Crossing Borders

As Israel hunkers down into a fifth week of conflict in Lebanon, a group of activists in Jerusalem remain intransigent -- about World Pride, a week of gay rights demonstrations, teach-ins, and lobbying that rotates from city to city around the globe.* The event began on Sunday and ends this Saturday in the Israeli capital. "World Pride in Jerusalem is ...a high-drama event," says Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Jerusalem Open House, the group responsible for bringing World Pride to the city. "It will be the largest, most significant, and most diverse LGBT cultural festival of its kind ever to be held in this part of the world."

World Pride Jerusalem has been a point of contention from its conception, long before the guns of July opened fire. Ultra-Orthodox Jews threatened violence. (At least one rabbi promised bloodshed). The mayor of Jerusalem, an Orthodox Jew, tried to keep police permits from marchers and assemblers in the city. (The one significant concession to the broader security situation was the cancellation of the parade that usually headlines the festival.)

This is, in fact, World Pride Jerusalem's second chance. Originally slated to be held last summer, it was cancelled due to the security situation surrounding the Gaza disengagement, but not before it helped usher in a season of explicit anti-gay sentiment in Israel. A violent attack accompanied Jerusalem's own gay pride parade that summer, a far smaller affair that draws only a fraction of the many thousands expected for World Pride. Midway through the parade, a marcher was set upon by a knife-wielding, ultra-Orthodox Jewish man. More disconcerting to organizers last year was an ecumenical assemblage of Christians, Jews, and Muslims that issued a joint statement denouncing World Pride (prior to its cancellation). "I am saddened," sighs El-Ad, thinking back to that statement. "A group of dominant religious figures finally [came] together to say something. This is not a common sight in this city, right? They could have come together and said, 'We want a united voice for peace,' or 'Fight poverty,' or 'Fight disease.' None of that has ever happened. Instead, the one thing that has happened is a united voice for hatred and bigotry…They were terrified that we might succeed in reclaiming a part of our heritage -- that it is possible to have faith and be gay at the same time, that we might succeed in showing that people can get along in Jerusalem."

Israel has always been a country of contradictions -- a place where the world's three major monotheistic religions collide and crash and, occasionally, coexist peacefully, a place where pillars of modernity (sleek malls, night clubs) stand alongside neighborhoods where honoring the Sabbath day is the rule of law. It should be no surprise, then, that the Israeli gay community is itself a mishmash of intrigue and contradictions, where some gay men and lesbians live as though they are in Miami or Barcelona or New York while others face a pitched political battlefield every day.

Israel has full freedom of equality in the military -- gay men and lesbians serve openly -- and employment non-discrimination has been on the books for years. Domestic partnership laws put inheritance and property rights for gay and lesbian couples on par with their straight counterparts. But the dominance of religion means that marriage and parental rights remain in flux. (There is no such thing as civil marriage.) "Hate crimes are almost nonexistent in Israel," says Uzi Evan, who married his partner in Toronto last year, "but we still don't feel sure that if the fundamentalist portion of society gets control we are safe." Evan, who was the first openly gay member of the Israeli Parliament, is now suing the state for recognition of his union

The Jerusalem Open House exists in constant contention with the fundamentalist elements of Israeli society. In June 2005 the organization won a major city court victory against efforts to ban the city's gay pride march. Jerusalem's district attorney refused to prosecute the case, saying it was "indefensible," according to the Jerusalem Post, and a violation of free speech. The city's highest court agreed.

Open House's offices are perched in the heart of Jerusalem, on a pedestrian mall called Ben Yehuda Street. For years, Ben Yehuda was known as a place to pick up tourist trinkets and grab a slice of pizza or a beer. It then became equally well known as the site of numerous gruesome bombings during the Second Intifada. "Those were difficult months," says El-Ad, who runs the organization with Haneen Maikey, the Palestinian-Israeli outreach director. "But they were also months of tremendous courage and accomplishment." The group remained open, running youth outreach programs among other projects. In the last two years, gay night life has crept back to Jerusalem. There is a (single) gay bar -- Shushan -- run by an out-gay city council member. At Sushan a bizarre cross section of the city's gay life meets -- Jewish, Arab, religious, and secular. Maikey runs a once-a-month party for Palestinians at Shushan. Palestinians come from everywhere to get to it -- Israeli Palestinians who are citizens of the state and residents of the West Bank alike. It is the only place where one can be "out" and Palestinian in the region.

"Jerusalem is the cross point for so many identities," says El-Ad, "which on the one hand makes it a challenge and on the other hand makes these things possible. The same thing goes regarding religious people and secular people: the crossing between faith and homosexuality, and the crossing between national identity and gay and lesbian identity." Maikey picks up the thread, pointing to her Tuesday night parties. "Palestinian gays from Ramallah [in the West Bank], they have to pass through three borders. First, the family -- they have to convince them why they have to spend away from Ramallah and out of the house. Then the check points. And then the cultural gap within Israeli society." Says El-Ad, "It's just a party, people are having fun, what's the big deal, right? But it's such a big deal. It's the beginning of the creation of a community. It's the opportunity for people to see they are not alone."

That notion underlies El-Ad's thoughts about the anxieties and admonitions surrounding World Pride. El-Ad sees the festival as a continuation of that swirl and meshing of identities in Jerusalem that he and his organization celebrate -- a demonstration of strength, pluralism, and peace. A timely message, perhaps, as a new war unfolds.

* The article originally stated incorrectly that World Pride is an annual festival. It was last held in 2000.

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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