A Jerusalem Gay-Pride Clash Is Averted

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It was billed as an apocalyptic showdown: A band of scared but stubborn gay Israelis who wanted to celebrate their sexuality on a march through Jerusalem, versus 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews who vowed to tear the gays into confetti-sized pieces for turning the Holy City into "Sodom."

But in the end, the march became simply a rally, and there was only a single act of near-violence: A fanatic lunged at a drag queen belting out a gay-pride song on stage at Friday's event in the sports arena of the Hebrew University, but even in spangled high heels, the drag queen nimbly evaded the attacker, and a security guard yanked the assailant offstage by the seat of his trousers.

Were it not for a last-minute concession by organizers, the event could easily have resulted in more serious violence. The previous week had seen repeated clashes in Jerusalem between police and curly forelocked Hasidic youths, who burned tires and hurled rotten eggs and stones. An unknown extremist Jewish group announced it was offering a $500 reward for every gay man or woman killed during the parade.

One rabbi even warned that a cabal of clerics had resorted to black magic, invoking a "Pulsa Denura" ("Lashes of Fire") curse against Noah Satat, 29, the outspoken director of Jerusalem Open House, organizer of the parade. Several fanatical rabbis say that such curses led to the death of Premier Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by a Jewish extremist for signing a peace treaty with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and that another malediction caused Ariel Sharon to have a stroke several months after he pulled Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip. Hexes can be laughed off, perhaps, but Satat, who has also received death threats, is now guarded by a 24-hour police escort.

In the end, the clash between gays and the keepers of Jerusalem's three faiths — in a rare display of solidarity, rabbis, priests and Muslim clerics in the holy city all united against the parade — was averted because of security fears. (Hatred of homosexuality, it seems, is the one thing that unites Islam, Judaism and Christianity in the fractious Holy City.)

The security threat foremost on the minds of authorities may not have been gay-bashing extremists, but Palestinian suicide bombers creeping into Jerusalem. Palestinian militant groups have vowed to resume suicide attacks inside Israel to avenge the 19 Palestinians killed in Gaza on Wednesday when an Israeli tank gunner erroneously shelled their homes. In the 24 hours leading up to the planned Gay Parade, Israeli police received 80 security alerts in Jerusalem, and officials said that the 12,000 police officers required to protect the gay pride march would leave the city wide open to terrorists. Organizers relented and decided to hold a rally instead, inside a track stadium that could be guarded by a mere 3,000 police. "By going ahead with the parade, we would have been as irresponsible as the religious extremists," says organizer Elena Canetti. "Jerusalem would have been set on fire."

About 2,000 participants — far fewer than the cops protecting them — showed up at the rally. Many were straights who saw the gay clash with religious forces in stark terms: the democratic right of free assembly vs. religious intolerance. "It's now about whether we respect the law in Israel, or give into threats of violence," says Canetti.

The fuss over the Gay Pride Parade also exposed some of the seismic cracks inside Israeli society, where modern, secular values collide with fiercely defended religious traditions. The sharp Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rivalry illustrates this divide. Tel Aviv prides itself on its hip nightclubs and a laid-back, cosmopolitan attitude, while an hour's drive away, in some Jerusalem neighborhoods, ultra-orthodox men re-create the customs of 17th century Poland and wear long, black waistcoats and beaver hats that make them broil in the Mediterranean sun.

Making up half of the Holy City's Jewish residents, the ultra-Orthodox ride their own buses, send their kids to religious schools and have the power to close off their neighborhoods to cars on the Sabbath. Any Tel Aviv visitor wandering into these austere communities in shorts and a T-shirt on the Sabbath runs the risk of getting clobbered by a rock.

Even Jerusalem's gays are more subdued than Tel Aviv's. Organizer Canetti says she asked Tel Aviv's participants to tone down their 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."

Jerusalem's gays say that next year, they will again try to hold their rainbow-hued parade. No doubt, the ultra-Orthodox will again try to stop them. "We've chased them back into the closet," exulted one religious extremist. But Israelis gays have no intention of staying locked inside.