When I moved back to London from Israel last year I knew that there would inevitably be moments in Israel that would be really hard for me to miss. One such moment was Thursday night’s March for Pride and Tolerance in memory of Shira Banki z”l in Jerusalem.
The tens of thousands of Israelis who came out to celebrate freedom and tolerance in the streets of Jerusalem created together a brief and beautiful moment of victory not just for the LGBTQ community – although it certainly was for them – but indeed for all lovers of Israel who cherish the values of liberalism and democracy. The joy of this victory shone out of all photos and videos that I have seen, all facebook posts and tweets.
The 25,000 marchers on Thursday night – as well as those who marched the previous week in Beer Sheva, despite the cancellation of the southern city’s Pride march in a feeble capitulation to intolerance dressed up as security concerns – constituted a grand triumph against the vile discourse of hatred and division being sown by the right wing forces that have conquered Israel’s political and religious institutions.
As Uri Banki, father of murdered teenager Shira declared at the march: “Many deny or ignore the direct connection between impassioned discourse, hateful, condescending and blind confidence and uncompromising self-righteousness – and murder.” Uri’s moving plea to the marchers reached beyond his personal pain to defend what his daughter had believed in: “Don’t let hate, ignorance and prejudice wash you away – get up and stand for your rights to live in a tolerant and moderate society”.
It is a real shame that Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat was not able to summon the political strength to magnify this message and clearly state that the city of Jerusalem embraces the values of tolerance and moderation. He shamefully chose instead to swell support for the dark messages of homophobia promulgated by Rabbi Levinstein and the 250 Israeli Rabbis who publicly endorsed them. But nevermind, Jerusalem voted with its feet. As I participated vicariously through facebook – thanks to all my posting friends and especially to the wonderful Micky Gitzin who hosted New Israel Fund’s livestream – the open and hopeful face of Jerusalem gleefully fought back, the city’s beautiful diversity asserting itself in all its glory.
For me highlights included a video posted by a friend of revelers at the march – largely overtly religious but not exclusively – joyfully dancing the hora to religious music and waving rainbow flags in Jerusalem’s Paris Square. Within the context of the dire polarisation in Israeli society – fanned by voices such as that of Barkat who claimed that the march would offend religious people – this exuberant and spontaneous expression of Jewish joy at Gay Pride was a moment much larger than itself.
I’m not allowing myself to get carried away. The principle of freedom of expression – a sacrosanct tenet of any democracy – is under threat in Israel. The Knesset has just passed two laws which chip deep dents into Israelis’ right to critique or counter government policy and dominant worldviews. The passing on July 11th of the NGO law– which will place extraneous reporting requirements on organisations receiving over 50% of their budgets from “foreign state entities” – was the culmination of a dedicated smear campaign against human rights organisations which has broadly succeeded in tarnishing in the public’s eye these champions of justice as representing foreign interests. And the Suspension Law passed less than a week later – which will allow a majority of 90 Knesset members to suspend an elected lawmaker for views expressed – threatens the very principle of freedom of political debate. In an uncharacteristically fiery Knesset speech, Zionist Camp MK Tzipi Livni declared during the debate on the Suspension Law: “This collection of laws, of which [the Suspension Law] is one, are taking Israel to a dark place… all of this is being done in a manner which is destroying everything which everyone from all strands of society worked to build here over all these years.”
Democracy is a fragile thing, and the extremist forces currently wallowing in power in Israel’s political and religious institutions are pushing the country perilously close to a democratic tipping point. Last Thursday’s march was a glorious moment for lovers of Israeli democracy, but we all need to be vigilant because as Israeli singer Achinoam Nini so poignantly put it in a New Israel Fund podcast, “we are in a battle for the soul of the State of Israel”. Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Meir Turgeman has already announced his intention to ensure there will be no Pride march in Jerusalem next year. All of us who think there should – indeed must – be one, need to place our stake in this battle and speak out for the Israel, and the Jerusalem, that we believe in.