COX Newspapers Washington Bureau

Jerusalem Becomes A Battleground Over Gay Rights Vs. Religious Beliefs

Cox News Service
Saturday, November 11, 2006

This city so holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims is no stranger to spiritual fervor and the passions it can arouse.

Yet a homosexual rights rally planned for Friday has stirred fits of rage and threats of violence like few other issues in recent memory. An estimated 9,000 police are to be deployed to protect the gay and lesbian demonstrators.

Jerusalem's small but vocal homosexual community won a months-long battle with the city's right-wing-dominated city council, its ultra-Orthodox Jewish mayor and the police for a permit to hold its fifth-annual gay pride march. The nation's Supreme Court ruled that under law gays and lesbians had a right to freedom of expression and assembly.

Mayor Uri Lupolianski and his allies opposed the march. Leaders of his ultra-Orthodox community called it an "abomination" that would "defile" the sanctity of the city.

On Thursday night, the city's gay rights organizations stepped back from plans to march. Citing national security concerns and the threats against demonstrators, gay leaders said they instead would hold a closed rally at a stadium on the outskirts of the city.

"It's like Tehran here ... with the hate and religious fundamentalism. It's absolutely a grave test of our democracy," said Sa'ar Netanel, Jerusalem's first and only openly gay city council member.

The case exposed the sometimes-conflicted nature of Israel's identity as a Western-style democracy and the world's only Jewish state. The fissures between Israel's majority secular Jewish population and the influential religious sector run deep.

Over the past two decades, Jerusalem has been populated by increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who now dominate government and infuse the city's politics with their strict biblical interpretations.

Yet Israeli law affords broad rights to gays and lesbians, including adoption and spousal benefits for employees at some state-run industries.

Gay rights leaders said that they amended their plans, limiting Friday's gathering to a rally, because of security. Police this week have said that they don't have the manpower to cover the threat of a possible Palestinian militant attack and possible violence against a gay rights march.

Police believe Palestinian militants are planning suicide bombings in retaliation for the incident earlier this week in which Israeli tanks killed 18 members of the same family while they slept in their homes in the Gaza Strip.

But other members of the gay community said that the anti-gay threats influenced the last-minute decision.

Because of Jerusalem's hallowed status, ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as haredi, have long had the upper hand in shaping laws amenable to their lifestyle, like forbidding the sale of pork and banning cars from wide swathes of the city on the Sabbath. Haredi describes the most theologically conservative form of Orthodox Judaism, whose piety demands that adherents pray all day, not hold jobs in the secular world and live separately from society at large.

Religious parties control 18 of the 31 Jerusalem city council seats.

Lupolianski, the Jerusalem mayor and a haredi, said in an editorial for the Jerusalem Post newspaper this week that religious sensibilities must be honored, and therefore a gay pride march was not acceptable under any circumstances.

"The demand to hold the march in Jerusalem, of all places, is neither right nor wise. In a democratic society the sensitivities of the majority must also be taken into account," Lupolianski said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a secular Jew whose lesbian daughter is open about her lifestyle, also condemned the planned march, telling a television interviewer that it was a "provocation" against the religious.

While most factions of the world's three monotheistic faiths condemn homosexuality, the religious views have never stood in the way of previous gay pride marches in Jerusalem — even last year, when prominent rabbis and Christian and Islamic leaders met in an unprecedented show of unity to condemn that march.

This year ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders have gone further, saying homosexuals pose as grave a threat to the Jewish state as anti-Semitism or Arab hostility. Almost nightly in recent weeks, violent haredi protesters have clashed with police in demonstrations against the planned march. Organizers have received death threats.

Ayelit Schnur, a 32-year-old Jewish lesbian and rally organizer who teaches autistic children at a city-funded religious school, said the threats of violence have frightened her and other demonstrators.

"We have been here in Jerusalem, working, living and even praying, for as long as there has been a city. All we are asking for is tolerance ... and the right to express ourselves, just like we support the right for everyone else to do the same," she said.

Her organization, Open House, agreed to a modest dress code for marchers and a route that would have avoided holy sites and religious neighborhoods. On Thursday night, it agreed to forego the march altogether.

While the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has seethed over the issue, the city's other religions have had a more muted response.

On Wednesday the Vatican issued a written statement saying that it hoped the Israeli court decision might be "reconsidered, as a mark of respect for the religious sentiments of all those who venerate the Holy City."

Jerusalem's Muslim community has not joined the public denunciation of the parade. Privately, however, Islamic leaders have expressed their aversion to people whose lifestyle they too define as unnatural.

The irony of Jerusalem's religious leaders united against the gay community — especially when they are opposed on many other issues, including the details of proposed Israel-Palestinian peace accords in the past — is not lost on council member Netanel, who also owns the city's main gay bar.

"If they could only put the hate aside, they could see that they have a lot to learn from our community," Netanel said. "Religious Jews, secular Jews, Palestinians. All of them come to my bar, all talk together there, become friends and treat each other with love and respect."