LGBT activist Yonatan Gher, will marching on the Knesset advance gay rights?
Yonatan Gher is the director general of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH ), an organization that promotes the welfare of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT ) people in the city. This Thursday, the eighth Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade will be held, nearly one year after the fatal shooting at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv. At the conclusion of Thursday's parade, participants will file into the Wohl Rose Garden across from the Knesset building.
Yonatan Gher, why did you decide to march on the Knesset this year?
After the attack at the Bar Noar center in Tel Aviv, we put a lot of thought into how we could publicly commemorate the tragedy. In the end, we decided not to stage the usual Jerusalem Pride Parade, but rather to transform it. This week's event is a pride parade, but it is much more than that. The event will attract the LGBT community from all over the country, and we will commemorate the first anniversary of this murder.
The intention is to mark the end of the year of mourning, and also to start discussing our rights as a community in a more comprehensive manner, and the Knesset is the right place for that. We also seek to address the harsh incitement against our community that leads to violence against us, and to speak systematically about the discrimination we face. Israeli law sanctions nearly 700 forms of discrimination against us.
What rights does the gay community lack in Israel in 2010?
We are often asked, "What are you marching for - you can get married if you travel to Canada, and have children if you go to India." A text we prepared for the march addresses certain infringements on our rights, divided into five categories: health services, family rights, protection from hatred, identity rights and equality in the allocation of state resources. For instance, in the area of health care, when someone chooses to undergo sex reassignment surgery, HMO health benefit packages do not cover fertility matters such as sperm and egg storage. Such benefits, however, are offered to cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy.
The status of partners is also problematic. When someone in the community is hospitalized, it often happens that his or her partner lacks formal status [in order to visit or make any health-related decisions]. The community faces restrictions regarding adoption rights. With respect to protection from hatred, we demand stiffer penalties for offenders, and we also seek changes in the law. As it stands, the law is confined to offenders who carry out acts of terror. We would like to see other crimes of hatred recognized by law. We want government ministries to allocate far more resources to education against acts of hatred toward our community, and to education for social change.
Do you really think a march on the Knesset will bring about change?
In the week after the Bar Noar murders, we heard statements from political figures which had seldom been uttered before. It was the first time a prime minister visited a site associated with the gay community; Israel's president also spoke out about the issue, as did ministers and Knesset members; and religious parties claimed that this was not the intention of their protests against the gay community. Statements and dynamics of this sort are what we have tried to encourage during the past year, but the community was also traumatized and in mourning.
The first anniversary marks the end of the grieving and the start of deliberation on what comes next. Changing the community's status is the best tribute we can offer to those who were wounded or killed - we pay tribute by dedicating ourselves to preventing such an occurrence from happening again, and bringing an end to the hatred and murder.
To a great extent, such a change depends on the country's decision makers, not on me. This is their opportunity to prove that what happened will not be repeated. This year I want to establish a pride lobby in the Knesset. On the eve of the pride parade, we are going to send a statement to all 120 Knesset members; this will be our work plan.
How will it feel to march in the capital, a year after the attack in Tel Aviv?
We are marching in Jerusalem this year for the eighth time. Every year there is fear, though in recent years the fear has somewhat abated. We were able to create a dialogue in Jerusalem that significantly reduced the opposition we had witnessed during the parade's first years. I am not afraid of demonstrations, and we are not looking for [counter-demonstrations] - we are not marching because of the ultra-Orthodox. We are Jerusalemites and this is our city, and we are marching in it. Is it still frightening to walk down the street, hand in hand, with the person you love? The answer is yes, but we march so that there will be nothing to fear in the future.
How does it feel to walk through Jerusalem, knowing the person who committed hate crimes against your community has yet to be apprehended?
Knowing this person is still at large is very hard to take, and it impinges on our daily lives. From the day of the attack, the JOH was forced to employ a full-time guard, who checks the bags of anyone entering the building. And this routine will continue at least as long as the murderer is still at large. I believe the police force is allocating adequate resources to apprehending the perpetrator of this despicable crime. But it's still scary. It is a danger we face on a daily basis.
Has Jerusalem become used to the LGBT community?
A few years ago, the entire city was duped by media spin that depicted the parade as something happening for the first time in Jerusalem. The parade was portrayed as being comparable to the event in Tel Aviv, which is a kind of party; the real picture of how the parade is conducted in Jerusalem, in contrast to Tel Aviv, was lost. The Jerusalem parade is devoted to rights lacked by the community. It is not a celebration, it is a demonstration. We have invested a lot of energy to reach a point where the Haredi community recognizes the difference between the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem events.
Does the JOH have any direct interaction with the ultra-Orthodox community?
We prefer not to give a detailed answer to this question, so as not to compromise those who are in contact with us. But yes, we have direct connections with representatives of the religious communities.
What is it like being a homosexual in an increasingly Orthodox city?
I'm worried about people leaving Jerusalem - including the flight of the open-minded public in general and the LGBT community in particular. We work hard to try to change this demographic pattern; we aren't ready to give up on Jerusalem. This is a city that belongs to all of us. We choose to live here, alongside all other types of residents who dwell in the city. More than anything, the parade is a celebration of the city's pluralism. The goal is to create a Jerusalem in which gay people will feel truly at home.
What do you say to people who wonder whether the parade is worth the provocation it causes?
I don't think anyone uses this terminology any longer. "Provocation" is a bygone term. Just as on Jerusalem day there is a parade featuring flags, and just as there are parades for soldiers held hostage, we too are part of this reality. When another country's prime minister comes for a visit, they close off streets; and, in the same way, they close off streets when we march. The fact that some store-owners complain about the march and say it bothers them when streets get closed is simply hypocrisy.
Why is it worth the effort to live in Jerusalem?
I grew up here, and it is very important to me that my son grow up here. The thought of raising a child in Tel Aviv is much less compelling than doing so in Jerusalem. Daily realities in this city are more powerful than any newspaper headline. Personal encounters on playgrounds between religious parents and ourselves do a lot to change the reality. Such encounters involve far less fear and hatred of the other than what we're accustomed to seeing in the newspapers. That is where the real change takes place.