A Closer Look at LGBTQ Life in Not-Quite-Tolerant Jerusalem
The recent Torah portion Parashat Balam tells the story of Balam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East. Balam is summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites mean him no harm and are just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak fears them and wants them gone. Balam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel, but when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
With great pride, indeed, my husband Steve and I marched last week in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected – twice the number of last year’s parade – marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l.
This year, Shira’s parents came to the parade both to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community and all those who participated in the parade this year. In the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod, stood a huge poster with her photo and a quote from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”
Prior to the parade, Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from the Shalom Hartman Institute for a day of education to better familiarize ourselves with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world – but the same can’t be said of Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence there – not only in the Jewish community but in all religious communities – Jerusalem’s LGBTQ community has a much more difficult time than the community in Tel Aviv when it comes to freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like.
In fact, though some Members of Knesset attended the parade – Isaac "Bougie" Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them – Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was not. He did not want to inflame the Orthodox community, he explained. While Mayor Barkat has been good for this city in a number of ways, I believe this particular decision was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never truly be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, rubbing salt into already festering wounds.
One of the places we visited during our time with Hartman was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, Habayit Hapatuach, Open House for Pride and Tolerance. (Open House was the principal organizer of the parade, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them.) Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk. Open House is not a well-known entity, but it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular.
Unfortunately there are people in this world – in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, and virtually everywhere – who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat, a scourge to be wiped off the earth, a people whom God has cursed. But if they were to look closely, to speak with people, to get to know this community up close and personal, surely they would see that, in fact, it is a community God has blessed.
As Jews, one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: “And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them.” When Balam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”