A show of Pride divides Israelis; Relocated rally goes ahead peacefully Planned parade sparked riots, threats

Mitch Potter
Toronto Star

JERUSALEM It was forewarned as an open battle for the very soul of the Holy City and if the death threats and nightly religious riots that preceded it were any indication, yesterday's Jerusalem Gay Pride rally was bound to be bloody.
Yet in the aftermath of the festive, peaceful and utterly harmless midday gathering of 3,000 gay and lesbian activists and supporters, one can safely declare the battle deferred. Not over. Not nearly. But this particular round was put aside, even if the underlying fundamentals that drive the war are gaining intensity.
Far from its original path through the heart of West Jerusalem, where it was to tread dangerously close to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods where opposition is strongest, the planned parade was instead retrenched after an 11th-hour compromise to a single, stationary rally at a fenced-in university soccer stadium.
Far from the madding crowds, in a ghetto of its own making and flanked by as many as 3,000 Israeli police, the rainbow gathering was able to assert its right to be, without disturbing so much as a hair of the city whose majority didn't want it.
Several ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who as recently as Wednesday threatened to instigate a pulsa denura curse against the parade organizers - that is Aramaic for "lashes of fire" and, loosely speaking, the Judaic equivalent to Islam's fatwa - saw victory in the change of plans and agreed to instruct their followers to stand down.
Jerusalem Open House, the gay and lesbian rights group that had already postponed its parade once after last summer's eruption of hostilities with Lebanon, again found itself with a face-saving out - the soberingly high expectation of a violent Palestinian revenge attack in the wake of the tragic killing of 19 civilians in the Gaza Strip early Wednesday by an errant barrage of Israeli artillery shells.
But to many who attended yesterday's rally, the ferocity of the religious tide rising against them gave scant cause for celebration. Some spoke of the cultural and religious fault lines whose true depth was exposed in the nightly rampages that rocked Jerusalem this week with trash and tire fires agitating against "the abomination."
Though Jerusalem's Christian and Muslim leaders joined their Jewish brethren in a unique show of solidarity against the parade - the Vatican's ambassador to Israel this week added his voice to their camp - Jerusalemites at the rally saw the city's ever-swelling ultra-Orthodox Jewish sector as the primary threat. Already numerically dominant and growing at a rate faster than any other, the Orthodox rule.
"This is not a victory for us. This is not a good day for freedom in Jerusalem. But at least something has been salvaged," said Joe Romanelli, 63, a Brooklynite who came to Jerusalem 34 years ago. He regards himself as religious, but as a member of Judaism's far less rigid conservative movement he came to the rally to "protest what I see as a force of religious persecution against gays and lesbians."
"To my great regret, the ultra-Orthodox and (Palestinian Islamic movement) Hamas are very similar. They have bullied us from the centre of the city to the outside and they are cheering. I agree. They won."
Among yesterday's protestors was a group of Italian activists led by Marco Cappato, a member of the European Parliament, who spoke of a global dimension to the friction in Jerusalem.
"Some people want to explain our violent world as a clash of civilizations, with the west against Islam," said Cappato.
"We see it differently, with the drift toward religious fundamentalism on one side and open society on the other. We saw it in Italy, where the Pope managed to succeed in stopping stem-cell research. And we see it in the paradox that is Israel, which is why we came here today.
"Our message is simple: do not appease theocratic power, not in Israel nor anywhere else where fundamentalism threatens the rule of law. It is vital for the whole world that we protect Israel. But not only against external enemies, but also the internal enemies that go against democracy and open society."
Though as many as 63 per cent of Israelis opposed the Jerusalem parade, according to the latest poll yesterday in the Hebrew daily Maariv, Israeli law is almost certain to uphold the right for the annual event to take place next year, as indeed the courts have done since it first came to the city in 2002.
But having engendered more dark threats this year than ever before, few expect the 2007 edition to be any less fractious. A warning from Eli Yishai, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, in the wake of yesterday's rally said as much.
"If it was up to me, I would send the gay community who insisted on celebrating in Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah," Yishai told Israel Radio. "I love all Jews. My heart fills with pity for gays."