Jerusalem's first gay pride march defies critics

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The Independent Online

Pride triumphed over prejudice in west Jerusalem yesterday when the divided city, renowned for religious conservatism, saw the first gay parade in its long and tortured history.

Pride triumphed over prejudice in west Jerusalem yesterday when the divided city, renowned for religious conservatism, saw the first gay parade in its long and tortured history.

Several thousand Israeli gays and lesbians gathered in Zion Square, close to the scenes of some of the bloodiest suicide bombings of the intifada, in a show that defied opposition by city officials and ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups.

Undeterred by one senior city official, who had previously declared that such "sickness and deviance" would never be allowed to go on public display in Jerus-alem, the marchers moved peacefully through the streets in a colourful cavalcade, marred only by the occasional shouting match.

"This is spitting in the face of God and Judaism, and unprecedented in the city of Jerusalem," said Yacov Fauci, 23, one of a small group of ultra-Orthodox students who came to protest, arguing that homosexuality was explicitly banned by the Torah. "There is no need for this here. This is not New York or Amsterdam."Not far away, a man wearing sackcloth warned the crowd that they would all go to Hell.

An assumption that the march was not just about sexual tolerance, but also about making peace with the Palestinians, was broadly correct. The banners made that clear: "Dykes and Fags against all oppression"; "Transgender not transfer" – a reference to calls from extreme right-wing Jews for Palestinians to be driven out of the West Bank. But not everyone accepted this connection. "Being gay doesn't mean that I want to give Yasser Arafat a state," said Raviv, a 32-year-old hi-tech worker from Haifa. "How will gays benefit by getting a state ruled by a dictator like Arafat?"

Certainly, Israel is incomparably more tolerant of gays and lesbians than Palestinian society, where homosexuality is still taboo. Such a march in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem would not be possible, let alone in the centres of Palestinian conservatism and of Islam such as the Gaza Strip or Nablus.

Israel decriminalised homosexuality in 1988, much to the horror of ultra-Orthodox Jews who regard it as a sin proscribed by the Torah as an "abomination". In 1992, the Israeli parliament banned anti-gay discrimination in the workplace, and a year later the army ended discrimination against gay soldiers. In 1998, to the delight of the gay community, Israel's transsexual singer Dana International won the Eurovision song contest.

But west Jerusalem has always stood apart, looking down disapprovingly from the hilltops as the far more easy-going Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv staged a gay pride march every year. When a gay and lesbian community centre, Open House – the organisers of the parade – set up shop in west Jerusalem three years ago, its premises were vandalised.

The local authorities refused to provide financial support for the parade, and only grudgingly agreed to hang multicoloured flags and banners symbolising the gay and lesbian movement from lamp-posts after an order from the High Court. One councillor from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Eli Smaheyof, chairman of the finance committee, was quoted as saying that not a single agora (penny) of city money would be spent on "those sickos".

The Ha'aretz newspaper reported that ultra-Orthodox rabbis had told their communities to stay away from the parade for fear that the parade would corrupt the young.

Hagai El-Ad, director of Jerusalem Open House, said: "The fact that so many people took part, 10 times more than our estimate, proves that people will not be put off by prejudice, or fear of terror attacks, in order to do something that would be natural in any Western capital."