gay and lesbian, to participate in the WorldPride activities in Jerusalem. The press in Israel and around the world was buzzing with stories this past spring about the storm surrounding this second international LGBT event. The first one was in Rome in 2000, and last year’s was postponed due to the Gaza disengagement.
It was a rare display of ecumenical solidarity: the chief rabbis of Israel, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, imams and other religious leaders could finally agree on something – that the WorldPride events shouldn’t happen in Jerusalem. The New York Times had a front page picture showing religious dignitaries of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (looking snazzier than a lot of drag queens I’ve met) united in their opposition to this expression of human dignity and pluralism. The controversy carried into the press and, of course, the Knesset. It reached its nadir when an unidentified haredi group distributed a leaflet offering a NIS 20,000 bounty (about $4500) to anyone who kills a gay or lesbian participant in WorldPride. I guess life is cheap.
But then came the war. Instead of floods of visiting groups from around the world (the numbers were never actually announced), a trickle barely arrived. Many individuals, church groups and synagogues cancelled outright. Our group dropped from 32 to 15.
The WorldPride activities, organized by the grassroots LGBT group Jerusalem Open House, were a blur of lectures, seminars and site visits, ending with a party at Oman 17. Yet hardly anyone in the city, or country for that matter, was aware of it. Now true, there was a war going on, but usually gay men and lesbians in Jerusalem warrant a reaction. The Jerusalem Open House did a yeoman’s job of coordinating and organizing a myriad of disparate (and often dysfunctional) groups.
The center piece of WorldPride, the much touted “march” never happened, cancelled by the authorities due to the security forces burden surrounding the war. Instead, WorldPride organized a silent, peaceful gathering that was unfortunately ambushed by a group of gay anarchist (calling themselves Queeruption). They disrupted the vigil with raucous anti-war protests and posters that led to the police intervening and breaking up the gathering. But even this drama went fairly unnoticed. In fact, I was sitting in an outdoor café 2 blocks from the melee and didn’t even notice until a friend sent me a text message about it. The irony was apparent: it wasn’t the ultra-orthodox, the politicians, or the police that disrupted WorldPride, but rather a splinter LGBT group.
Sixty minutes and a million miles away is the gay scene in Tel Aviv. Here they practically embrace gay culture, with the Tel Aviv municipality spending money to promote its pride events on the European gay circuit party scene. One of the big gay dance clubs in Tel Aviv held an official after party for WorldPride featuring Junior Vasquez as the lead DJ (and if you don’t know who that is, you really need to get out more often). How telling that the only event hosted by Tel Aviv during the week-long festivities was a big dance party. A similar one in Jerusalem fizzled with only a smattering of participants.
Given the enormous divides in Israeli society, it’s remarkable at how progressive Israel has become regarding LGBT rights. No, gays can’t marry (yet). But in case after case the Israeli judiciary has acknowledged gay men and lesbians as civil partners receiving similar rights of inheritance, adoption and property as married couples. And we all know that gays and lesbians can and do serve in the military in Israel.