This afternoon I attended the Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance March. I walked down King George Road alone, headed toward the park, and was surprised to find that accompanying me on the sidewalk were at least seven reporters, all heading toward the march. On the way we encountered a small Haredi counter-protest, which was in a visible location, but was pretty quiet.
At the front gates of Liberty Bell Park a variegated crowd of women holding babies, men in short skirts, students with matching t-shirts, older couples, and even a few tourists stood in slow-moving security lines. The police officers made separate lines for men and women, which caused no small amount of protest: "What is this, Mea Shearim?" "But I don't know which one I am!" "How could you do this here?"
At the other end of the security, which was the most strenuous security I've experienced here - thorough searches of bodies and bags - I entered a park that was full of people - something like 2000 people were reported to have attended the parade. Merchants selling pins, flags, and scarves with rainbows and stars of David were scattered throughout an excited crowd. I ran into several people I know - a preschool teacher, my language partner, a friend who goes to RRC, and some friends of friends that I know from assorted places. It was fun to bump into people - I didn't expect to see anyone I knew!
Before the parade began one of the organizers silenced the drums for a moment to say that he was very proud of the march and that we shouldn't be bothered or afraid by anyone who protests us, but should just walk from one park to the other peacefully and proudly.
And then the march began. It was short and strangely solemn. Though in the beginning groups were chanting slogans like "We won't go back in the closet. We won't live without equality" (It rhymes in Hebrew), or "Gays and Lesbians want to Live/Be/Exist in Jerusalem" or "We demand rights and equality. In the workplace - rights and equality! In our studies - rights and equality! In our families - rights and equality!" etc. but as the march proceeded, a quiet settled in. We encountered only one protester, with a preposterous sign saying "Homosexuals Spread AIDS" - I think the police had cleared out most of the people from the roads. The security was tight all along the route and in both parks.
At Independence Park there was a short conference and a drag show, in addition to vendors selling beer, clothes, movies, and memorabilia, but I think the highlight for me was listening to the speeches of the current and past presidents of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, the head of the transgender organization, and others. They spoke of Jerusalem as the "city of freedom," talked candidly about the many challenges they face, and celebrated the vast strides that have been made in the past few years, as demostrated by the peacefulness of the parade itself.
There has been an annual gay pride prade in Tel Aviv since the 1998 (there was one yesterday) and it is a huge event with something like 100,000 people. The annual parade in Jerusalem began in 2002, and is often met with severe violence from the religious community - in 2005 a participator was stabbed to death at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, and in 2006 the parade was cancelled, ostensibly because of the second Lebonese war, but many claim it was also because of protests from the religious community. Tensions around the 2006 parade were particularly high, sparking riots in religious communities including burning dumpsters, throwing stones and dirty diapers, and a 'beast parade' in which Haredim marched goats and donkeys along the parade route a few days before the parade was scheduled. When the Jerusalem Open House announced that it planned to reschedule the march, they did so planning for worst-case scenarios of violence and murder, but the rescheduled march was conducted peacefully. Since then, the parade has met with little protest.