Participants take part in the annual Jerusalem Gay Pride parade on August 2, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Jerusalem Pride Participants March for LGBT Equality Amid Heavy Police Presence

Activists call on Israeli government to overturn its controversial law denying surrogacy to gay men

Gay rights have long been a contentious issue in predominately religious Jerusalem. In 2005, Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man, stabbed three people at the gay pride event in the capital. After 10 years of imprisonment and just weeks before the 2015 parade, Schlissel was released.

Once again during festivities, he emerged behind marchers, stabbing wildly and screaming, according to reports. Schlissel injured six before he was apprehended.

According to witnesses, Schlissel asserted while being questioned that he “did not accept the rulings and authority of Israeli courts” because they “were not based on the Torah,” where it says in Leviticus 20:30: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

Of the six people Schlissel stabbed in the 2015 incident, one of victim, 16-year-old Shira Banki, died of wounds a few days later. Schlissel was convicted of murder and multiple charges of attempted murder in 2016 and could face life in prison.

The case was certainly on the minds of law enforcement personnel and security forces during the 17th annual Pride Parade that took place last week. Security during the event was tight. Anyone who wanted to enter the starting point at Liberty Park had to submit to bag inspections and personal metal detection tests.

Once inside the event, maneuvering through the crowd was surprisingly easy. Of the 35,000 people expected, roughly 20,000 participants showed up, a decline compared to last year’s roughly 25,000 participants.

Responding to questions from citizens who were concerned about attending the march, Ofer Erez, executive director of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, told The Media Line that people understand the importance of taking part in something that promotes equality and safety for members of the LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—community.

Despite past incidents involving violence and hatred, Erez was nevertheless “very happy that people still decide to come.”

Participants were no doubt consoled by the heavy security presence. Strapped with assault rifles and pistols, some 2,500 Israeli police and border officers could be seen every few meters as well as perched atop buildings and higher points. Meanwhile, helicopters circled overhead, monitoring the situation from above.

In the past, religious groups opposed to LGBT rights tried to disrupt the parade. This year, however, none of the counter-protesters were in sight.

In the days leading up to the parade, the police reportedly strongly advised right-wing extremists and anti-LGBT protestors to stay away from the event on Thursday. However, the police granted permission for one counter-demonstration held by the extremist nationalist group Lehava near the starting point of the march. Liba, another by the Orthodox group, was granted a counter-protest at Jerusalem’s main entrance. Both counter-protests, however, were held at a safe distance from the LGBT march.

Last week, Bentzi Gopstein, the head of Lehava, (who sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2012 protesting his marriage to a non-Jew) released an online video in which he declared that anyone who is part of the LGBT community is a “terrorist.” During last week’s parade, four members of Lehava were arrested for “causing public disturbances” close to the area of the event.

Liba released a statement signed by some 200 rabbis saying that “the healthy majority in the State of Israel is shocked by the provocations of the LGBT community… Its aggressive terrorism accompanied by media brainwashing to turn perverts into heroes will not work.”

Participants in this year’s parade were particularly incensed about the recently passed Israeli law that allows surrogacy for single women, but denies it to single men. The law essentially prohibits gay men from having children through surrogacy.

Udi, a marcher at the event, told The Media Line that gay men must go abroad if they want children. “That means that you have to pay more than $200,000 just to have a child. We just want to love. We just want to have kids. I don’t know why we can’t. It’s our country.”

Many protesters were angry with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who initially supported surrogacy for gay fathers, but then voted against it when the recent bill on the issue advanced in the Israeli parliament. Netanyahu, however, stated that he did not alter his position, but would support a separate bill legalizing surrogacy for gay couples.

“We were all very disappointed to hear him say on the record: ‘I am going to support the LGBT community with this law’ and then do the opposite less than 24 hours later,” Erez said. He concluded that by voting against the measure Netanyahu decided to appease his ultra-Orthodox constituents, but at a cost, Erez asserted.

“He betrayed his own voters by not allowing LGBT families to be equal.”

Many LGBT activists recall Netanyahu’s words during a 2016 event in Israel’s Knesset (parliament) officially marking February 23 as LGBT rights day. The prime minister said “every person was created in the image of God.”

In another speech during the ceremony, Amir Ohana, a gay member of the Knesset, compared LGBT people to Jews, who historically have been “hated for no reason, discriminated against, persecuted, and forced to convert.”

Responding to these past statements, Erez asserted that LGBT activists will no longer settle for empty promises and rhetoric. “Until the government starts taking action and we start seeing actual changes, it will not be enough.”

(Nola Z. Valente is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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