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Israelis rally in Jerusalem’s LGBT parade amid rise in hate rhetoric

More than ever before, this year’s Jerusalem gay pride parade offered a stage for opponents of the current far-right/ultra-Orthodox coalition and the judicial overhaul advanced by the government.
An Israeli border guard stands guard as people draped in rainbow flags march during the 21st annual Jerusalem Pride Parade in Jerusalem on June 1, 2023. (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Jerusalem’s 21st gay pride parade, held Thursday with some 30,000 participants, was especially political this year with leaders of the opposition taking the stage to defend Israel’s democratic values.

The parade took place under heavy societal tensions. Tragic memories of the 2015 murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki by an ultra-Orthodox zealot during that year's gay pride march hovered over everything. This year, however, concerns were compounded by the ongoing protests against the current government. As such, thousands of uniformed and undercover police officers were stationed along the route of the parade several hours before the event even began. 

Several politicians identified with homophobic and anti-gay stances hold key positions in the current government, making this year’s parade especially tense. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich both have played active roles in past demonstrations and other activities protesting Jerusalem Pride events. As ministers, they have been trying to downplay this image, but only partially. The return to the government of Deputy Minister Avi Maoz, leader of the small anti-LGBTQ Noam party, only added to the sense of urgency.

The coalition of the ultra-Orthodox and far-right extremists pushing for a judicial coup was present in every speech and every poster in this week’s Jerusalem parade. 

On the morning of the parade, Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Yosi Havilio conducted six alternative wedding services for members of the gay community in his municipal office. This was intended to ensure that the message behind the struggle for equality resonated so loudly that the current government heard it. In a public statement, Havilio said, “Anyone who has a problem with gay couples is welcome to move to another city.”

“This is the most important gay pride parade ever,” said Hila Pe’er, chair of Aguda, Israel’s LGBT task force. “We stand here stronger than ever in a united front to face the threats, incitement and hatred, for the sake of an egalitarian, democratic and tolerant Israel for all of us. There can be no pride without democracy. That is our response to the homophobia, prejudice and discrimination oozing from the government. Our culture and our love will defeat any minister that engages in provocation at our expense.” 

The energy of the protests, which infused this year’s parade, led to it breaking all attendance records. US Ambassador Tom Nides was tasked with launching the parade. He dressed appropriately for the occasion, given the heatwave in Jerusalem, wearing a light blue T-shirt with “Pride 2023” printed on it in English in the bright colors of the rainbow flag.

“We are working with the community. We love you and want to support you,” he told the crowd. “It is the very essence of America to stand with Israelis and the LGBTQ community and to support you with whatever you need. This is the essence of democracy and our shared values. It is why we are here and why we stand with you.”

The history of Jerusalem’s gay pride parade shows that this cannot be taken for granted in the city that is home to hundreds of thousands of religious and ultra-Orthodox residents.

Jerusalem’s gay pride parade was first launched in the summer of 2002, despite vociferous opposition from a city council dominated by ultra-Orthodox parties led by then Deputy Mayor Uri Lopoliansky. He referred to the event as the “abomination parade.” It took appeals to the Supreme Court to allow the parade to take place at all. It was significantly smaller than the pride parade in Tel Aviv in which tens of thousands of people had been marching since the 1990s. Still, it was an impressive achievement to hold the parade in a city where tensions between the religious and secular communities are so high. 

Back then, quite a few violent disturbances took place along the route. Protesters threw rocks at the participants, set dumpsters on fire and even lobbed Molotov cocktails at the police. It wasn’t just the ultra-Orthodox who tried to interfere with the parade. So did the far right, with current ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir participating actively in these demonstrations. 

While Amir Ohana of the Likud, an openly gay man who has children with his partner, serves as speaker of the Knesset, his senior position was not mentioned even once at the event. This is further evidence of the political tension between Israel’s right and left. It should be a sign of progress for the LGBTQ community that it has managed to carve out a place for itself even in a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox government, but the center-left parties tend to ignore this achievement. 

This was evident when only leaders of the center-left addressed the participants at the parade. Not a single Knesset member from the coalition attended. Likewise, the speeches reflected the mood of the times and the ongoing political campaigns. 

“Standing outside, demonstrating against us, are the pathetic bullies from [far-right groups] Lehava and Kach, just as they do every year. The difference is that this year, these people are no longer part of a ridiculous gang of benighted extremists. They are part of the government,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid, who delivered the keynote address at the parade. “Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz are trying to push us all back into the dark closet of their prejudices,” said Lapid. 

Another speaker was National Unity party head Benny Gantz, who lashed out at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We will not need to march when the prime minister of Israel does not consider handing the keys to the education system to an unenlightened racist. … We will not need to march when there are no racists in the government, and when the minister charged with ensuring that you are all safe, no matter where you are, does not want to prevent us from marching in the first place,” said Gantz.

Much to everyone’s relief, the event was relatively quiet apart from a few provocations toward the end. Clearly, it was important to Ben-Gvir not to inflame the mood. After all, as minister of national security, he was directly responsible for police preparedness and ensuring calm. 

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