Fear Strikes Out?

Real or imagined, fear is a terrible thing.

It can grip you by the throat and leave you cold; it's paralyzing. Or it can lead you to do something rash or consequential; it's misleading.

For Americans, fear before Sept. 11, 2001, had a mostly intellectual component. You sent your children off to school, and worried about their safety. You went to your annual doctor's appointment, and contemplated grave results. You drove by an accident along the road, and dwelled over what would have happened had that been you. You left your home for a weeklong vacation, and conjured up theft, fire — or both.

These are not neuroses; they have substance. But statistically speaking, they're rather unlikely.

Not so for Israel.

Fear in the Jewish state is a very physical thing, particularly since the start of the 21st century. Think back: In September of 2000, the Palestinians launched their four-year suicide-bombing campaign, striking fear into the hearts of Israeli citizens and foreign tourists alike, day after day. Yasser Arafat died in November of 2004, to be replaced by an ineffectual Mahmoud Abbas, himself supposedly a "recovered" terrorist. Hard-line Hamas came to power in January, and in June, it grew bold enough to capture Israeli Army Cpl. Gilad Shalit — in the process leaving two Israeli soldiers dead and seven wounded. Then, in July, Hezbollah promulgated a war with Israel through the kidnapping of two soldiers, while eight others were killed in ambushes by the same gang.

And shortly thereafter, World Pride came to Jerusalem.

Jews Threatening Jews
What is World Pride? Simply stated, it's an international series of events dealing with and supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lifestyles and rights that culminates in a march of thousands. It first took place — controversially, of course — in Rome in 2000, and is to occur every five years in a different city around the world. It was planned for last summer in Jerusalem, but was rescheduled because of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. It took place this year instead.

Why is World Pride significant? Because prior to Hezbollah rockets pounding northern Israel in July and August, another bomb fell, one released by a Jew. "I promise there's going to be bloodshed — not just on that day, but for months afterward," proclaimed New York Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a representative of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

The language got worse. In protest of the organized Aug. 10 march, posters advocating "death to the Sodomites" were hung in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. They promised a price of 20,000 shekels — or roughly $4,000 — to "anyone who brings about the death of one of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Jews threatening Jews became another contemporary twist in the saga of a people. In fact, at the annual, smaller-scale local gay-pride parade in Jerusalem last summer, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed and wounded three participants; certainly, similar violence could have happened again this year. But then came the Hamas and Hezbollah kidnappings — and a ground war.

And a funny thing happened along the way. Instead of gays and lesbians arriving in Israel as "the enemy," in most circles, they were embraced. They quickly took second stage to "the real enemy" — those terrorists in the north who sought not tolerance and acceptance, but death. As a result, the expected 10,000 people showing up for World Pride events dwindled to about 1,000, with the overseas contingents staying home. They feared not standing up for their beliefs, but the bombs raining down on the Jewish state by the hundreds.

Among those who did come through was a group from Philadelphia, as part of a first-time gay-pride mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — the only federation in the country to have ever hosted such a trip. It started out as a group of 28, and wound up one of 16 (minus a federation staff person and this reporter). There was a party of about 30 from New York and solid representation from Canada, but for the most part, other North Americans remained scarce.

Why? That fear thing again.

Fear of the unknown, even though Israel was guaranteeing group security. Fear of causing grief and consternation to family and friends, many of whom have never set foot in the Jewish state. There was fear of the plane ride, of the landing, of the accommodations, of being injured, of never returning home.

At the same time, there was also great resolve — the kind that comes with doing something small yet powerful in its own right. Resolve in supporting Israel during a tough time. Resolve in attending World Pride, no matter what — of supporting a minority within a minority when it needed it the most, of a people under fire now really under fire.

The week of the mission — Aug. 3-13 — began with a shooting outside a federation building in Seattle (by a Muslim man who claimed that he was "angry at Israel"), and culminated with the foiled Heathrow airport terror plots. Within that time, more than 1,000 bombs dropped from Lebanese territory, Tel Aviv was threatened by Hezbollah mastermind Hassan Nasrallah, a bomb scare took place at the Zion Gate in Jerusalem, and an Italian tourist was stabbed and killed in the Old City.

It was a busy week.

Yet the group didn't just hold up well, it found strength in one another. It took a bad situation and made it better. The individuals and couples — and their upbeat outlook — inspired numerous Israelis, from tour guides to security guards.

It became, from the get-go, a solidarity mission on two levels. It was Americans standing up for Israel, and gays and lesbians standing up for themselves, in a backdrop of hatred emanating not just from Muslim radicals, but from Jewish ones as well.

Sure, there were those who frowned on the idea of it all — of the march in Jerusalem (which, in the end, was postponed for security reasons, though hundreds of people did gather to rally in Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park on Aug. 10) and the perceived flaunting of a sexual choice not embraced by the mainstream. Time after time, Jerusalemites replied, "Why here? Why march here, when they have Tel Aviv?"

That question was answered best by an unassuming leader in the gay-rights movement, Mike Hamel, chairperson of the National Association of GLBT in Israel. He said that for some time now, Jerusalem hasn't really been "theirs." By this, he meant the populace in general.

"I think it's unfortunate that Israel has lost Jerusalem, and in a way, what's happening now is proof of that. Jerusalem is being taken over. And it's losing basic values of democracy, of personal rights, civil rights. For me, Jerusalem is the capital of this country, and every citizen has full rights and full ownership of his capital."

For the LGBT community, not being free to march in Jerusalem — with due protection from city law enforcement — was akin, believed Hamel, to "blacks not being allowed to march in Washington, D.C."

He said that "a lot of people have given up on Jerusalem; our capital is Tel Aviv. Not only gays and lesbians, but secular Jews."

Even though the Jerusalem LGBT community plans to rally again next summer, Hamel acknowledged that "the religious won this round."

"For the first time," he noted, "we managed to unite the Muslims, Christians and ultra-Orthodox communities together on one issue. They all wanted to see us fail."

As far as Hamel is concerned, they didn't want the public display; they didn't want any of it.

"Hatred," he said, "is a very uniting sentiment. Hatred — and fear."

Carin M. Smilk can be reached at: [email protected] Additional stories about this mission will appear in future issues.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here