Hatred (of Gays) Unites Jerusalem's Feuding Faiths

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In a Holy City fissured by faith, finding a consensus on anything among Jewish, Christian and Muslim clerics is a near-miraculous occurrence. Yet Jerusalem's rabbis, priests and imams have united, however briefly, to stop the city's Gay Pride parade.

For some of their followers, the issue is worth spilling blood over: An unknown extremist Jewish group pasted up signs announcing a $500 "reward" for every gay man or woman killed during the parade, which is scheduled for Nov. 10. Several ultra-orthodox rabbis have vowed to mobilize more than 100,000 protesters to shut down Jerusalem on the day of the parade, and police warn that some groups plan to pelt the marchers with apples jagged with razor blades.

Meanwhile, in a rare display of solidarity with Jewish extremists, an influential Islamic cleric is urging Muslims to stage a simultaneous protest inside the old walled city to draw away Israeli police who would otherwise be shielding the gay parade from harm. "Not only should these homosexuals be banned from holding their parade," says one Muslim cleric, Sheikh Ibrahim Hassan, who preaches at a mosque near Damascus Gate, "but they should be punished and sent to an isolated place." Hatred, it seems, can be a bridge to inter-faith harmony.

Gay pride marches have, in fact, been held in Jerusalem for the past five years, prompting only grumbling among the city's conservatives. Then, last year, an ultra-Orthodox youth waded into the crowd of revelers and slashed three people with a knife. The furor over the parade reveals a long-standing contradiction inside an Israeli culture where secular values compete with fiercely defended religious traditions. Tel Aviv prides itself on its hip, cosmopolitan nightclubs and an easygoing "life is a beach" attitude, while an hour away, in some Jerusalem neighborhoods, ultra-orthodox men still dress in the style of 17th century Poland, with long black waistcoats and beaver-skin hats. Making up one third of the Jewish residents of the Holy City, the ultra-Orthodox ride their own buses, send their kids to religious schools, and close off streets to cars on the Sabbath. Any Tel Aviv visitor wandering into these pious communities in shorts and a T-shirt on the Sabbath has always run the risk of getting clobbered by a rock. But the violence at last year's Gay Pride parade may have been a sign that the tension between the opposite poles of Israeli identity is rising.

Israeli laws are the most tolerant in the Middle East toward gays, and ultra-Orthodox Jews see that as a symptom of a Jewish state rejecting its religious responsibilities. For some, the battle to stop the Gay Pride march has already begun. In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shea'rim, police clashed over three consecutive nights this week with curly-forelocked youths who burned tires and hurled eggs and tomatoes. One officer said he was stunned "by the level of hatred" he saw in these clashes against Israel's small but vocal gay and lesbian community. Israel's Supreme Court has approved the parade, but the city's police could still call it off for the sake of public safety.

The implications of calling off the march under threat of violence worry civil rights advocates. Says Elena Canetti, a spokeswoman at Jerusalem Open House, which sponsors the parade: "This is bigger than gay rights. It's now about whether we respect the rule of law in Israel, or give in to threats of violence." Cannetti says that human rights activists and some leftist parties have signed on to the parade, which is expected to draw several thousand gay marchers. "Many people aren't coming because they're scared," she says.

The mile-long parade route is carefully planned to avoid any places of worship, and Canetti says that she has told some of the procession's expected participants, especially those from flashy Tel Aviv, to tone down sexy costumes. "We're not having floats or naked men flashing their asses," she says. "We just want to tell people: 'Hey, we're here. We have a right to exist.'"

The tension over the Nov. 10 march may have erupted even sooner had the Lebanon war not forced the cancellation of a World Gay Pride Procession that had been planned for Jerusalem this summer. Even then, one extremist, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, from the Eda Haredit rabbinic court, blamed the failure of Israel's campaign in Lebanon on "the homosexuals' obscenity and promiscuity in the Holy Land."

The anti-gay bandwagon has even attracted support from abroad. Rabbi Yehuda Levin, of the Orthodox Rabbinical Alliance of America and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, has been carrying out a three-year campaign against what he calls "the homosexualization of the Holy Land." It was Levin who crossed the boundaries of religious and ethnic hostility and recruited the support of prominent Palestinian Islamic cleric Taisser Tamimi against the parade. Evangelical Christian groups were also upset by what they saw as the deliberate flaunting of sexuality in Christendom's most sacred place. Says Rev. Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, "This city's long history makes this event very provocative for people's feelings and beliefs. It's too 'in-your-face.'"

But secular Israelis say it's a shame that the only thing Jerusalem's three feuding communities of faith can agree on is their condemnation of gays. Both sides will be looking to prevail on the streets of Jerusalem next Friday.

—with reporting by Jamil Hamad/Ramallah and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem