In Jerusalem, pride parades have always been small affairs of a couple thousand people due to opposition by religious authorities, threats of violence, and the holy city’s general conservatism. Yet 25,000 organizers, speakers, and marchers made an unprecedented show of force at the pride parade on July 21. They highlighted the fact that Israel is far from safe for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and that multiple forms of oppression in the country intersect, linking various struggles of marginalized communities.
Legally, LGBT citizens in Israel do enjoy rights that are unavailable in neighboring countries. For example, homosexual acts were decriminalized in 1988, discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment was banned in 1992, since 1994 same-sex couples are entitled to equal spousal benefits as heterosexual couples in the public and private sectors—“from hospital visitation rights to taxes and inheritance”—and as of 2006 same-sex couples can register their marriage in Israel if the marriage took place abroad. In addition, the visibility and acceptance of a spectrum of sexual identities in mainstream culture has improved, particularly in big urban areas and especially in Tel Aviv, whose extravagant annual parade is touted as evidence of Israel’s progressiveness and is used by the Israeli government to attract LGBT tourists. This appropriation has been critiqued as “pinkwashing” the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and its treatment of Palestinians, both in general and especially of the Palestinian LGBT community, which is even more vulnerable.
But full equal rights and full social and cultural acceptance are still a distant dream. Israel does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in the country, given that marriage and divorce are legally administered solely by religious courts (rabbinical courts for Jews, sharia courts for Muslims, and other denominational courts for respective minority communities). In the Israeli periphery, social norms are still far from accepting of LGBT people. Moreover, Palestinian LGBT citizens of Israel suffer discrimination as non-Jews in the country, and Palestinians in the occupied territories, including the LGBT community, are denied equal civil rights. Palestinian LGBT people facing persecution in the occupied territories are not eligible for asylum in Israel, and Israeli security services and military intelligence have reportedly blackmailed Palestinian gay men for the purpose of gathering information.
Therefore, when right-wing politicians from the ruling Likud party—such as Minister of Culture Miri Regev or Amir Ohana, the first openly gay Likud Member of Knesset—attend the Tel Aviv pride parade to assert Israel’s moral and liberal advantage over its neighbors, or when Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicize the event in Europe and the United States, it generates a strong sense of hypocrisy. These politicians, while celebrating pride in Tel Aviv, also work to block legislative initiatives by the opposition for equal rights for LGBT citizens, not to mention equal rights for the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. This year, Palestinian and left-wing activists in Tel Aviv hung a huge sign from a balcony along the parade’s path that stated, “We want rights, not parties!”
Indeed, the Tel Aviv event is one big party. Decorated trucks with minimally dressed dancers, alcohol, musical performances, public displays of physical affection, and a massive beach party on the shore of the Mediterranean are the highlights of the event. It is a celebration that befits, perhaps, the social and cultural freedoms that exist for certain segments of the LGBT population in Tel Aviv, but is far removed from the daily realities of LGBT people in the rest of the country, as well as in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. It has been hard for organizers to attract the thousands of Tel Aviv pride participants to the somber Jerusalem pride parade in past years. In Jerusalem, given the more conservative nature of the city and the severe limitations imposed by the police, there are no decorated trucks or floats, no bare chests and bikinis, and very little kissing and dancing. Rather than a festive party, it is often a small and belabored protest. Events in the past year have brought home for many the fact that there is still little cause for celebration, and that solidarity with marginalized communities elsewhere needs to become a priority.
On August 1, 2009, a shooting attack on an LGBT youth center in Tel Aviv killed two and injured eleven, demonstrating that the community is not safe even in the city some consider its safe haven. Then on July 30, 2015, Shira Banki, a sixteen-year-old girl who came to the Jerusalem pride parade to support her LGBT friends, was stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox fanatic and died a few days later. Outrageously, this same perpetrator had stabbed marchers in the 2005 Jerusalem parade, and was arrested, served time, and then released in 2015. The fact that the police did not anticipate that he would again be a threat made many question the police’s commitment to protecting the community.
