Organizer: Jerusalem is ideal for WorldPride
Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of Jerusalem Open House, was in the United States recently to drum up support for the second WorldPride, which his group is hosting Aug. 6-12 in Jerusalem.
More than 10,000 LGBT people from around the world are expected to participate in the weeklong event. Organizers hope WorldPride --held in a foundational city for three of the world’s major religions -- will proclaim a global message that love knows no borders.
In this interview, El-Ad shares his perspective on building this major event in such an "intense" city.
A Jerusalem court ruling announced May 29 means that the city will provide some funding for the work of Jerusalem Open House. How do you think this will benefit WorldPride?
It couldn’t have come at a better time. And although the ruling itself doesn’t directly relate to WorldPride, it gives us energy for working on it. It will be helpful both in practical terms but also in terms of the spirit.
[The ruling] is about equal funding. Equal funding is intimately related to freedom of speech because if your organization doesn’t have the same kind of resources that other community organizations are enjoying, that impedes on your freedom of speech because you don’t have the resources to have your speech in public.
Because of political unrest and violence in the region, many in the LGBT community might see Jerusalem as an odd choice for holding WorldPride. What do you think about it? I agree; it is an odd choice. But that’s what makes the whole thing worth it. . . . So it is true that Jerusalem is the holy city, and it is true that Jerusalem is the city in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is true that Jerusalem is the often resentful home of Israel’s leading gay rights organizations, the Jerusalem Open House. And at the same time, holding WorldPride in Jerusalem is exactly about going to places where change needs to happen, where change can happen . . . and leveraging the unique symbolism and global attention that is drawn to anything that happens in Jerusalem.
How concerned are you about safety/security issues?
We are taking security very seriously, as we have done throughout the years. It’s a weeklong event, and there are five conferences and a film festival and many, many other aspects of the week. And there is the march, which obviously attracts the largest numbers of people and is the event where security is the foremost concern. We are working closely with the Jerusalem police, as we have been in previous years. We take this very seriously and we have built a good relationship with them over the years.
Pride in Jerusalem is a human rights demonstration -- that’s the way it’s been in previous years, and it’s going to stay like that. Last year we had 10,000 participants in Jerusalem -- the biggest in many years -- and obviously we are expecting many more this year.
Much of the world sees plenty of enmity between Palestinians and Israelis. How does the Jerusalem Open House deal with that enmity -- even among LGBT Palestinians and Israelis?
Jerusalem is a very diverse city, with Israelis and Palestinians in the same city and also there’s the context of religious diversity. For a progressive organization like Jerusalem Open House, being relevant -- not only talking the talk but walking the walk -- is being serious about being open and relevant to everyone in the Jerusalem area. We have been successful in that -- both for people who are orthodox religious, and for Palestinians. The director of Palestinian programming at JOH has been building programs over the past four years, to a point where it is right now by far the leading project of its kind. It attracts more than 100 participants to the monthly events that the project is holding in Jerusalem, and many community volunteers are involved with that, and the geographic scope is widening.
In terms of physically coming to the Open House, it’s not a problem if you’re coming from Israel proper. It is becoming more of a problem for people coming from the West Bank. . . . At the same time, it’s key that we are successful in continuing to provide these services because there is nobody else that is relevant. So if you are growing up gay in Ramallah and you want to pick up the phone and speak with someone about your concern and ask a question like, "Am I alone in the world?" You can pick up the phone now and call Jerusalem Open House and speak with a counselor in Arabic. Or you can go on the Web site and get references there. Having access to these services is key.
You have said that the wall [being built to separate Israel proper from the occupied West Bank] will be one of the issues you’ll address at WorldPride. Can you say more about that?
During the week, we have a different focus every day. We begin with the health conference, and we have a human rights day in the middle of the week, and of course the march itself. We are going to open the human rights day with a solidarity rally at the Separation Wall in Jerusalem. It’s our way to express solidarity with the people in the region who won’t be able to personally attend the event.
What is the Separation Wall, exactly?
Let’s see how I can answer this carefully. Israel is unilaterally constructing a border between Israel and the West Bank. That is something that is being contested in a variety of courts, both in Israel and internationally. While Israeli government sources say that this is just security -- these barriers -- to stop suicide bombers from coming into Israel, the Palestinians are saying this is a land grab because it is not being constructed on the green line, which is the 1967 border between Israel and what used to be Jordan. . . . In Jerusalem, this is extremely complex because that is a very tense, urban area. And Jerusalem is an intense city anyway.
Do the Palestinian and Israeli LGBT communities get along better than most Palestinians and Israelis at large?
Yes, absolutely; there is no question about it. And while there are many organizations working on getting Israelis and Palestinians together in order to think through the conflicts, at Jerusalem Open House it’s different. We’re not working on the conflict; we’re working on our ability to be who we are in an environment that is often very hostile. So you have people come together beyond boundaries of national origin or religious identity, doing something that is not about conflict but in fact where people are doing something very meaningful together. And that’s one of the most vivid and unique and meaningful gifts that we’re giving to society around us in the work of JOH. And these examples of Palestinian visibility, Arabic-language visibility, at JOH and at WorldPride are something not to be taken lightly. This is very cutting-edge.
Do Palestinians, for example, participate in Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride march?
At three of the four years we’ve had Jerusaelm Pride so far, there was a speaker in Arabic addressing the audience from the stage, and that is very important for the event and very natural for Jerusalem Open House. There was also a group of Palestinian activists marching with signs that said "Palestinian and Proud."
Rauda Morcos, founder of ASWAT, the first support group for Palestinian lesbians, said in a 2004 interview that she would protest at Jerusalem Pride. Do gay Palestinians often protest at the Pride marches? No, that has never happened to date. Actually, Ms. Morcos was one of the keynote speakers at the Pride rally in 2004 in Jerusalem, and we’re very happy she accepted the invitation from Jerusalem Open House. We are very appreciative of her speech at the event.
JOH has invited ASWAT to be part of WorldPride, and to the best of my understanding this is something that is being talked through at ASWAT. Editor’s note: In a separate interview with the PlanetOut Network, Morcos said that ASWAT will not participate in WorldPride.
Finish this sentence for me: WorldPride in Jerusalem will be a success if . . .
If it sends the global echo from the city that I love so much for humanity, for God’s love for all people, regardless of sexual orientation, for equality and for Pride.