Israelis clash on gay rights

Violence, threats limit pride march

November 11, 2006|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -- As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict boiled over this week, it competed for headlines here with a pivotal clash in Israel's culture war between secular and Orthodox Jewish values.

The inflammatory issue: gay rights in the Holy Land.

For days, Israeli television viewers were treated to surreal images of ultra-Orthodox Jews pelting the police with stones and setting cars afire in a campaign against a planned gay pride march through Jerusalem.

The battle ended yesterday in a setback for Israel's gay community, which bowed to pressure to take the annual event off the streets and confine it to a stadium. Nearly 4,000 revelers waved rainbow flags and danced to live music, but the mood was dampened by a sense of retreat.

"They decided to lock us in a cage," said Ronen Hady-Cohen, a 30-year-old medical student who walked through a protective cordon of 3,000 policemen to get to the rally at Hebrew University's fenced-in sports field. "The ultra-Orthodox interpret this as a victory, and I'm afraid that a lot of Israelis agree."

The dispute over the parade reflected a sharp divide in Israeli society.

The country's democracy encompasses an array of secular groups that defend gay interests and have begun a campaign for same-sex marriage.

But ultra-Orthodox religious leaders, who consider homosexuality an abomination, wield enormous power. They and their 500,000 followers - about 7 percent of Israel's population - are especially numerous and influential in Jerusalem.

For the first time since it was first held in 2001, ultra-Orthodox clerics lobbied to have the gay parade stopped and called for a death curse on the organizers.

They got support from the top Muslim cleric in the Palestinian territories, Jerusalem mufti Mohammed Hussein, who declared that being gay is a crime. The Vatican and Christian evangelical groups denounced the planned parade as an offense to religious sensibilities.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that a gay parade would be a "provocative act," even though his lesbian daughter Dana, whose lifestyle he supports, planned to take part.

Israel's Supreme Court turned down an appeal to block the march, and the attorney general ordered police officials to meet with organizers to agree on a route. But with ultra-Orthodox groups promising a large counter-demonstration, police feared a repeat of the bloodshed of last year, when three gay marchers were stabbed.

Under a deal worked out by Jerusalem's police chief, the parade was canceled and Orthodox leaders agreed not to hold street demonstrations against the rally.

"Today is a great victory for religious power," said Yehuda Levin, a New York-based ultra-Orthodox rabbi who came here to lobby. "The sodomites are back in the figurative closet. They are not free to provoke."

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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