Conflict With the Far Right Shrouds Jerusalem’s Pride Parade

One ultraconservative member of the Israeli government had pledged to abolish the Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance Parade. Another far-right minister with a history of homophobia, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who now oversees the police, was tasked with securing it.

The Jerusalem parade is normally a relatively staid annual tradition. But the event that took place on Thursday came at a fraught moment for Israel, five months after the most hard-line and religiously conservative government in the country’s history took power.

Organizers said that an initial count showed that 30,000 people — many of them dancing and waving rainbow flags — had gathered to join the march. The number was two or three times the usual crowd at the Jerusalem event, they said.

L.G.B.T.Q. activists have reported a sharp increase in anti-gay abuse and violence in Israel in recent months, and had been expecting a large turnout for this year’s parade. They braced for possible violence, but the march went off peacefully under heavy security, with about 2,000 police officers deployed along the short route.

Lehava, an extremist organization led by one of Mr. Ben-Gvir’s longtime associates, held a small counter-demonstration nearby against what it called the “abomination parade.” Lehava, which promotes 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 toured the area where participants had gathered, to cries from the crowd of “Shame!” He also stopped by the nearby counter-demonstration.

The parade also came amid a backlash from liberal Israelis against the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their main target has been a government plan for a judicial overhaul that critics say would weaken and politicize the Supreme Court, and has set off months of mass protests across the country.

The government’s supporters insist that its judicial plan will restore the proper balance between the branches of government by reining in unelected judges. Opponents say that curbing the powers of the judiciary would damage Israel’s democratic system and leave minorities, like the L.G.B.T.Q. community, more vulnerable.

Members of Israel’s tech sector, women’s organizations and army reservists who, together with the gay community, have played a prominent role in the anti-judicial overhaul protests, attended the Jerusalem parade in solidarity.

Mr. Netanyahu has pledged to protect gay rights and appointed Amir Ohana, a member of his conservative Likud party, as the first openly gay speaker of Israel’s Parliament.

Mr. Ohana was publicly welcomed at a state ceremony this year, marking the 75th anniversary of Israel’s establishment, together with his life partner, underlining the high profile of the gay community in Israel even as hostile rhetoric from officials grows.

“Maybe we won’t see a law saying gay men have to wear a pink shirt in Israel,” said Jonathan Valfer, chairman of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance and a parade organizer, of the potential dangers posed by the government’s judicial proposals.

But in the end, he said in an interview, gay rights — such as same-sex surrogacy rights — have mostly been conferred by the Supreme Court rather than the lawmakers. “So, if you weaken the Supreme Court,” he said, “Netanyahu’s policies are not relevant anymore.”

Reflecting the more conservative character 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.

The Israeli L.G.B.T.Q. Union said that over a hundred Pride events were scheduled across Israel over the next month, calling that number “an unprecedented milestone.”

“Our rights are being threatened by the government and we must demonstrate, protest and celebrate our identity,” said Hila Peer, the chairwoman of the union.

Activists had raised fears of violence during the parade, citing a 2022 report that showed a spike in complaints about homophobic and transphobic verbal and physical assaults in Israel in the last two months of last year, a result, they said, of the outcome of the Nov. 1 election.

The Jerusalem pride parade has been marred by violence in the past. An ultra-Orthodox Jew, Yishai Schlissel, was convicted of stabbing to death a schoolgirl, Shira Banki, 16, during the 2015 parade. He carried out the attack soon after being released from prison after serving 10 years for stabbing participants in the parade a decade earlier.

Israeli television has reported on threats against the march circulating in WhatsApp groups associated with Lehava. On Thursday, only about 30 people showed up for the anti-gay counter-demonstration.

Ms. Peer described it as “absurd” that Mr. Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, would be responsible for the parade’s security. He and Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right finance minister, participated in a notorious “Beast Parade,” a provocative anti-gay march with donkeys and goat in Jerusalem in 2006.

Both Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir have since expressed regret for that event, but gay activists still view them as dangerous. Mr. Ben-Gvir, an attorney, represented a brother of Mr. Schlissel who was arrested in 2016 on suspicion of planning another attack against the Jerusalem pride parade. The brother denied any violent intentions and was not charged.

Mr. Ben-Gvir said on Wednesday that even if he disagrees with the parade, “It is my duty to make sure that not a single hair on the heads of those participating will be harmed on my watch.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “there has to be maximum ability to allow freedom of expression,” including of those demonstrating against the pride parade. He said he did not want to see anybody with a religious or ultra-Orthodox appearance being automatically detained.

The Netanyahu government has not, so far, passed any laws impinging on L.G.B.T.Q. rights, despite a promise made to parties in the coalition to amend the current anti-discrimination law. The proposed change would allow businesses and service providers to refuse to provide a service contrary to their religious beliefs.

But many L.G.B.T.Q. people are concerned about the recent allocation of nearly $80 million in government funding over the next two years for a new authority to promote Jewish national identity, headed by Avi Maoz, a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office who promotes policies that critics describe as homophobic, racist and misogynist. Mr. Maoz, leader of the far-right Noam party, says he will create a mechanism to help parents track the educational content in their children’s schools — a move, critics say, that could be used to crack down on programs that promote the rights of minorities and women.

He told a small, religious publication shortly before the government was formed that he intended to work to cancel the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem, which he described as “an obscene abomination.”

Some gay activists and their supporters accuse Mr. Netanyahu of “pink washing” by appointing Mr. Ohana as the first gay Parliament speaker, 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, has accused the liberal camp of hypocrisy. In a Facebook post before 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 these were going to be his future coalition partners.

Mr. Ohana noted that the last government, a broad coalition of anti-Netanyahu forces, included a small Islamist party, Raam, which is virulently opposed to gay rights.

Reflecting the layers of complexity in Israeli society, Mr. Ohana related a story of how warmly he, his partner and their son had recently been received by the rabbi and congregation of an Orthodox Yemenite synagogue they had visited in Jerusalem.

The rabbi, Mr. Ohana recounted, blessed their son in the traditional way, naming the two fathers in place of the more usual father and mother. “The congregation,” Mr. Ohana wrote, “with a good-hearted smile on their faces, responded with a loud ‘Amen!’”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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