The announcement last week that police had arrested suspects and essentially solved the shooting spree on August 1, 2009 at Tel Aviv’s gay youth center didn’t make Ayala Katz feel any better. On the contrary, it reopened a wound.
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That night, Katz lost her son, Nir, a counselor at the Barnoar center. Another person was killed and 15 were wounded. But it’s not just her longing for Nir that is hurting her these days, it’s the public discourse.
“The most painful thing at this moment – beyond the loss of Nir, which is obvious – is the homophobia that is emerging in all its ugliness in all kinds of places, both in Internet comments and the media,” she said. “Suddenly, old stereotypes are coming back to life.”
This week, Katz was filled with sorrow and frustration as she watched television in her living room. Adi Mintz, a former director general of the Yesha Council of settlements, was interviewed on Channel 2 about to a status message he posted on Facebook: “Could it be that some members of the homo-lesbian community are seducing confused youth who lack an identity and convincing them that they belong to their community?”
“The question I asked on Facebook,” he told Channel 2, “is whether there’s a situation in which members of the LGBT community are roaming around schools, touching and hurting 15 year olds, talking to them and trying to convince them: ‘Your [sexual] orientation is the opposite – come to us.’”
Katz was furious at these comments, charging that the police’s conclusion that the murder was an act of personal revenge has sparked a wave of homophobia. “They removed the lid from the pressure cooker, and what was inside is suddenly coming out in a very clear and ugly fashion.”
She has no doubt the murder was a hate crime. “The links being made between the motive and the incident are producing something very grave, in my view. Let’s be honest. No one, except perhaps the police, has any clue. We know what the suspicions are, but we have no idea who did what. In vengeance, you take revenge on the person who did something to you. You don’t take revenge on innocent people who just happen to be at a certain club.”
Nor is Katz alone. There’s a wall-to-wall consensus in the gay community that the shooting was a hate crime, and the attempt to portray it otherwise infuriates them.
“A person who wants to take revenge doesn’t do what I saw there at the scene of the murder,” said Tom, a volunteer who arrived at the Barnoar moments after the shooting. “This wasn’t revenge. It was pure slaughter, a murderous rampage. It doesn’t look like revenge, it doesn’t smell like revenge, and in my view, it wasn’t revenge. I’m 100 percent sure this was a hate crime. When people embark on a campaign of vengeance, it’s supposed to be dirty, angry and confused. Here, it’s like a robot entered and shot those children, while the scene was clean and cool.”
The investigation is now focused on a veteran activist in the gay community, who is suspected of having sexually assaulted a minor. According to the police, this assault is what led to the revenge attack.
Katz is not quick to convict this man, with whom she has been in contact over the last few years. “It’s a very distressing, either way,” she said. “But most distressing of all is that once again, people are rushing to judgment. I don’t know what the outcome of the investigation will be or what the court will say in the end, if we ever even get there. But I’m not judging anyone until we reach that point. It’s terribly easy to jump to conclusions and lash out. But that’s not where I am.”
Many others in the gay community also have trouble believing the police’s version of events and have leaped to the suspect’s defense. Something in this story simply doesn’t make sense to them.
“I have a kind of vague gut feeling that these aren’t the people who did it,” said Tom. “I know that everyone wants to close the circle and finally catch the suspects, but it doesn’t feel right to me.”
Tom said the arrested activist had given hope to many people in the community. “He saved so many people,” she said. “Girls, boys, teenagers, older people with nowhere to go, who had deteriorated into terrible states. This crusade against him is utterly revolting.”
But Yuval Eggert, director of the Gay Center in Tel Aviv, said he wasn’t surprised by the result of the investigation. “I always had the feeling that there was someone there with very strong and very difficult feelings toward that place, and toward the people in that place,” he said. “The fact is that there are much easier ways to hurt the gay community.”
Nevertheless, he stressed, even if the police are right, what happened at the Barnoar was a hate crime. “There was hate here, burning hate, and it doesn’t matter what the motive was; it was rooted in a place of hatred for homosexuals. Someone here carried out a targeted assassination. He went from child to child, he didn’t shoot and run.”
Eggert added that if the veteran activist “indeed knew this whole story for all those years and didn’t share it, there would be enormous anger here, but at the moment, it’s not yet fully clear that this was the case.”
In any event, he said, the gay community must now look inward and ask itself some questions. “We need to clean house again and again, to once again check who the people among us are.”
“When we set up the center five years ago, we vetted the volunteers thoroughly” – including by checking the criminal record, he continued. “We also made sure that volunteers didn’t work alone, but only in pairs, and that they had training and back-up.” Now, he said, these rules must be observed even more carefully.
Katz, in contrast, is looking outward, at Israeli society. Many people have learned nothing from the murder, she said, and homophobia is still very much present.
“What hurts me most is all the young folks who are now seeing what’s happening round about and must once again live amid this darkness and ignorance,” she said. “That’s the saddest thing about this wave of homophobia that’s now running free in the marketplace. If we don’t make the distinction between the initial motive and the murder, then we’ll lose a golden opportunity to examine ourselves as a society, so that all our children will grow up in a saner place, with a little more tolerance and compassion.”
Last week, Eggert helped organize the Gay Pride parade, which took place two days after police announced the suspects’ arrest. The juxtaposition left him with mixed feelings.
“The pain is great, and we’ll suffer it for a long time to come,” he said. “But there’s also the closing of a circle. First of all, there’s no longer a murder walking free. That was a cloud that always hung over us, all the time, before every event, that there’s still a murderer roaming free. If there’s a bit of comfort, then the comfort lies in this at least.
“But we still need to keep an eye open and watch out, to be alert for strange Internet comments, strange phone calls,” he added. “There’s no lack of disturbed people who, when they see one person’s success, want to replicate it.”