Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jerusalem Pride

After a relaxing afternoon at the beach in Tel Aviv with the kids yesterday, today we had an active time out in Jerusalem.

We began with a trip to the Museum on the Seam, a cutting edge gallery on the border between Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem. Their mission is to exhibit art that generates conversation and contemplation about the roots of conflict, and promotes peace.

We arrived there after walking through the Christian and Moslem quarters of the Old City. We strolled along the Via Dolorosa, past the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and then squeezed through the very crowded alley ways of the shuk (market) to the Damascus Gate. We stopped several times for water and fresh-squeezed orange juice, as it was almost one hundred degrees outside, and the sun was blazing.

The museum's current exhibit is called Man/Nature. It has a strong ecological focus, with many pieces portraying the damage that we, human beings, have caused to the wider environment. I am not much of a fan of either abstract or political art, so it was not exactly my cup of tea. Nonetheless, there were some thoughtful and beautiful pieces, and the museum itself is an architectural gem.

After a leisurely lunch at an Arab restaurant in East Jerusalem, we took a cab back to our apartment, sitting in traffic for almost an hour. As it turned out, most of our corner of the city was barricaded off for Jerusalem's Gay Pride parade.

So when we finally made it home, I hopped on my bike and rode over to check out the festivities. I am very proud of the fact that my synagogue, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, has always been well-represented in Boise's annual Pride parade, so I was curious to see who would be here in Jerusalem. Of course, the event is quite controversial in this holy city. While hip and secular Tel Aviv's Gay Pride parade attracts tens of thousands, without incident, here in the holy city of Jerusalem, with its large ultra-Orthodox population, protests abound. In fact, a recent poll showed that only 25% of local residents support this parade. This can't be an easy place to be gay. While openly gay and lesbian citizens do serve in the army here (which is mandatory for everyone except, ironically, the same ultra-Orthodox who are so anti-gay), in most ways, Israel lags way behind America on this issue. And Jerusalem lags way behind the rest of Israel--though, I hasten to add, it is light years ahead of all of its neighboring Islamic Arab states, where gays and lesbians are still frequently thrown in jail for their sexual orientation.

None of this is surprising; there are always protesters at Boise's Pride parade, too. The part that is so striking to me is that, because this is Israel, here the protesters (as well as the demonstrators) are all Jews. As an American, I am accustomed to Jews being on the liberal side, marching in the parade, with the anti-gay protesters coming from the Christian right. But here the protesters are all from the Jewish right--the same ultra-Orthodox fanatics who are also protesting the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat here in Jerusalem. Indeed, a few years ago, three participants in the Pride parade were stabbed by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who apparently take their understanding of Torah as opposing homosexuality much more seriously than that "minor" commandment, Do not murder.

At any rate, I enjoyed being a part of this historic parade, which also marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall resistance that began the modern gay rights movement. Here are a few observations from the experience:

1. Not surprisingly, there was a high percentage of English speakers. Even the Israelis here are clearly inspired by the American gay rights movement.

2. The crowd was predominantly young--with many heterosexuals participating. I have always believed that the end result of the battle for gay rights is already determined, in favor of full equality. It is just a matter of time. This is a hot button issue for people over forty. For younger people, it is a non-issue. It is now pretty much OK to be gay in high school--not just in San Francisco, but in Boise, Idaho. I was buoyed to see the turnout of young gay Jews here in Jerusalem--and their straight supporters.

3. The dress for the occasion was rather subdued: very few glittery costumes or drag queens. Apparently, there is a lot more flamboyance at the Tel Aviv pride event. But that's the difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on all matters, not just sexuality. Tel Aviv is boisterous, exuberant, proudly secular. Jerusalem is somber, intense, and sacred.

4. Sadly, I saw very few religious people at the event. In America, many religious organizations march at Pride events--liberal synagogues as well as most of the mainstream Protestant churches, with a coterie of Buddhists, New Agers, etc. Here, the crowd was overwhelmingly secular. This, too, is not surprising, given the nature of religious life in Israel: people tend to be either Orthodox or secular, with not much in between. But there was one exception: a large contingent from Jerusalem's small but significant Reform community, marching together in solidarity. I was very proud of my Reform brothers and sisters here. In Israel, as in America, we are in the vanguard when it comes to supporting gay rights--as a religious expression of our Jewish values. Indeed, I heard many within that contingent wishing one another "Chag Sameach," thus applying the traditional holiday greeting for Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot to this new holiday, Gay Pride Day.

5. Given the size of the crowd and the limited space of the venue, I would have expected a lot of aggressive pushing and shoving. That didn't happen. So I'd have to say, based on one very short experience, gay and lesbian Israelis and their supporters seem to be significantly more polite than a random Israeli crowd--at least when they are celebrating justice together.

6. There were lots of flags, balloons, posters and tee-shirts, with some very clever and inspiring messages. See my pictures, above, for a sample. Here's a translation of the words on the tee-shirts and posters: Jerusalem is also mine! And Education for Change And my personal favorite, on the red shirt: Blessed is the One who made me as I am, which is a play on the traditional Orthodox formulation of the morning blessings in which men thank God for making them men and women thank God for making them "according to his will."

Shabbat shalom to all! And happy birthday to Rosa, who is 15 today (see her Facebook page for her own picture with drag queens at Boise's Pride Parade last weekend)

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