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Gay Pride marches are generally pretty fun. So I was expecting a carnival atmosphere, lots of rainbow stripes and at least a bubble machine or two at Israel’s second largest annual parade. Rainbow stripes there were, but not much else was familiar. Alongside the 1,600 police officers (at least one for every two participants) lining the route, the mood was sober. In between routine speeches on coexistence and tolerance came earnest reminders to drink a lot of water in the hot Middle Eastern sun; those beside me nodded approvingly. Israeli daily Haaretz reported that one man had reprimanded another for removing his shirt and walking bare-chested: “This is Jerusalem.”

As a holy city to all three major monotheistic religions, Jerusalem would never be an uncontroversial venue for Gay Pride. In 2005 a young Haredi (ultra-orthodox Jew) stabbed three participants with a kitchen knife; in 2006, when the World Pride event was coming to town, among those expected to be in attendance were 12,000 heavily armed police officers—roughly 40 percent of the entire Israeli force. Ultra-orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem witnessed weeks of riots and prominent rabbis called for violent opposition to the “abomination” happening in the holiest of cities. That rally went ahead without problems, but dark clouds have hovered over the rainbows ever since: not for nothing were all those policemen brandishing riot gear.

This year the Haredim decided to tone down their protests and stage a small rally in their own neighborhood, leaving the rest of us to our banners and free mineral water. In the relative quiet, I was struck not by the opposition itself— religious hostility to homosexuality is hardly new—nor even by the strange, muted atmosphere, but rather by the bizarre coalitions the issue of gay rights in Israel induces, the unity it creates.

Unnatural unions that would have made the Levite priests tremble in their graves sprang up as a response to the 2006 parade: in an effort to get the event banned, extreme right-wing Jewish groups (including Kach, a banned terrorist organization which advocates the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel) joined forces for the first time ever with the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement (famed for not recognizing Israel and itself regularly accused of terrorist activities). Five Haredi rabbis and Sheikh Zarzur, leader of the Ra’am Ta’al Israeli Arab Islamist party, spoke together at a press conference to call for a “hudna” (ceasefire) in the Israeli-Arab conflict so that both sides could join forces to reverse gay rights achievements in Israel. It hardly takes an expert to appreciate that these groups make strange bedfellows, but for the uninitiated, let me assure you: this is frankly weird, even for a country where voters can cast their lot for the “Holocaust Survivors and Legalize Cannabis Party.” It would seem that the threat of homosexuality spurred religious leaders on both sides to adopt the proverb that one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend. You wonder why Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama are wasting their time with fancy peace conferences when the answer can be found so easily among homophobic agitators.

Ordinary residents were quick to follow their leaders into action. While civic participation and protest is normal for West Jerusalem’s Jewish residents, East Jerusalem’s Arabs have largely boycotted the city’s democracy since Israel annexed their side of town in 1967. Yet the Jerusalem Gay Pride led them to join in a “West Jerusalem” affair: a combination of traditional Palestinian hostility to homosexuality, reverence for Jerusalem as a holy city and the rare blessing of their community leaders saw hundreds of Arab protestors join in the Jewish fun.

The unions do not end there, since the question of gay rights has also forced another unlikely marriage—this time a civil one, between gay Jews and gay Arabs. Despite Western images of fire and brimstone, Jerusalem is not ruled by rampant religious extremists: it is relatively tolerant in most of its neighborhoods and houses an openly gay community. This is not true of the Palestinian territories, where homosexuality is widely denied or repressed. Even in the relatively liberal city of Ramallah in the West Bank, where homosexual Palestinians report less hostility, few dare to lead an openly gay lifestyle. Israel has therefore granted permanent residency to several hundred homosexuals who have fled persecution in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and many of them now have Israeli partners. The Shushan, Jerusalem’s only gay bar—now closed owing to financial troubles— was one of the only “Jewish” venues in the city frequented by Arabs, and used to host performances by gay Palestinian artists and drag queens. Not only Palestinians, but gay Haredi Jews—from the same community that so vociferously opposes Gay Pride—found sanctuary in the bar. Its owner, Saar Netanel, who also serves as Jerusalem’s only homosexual city councilor, proudly declared in a Haaretz interview after the closure, “Shushan is the only place in Israel where the Haredim, Arabs, religious and secular could sit together and have a good time. When they left Shushan, each returned to his own ghetto.”

But perhaps these cross-cultural unions are not all that surprising. It seems natural, in a way, that traditionalists will set aside their differences in the face of the liberality that threatens to unsettle them all; and even that in the face of overwhelming prejudice and pressure from their compatriots, gay Palestinians find refuge with gay Israelis. What is much more interesting is to see how the ramifications of Gay Pride do not stop at the extremes—with the Haredim, the Palestinians and the gays—but point to a tension at Israel’s very heart, present ever since the country’s inception.

