This article was originally written for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics:
Almost a year has passed since 16-year-old Shira Banki was murdered at Jerusalem’s Pride parade, and the same religiously derived homophobia that led to her death is being voiced loud and clear in Israel.
On 30 July 2015, Yissai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who saw it as his duty to stop the “foul” LGBT march, stabbed Banki and six others. Only a few weeks earlier, Schlissel had been released from prison, having served a 10-year sentence for a stabbing attack at the march in 2005. He had held onto his extremist views for a decade.
However, in the weeks leading up to this year’s march on 21 July, public religious figures have been repeating the rhetoric that drove Schlissel to murder. A letter penned by two religious Zionist rabbis protested the “parade of abomination” as a “terrible desecration of God’s name.”
In some of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, posters have reportedly called for public protest against “those who despise God” and “defile and desecrate the Holy City, with the support of the municipal authority and funding from the regime.”
Rabbi Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba in the West Bank, gave his explicit support to a protest planned by extremist anti-miscegenation group Lehava. “You are joining the great Jewish sages throughout the generations who by protesting such acts saved the Jewish people,” Lior wrote in a letter. Meanwhile, in tangential but related developments, 250 Israeli religious Zionist rabbis have come out in support of Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, the head of a pre-army academy, who had been lambasted for calling gays “perverts” in a recent speech. And we have yet to mention the IDF’s incoming chief rabbi, who in the past voiced controversial comments about LGBTs.
This is not just the harmless rhetoric of a small minority, to be tolerated in the name of free speech. Orthodox media outlets like Yeshiva World News report on the march as “parade of teoiva,” or abomination. We know that these words, dripping with hatred and religious condemnation, are dangerous. In the case of Schlissel, who grew up hearing this language, it led to violence. Ahead of the 21 July march, police arrested Schlissel in prison, and his brother, Michael, on suspicion that they were plotting to copy last year’s attack. A Lehava activist was also detained for posting inciteful remarks on Facebook. With all this in mind, this year’s parade made its way through Jerusalem under heavy security.
The march, attended by an estimated 25,000 people, ended with a memorial service to Banki. Recognising the need for strong statements against hatred, some national-religious activists and alliesmarched, too. Their support is key to showing that this homophobic rhetoric should not be tolerated. On the day of the parade itself, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video message urging tolerance and unity after last year’s violence.
And yet, Jerusalem’s secular Mayor Nir Barkat announced he would not be taking part “because I don’t want to be part of something that offends the ultra-Orthodox public and national-religious public.” Barkat, who also reportedly removed pride flags placed along the parade route from in front of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue at the request of the city’s chief rabbi, was slammed for these actions by politicians on the left and centre, and by the LGBT community.
Given the city’s large religious population, Jerusalem Pride has been a tense affair ever since it started some 15 years ago. In contrast, Tel Aviv’s annual parade, less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, sees itself as the epitome of liberal Israel, where Pride is the highlight of the year, and the municipality building proudly lights itself up in the colours of the rainbow flag.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Barkat’s declaration is some sort of exercise in tolerance. Indeed, this was how he has explained it. The city did host the parade after all, despite objections from some religious Jews. However, by citing concerns over causing offence to a religious public, some of whose members have voiced the words which give someone like Schlissel a moral justification for violence, Barat gave room to rhetoric he knows full well has led to murder. This comes after the first ever Pride march in the southern city of Be’er Sheva was recently cancelled. It also comes only a few months after a young man massacred 50 at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando.
There is a fine line between ultra-Conservative faith and extremist ideology. For some ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews, the LGBT community are “sinners” who violate the Torah and endanger others. Their lifestyle has been blamed for earthquakes and other natural disasters. At what point do such beliefs cross the line to extremism? Is it when they become a rallying cry for public protest against a fellow citizen’s right to live as they choose? Is it when a rabbi supports action by Lehava, a group known for violence? Surely, we venture into extremist territory long before someone kills in the name of these beliefs. At the time of his first attack in 2005, Schlissel supposedly believed he was on a mission from God.
Barkat laid a wreath for Banki ahead of the parade. But by choosing to abstain from the march, by choosing not to stand side-by-side with a community in his city that has come under violent attack, the mayor was effectively tolerating dangerous extremist rhetoric. Israel’s mainstream is far too tolerant of such language. Barkat’s position shows how acceptable it has become.