Vigil Disrupted by Gay Anti-War Groups
There was already a palpable tension in the air on Thursday in Jerusalem as World Pride attendees awaited the day’s main event—the 6 p.m. Protest Against Hatred.
Part of the anxiety was undoubtedly created by the uncertainty over whether the event would even take place. It had originally been planned as a Gay Pride March through the streets of Jerusalem. But with war raging in Lebanon, the city government—which had continually worked to block World Pride from taking place in the first place—told planners that there was no way for local law enforcement to provide protection. The evening before the protest, Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of Jerusalem’s Open House, the group behind World Pride, had told participants he “could not guarantee their safety” even though the event had been scaled back to a vigil with no march through the city.
PHOTO: MICHAEL T. LUONGO
Young people from Jerusalem and day-trippers from Tel Aviv, about an hour away, gathered early in the aptly named Liberty Bell Park, the Protest Against Hatred’s location. Police and soldiers, numbering up to 400 according to an off-the record comment from one soldier, lined the streets leading to the park. At least four soldiers were on horseback, waiting virtually hidden on the edges of the park. The presence of the police and soldiers might have seemed ominous, but Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue, told the 35 members of her congregation who came that they were “here for your protection” because of trouble expected from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious right.
Last year, during the city’s Gay Pride March, 18-year-old Adam Russo of Jerusalem was stabbed by a religious extremist during the Pride March and for a time was in critical condition.
This year, however, only a handful of the religious right came near the gay gathering. One old woman ran at the crowd screaming in Hebrew until she was taken away by a few female soldiers. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yehuda Levin, from New York, who had worked to stop World Pride from happening, was also on hand and, explaining that he too was reporting for a New York newspaper, refused to give this reporter his name. Levin was accompanied by Jerusalem City Councilwoman Mina Fenton, another leading opponent of the event. Fenton called World Pride “disgusting in war time,” when “our sons are giving their lives and blood is pouring in the north.” With the protest taking place a few days after the Jewish holiday of Tish’ah b’Av, which mourns the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in ancient times, Fenton warned that “God is going to take vengeance,” and that Jerusalem would “be destroyed again.”
All of this was on the edge of the park, on the sidewalk, virtually unnoticed as dozens of attendees, atop a hillside, held a large pink banner that said “Jerusalem is for All.” The sign was visible to the snarled traffic on the streets below. The church steeples of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem’s Old City, lit gold by the late afternoon sun, pierced the brilliant sky over the heads of those hoisting the banner. LGBT synagogues and churches from around the world unfurled their own banners, as the rainbow flag and those of Israel and other nations flew behind.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, CBST’s senior rabbi, commented, “I think this is going to be a statement that Jerusalem belongs to all of us,” adding, “We think our presence makes the city even more holy.”
Several groups then began to insert themselves into the event, including the Tel Aviv based Queeruption, an LGBT group opposed to World Pride. At first, they raised a few small placards about the war in Lebanon and the occupation of Palestinian lands, until they were joined by other groups such as Red-Pink, a gay communist organization, animal rights activists, and others, many of whom clutched rainbow flags as well as anti-war posters. One intriguing sign declared that gays want to come out of the closet, not come home in coffins, a play on the Hebrew word “aron” which means both closet and coffin.
Eventually, the anti-war contingent numbered more than a hundred, preempting the event organized by World Pride by grabbing all the attention of the police and the media as they shouted slogans, many aimed at the government of Israel.
As a few World Pride leaders pleaded with them to be respectful of the event’s main purpose—to emphasize unity within the LGBT community and denounce bigotry—the rump faction wandered beyond the zone within the park created by agreement with the police. The scene became more chaotic and police rushed into the crowd and arrested up to four of the protesters, with witnesses disagreeing about the exact number apprehended. With their event disrupted, the peaceful contingent from Jerusalem’s Open House Contingent, numbering perhaps 500, left an hour earlier than planned, many of then heading to a party planned at a local dance club.
El-Ad, the Open House executive director, asked whether his message had been muddied by the protest’s disruption, said, “There are many people here with many different messages. When activists are facing a situation as complex as the one we are facing, then the diversity of voices is both natural and wonderful. At the same time, World Pride and the specific events have specific messages.”
El-Ad added that the vigil was originally intended to go “against months of incitement with the forces of religion.”
With the protest over, CBST’s Kleinbaum and other LGBT rabbis planned for their Kabala Shabbat or Jewish Sabbath Torah reading on Friday evening, an event that would officially close World Pride.