Anger and grief shook Tel Aviv's normally thriving gay community yesterday after a gunman shot two people dead and wounded 11 others in the worst ever attack against homosexuals in Israel.
The shooting spree late Saturday night terrorised a haven within a haven for Israeli gays, leaving it with a sudden sense of vulnerability.
It came in the downtown area of Tel Aviv, Israel's most liberal city which hosts plentiful gay bars and cafés as well as a community centre sponsored by the municipality. Even worse, it struck what was thought of as a safe space for gay teens, many of whom were still concealing their sexual identity. Dozens of adolescents gather in the discreet basement venue every Saturday night under the supervision of volunteer counsellors who serve up grilled cheese and soft drinks.
One of the dead was Nir Katz, 26, a counsellor and web designer who was regarded as a role model for the youths and was remembered yesterday for giving his time and money to help them.
The other was a 16-year-old girl, Liz Tarabushi. Youths as young as 14 were said to have attended the club.
The shooter was masked. He pulled out a pistol and opened fire on youths, then concealed his weapon and fled the scene on foot, according to police.
"We are in complete shock," said Itzik Tsror, spokesman of the League for the Defense of the Rights of Homosexuals, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders. "Tel Aviv is generally progressive but it seems we haven't reached a safe shore. We are worried that people will try to copy this act."
At the league's offices, people wandered in with tears in their eyes and embraced one another, terming the shooting "a massacre".
Hundreds of police were scouring Tel Aviv in a manhunt, while prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Israel's chief rabbis all condemned the attack.
Gay community leaders termed it a "hate crime" and linked it to anti-gay incitement, including among ultra-orthodox politicians. Police declined to specify a motive, saying only that they were investigating and clamping a gag order on any details.
Nitzan Horovitz, the only openly gay member of Israel's parliament the Knesset, told hundreds of people gathered at a protest yesterday on Rothschild Boulevard, the city's trendiest street, that "the mind refuses to understand and the heart refuses to absorb this attack, this hate crime".
"What is the public atmosphere that could cause someone to shoot up a youth club? It is part of the general hatred that we in this community experience." One woman protester held up a sign saying: "Enough of ultra-orthodox incitement and hatred".
Leaders of Shas, a party that has depicted homosexuality as blasphemy evoking divine retribution, condemned the attack but stressed that the motives were unclear.
Conditions for gay Israelis have improved in many ways over recent years. Gay couples have been recognised by the courts, gay soldiers serve openly in the military and openly gay musicians and actors are among the country's most popular. Rainbow flags are often seen flying from apartment windows in Tel Aviv. Mr Tsror, the league spokesman, said that the number of Israelis coming out has been on the increase in recent years.
But accompanying this has been an incitement to violence. Last year, a lawmaker from Shas declared in parliament that earthquakes were divine punishment for homosexual activity. Earlier, another MP from the same party said that a homosexual is "worse than a beast". In 2005, an ultra-orthodox youth stabbed three people at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem. In May this year, a group of youths attacked a man during a gay pride parade in the southern city of Eilat.
At the league's offices Eyal Magen, 22, held a picture of the late Mr Katz, whom he had tried to visit on Saturday night only to find the club closed off by police. "He was a really nice guy, everyone says that about someone who died, but he really was. He gave a lot to people, probably too much. He'd buy you stuff even if he didn't have the money."
Paul Bentley: Being gay wasn't an option for us
Israeli friends of mine are horrified by Saturday's shooting. They thought their country had come further than this. One of them is disappointed because after urging British non-Jewish friends to visit Tel Aviv for years, now he knows they won't.
But they forget where Tel Aviv is – just half an hour by car from Gaza and 20 minutes away from Bnei Brak, one of the most ultra-orthodox areas in Israel. There is a bus you can get from the beach in Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak. The journey begins with string bikinis and boys in tight shorts. Half an hour later the bus is full of long skirts and black hats. And the genders are segregated; men at the front, women at the back.
Five years ago, I spent four months of my gap year studying Talmud at a biblical college in Maalot Daphna, an ultra-orthodox area of Jerusalem. The Rabbis at the college were kind but their views were entrenched. We argued about the role of women and the dangers of assimilating with non-Jews but we never discussed homosexuality. It wasn't an option for us to be gay so there wasn't anything to talk about. I hadn't yet come out as gay and there was no way I was going to declare my abominable secret.
Nothing illustrates the ideological divide in Israel between dati'im and chilonim – the orthodox and secular – better than the difference in attitudes of people in the country's two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – or "Hell Aviv" as my Talmud teachers called it.Reuse content