I didn’t tell my parents that I was going to the Jerusalem Pride parade Thursday. Not because I’m closeted, or because I didn’t think they would approve. The chief concern was that they would respond with an exaggerated version of my friends' reactions all week: “Aren’t you scared? Please don’t get stabbed.”
They had a point. On Sunday, with the right-wing Flag March passing through the Muslim Quarter, Jerusalem came close to boiling over. Tensions among ultra-Orthodox, nationalist and Arab activists in the city have left everyone watching, waiting for the one loose Jenga block to topple the city.
The annual Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance seemed like the perfect contender. Unlike the Flag March, it doesn’t pass through the Old City or include racist slogans, but in 2005, Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders in the capital tried to put a stop to it, one of the few truly sincere gestures of interfaith unity the region has seen. With full knowledge that loathing my presence is one of the only things that unites the city’s warring factions, I boarded the train from Tel Aviv.
My local Pride parade is known for its sponsored floats blaring bass-heavy dance music, its manicured men in swimsuits. (Thongs, though routinely mentioned by pearl-clutchers, are a rare sight.) It's a buzzing tourist bonanza – and the alcohol flows. Tel Aviv Pride is a street party, and the entire world is invited. Onlookers on balconies cheer along and spray revelers with hoses to beat the heat, dancing to the music and hoisting up their own drinks.
It is loud, it is bright, it is sensual – and glittering and stifling and everything all at once.
The Jerusalem march, put simply, isn’t. Brand names are scarce. Save for Lightricks, the company behind the filtering Facetune app, I don’t see any corporate sponsorship. Few attendees bare skin, and the crowd is dotted with older people, parents pushing strollers and waves upon waves of high schoolers wearing TikTok-inspired eyeliner and Pride flags as capes. A group of mothers offers hugs to anyone who may not get them from their own parents.
The crowd at Liberty Bell Park, the pre-parade gathering point, is lively and bustling. But instead of dance music, the speakers are amplifying a female rabbi at the podium as she recites a tweaked version of the prayer said before strenuous journeys.
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The throngs, released from the park, begin to march. At the blocked-off intersection, protest drummers set the rhythm. With the exception of a few groups that brought speakers, there is no music, just protest calls and responses. Homophobia begins in the halls of the government,” a youth group chants. Another right behind shouts: “Don’t tell me what’s normal, I’ll marry who I want.” A police helicopter low overhead provides a constant hum.
Tucked away past the intersection is a meager group of counter-protesters; their cries that the holy city has no place for such an event are drowned out by the drums. Their attempt seems almost quaint; for all the noise they made before the parade, their showing feels lackluster.
Other than these interlopers – and the police stationed every few feet – Jerusalem is empty. Our route is a major thoroughfare, but police barriers keep locals from getting remotely close. The windows of the buildings above us – hotels, offices, businesses – are darkened and shut. It would seem post-apocalyptic if not for the smattering of Border Police monitoring the parade from the roofs, rifles at the ready.
Every half mile or so, someone looks out of a window to watch the commotion, the same way you would peek from the balcony to watch a parking dispute about to come to blows. I wave at them. They don’t wave back.
But on the street, the chilly reception only bolsters the marchers. Some, knowing their audience, carry signs with verses from the Torah and the Mishna urging tolerance.
“What do we want? Equal rights! Full equality and nothing less!” the crowd chants. An ultra-Orthodox man, perhaps lost, perhaps trying to cross the street, breaks through the barrier and harangues a police officer, who calls his superior over and ushers the trespasser back to the sidelines. We aren’t far from where Shira Banki, a 16-year-old marcher, was stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox man during the 2015 parade.
At the park, the march ends in a rally. They bring out singer-songwriter women with acoustic guitars; I feel pandered to. Speakers discuss the work the Jerusalem Open House put into organizing the event, a passion not shared by the local municipality. They also talk about the death threats, the need to show that we’re not going anywhere, that there is a place for the LGBTQ Haredi who changes clothes to come to the march and the Arab who comes from East Jerusalem.
On the way out, I put the traces of rainbow – the flag I'd wrapped around me, the fan I’d been waving, the bandana I’d tied around my neck – in my backpack. We consider it an accomplishment that no one shouted slurs at us, but my friends mention that a man we saw on the way there, who left the central bus station draped in a Pride flag, was attacked on the way to the parade. I remind myself that tucking these traces away isn’t shame, it's self-preservation.
In Tel Aviv, which sees itself as an LGBTQ haven, Pride is about celebrating how far we’ve come. In Jerusalem, which tries to push the community out, it's about demanding what hasn't yet been achieved, be it legal rights, the end of social stigmas or personal safety.
But while that goal seems so far out of reach, my train car fills up with people whose faces are streaked with paint and glitter, with flags peeking from their pockets and rainbow-patterned socks. And each of them has the power to shake Jerusalem’s loudest extremists to the core.