Two of the posters ("pashkavilim") shown above are part of the campaign against the gay pride parade in Jerusalem. The one on the right reproduces a headline from Ha'aretz which states that "Religious leaders have warned that the Pride Parade in Jerusalem will cause bloodshed." The second one, on the left-hand side, is from Ma'ariv and cites Shimon Peres as saying that "The homos have crossed the line." I took this photograph in Jerusalem in late June 2006. As always: click to enlarge.
Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to see the New York premiere of "Jerusalem is Proud to Present" (ירושלים גאה להציג, 2007) as part of the Jewish Film Festival at Walter Reade theater. In Israel, it has been shown on Channel 2 and Channel 8 and screened at various film festivals.
This latest documentary by the Israeli director Nitzan Gilady ("In Satmar Custody," 2003) is about the attempts to hold a Gay Pride Parade (מצעד הגאווה) in Jerusalem in the summer of 2006, as part of the international "World Pride" celebrations. The parade, which was to go through the city center, had originally been scheduled for August 6. It was postponed several times, in part because of the war still raging in early August, and in part because of the fears that police would not be able to protect marchers from the wrath of religious protesters. Ultimately, the "march" was held as a rally in a closed stadium, guarded by thousands of police officers, on November 10.
Gilady's film begins with a surreal press conference attended by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders in Jerusalem, watching clips from previous gay pride parades in other parts of the world, and denouncing the planned event as an abomination. Throughout, it gives space to both supporters and opponents of the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, though it is clear that Gilady, who said after the screening that he had only recently come out to his parents, has chosen a position.
One one side, we see the activists and members of the Jerusalem Open House (English). They include the first openly gay Jerusalem city councilor, Sa'ar Netanel (Meretz), elected at the same time as its first ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupoliansky; Adam Russo, the victim of a stabbing attack at the first gay pride parade in Jerusalem on June 30, 2005 (the assailant was eventually convicted of attempted murder); Noa Sattat, the director of the Open House; and Boodi, a 19-year-old drag queen from Ramallah, who performs at Jerusalem's only gay club, Shushan (now closed), and eventually seeks asylum in the U.S. after being kidnapped by Hamas militants.
Arrayed against them, we see Mina Fenton, a national-religious municipal politician who not only organizes a group of American-born settler women using her bad English and crude sense of taste (the Americans seem slightly more attentive to public opinion) but also solicits support in Arabic from a hijab-clad by-passer. We also encounter a Brooklyn expatriate, Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a dogged opponent of the "gay political elite." Less openly involved than these somewhat ridiculous figures, are the various religious leaders of Jerusalem - the Christian clergymen, the Muslim sheikhs, and the Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis. Finally, we see the anonymous masses of rioting ultra-Orthodox protesters.
As the date of the parade approaches, tensions rise and the incitement on the part of the opponents of the parade becomes ever more murderous. The director and Sa'ar Netanel find themselves surrounded in a car by a mob of haredi hooligans, beating on the windows. What follows is footage from various news channels of several days of rioting in the city by young ultra-Orthodox men. Traffic blockades are set up, dumpsters set on fire, and stones thrown. The police respond mercilessly with water cannons and beatings. One foreign commentator calls it the "intifada of the ultra-Orthodox."
The rhetoric of the Open House activists is unapologetically secularist. Netanel speaks of the forces of "darkness," and the black masses of haredi men who appear in the film, anonymous and often in conditions of near-darkness, only reinforce this rhetoric without problematizing it in any way. For Netanel and others, this is a battle of democracy against theocracy, of tolerance against bigotry, of liberalism against religious fanaticism, of progress against backwardness.
The "ultra-Orthodox" intifada invites comparison with the riots that swept across the Muslim world following the Danish cartoon controversy. In both cases, the aggrieved parties - religious believers -responded with violence to what they saw as symbolic desecration (of the Prophet or of the Holy City). The "perpetrators" of these blasphemies, however, presented their actions as a matter of inherent rights and freedoms, which had to be vigorously asserted.
Last October, I attended a colloquium at UC Berkeley's Townsend Center for the Humanities, which posed the question: Is Critique Secular? The first panel discussion of the day featured a paper read by Talal Asad (Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center) called "Reflections on Blasphemy and Secular Criticism," with local superstar professors Wendy Brown (Political Science), Judith Butler (Rhetoric), and Saba Mahmood (Anthropology) responding.
In his paper, Talal Asad argued that
The conflict that many Euro-Americans saw in the Danish cartoons scandal was between the West and Islam, each championing opposing values: democracy, secularism, liberty, and reason on the one side, and on the other the many opposites – tyranny, religion, authority, and unreason (Asad 3).Referring to secular critique itself as a kind of violence, Asad, while claiming to stake out a position beyond the normative, blasted "Western secularists" who can conceive of blasphemy only as "a constraint on the freedom of speech guaranteed by Western principles and by the pursuit of reason so central to Western culture."
Asad wants us to see blasphemy "not simply as a bid for free speech against irrational taboos but as violence done to human relations that are invested with great value" (Asad 16). I may be wrong, but my intuition is that while such an argument finds an audience in the Western academy when the violent protesters are Muslims upset about an insult to Muhammad, it seems to lose a lot of its force when those rioting against blasphemy are ultra-Orthodox Jews upset about the "desecration" of Jerusalem by homosexuals.