Outside the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, passersby pause briefly near the memorial tent set up on Monday afternoon to honor the victims of the weekend gay nightclub massacre in Orlando.
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Some bend over a small table inside to sign the leather-bound memorial book. Others simply snap photos. They stand back to make sure their lenses capture the American and rainbow flags flapping wildly in the wind and the small bouquet of flowers propped up against the wall.
Imri Kalmann, co-director of the Israel National LGBT Taskforce (also known as “The Aguda”) is the first to sign the book. “We honor your grief and great loss,” he writes. “We stand with you and promise to fight together for a future of peace and acceptance.”
Barely a day after the worst shooting incident in U.S. history, members of the Israeli LGBT community are feeling a strong desire to reach out and express solidarity with the victims through initiatives like this one organized by The Aguda.
On Sunday night, gay activists held gatherings in major cities around the country. In Beersheba, they marched through the streets carrying rainbow flags. In Haifa they held a vigil at the local LGBT center. In Jerusalem, they gathered downtown in Zion Square, recently renamed Tolerance Square. In Tel Aviv, Israel’s gay capital, they lit candles on the street outside the U.S. embassy as well as in Gan Meir, the park that houses the local LGBT center. City Hall in Tel Aviv was lit up alternately to resemble the gay and American flags.
The devastation across the Atlantic touched a raw nerve in a community not fully recovered from its own recent tragedies. In 2009, a teenage girl and her counselor were killed in a shooting at the Bar Noar gay youth center in Tel Aviv. The killer was never caught. Last year, Shira Banki, a 16-year-old girl, was stabbed to death by a religious Jew during the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem.
“This has taken many of us back to those two traumas,” says Zehorit Sorek, an Orthodox lesbian activist, who attended the candle-lighting vigil outside the U.S. embassy on Sunday night.
The recent Israeli slayings, says Dr. Gil Fishhof, coordinator of the support line at The Aguda, were extreme, but not isolated incidents. “Our report center had to respond to 400 anti-gay incidents, ranging from cursing to job discrimination, in the past 10 months alone,” he says.
The Aguda support line was supposed to be closed on Sunday evening because of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Following reports of the carnage in Florida, however, a decision was taken to staff the phones.
“I wouldn’t say we had dozens of phone calls, but there were people calling in feeling very sad and anxious, and our volunteers were there for them,” Fishhof says. “We’ll see how things go this week, and if necessary, we may hold a special group activity.”
Even before this massacre, he notes, anxiety levels in the community had been running high. “Just before the recent Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade [held the previous Friday], there were fears that something terrible would happen again,” he says.
The Tel Aviv LGBT community is planning a big solidarity event at one of the city’s popular gay bars either Tuesday or Wednesday night. “We already have confirmation from the U.S. ambassador that he will attend, and we are hoping that the Tel Aviv mayor will come as well,” says Kalmann. “One of the issue we want to raise with him there are our safety concerns.”
To indicate how jittery members of the local LGBT community have been feeling since the Orlando attack, Kalmann recounts a conversation he just had with a friend who runs a local gay bar. “She asked me whether she shouldn’t bring in extra security guards because of what happened in Florida,” says Kalmann. “I would say that trauma levels are definitely high.”
The Aguda has already reached out to the Orlando gay community with offers to provide psychological assistance. “We definitely believe we have enough experience to share,” says Kalmann. “And we’ve notified the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that we have a delegation ready to fly out if we get the green light.”
As he steps outside the newly constructed memorial tent, a young Israeli mother and her son saunter in. She asks the young boy whether he wants to write something in the book. “What should I write?” he wonders aloud.
“How about something about how sad you feel,” his mother suggests.