Thousands of Israelis attended LGBT protest-rallies in four major cities across the country Sunday evening in lieu of annual pride parades that were canceled this year due to the coronavirus.
The events, held under tight security, were punctuated by small far-right and far-left counter-protests. Dozens of far-right activists suspected of planning to disrupt the Jerusalem event were arrested by police earlier on Sunday.
The demonstrations in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba represented the peak of a month of events marking Pride that were organized by the Aguda Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel under the theme, “The revolution is not yet complete.”
That message was highlighted at each of the rallies, where speakers lamented the inability of single men and gay couples to use surrogacy to have children. Earlier Sunday, ministers vetoed a proposal from opposition lawmaker Idan Roll (Blue and White) aimed at reversing the policy.
In February, the High Court of Justice struck down the controversial law that blocks the practice and gave the Knesset a year to pass a new law.
Far-right activists arrested ahead of Jerusalem gathering
The lead-up to the demonstration in Jerusalem included arrests of anti-gay activists, as well as a spat between organizers and the municipality over hanging up Pride flags throughout the city to mark the occasion.
In a Facebook post hours ahead of the rally, the Israel Religious Action Center accused authorities of walking back their agreement to hang dozens of Pride flags across Jerusalem as is done annually in cities across the country. IRAC said that only five flags were ultimately hung up, in “another attempt by the municipality to silence and erase the LGBT community.”
The Sunday evening events also marked five years since 16-year-old Shira Banki was stabbed to death in a deadly attack on participants at the Jerusalem Pride parade by a Jewish extremist, and 50 years since the Stonewall Riots in New York.
Police said they allowed 1,250 people to participate in the Jerusalem rally, citing concerns regarding crowding amid the pandemic.
The entrance to the rally at the city’s downtown Independence Park was flooded with hundreds of police officers tasked with safeguarding the event, amid concerns that far-right demonstrators would sneak in and try to disrupt the rally.
Before the demonstration, police released a statement saying officers had arrested 27 people ahead over “behavior that could violate the public peace.”
“Simply unbelievable. I just walked by King David street in Jerusalem. Officers are standing at the junction there and stopping every Haredi for questioning. Every secular person is waved through without being stopped or questioned,” tweeted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair.
Just outside Independence Park, several dozen activists from the anti-miscegenation Lehava group gathered for an opposing protest against the LGBT activists and their allies.
Three Lehava members were arrested in the early hours of Sunday morning on suspicion that they were planning to disrupt the rally, and four more were briefly detained shortly before the protest began.
Lehava had intended to infiltrate and disrupt the event, publishing instructions for its members on how to “not stand out” while slipping into the rally, according to a Thursday report from Channel 12 news.
However, Sunday’s rally in Jerusalem ultimately concluded without any such provocation.
Jerusalem event remembers murdered teen Shira Banki
While the Jerusalem pride parade has long featured an atmosphere more akin to a protest, with participants forced to cope with jeers from a handful of right-wing extremists who oppose the holding of such a gathering in the holy city, this year’s event had a particularly distinctive intense vibe.
Demonstrators sat on the grass of Independence Park and listened quietly to the speakers, who included Banki’s parents. The rally commenced with a moment of silence in Banki’s memory.
“Tonight, we demonstrate tolerance for all genders and sexual tendencies, against violence, silencing, exclusion,” said Alon Shachar, the executive director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which organized the Jerusalem event.
“In a city where the new deputy mayor seeks every opportunity to hurt our existence and weaken efforts to create a tolerant, multifaceted and contained society, we must not remain silent and we must resist,” he added, calling out far-right deputy mayor Arieh King, who sent inspectors to cover up an LGBT pride banner sign at the US embassy’s Palestinian Affairs Unit on Agron Street in central Jerusalem last week.
The move sparked backlash from American officials, and continued to draw protest on Wednesday, with one American official calling it a breach of US sovereignty, all “while Ambassador Friedman is fighting for annexation in the United States.”
Also addressing the Jerusalem rally was Rena Noldman, a 9-year-old transgender girl who was accompanied to the stage by her parents. “I want to tell those who think that to be an LGBT individual is not good or weird: Everything seems weird and strange from the other side. It’s not an embarrassment to be an LGBT individual. It’s not a bad thing to be different because we’re all different from one another in some way,” she said to cheers.
Shortly after the presentations began, a group of four far-left activists who managed to make it inside the park confines stood up with signs accusing the other demonstrators of “pink-washing” and of ignoring the plight of Palestinians.
With one of them shouting into a megaphone, the young women chanted, “You have no shame. There no pride in a holy city” and “From Jerusalem to Hebron, gays want equality” — both slogans that rhyme in Hebrew. A handful of similar signs were spotted at the Tel Aviv rally as well.
At the end of the speeches, the atmosphere at Independence Park livened with musical performances from rapper E-Z , DJ Dalit Rechester, and singers Riki Ben Ari and Chen Aharon. Keen on maintaining social distancing, participants danced apart on the grass.
In Tel Aviv, a similar number of demonstrators gathered at Rabin Square for the respective protest-rally, though organizers were forced to frequently remind those present to maintain social distancing guidelines as tight crowding was spotted by the stage. Nonetheless, the scene was far more tame than the city’s annual pride parade, which attracts well over 100,000 people, including thousands from around the world.
Addressing the rally, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai said, “This year, we will not march and our parade that has colored the city for the past two decades is replaced by a more modest protest rally due to the coronavirus, but this does not change anything about our commitment [to LGBT equality].”
Huldai boasted that his municipality had announced last week that it would allow cohabiting couples to register their relationship and enjoy marital rights, in a protest of the government’s refusal to recognize same-sex couples or those not wed under the state’s religious authorities.
The Tel Aviv demonstration climaxed with performances from star duo Static and Ben El Tavori, along with transgender Eurovision winner Dana International, who took the stage wearing a large transparent mask.