“If you prick us do we not bleed?” asks Shylock in Shakespeare’s infamous play “The Merchant of Venice.” Shylock, a medieval anti-Semitic caricature, in this scene, is asking why he should be discriminated against and mistreated because of his Jewish heritage. His defense of his humanity and call for equality is a sentiment that rings true through the corridors of history. Baseless hatred, it seems, is the cancer that with all our technological and social advances, continues to cling like a rotten stench to the human psyche.
That bigotry was on full display Saturday night October 6th in Jerusalem, on the twentieth anniversary of the brutal lynching of gay teen Mathew Shepherd, when my friend and I were harassed by five men because of our sexuality in Jerusalem.
I cannot grasp what possessed these boys to approach us. Maybe it was our floral print shirts, my red pants or the manner and tone in which I speak but as my friend and I walked the streets talking I suddenly became very aware that we were being followed.
It was meant to be a short walk from the Shuk down to our favorite local bar on Yaffo. Yet, as we went I realized that instead of trailing behind us, these individuals stood directly to our right and walked with us, as if they had received an invitation to join our conversation. I thought the behavior was strange and felt a sick feeling in my stomach as I asked my friend if we could cross the street to avoid them.
Unfortunately, as we turned, so too did they, walking beside us again. Finally, we resolved to freeze, hoping social graces would force them to walk ahead. Yet, their quest to make us feel threatened persisted and they too stopped in their tracks.
“Can I help you?” my friend asked. We knew they were Americans who had come to study a year in Yeshiva. “Yeah” he answered flatly, leaning on a pole, his gang of inebriated friends close behind him. “You two together?” We are not but we answered “What does it matter?”. They encircled us, prohibiting us from passing them. We were terrified as we came to the sudden gut wrenching reality that we were being harassed.
This was new. Living as a gay man I’ve become desensitized to hurtful comments by strangers, online bullying and the constant stream of smirks and impulsive sexualized hand and body gestures I prefer not to describe in print but this had escalated into uncharted territory. In that moment, I truly thought they were going to assault us but I swallowed my fear and exclaimed, “You have the audacity to come to our country and harass us on our streets.” That didn’t make them happy, they got closer and began touching us violently and exclaimed, pointing to my covered head, “If you’re gay, you should take off the kippa.” It seemed, in their skewed perspective, that it was not their choice to intimidate us, but my involuntary sexual orientation, that was religiously repugnant.
I asked my friend, who at this point was paralyzed with trepidation, in Hebrew, to call the police, hoping the boys would not understand the local tongue. After a moment, my friend got out his phone and through breaths heavy with panic called the authorities. The boys, however, were not fooled and attempted to swipe my friend’s phone. At this point, I was able to push through their blockade, grab my friend and get out as he described the five teenagers to the police. Knowing they would never be held accountable for their actions one of the boys yelled, “Tell the police, William says hi” as he snickered and his friends lobbed slurs at us.
We were lucky. Being LGBT+ individuals we have been warned by our peers of the horrors that occur to people like us. In some states in this region, it is even common practice to execute those who dare to engage in the fundamental human need to love and be loved. I am glad that is not our reality but being the “LGBT rights capitol of the Middle East” is the lowest of bars and progress is not an invitation to stagnate but a mandate to improve. Unfortunately, it seems even in the streets of the Holy City, we are in danger.
A few months ago, on the night of the Jerusalem Pride Parade, a pizza shop on Ben Yehuda actually denied service to a customer after asking him about his sexual orientation and lest we forget that it was only three years ago in 2015 that Shira Banki was brutally murdered for marching for LGBT+ Equality at the very same event.
I am not writing this to ask you to support gay marriage, nor adoption rights and not even to tell you the undeniable truth that I did not choose to be gay. For better or for worse, I approach and am willing to engage in reasonable, civil debate regarding all these important topics. What I do demand is that as a society we categorically and without hesitation condemn harassment and violence against the LGBT+ community in Israel and take concrete steps to end its pervasive reign.
This was not civil discourse, this was civil terror. I do not wish upon anyone, even my harassers, the violating, painful and defiling experience of feeling vulnerable, helpless and outnumbered against a group of people that hate your very existence. We were not approached as people, we were intruded upon by a gang in whose eyes we were objects of their disgust, cockroaches to be squashed.
I will acknowledge outright that not only am I fortunate to not have been physically harmed and that I understand in our reality of terrorism, this may seem like a small issue. I assure you it is not.
The terrorizing of anyone for the color of their skin, their religion or who they love, whether it be in verbal or physical form, is unacceptable. Violence is a symptom of a larger systemic issue and harassment is a part of that. To ignore the matter until bodies start racking up is a disservice to those like me and to civil society at large.
At the end of the day, whether you agree or disagree with my conclusions, the facts remain clear. We were violated not because of what we’d done, but because of who we were. Even more frightening is the reality that people who claimed to find our existence religiously disturbing found no moral qualms with persecuting us in the street. I would hope that a people who were mercilessly oppressed for thousands of years for being different would choose not to inflict the same torment on those different from them. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Shylock goes on. Yes, but one must choose to open them to see the human soul staring back at them.