And so it was on the first official day of Israel’s World Pride, the contested event in arguably the world’s most contested city. In her speech closing Sunday’s Health Conference, Daphna Stromsa, the health coordinator for Jerusalem’s Open House, the organization behind World Pride, a celebration of LGBT life worldwide, had called the day “in Israel, a small miracle,” a quiet reference to the sacred events with significance for three of the world’s major religions that have transpired over the thousands of years of the city’s history. A night of dinners with new friends, a lively opening party for the World Pride Film Festival, or simple reflection about where they were awaited the participants.
New York’s Callen-Lorde Community Health Center played a pivotal role in the Health Conference, with Jay Laudato, its executive director giving the opening speech. The ultimate goal was to see if the Callen-Lorde model of LGBT healthcare delivery could be replicated in Israel. Laudato touched on the variety of healthcare services that Callen-Lorde provides but explained that the most important thing was “simply that we exist, and we are a safe place” for queer New Yorkers to access non-judgmental healthcare.
Laudato commented that he was glad that he and Mayer had come in spite of the on-going war in the north of Israel with Lebanon.
It was “very clear that Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were safe,” he said. “The more difficult question—was it appropriate during a time of violence? A health conference during a time of war is very appropriate, so we’re pleased that we’ve come.”
Mayer commented that it was not unusual for Callen-Lorde to be asked to help other countries planning similar clinics, and he pointed to contact with Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, and other countries. In fact, he said that Callen-Lorde had helped the Hadassah lesbian health clinic to launch and to receive funding from the MAC Cosmetics AIDS Fund. Orni Goffer, a volunteer with Jerusalem’s Open House, which serves the LGBT community—Jews, Palestinians, and others—called the New Yorkers’ involvement “the spine of this conference” and that without them, it would not have happened.
Other New Yorkers active in helping World Pride to happen include Rabbi Stephen Greenberg, an Orthodox Jew who wrote about the reconciliation of his faith with his homosexuality in “Wrestling With God and Men.” Greenberg led a pilgrimage of gay and lesbian clergy from the United States through Jerusalem. His group wandered the historical Old City, visiting the Wailing Wall and the remains of Solomon’s Temple, as well as the surrounding Muslim Quarter. They also walked the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus is said to have taken on his way to crucifixion.
Greenberg’s group also visited the bitterly controversial “Separation Wall”—critics have called it an “Apartheid Wall”—dividing contested areas of Jerusalem from Palestinian-dominated areas of the West Bank.
Greenberg had many conflicting emotions about the pilgrimage and the several weeks he’d spent in Israel before World Pride.
“In some ways, [it’s] personally transforming,” he said, adding, it was “a lot to hold together.”
On the journey with Greenberg was Reverend Doctor Leanne Tigert of New Hampshire, from the United Church of Christ Ministries, a Protestant church group that she said had been active in LGBT issues since the 1960s. She explained that the pilgrimage aimed to examine a variety of issues in Israel—in addition to LGBT rights—linking sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism into its mix.
“This feels perfect,” Tigert said. “I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is God’s work.”
World Pride’s second day began with a focus on gay youth with a session in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In addition to a handful of political leaders, the session included young LGBT activists who came hoping to meet the nation’s leaders and express the challenges they face growing up in Israeli society. Gal Scholl, a 16-year-old teenager who lives in the suburbs of Jerusalem, said that being openly gay was difficult for him.
“Teenagers, they laugh and make fun of everything,” he said. Other students “start up with me,” teasing him in class.
“I think they need to give us more attention about our rights,” he said of the Knesset leaders.
It took several months of work for the session to happen, according to Noa Sattath, one of the chairs of the Jerusalem Open House.
“This is remarkable,” she said, “because it’s the first meeting between Parliament and gay youth.”
The session’s discussion focused on funding for sex education, preventing violence against gay youth, transgendered teenagers, and what rights young LGBT people aged 15 to 25 already have in Israel. Despite the extensive planning efforts, only a handful of politicians were at the session, the most important being Labor Party Knesset Member Sheli Yachimovitch, who represents Tel Aviv. She is one of the strongest supporters of LGBT rights in Israel, but finds that not all her Knesset colleagues can be so vocal, saying there are silent allies.