The July 2016 pride parade in the southern city of Beer Sheva then faced a new debacle. The parade was set to proceed through the main street in town, but police objected because Jewish religious extremists issued threats of violence because the designated path passed by several synagogues. Instead of addressing the threats and protecting marchers, police decided to change the parade’s route, severely limiting the size and space of the march. When LGBT activists appealed to the Supreme Court, the court sided with the police. Moreover, the police detained some organizers for questioning and read private messages on their phones to see if they were planning to march along the banned route. Organizers cancelled the parade in protest over the police conduct.
That same month, incitement by influential rabbis against the LGBT community reached a new height. Yigal Levinstein, a prominent religious, nationalist rabbi who is the head of an influential yeshiva that prepares religious youth for military service in the West Bank settlement of Eli, gave a speech in which he stated that gays are “perverts” and that the LGBT movement “is making the state crazy and is infiltrating the army with all its might. Nobody dares to open his mouth or make a sound against them.” While Minister of Education Naftali Bennet—whose Jewish Home (Habayit Hayhudi) Party represents a religious Zionist constituency—publicly rejected this statement, 300 rabbis signed a letter of solidarity with Rabbi Levinstein. This controversy exposed a rift within the religious nationalist camp. Conservatives escalated their denunciation of the planned Jerusalem pride parade and the LGBT community more broadly. On the more liberal religious side, Orthodox groups said that they would march together with the LGBT community in Jerusalem to protest this growing religious incitement.
These developments swelled the number of people who decided to attend the Jerusalem march. The actual parade on July 21, 2016 was anything but a celebration of LGBT freedom and equality in Israel. Two thousand policeman and women had to guard the event, streets were closed off and monitored, and entrances to the parade required a security check during which participants were assigned identification bracelets. Religious and right-wing activists were arrested preemptively, and police also encircled those who had come to protest the parade, 48 of whom were arrested.
Not surprisingly, the anti-march protesters were a combination of ultra-Orthodox religious extremists and the far-right anti-miscegenation group Lehava, whose prime mission is to harass interfaith Jewish–Muslim couples. At this year’s parade, an unusually large and diverse coalition of activists walked together and mingled in the largely solemn march. LGBT activists from across the country came to show solidarity with their Jerusalem counterparts. Left-wing peace activists came to highlight the connections between all kinds of identity-based discrimination and violence. Palestinian LGBT people, who often reject the Tel Aviv pride parade for its complicity in pinkwashing, also attended in solidarity with the beleaguered Jerusalem LGBT community. Signs linking human rights for all and LGBT rights were everywhere. “Human Rights My Pride,” “Freedom for All,” “Gender Intifada,” and similar signs in Arabic and Hebrew against hate and intolerance dominated the march.
Ziad Abul Hawa, a well-known Palestinian gay rights activist whose family lives in East Jerusalem, explained that he rarely participates in these pride parades because of pinkwashing, but he made an exception this year. “I cannot separate my sexual identity and my national [Palestinian] identity… but I decided that I will go to this parade,” he said after the rally. “After all the incitement from religious and political leaders, I couldn’t sit at home…. I am glad I went, because it was a protest. Last year a girl [Shira Banki] was murdered there; you can’t pinkwash that.” Even Orthodox religious persons, who don’t usually come to such events, were present to show their rejection of intolerant interpretations of Judaism. Perhaps the most significant part of the event was a speech by the father of Shira Banki. In his statement, he linked different forms of intolerance, racism, and Israel’s growing culture of violence against minorities, stressing that the LGBT struggle in the country is ongoing and cannot be isolated from other communities’ struggles.
It is hard to tell whether the momentum generated this year will continue going forward. However, the 25,000 marchers in this year’s Jerusalem pride parade make history. Their message was harshly critical of Israel’s growing intolerance and religious extremism, whose targets are not only the LGBT community but also all other persecuted groups, including women, ethnic minorities, non-Jews, and Palestinians. The links the march highlighted between these communities’ struggles points toward a growing awareness of the potential of intersectional alliance and the rejection of the Israeli government’s pinkwashing efforts, which work to separate the LGBT agenda from the fight against other forms of oppression.
Lihi Ben Shitrit is an assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens.