Around 200 people gathered in Beit Shemesh Thursday for the central Israeli city’s first gay pride event amid ongoing turmoil between secular and religious residents, many of whom opposed the event.
The march was years in the making and a milestone for the city’s LGBTQ community, despite the opposition, said event organizers Shay Tevet and Alice Hoffman.
“We’re excited to see this dream realized, which seemed so far away only a few months ago,” the organizers told Channel 13. “We invite all residents of Beit Shemesh and the surrounding area who believe that love is love and that everyone has a place in our city.”
The demonstration was held in the city’s Geffen Park under heavy security, and included both religious and secular attendees. Organizers initially wanted to hold the march in the city square, but did not receive permission.
The event was orchestrated by young LGBTQ residents of the city, who used the opportunity to speak about their experiences and to encourage pluralism and tolerance.
Since first conceiving of the parade, “three years passed, and since then the LGBTQ community has woken up. We saw all the protests for equality last year and we see it now, with all the pride events this year, with 50 events across Israel, and also with the city’s new mayor, Aliza Bloch, who is thought to be more liberal than the previous mayor,” Tevet told the Ynet news site.
Vandals defaced signs around the city advertising the event during the last week, and residents opposed to the march hung signs protesting it on Thursday.
In response, Ohad Hizki, director of the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, said, “We won’t be silenced by hatred and violence and we’ll continue to support everyone who has been hurt because of their sexual orientation and gender identity with our association’s reporting center and with all the tools we have.”
Ahead of the march, Tevet said LGBTQ individuals still struggle to gain acceptance in the community.
“When I walk down the street, I try to not show any signs of who I really am, because in this city it’s not accepted. The population here is not welcoming to us,” Tevet said.
Bloch, a religious Zionist woman, became Beit Shemesh’s first female mayor last year after winning a runoff vote against ultra-Orthodox incumbent Moshe Abutbol.
She told Channel 13 earlier this month that the city was more liberal than Tel Aviv, which is famous for its massive, yearly pride parade, but that she would not support the Beit Shemesh pride event, saying that she “did not believe in protests or marches.”
“Beit Shemesh is a much more liberal city than Tel Aviv. Look who they elected here,” she said, referring to herself. “I don’t think that in Tel Aviv it would be possible today to establish a synagogue or large yeshiva. This is also part of liberalism, from my perspective.”
Beit Shemesh in recent years has seen conflict between ultra-Orthodox, non-ultra-Orthodox and secular residents over restrictions on women’s dress and gender-segregated seating on public buses. In a widely publicized incident in 2011, an 8-year-old Orthodox girl was spat on by ultra-Orthodox men on her way to school for her perceived immodest dress.