An ultra-conservative member of the Israeli government has vowed to scrap the Pride and Tolerance parade in Jerusalem. Another far-right minister with a history of homophobia, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who now heads the police, was tasked with securing it.
The Jerusalem parade is usually a relatively quiet annual tradition. But Thursday’s event came at a difficult time for Israel, five months after the most hardline and religiously conservative government in the country’s history took power.
Organizers said an initial count showed 30,000 people – many dancing and waving rainbow flags – had gathered to join the march. Their number was two or three times the usual crowd at the Jerusalem event, they said.
LGBTQ activists have reported a sharp increase in abuse and violence against homosexuals in Israel in recent months and expected a large turnout for this year’s parade. But they were also prepared for possible violence.
Lehava, an extremist organization led by one of Mr. Ben-Gvir’s longtime associates, held a small counter-demonstration nearby against what it called a “parade of abomination.” Lehava, which promotes a strict separation of Jews and non-Jews, has been described by groups promoting religious tolerance as inciting ethnic hatred and even violence, and its leader has called for the expulsion of Christians from Israel.
Despite calls from the gay community for Mr. Ben-Gvir to stay away from the parade, on Thursday he walked around the area where the participants had gathered, with the crowd chanting “Shame!” He also stopped by a nearby counter-demonstration.
The parade also came amid a backlash by liberal Israelis against the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their main target is a government judicial reform plan that critics say will weaken and politicize the Supreme Court, and has sparked months of mass protests across the country.
The government’s supporters insist its judicial plan will restore the proper balance between the branches of government by reining in unelected judges. Opponents say limiting the judiciary’s powers would harm Israel’s democratic system and make minorities, such as the LGBTQ community, more vulnerable.
Members of Israel’s technology sector, women’s organizations and army reservists, who, along with the gay community, played a prominent role in the protests against the judicial overhaul, attended the Jerusalem parade in solidarity.
Mr. Netanyahu has pledged to defend gay rights and appointed Amir Ohana, a member of his conservative Likud party, as Israel’s first openly gay parliament speaker.
Mr Ohana was publicly welcomed at a state ceremony this year marking Israel’s 75th anniversary alongside his life partner, underscoring the high profile of the gay community in Israel, even as hostile rhetoric from officials has grown.
“We may not see a law that says gay men have to wear a pink shirt in Israel,” Jonathan Walfer, chairman of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance and an organizer of the parade, said of the potential dangers posed by the government’s legal suggestions.
But at the end of the day, he said in an interview, gay rights — like same-sex surrogacy rights — have been granted primarily by the Supreme Court, not by lawmakers. “So if you weaken the Supreme Court,” he said, “Netanyahu’s politics no longer matter.”
Reflecting the more conservative nature of the holy city, the annual parade in Jerusalem is much smaller and quieter than the carnival-like one in Tel Aviv, which takes place a week later and attracts up to 250,000 people.
Israel’s LGBTQ Union said over a hundred Pride events are planned in Israel next month, calling the number an “unprecedented milestone.”
“Our rights are being threatened by the government and we need to demonstrate, protest and celebrate our identity,” said Hyla Pear, the union’s president.
Activists have raised fears of violence during the parade, citing a 2022 report showing a spike in complaints of homophobic and transphobic verbal and physical attacks in Israel in the last two months of last year, a result they say of the result of Elections on November 1.
The Jerusalem parade has been marred by violence in the past. Ultra-Orthodox Jew Yishai Schlissel was convicted of stabbing to death schoolgirl Shira Banki, 16, during the parade in 2015. He carried out the attack soon after he was released from prison after serving 10 years for stabbing participants in the parade a decade earlier.
Israeli television reported threats against the march circulating on WhatsApp groups linked to Lehava. On Thursday, only about 30 people showed up to the anti-gay counter-demonstration.
Ms. Per described it as “absurd” that Mr. Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, should be in charge of parade security. He and Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right finance minister, participated in the infamous “Parade of the Beasts,” a provocative anti-gay donkey and goat march in Jerusalem in 2006.
Both Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir have since expressed regret for the event, but gay activists still consider them dangerous. Mr. Ben-Gvir, a lawyer, represented Mr. Schlissel’s brother, who was arrested in 2016 on suspicion of planning another attack on the Jerusalem parade. The brother denies any violent intent and has not been charged.
Mr Ben-Gvir said on Wednesday that even if he did not agree with the parade, “it is my duty to make sure that not a single hair on the heads of the participants is harmed during my watch”.
“On the other hand,” he added, “there should be the maximum ability to allow freedom of expression,” including those demonstrating against the parade. He said he did not want to see anyone with a religious or ultra-Orthodox appearance automatically detained.
Netanyahu’s government has so far not passed any laws affecting LGBTQ rights, despite a promise made to coalition parties to amend the current anti-discrimination law. The proposed change would allow businesses and service providers to refuse to provide a service that conflicts with their religious beliefs.
But many LGBTQ people are concerned about the recent award of nearly $80 million in government funding over the next two years to a new body to promote Jewish national identity, headed by Avi Maoz, a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office who promotes policies that described by critics as homophobic, racist and misogynistic. Mr Maoz, leader of the far-right Noam party, says he will create a mechanism to help parents track the educational content of their children’s schools – a move critics say could be used to crack down on programs that promote minority and women’s rights.
Shortly before forming the government, he told a small religious publication that he intended to work to cancel Jerusalem’s annual gay parade, which he described as an “indecent abomination.”
Some gay activists and their supporters accuse Mr. Netanyahu of “pinkwashing” by appointing Mr. Ohana as the first gay speaker of parliament, positioning himself as a liberal while empowering the anti-gay far right. At the same time, some say he and Mr. Ohana have helped “normalize” the gay community.
Mr. Ohana, for his part, accused the Liberal camp of hypocrisy. In a Facebook post ahead of the November election, he wrote that many gay leftists were sending him images from nearly 20 years ago of Mr Ben-Gvir and Mr Smotrich at the “Beast Parade”, asking if this would be his coalition future partners.
Mr Ohana noted that the last government, a broad coalition of anti-Netanyahu forces, included a small Islamist party, Raam, which fiercely opposes gay rights.
Reflecting the layers of complexity in Israeli society, Mr. Ohana told a story about how warmly he, his partner and their son were recently received by the rabbi and congregation of an Orthodox Yemeni synagogue they visited in Jerusalem.
The rabbi, Mr. Ohana said, blessed their son in the traditional way, naming the two fathers instead of the more usual father and mother. “The congregation,” writes Mr. Ohana, “with good-natured smiles on their faces answered with a resounding ‘Amen!'”
Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.