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Organizers cancel controversial gay pride march in Jerusalem

Dion Nissenbaum
McClatchy Newspapers
A gay Israeli soldier holds a flag during Jerusalem's annual gay pride parade, June 30, 2006. (Pierre Terdjman/Flash90/MCT)

JERUSALEM - Jerusalem's lesbian and gay community has unintentionally succeed in doing something that has eluded the world's greatest thinkers: Unite the three major monotheistic religions.

Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims and prominent Christian leaders are united in their opposition to a gay pride march in Jerusalem, a city that's holy to all three religions.

The pope called for Friday's march to be canceled. Muslim leaders criticized it as a disgrace. Orthodox Jews organized weeks of violent demonstrations.

Jerusalem police repeatedly warned that violent opposition could lead to tragedy and urged Israeli leaders to call it off. On Thursday, faced with new security concerns related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, organizers gave in to the pressure, shelved the march and offered to hold a more isolated rally at Hebrew University's stadium instead.

The city's ultra-Orthodox opponents of the march immediately hailed the deal as a victory.

"A lot of people are very happy because a level of purity has been returned to Jerusalem," said Rabbi Yehuda Levin, head of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. "The holy city of Jerusalem now breathes a sigh of relief that it is not going to be sullied by this kind of event."

Even though the agreement was expected to defuse potential clashes on Friday, the months-long emotional controversy evolved into much more than a debate over the gay pride march. It became a battle over the soul of Jerusalem.

"We are struggling with something that is much deeper than gay rights," Sa'ar Nathaniel, Jerusalem's only openly gay city councilman, said before the agreement was announced. "We are struggling about the image of Jerusalem: Will it be pluralistic and tolerant and democratic, or a twin city of Tehran or Kabul?

"And maybe we are not just struggling about Jerusalem," Nathaniel added. "We are struggling about Israel."

At its heart, the fight pitted Jerusalem's increasingly influential ultra-Orthodox community against the dwindling numbers of secular Jerusalemites. While the conservative Jews make up about a third of the city population, they represent the fastest-growing Jewish sector and control nearly half of the city council's 31 seats. In 2003, the city elected its first ultra-Orthodox as mayor.

This rise in political power has coincided with a slow exodus of secular residents from Jerusalem, tilting influence in the city Israel considers its political and spiritual capital toward the ultra-Orthodox.

Outside Jerusalem, Israel is considered relatively progressive on gay rights. Tel Aviv has a reputation for tolerance, there's no ban on gays serving in the military, and the country's workplace anti-discrimination laws cover homosexuals.

Although the gay pride march had been held for four years in Jerusalem, it struck a nerve last summer when organizers made the parade the centerpiece of a planned international gay pride festival. The march was twice delayed, most recently because of the war in Lebanon. But opponents kept up their pressure when it was rescheduled for this month.

Elchanan Glatt, executive director of a Zionist youth organization who helped organize a protest, called the march "a slap in the face in public."

"The major problem is choosing Jerusalem," Glatt said. "It's not Amsterdam."

Sheik Ibrahim Sarsur, an Arab-Israeli member of parliament, called homosexuality a "severe disease" and called for the march to be canceled.

For two weeks, ultra-Orthodox known as Haredi in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood torched cars, threw Molotov cocktails and injured 45 police officers to derail the event, leading an Israeli columnist to compare the protests to the Palestinian revolts against Israel, known as intifadas.

"If it looks like an intifada, sounds like an intifada, smells like an intifada and is spreading from the mouth of the fanatic volcano in Mea Shearim towards other Haredi centers throughout the capital and the country - has a Haredi Intifada broken out in Israel?" asked analyst Avishai Ben Haim in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv.

Last year, an ultra-Orthodox attacker stabbed three gay pride marchers. In an attempt to address concerns, organizers tried to keep the march low-key. Unlike gay pride marches in the United States, Jerusalem's doesn't include floats, and organizers discourage participants from wearing flamboyant clothes.

At first, organizers agreed to move the route to the government center, away from more populated areas. Then, on Thursday, they offered to cancel the march and instead hold the rally at the university stadium.

The step came amid increased security concerns in Israel following the killing of at least 17 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by an apparently misguided Israeli artillery barrage.

All along the way, organizers at the gay rights group Jerusalem Open House sought to appeal to their opponents. In their office is a poster showing the old city of Jerusalem with pink triangles on some of the roofs and the slogan "Tolerance is holy."

"We have to be able, especially in this city that needs it desperately and badly, to be tolerant and pluralistic," said Elena Canetti, acting chair of the group's management committee. "And even if you are not so pluralistic, even if you really believe your values are the values and everyone else lives a horrible life with no values, you have to be tolerant. That is the point."

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