Trauma for LGBT In Is­rael

Pride Pa­rade Stab­bing Strains Re­la­tion­ship Be­tween Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Naomi Zevel­off

Will stab­bing at­tack tear apart the com­mu­nity?

When an ul­tra- Ortho­dox fa­natic named Yishai Sch­lis­sel stabbed six peo­ple at the Jerusalem Gay Pride march in July — 16-year-old Shira Banki later died of her wounds — Sch­lis­sel also frac­tured Is­rael’s self-im­age as a global bea­con for les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der rights.

For years, Is­raeli diplo­mats have used their coun­try’s im­pres­sive record on LGBT is­sues to score po­lit­i­cal points on the world stage. But the pic­ture they painted was of Tel Aviv, the so-called gay cap­i­tal of the Mid­dle East, with its gay and les­bian bars and beaches, and miles of rain­bow bunt­ing un­furled ahead of the rau­cous an­nual pride pa­rade. Forty miles to the east, Jerusalem’s gay com­mu­nity feels like a sti­fled mi­nor­ity.

As the broad LGBT move­ment in Is­rael takes stock of the at­tack, the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two so­ci­eties has come to the fore. Three days af­ter the stab­bing, Tel Aviv ac­tivists de­clined to travel to Jerusalem to protest the vi­o­lence, in­stead stag­ing a sep­a­rate rally in Tel Aviv’s Gan Meir park. The Tel Avi­vians had al­ready planned a me­mo­rial ser­vice that evening to co­in­cide with the six year an­niver­sary of a fa­tal shoot­ing at a lo­cal gay youth cen­ter. But Jerusalemites still felt stung by the de­ci­sion.

“When this hap­pened the ex­pec­ta­tion was that ev­ery­one would drop ev­ery­thing and come and be in sol­i­dar­ity in Jerusalem,” said Tom Can­ning, spokesman of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tol­er­ance. “We wouldn’t be our small group of hun­dreds of ac­tivists, we would be our group of ac­tivists with thou­sands be­hind us. There was a strong sense of dis­ap­point­ment, I would even say dis­be­lief, that [Tel Avi­vians] were de­cid­ing to go ahead with their own event.”

Tel Aviv’s rally drew ma­jor politi­cians, with im­pas­sioned speeches by Zion­ist Union chair­man Isaac Herzog and Yesh Atid chair­man Yair Lapid. Though Pres­i­dent Reu­ven Rivlin spoke at the Jerusalem protest, ac­tivists there be­moaned the dis­unity be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties that they said feeds into Tel Aviv’s im­age as the only safe haven for gays in Is­rael.

“The Tel Aviv-based or­ga­ni­za­tions are giv­ing hand to cre­at­ing and strength­en­ing an LGBT ghetto in Tel Aviv,” said Can­ning.

The gay rights move­ment in Is­rael has its roots in Tel Aviv in the 1970s, with the found­ing of the na­tional Is­raeli Gay, Les­bian, Bi­sex­ual and Trans­gen­der As­so­ci­a­tion, known as the Agu­dah. One of the first public pride events took place in Kings of Is­rael Square, now known as Rabin Square, in the Tel Aviv city cen­ter.

In the 1990s, the fledg­ling move­ment was buoyed by a “le­gal revo­lu­tion,” He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem pro­fes­sor Alon Harel wrote in the Columbia Hu­man Rights Law Re­view. Within a few short years, the Knes­set banned work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion against gay peo­ple, the Is­rael De­fense Forces en­sured their equal treat­ment — 19 years be­fore the United States army did the same — and, fol­low­ing a high court or­der, El Al air­lines be­gan giv­ing free tick­ets to the part­ners of gay em­ploy­ees.

Then, in 2009, a gun­man en­tered a Tel Aviv gay youth cen­ter and opened fire, killing two. Six years later, the per­pe­tra­tor has still not been found. The at­tack trau­ma­tized LGBT Is­raelis, but it also sparked a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about their rights. To­day, Tel Aviv’s gay com­mu­nity is cen­tral to the city’s iden­tity and pol­i­tics. Even politi­cians from the right, such as Likud min­is­ter Miri Regev, have ap­peared at the city’s gay pride pa­rade, which drew 100,000 Is­raelis and tourists in 2015. Con­trast that to Jerusalem, where only left and cen­ter-left politi­cians show up, and marchers typ­i­cally num­ber only about 5,000.

For Tel Aviv’s well-es­tab­lished LGBT com­mu­nity, the next fron­tier is same-sex mar­riage. But while le­gal­iz­ing gay mar­riage would ben­e­fit all Is­raelis, it’s a dis­tant pri­or­ity for gay peo­ple in Jerusalem, who are fo­cused on sur­vival.

“There are two voices here,” said Sat­tath. “One is the voice of Tel Aviv that seeks free­dom of mar­riage, like in the United States, and that is a

very dif­fi­cult goal to achieve, but it is a valid goal. The other voice is that of Jerusalem. The ma­jor­ity of gay Jerusalemites are so op­pressed that they can’t even dream of mar­riage; they need ed­u­ca­tion and so­ci­etal change.”

