Jerusalem held its first gay pride parade in 2002, an event that was fraught with contradiction for an ancient city at the heart of a struggle between two people fighting for their statehood.
At the time, one young Israeli, Nethanel Lipshitz, was a conservative rabbinical student.
“I was eighteen years old, very aware of my sexuality, and denying it at the same time,” said Lipshitz, who wanted to participate in the historic parade, but feared public ostracism. The young man spoke at a panel discussion at New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community Center on April 14.
Lipshitz decided to strike a compromise with himself––he would attend the parade, but not march and instead try to blend into the crowds of onlookers.
“I went to the streets where the parade was and tried to find a place where my face would not be in the newspapers,” he recalled.
In a bitter twist of irony, Lipshitz eventually spotted a group of Orthodox Jews yelling taunts and “terrible things” at the parade participants.
“I found a perfect spot, I found a group of people, most of whom were Orthodox, who were shouting things at those who were marching,” Lipshitz said. “I went to stand with them and then knew if my face was in the newspaper, I could always say I came to shout at the [marchers].”
Not unexpectedly, as Lipshitz lingered near the shouting protesters, he began to empathize with the queers marching past him.
“In my heart I felt a very strong identification with those who were marching, and there were thousands of them,” he said. “And I felt very ashamed to stand with such a group that shouts such terrible things.”
Confronted with his newfound affinity with the marchers, Lipshitz felt a compelling urge, yet he couldn’t take the two steps into the street to join the marchers. Instead, he spent the rest of the afternoon in the midst of taunting protesters who sneered at the gay people as they bravely marched.
Audience members at last Wednesday’s forum listened intently as Lipshitz spoke.
Some time after the parade, realizing the contradiction between his actions and his identity, Lipshitz walked into the Jerusalem Open House (JOH), a center for LGBT people and the place where Lipshitz is now a staff member, helping others who experience the internal conflict he suffered.
Jerusalem is the historical center of various religions, including Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam, whose orthodoxy proscribes homosexual practices. According to the other Israeli activists who spoke, Israel’s religious conservatives view homosexuality as a moral deficiency, in some instances equating gays with suicide bombers.
The JOH stands as a beacon of hope for members of the Israeli LGBT community and activists hope the center will become a model in religious and social tolerance. The center specializes in social outreach. It is a community center that proudly displays the gay freedom flag in the middle of Jerusalem’s central promenade.
JOH’s stated goal is to bring cohesion to Jerusalem’s LGBT community and to initiate social change by fostering a more pluralistic community, not just for gays and lesbians, but for other minorities as well, including racial and religious ones. Ever since its inception seven years ago, JOH has challenged the prevailing notions that the various groups living in Jerusalem cannot peacefully coexist.
The group’s website is in three languages (English, Hebrew, and Arabic) to facilitate the group’s social mission. An outreach coordinator specifically serves the Palestinian community. The effort has gotten the group some criticism, but JOH leaders stress that the organization is non-political. As Rina Shapiro, programming coordinator of JOH stated, “We want to be open for everybody.”
During the panel, board members, activists, and Israel’s own consul general to the United States, Alon Pinkus, discussed the work of the JOH and the ongoing efforts to prepare Jerusalem as the site for World Pride 2005. Speakers also addressed the enormous social barriers to coming out that still exist in Israel.
“With all of the imperfections Israel has, with all of the obstacles, the controversies, the cleavages, the divisions [within] Israeli society, one thing I am proud of is our record on gays and lesbians,” said Pinkus. “It is not a perfect record, and you have people who can attest here that it is not, about the difficulties, with acceptance, of tolerance ” Pinkus claimed that Israelis are not as “obsessed” as Americans with homosexuality.
“We do not make it an issue, we do not moralize, we do not pontificate, we do not impose,” the diplomat said.
On one hand, Jerusalem Open House exists for those members of the adult LGBT community imprisoned in the closet. On the other hand, it addresses the ongoing need for outreach efforts in schools and community groups, including religious institutions, for whom JOH’s message of inclusiveness is anathema.
As one panelist said, “We are building the GLBT community which [wasn’t] even possible to conceive [of building] ten years ago.”