The founders of the state of Israel had a secular polity in mind. Yet ever since the historic compromise that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, made with the ultra-orthodox community shortly before Israel’s foundation in 1948, the country has been torn between its secular and religious citizens. Needing to secure a united Israeli coalition against the anticipated Arab invasion, Ben-Gurion granted certain concessions to the Haredim, exempting them from army service and giving the ultra-orthodox Rabbinate authority over certain civic rituals, including marriage and burial. This situation still stands, with the corresponding Christian and Muslim authorities dealing with their respective populations. Consequently, even atheist Israelis can find themselves forbidden to marry or divorce if they fail to adhere to religious requirements, and members of different religions can only get married abroad. Since religious bodies control all weddings, there can be no civil marriages at all—let alone gay ones.

So far, so illiberal. Yet the daily reality for gay Israelis is not so grim. Until 2007 Israel was the only country in Asia outlawing discrimination against homosexuals, and it is still the only Middle Eastern country to do so. Gay marriages conducted abroad are legally recognized, and common-law same-sex marriages have been recognized for years. Unlike in some Western countries, gay men and women can serve in the army, gay couples can adopt and the age of consent has always been the same for homosexuals and heterosexuals. Tel Aviv, the second largest city, has a famously large and vibrant gay community, and its council even has a special committee on homosexuality. In other words, Israel is not a bad place to be gay.

This brings us to our third beautiful union: not only does this thorny issue throw religious Jews into the arms of religious Arabs and gay Palestinians into the arms of gay Israelis, but to some extent it also unites secular Israelis, especially (but not only) those on the Left. Israel is a highly developed country with a flourishing cultural life, a good level of education and a few openly gay members of the Knesset; but not long ago in that same parliament Shlomo Benizri, a representative for an ultra-orthodox party, attributed earthquakes to God’s anger over homosexual rights granted in the Jewish State. (He has now fallen foul of the Israeli penchant for prosecuting corrupt politicians and is serving a four year prison sentence for accepting bribes.) Some secularists argue that the biggest threat to the Israeli way of life is not a Palestinian martyr or an Iranian nuclear bomb, but the influence of the ultra-orthodox in the Knesset and beyond. Haredim are increasingly resented for their welfare dependency, their refusal to serve in the army and their creeping takeover of previously secular neighborhoods.

Without doubt, Tel Aviv is the cultural Mecca of Israeli secularism. For its admirers, the city is a breath of socially liberal fresh air in the conservative Middle East. They enjoy its tolerant atmosphere, gender equality, thriving cultural scene and fondness for frozen yogurt and organic juices that revive body and soul. Tel Aviv is a city of espressos, modern living, Bauhaus balconies, beaches and internationally famous transsexual singers (or one, at least). This year’s Tel Aviv Gay Pride was the antithesis of its counterpart in Jerusalem: a triumphant parade through town, it was attended by 20,000 people and culminated in a giant party on the beach, complete with the symbolic marriage of five gay couples at sunset.

So when, on an August evening this year, a lone masked gunman walked into a gay venue in the center of Tel Aviv and opened fire, killing two and wounding fifteen, the city reacted with anger as much as grief. The finger was immediately pointed at the Haredim and the battle cry went up: this was not just an attack on the homosexual community, but on our very freedoms as secular, liberal people. A night rally was organized to mark the end of the traditional Jewish seven day period of mourning, and at least 20,000 Tel Avivians, around one-twentieth of the city, showed up—“to show support for gays over religious bigots,” as one participant explained to me. This despite the fact that no religious group had claimed responsibility; that ultra-orthodox leaders had immediately spoken out condemning the crime; and that the chief suspect was the ex-lover of one of the victims.

It was clear that the thousands at the rally were not just mourning the murder itself, or even the attack on gay rights in general; they were also mourning the growing influence of religion in their society. As the evening climaxed, President Shimon Peres took to the stage and pressed himself up against the microphone. “The person who pointed the gun at Nir Katz and Liz Trubeshi pointed it at all of you as well, at all of us, at you, at me,” he thundered, to feverish applause. “To freedom we were born, and in freedom we will live!” I turned to the young man next to me and asked who he thought had carried out the shooting. “Some psycho Haredi, no doubt.” And why had he himself come to the rally? “To show that we seculars are not going to be scared into giving up our freedoms, that this is our way of life, our city, and”—his friend finished his thoughts—“that we’re not giving in.” Neither mentioned gay rights. In Israel, it seems, that particular struggle is often a proxy for a much older and deeper battle from whose lines no Israeli, no matter how indifferent to the plight (or blight) of homosexuals, can escape: the battle over Israel’s very nature. When push comes to shove, secularists, like the religious, stand together; and the shooting, a below-the-belt strike at the heart of Israeli secular liberalism, had forced them to nail their colors to the mast. Secular Tel Aviv’s colors were definitely, definitively rainbow striped.

 

Art credit: Yaffa Phillips

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