“A few Knesset members sympathize with gay and lesbian youth but can’t show it,” she said, explaining that come election time, “it will hurt them at the political level.”
“We talk about visibility for youngsters,” she added, but, “in Israel, especially because it is a religious country, and a very militarized one, young gays and lesbians have faced difficulties.”
Yachimovitch pointed specifically to last year’s Jerusalem Pride in which Adam Russo,18 at the time, was nearly stabbed to death.
At the session’s end, when gay youth approached her about specific problems, she gave out her personal cell phone number, explaining to this journalist, “This is a small country, we have to be this way with our people.”
After the Knesset session ended, 40 youth and counselors from the United States and Israel headed to the Spitzer Youth Center in another section of Jerusalem to draft an LGBT Youth and Teen’s Bill of Rights to present to the Knesset after World Pride ended.
Speaking off the record, as he was not allowed to talk to journalists, one counselor mentioned that about 100 more youth were expected to attend, but fears growing out of last year’s attack on Russo kept many away.
“Especially to be in the Old City is dangerous for them,” the counselor said, because of the conservative nature of those who live in the areas of Jerusalem so closely associated with the religious history of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Eden Shiloni, the youth coordinator for the Jerusalem Open House, said that the young people are “very interested in the mission,” and that they are teaching them “the democratic part” of obtaining their rights as LGBT citizens.
Monday’s events closed with a City Hall reception for LGBT leaders and faith groups from the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and Europe who had come on special trips for World Pride. The event was hosted by Sa’ar Ran Nathaniel, Jerusalem’s first openly gay city councilmember. City Hall might have had a rainbow flag in its main meeting chamber for the first time ever, but it hung over an empty chair, the seat of Jerusalem’s conservative Mayor Uri Lupolianski, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who boycotted the event and tried to prevent World Pride from happening.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the North American co-chair of World Pride and leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, sat on the empty chair and announced, “I want him to know that a lesbian rabbi sat in his chair.”
Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Open House, reminded the people in City Hall that if anyone had experienced discrimination since arriving in Jerusalem, that “this is the way things are [in Jerusalem]. You’re not getting the wrong impression.”
Throughout the events of the first two days, the attendees were overwhelmingly Jewish, with a handful of Christians, and virtually no Muslims, many of whom boycotted World Pride. Louis Georges Tin, a Frenchman who founded IDAHO, the International Day Against Homophobia, remarked, “I don’t agree with the politics of Israel,” but that in spite of many of his friends’ refusal to attend, he came because “we need to promote dialogue if we need to understand each other.”
At the World Pride Multifaith Convocation at Hebrew Union College on Tuesday, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who represents Manhattan’s West Side and a portion of Brooklyn, emphasized the importance of tolerance of religious diversity in democracies. “Modernity does not necessarily translate into secularization,” he said. “What it more or less does tend to bring about in most circumstances is pluralism.”
Fatima Amarshi, a Canadian of Muslim heritage who is the executive director of Toronto’s Gay Pride said that given the war and the effort of Israel to wall out its Palestinian neighbors she wrestled with a weighty decision before deciding to travel to Israel. She explained she came “here to support a sister queer community. We would not boycott parades in New York, or parades in San Francisco because we did not like the politics of Bush.”
The Pride March scheduled for Thursday was canceled due to security concerns that officials said are related to the warfare on Israel’s northern border—though World Pride has faced an array of hurdles in winning city approval for events—but a Wednesday Solidarity Rally at the Separation Wall and a Thursday Rally Protest Against Hatred remain on the schedule.
In Amarshi’s view, the Jerusalem Open House is to be lauded for tackling issues beyond those strictly defined as gay and lesbian, such as planning the protest at the Separation Wall that sharply restricts Palestinian travel into Jerusalem. It was necessary to come, and to include broader human rights issues in the programming, she said, because Jerusalem is a “complex city of politics not always easy to digest.”
Certainly true, and the rest of the week—with protests, visits to contested sites, and other planned actions, cultural events, and educational gatherings—will measure just how hard to digest gay rights are in this very holy city.