Jerusalem’s ac­tivists say that they face a com­bi­na­tion of mu­nic­i­pal ne­glect and in­cite­ment from ul­tra-Ortho­dox rab­bis and politi­cians who see their pa­rade as an “abom­i­na­tion.” Jewish Home Knes­set mem­ber Bet­za­lel Yoel Smotrich even took to Face­book af­ter the stab­bing to call the pa­rade an “at­tempt to be­smirch tra­di­tional Jewish fam­ily val­ues.”

“The mes­sage for years has been that we are des­e­crat­ing the holy city of Jerusalem,” said Can­ning. “Peo­ple say, ‘It’s hor­ri­ble that some­one stabbed us and at­tacked us, but why you are you do­ing this in Jerusalem?’”

On the of­fi­cial level, Jerusalem’s LGBT com­mu­nity has had to fight its way to recog­ni­tion. For years, the Jerusalem mu­nic­i­pal­ity re­fused to fund the Jerusalem Open House, even though it pro­vided ser­vices to thou­sands of Jerusalemites and thus was en­ti­tled to public sup­port. In 2010, af­ter years of le­gal wran­gling, the high court or­dered the mu­nic­i­pal­ity to pay $120,000 to the Open House in com­pen­sa­tion.

The seem­ingly care­less polic­ing of Pride — Sch­lis­sel had re­cently been let out of prison for car­ry­ing out a sim­i­lar at­tack on the same march in 2005 — only height­ened the feel­ings of vul­ner­a­bil­ity among gay Jerusalemites.

Jerusalem’s LGBT ac­tivists say that ed­u­ca­tion is the key to ac­cep­tance in their city and be­yond. Ac­cord­ing to Sat­tath, all sec­u­lar schools in Is­rael have the op­tion to in­clude an LGBT-themed cur­ricu­lum. But she wants it to be a cen­tral com­po­nent of Is­raeli ed­u­ca­tion rather than an add-on. Even­tu­ally she would like to see LGBT is­sues ad­dressed in Ortho­dox and Arab schools as well.

“Ex­trem­ists have to be nour­ished some­where, and they are nour­ished by a so­ci­ety that ig­nores us and si­lences us, and where ho­mo­pho­bia is very, very preva­lent,” she said.

Sat­tath said that she has been buoyed by the sol­i­dar­ity of other Is­raelis. Many showed sup­port by chang­ing their Face­book photos to a rain­bow flag with a can­dle. Two Is­raeli celebri­ties — La­bor politi­cian Itzik Sh­muli, of Lod, and Tel Aviv jour­nal­ist Keren Neubach — pub­licly came out af­ter the stab­bing. But Ortho­dox gay Is­raelis in places like Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh found them­selves bur­row­ing deeper into the closet.

“[The stab­bing] has cre­ated an at­mos­phere in which peo­ple are afraid to tell the truth to their fam­i­lies, their close friends,” said Ron Yosef, founder of Hod, an or­ga­ni­za­tion for Ortho­dox gay men and les­bians.

In Jerusalem there is a feel­ing that LGBT lead­ers have no choice but to work within the city’s con­ser­va­tive cul­ture to change re­li­gious at­ti­tudes about their ex­is­tence. In Tel Aviv, on the other hand, ac­tivists are vig­i­lant about politi­cians try­ing to score po­lit­i­cal points at the ex­pense of their com­mu­nity. Naf­tali Ben­nett, a min­is­ter from the ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist Jewish Home party, was turned away from the Tel Aviv sol­i­dar­ity rally when he re­fused to sign a doc­u­ment to ad­vance gay rights in Is­rael. Ben­nett’s party op­poses gay mar­riage in Is­rael.

Jerusalem ac­tivists, by con­trast, opted against such a lit­mus test at their own rally.

“This was in or­der to al­low ev­ery­one from the en­tire po­lit­i­cal spec­trum and the re­li­gious spec­trum to come and speak freely against ho­mo­pho­bia and vi­o­lence,” Can­ning said. “We didn’t want to turn this into a po­lit­i­cal event.” Ben­nett chose not to at­tend the rally in Jerusalem. Af­ter the protests, Tel Aviv ac­tivists made a be­lated ges­ture to­ward Jerusalem when the Agu­dah char­tered a bus to Jerusalem for a vigil for Banki, the vic­tim of the stab­bing at­tack.

And some Tel Aviv ac­tivists are ac­knowl­edg­ing it’s time to look past the Tel Aviv “ghetto” to Jerusalem as the new bat­tle­ground for gay rights.

“The real fight is in Jerusalem,” said Mickey Gitzin, a Tel Aviv city coun­cil mem­ber and gay ac­tivist. “Many times our op­po­nents want to keep us in the ‘ghetto’ in Tel Aviv. They say, ‘This is your city, stay there.’ But we are here, we are ev­ery­where, and it is time for us to speak up.”

GETTY IM­AGES

Jerusalem Rally: Mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity and other Is­raelis protest the July 30 stab­bing at­tack at the Gay Pride pa­rade.

GETTY IM­AGES

Un­der Ar­rest, Again: Yishai Sch­lis­sel stabbed six peo­ple in Jerusalem’s 2015 Gay Pride pa­rade af­ter serv­ing a 10-year sen­tence for stab­bing three peo­ple in the 2005 pa­rade.

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