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With Hope, World Pride Closes

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Lasting impact of Jerusalem event marred by war and divisions remains to be seen

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.

The gathering 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, told participants he “could not guarantee their safety” even though the event had been scaled back from a citywide march to a vigil.

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. Soldiers on horseback waited virtually hidden on the edges of the park. Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue, assured 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 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 but refused to give this reporter his name. He 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.”

But the naysayers stuck to the park’s edge, virtually unnoticed as dozens of attendees, atop a hillside, held a large pink banner, visible to the snarled traffic on the streets below, that read, “Jerusalem is for All.” 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.”

Soon, however, several groups then began inserting 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, commenting on the muddying of the message’s event during a concert of local pop stars that evening, 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.” He explained that the vigil aimed to address the “months of incitement [from] the forces of religion.”

Whatever disappointment there was over the outcome of the Protest Against Hatred had dissipated by the following evening, as Rabbis Kleinbaum and Cohen presided over the religious closing of World Pride. More than 200 attended the ceremony, held on the rooftop of the Hebrew Union College overlooking the Old City as the sun set over Jerusalem, where the rabbis mesmerized and soothed their audience with their words. Kleinbaum spoke indirectly of the war raging at Israel’s border, wishing peace “within this city, for all of its residents. For this country, for all of its citizens. Within this region, for all of its neighbors. And for all of the world.”

The fears that many had for coming to Israel in the midst of war were addressed by Cohen, who said that the peace and reward of Shabbat had been earned by everyone at World Pride for “stepping out into the unknown” and “traveling to a place where our families begged us not to go.” Then, more playfully, she observed that Jewish tradition treats Shabbat as a Queen to be greeted by her subjects, saying “what better song for all of us, we sing to the Queen of Shabbat.” David Berger, the CBST Cantor, then led the audience through the ceremony’s songs.

The following day proved decidedly more secular. Female impersonator and chanteuse Jacqueline Jonee, a member of New York’s Imperial Court, performed jazz and cabaret canons. Jonee’s offstage name is Jack Nieman and he too is a member of CBST. After his performance, he said that being in Israel for World Pride is “just such a connection in a complete way that is both gay and being Jewish,” and was honored to perform as part of the official programming.

The final event of World Pride took place Saturday evening at Yellow Submarine, where the Berlin-based drag troupe Tigers on Speed offered an apology to the crowd for their nation’s role in why modern Israel came to be founded in the first place and then performed a song by the German group Mia based on work by the exiled German Jewish poet Erich Fried. The number combined music of the Weimer Republic era, gave a nod to the horrors of Nazism, and ended with undertones of the Hebrew anthem Haga Nagilah. The group, made of drag queens and kings, scattered glitter over the crowd at the song’s end, calling for new miracles to come out of the Holy Land in as gay and glamorous a way as possible.

World Pride’s lasting impact remains to be seen. Within Israel, preoccupied with war, the event hardly registered on the radar, and globally this year’s event was dwarfed by the massive attention given World Pride Rome in 2000, when organizers faced down the political muscle of the Vatican in holding their event—which drew several hundred thousand attendees. Marco Geremia, a member of the Bologna-based group Queers for Peace—in Israel during the World Pride events but only to attend the simultaneous Queeruption conference in Tel Aviv—said that since 2000 events in Rome, “No group, even if not a gay group, could have an agenda or a discourse that did not mention homosexuality in some capacity. This was a total change from before.”

Massimo Mele, another member of the group, said “a world pride should be a world pride,” and that the Jerusalem event was “too much related to Israel, Israeli society.” Both had attended Rome’s World Pride as individuals before their own group was formed.

Geremia explained that Queers for Peace wanted to be a part of World Pride in Jerusalem but had chosen not to, feeling it did not address Palestinian issues deeply enough. One of his missions in Israel was to work with Rauda Morcos of the Palestinian lesbian group ASWAT, based in Haifa, which chose not to join World Pride, and to visit with other Palestinian activists on the opposite side of Jerusalem’s Barrier Wall.

The final count of how many attended World Pride in Jerusalem may never be known. Any given conference event drew only a few hundred people—the bulk of them being U.S., Canadian, and Israeli Jews. Still, evening events at bars, clubs, film houses, and galleries attracted thousands. Russo, the young man attacked last year, was with several of his friends at the drag extravaganza Holy Wigs, and he called the crowd “the face of young gay Jerusalem.”

Asked for his estimate on how many were drawn to Jerusalem, the Open House’s El-Ad said it was “some thousands, let’s leave it that” who attended through the week in some capacity. That could be true, but it also seems clear that the total fell well short of the 40,000 for which the events had been planned. This reporter encountered only a handful of people of Muslim affiliation at the event, none of them members of the clergy.

Brooklyn-born Russell Lord, who works for Kenes, the official tour company for World Pride and helped roughly 200 people travel to Israel for World Pride, speaking to the event’s lasting impact on Israel, said, “I don’t think it will create a gay district in Jerusalem,” unlike what has developed in Rome since 2000. Tel Aviv, known in Israel to be a far more gay-friendly city than Jerusalem, is bidding for the 2009 Euro Pride.

“That’s about celebration, fun, and about gay tourism, definitely about gay tourism,” Lord said of his new hometown, which celebrates its centennial in ’09.

But El-Ad offered a more upbeat assessment on World Pride’s impact on Jerusalem, saying it “has planted a seed.” Yet anyone who reads the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran knows that lots of things have happened over time in this holy, eternal city that have changed the world as we know it. The script on Jerusalem’s World Pride still waits to be written.

Rabbis Sharon Kleinbaum and Ayelet Cohen of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah preside over the religious conclusion of World Pride Friday evening; Jacqueline Jonee performs cabaret standards the next day; and an apology for Germany’s historical crimes is offered up Saturday evening by the drag troupe Tigers on Speed at the nightclub Yellow Submarine. fotos by MICHAEL T. LUONGO

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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