More than 150,000 revelers marched on Thursday in the 25th annual Tel Aviv Pride Parade, kicking off a weekend of festivities in the largest event of its kind in the Middle East.
The parade maintained its celebratory character, despite concerns about security and discrimination, and the country’s fraught political atmosphere.
“Pride weekend has kicked off with a clear message: We are all equal, we are all people, and we all deserve to love who we want without fear,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said at the start of the parade.
Unlike previous years, the parade and the afterparty usually held at the end of the march were split into two events due to the intensely hot weather this year. The party will be held Friday at Ganei Yehoshua in the north of the city.
Thursday’s crowd was adorned with feathers, leather, glitter and rainbows, as German, English and Spanish could be heard among the mixture of locals and tourists.
“We love Tel Aviv, it’s the best party,” said Paul, a Czech in his 40s who has traveled to Tel Aviv for the parade three times with his partner, George.
Despite the celebration, the presence of police and the need to pass a security check to enter the cordoned-off parade area were reminders of terror threats, and potential violence against the LGBTQ community.
A man was arrested ahead of the parade with weapons near the march’s route and far-right graffiti was sprayed on an LGBTQ center.
“Well, that doesn’t exist in the US,” said a shirtless American man, passing through the security checkpoint.
Pulsating with electronic dance beats, the parade floats were packed with shirtless men and women and a number of performers.
Among them was professional drag queen Fluid Snow, 32, from Jaffa.
“It’s my favorite thing in the world,” Fluid Snow yelled down from his perch. “I get to perform in this body!”
Along with the celebratory atmosphere, the Tel Aviv Pride Parade served as a healing space for some locals.
Omer Elad, 38, runs a local transgender support organization, the Gila Project, and was attending the parade alongside his entire family. His parents, Tami and Shlomi, said they’ve marched with their transgender son at the Pride Parade for the past two decades.
Elad said he thought this year’s event was “especially” important in the current political climate.
“In the Knesset and in the government, there are people who are not ashamed to say transphobic and homophobic things and to try and delegitimize our existence,” he said, in reference to some far-right, ultra-Orthodox and even Likud politicians who have recently expressed anti-LGBTQ sentiments.
“For me, it means everything to be here and show people we’re here,” he added.
Elad also marched in Jerusalem’s Pride Parade last week, where he said “the message is more about coexistence and tolerance, and here it’s about celebrating and taking space in the public sphere.”
Also, he argued, at 28° Celsius (83° Fahrenheit), Tel Aviv has nicer weather. Jerusalem is chillier so “you don’t wear a thong,” he said.
Holding signs emblazoned with “stop pinkwashing” and “end to dictatorship,” several dozen protesters against Israel’s military rule of the West Bank also moved through the party-focused pride parade crowd.
Walking under the banner “pride not apartheid,” one of the demonstrators said he was “against the occupation and the way that Israel says its position toward queers is so progressive, while it treats Palestinians this way.”
“We are behaving like we’re so nice, at a time when we have Avi Maoz, [Bezalel] Smotrich, [Itamar] Ben Gvir,” he said, listing far-right members of the government who hold or have previously expressed anti-LGBTQ views.
In a first, the US Embassy cosponsored a float in partnership with the popular local LGBTQ bar Shpagat.
“I had float envy, because I was here last year and the Brits had a float, and we didn’t have a float. So this year we have a float. I never want to be one-upped by the British,” US Ambassador Tom Nides joked to The Times of Israel, as he stood alongside scantily clad, winged dancers on a dove-themed truck.
“It’s really about bringing the community together, it’s about bringing our embassy staff together, and it’s about showing our respect for the LGBTQ community and the importance of democracy here in Israel,” he added on a more serious note.
Near his float was a crowd of marchers decked out in rainbow flags and playing pro-democracy chants popularized by 22 weeks of ongoing protests against the hard-right government’s plan to weaken judicial checks on political power.
Nides, who is slated to leave his post this summer after two years, said it “will probably be my last pride parade as ambassador, but it will not be my last pride parade.”
“As someone who cares deeply about these issues, I hope to be doing this many more times,” he added.
In a nod to the political tensions in the country, the Tel Aviv Municipality barred politicians from speaking at this year’s march, unlike in previous years, with the exception of Huldai, who is running for re-election later this year.
Ahead of the parade, Huldai issued a statement referring to the government’s planned judicial overhaul, which critics say will leave the rights of minorities unprotected, as well as other legislation mulled by the coalition that could harm the LGBTQ community.
Thirty minutes before the start of the parade Thursday, police arrested a man near the route with an electroshock weapon, brass knuckles, pepper spray and another, unidentified, chemical substance.
Police said the 33-year-old Tel Aviv resident was known to them from previous threats to harm members of the LGBTQ community, and suspect him of planning to attack the marchers.
Also Thursday, a far-right slogan was spray-painted on an LGBTQ center in Tel Aviv’s Sarona market.
Unknown vandals scrawled “Kahane was right” in graffiti, a reference to the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling all the Arabs from the Holy Land and whose Kach movement was outlawed in the 1990s but continues to have influence. Kahane was assassinated in 1990.
Deputy Tel Aviv Mayor Meital Lehavi urged National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — a longtime Kahane follower who in recent years has sought to distance himself from the rabbi’s racist legacy — to “condemn the ugly graffiti on the building of the Tel Aviv Municipal LGBT Community Center on the morning of the Tel Aviv Pride Parade.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s Israel branch also condemned the graffiti, calling it “a painful reminder of the need to continue fighting for LGBTQ rights.”
“We expect authorities to apprehend the culprits and secure the well-being of the participants. Leaders from all across the political spectrum must condemn any hatred against the LGBTQ community,” the organization wrote on Twitter.
Over 170,000 people participated in last year’s parade, which marched down Rokach Boulevard in the north of the city rather than along the traditional route in central Tel Aviv. The controversial change to the route was due to the extensive construction work across the city as part of the new light rail system.
An estimated 30,000 people marched in the Jerusalem Pride Parade last week under tight security. The event passed smoothly without any security incidents.
The Jerusalem Open House which organizes the event said that the number of participants was a record high since the parade in 2016, a year after 16-year-old Shira Banki was murdered in a knife attack during the event by an ultra-Orthodox extremist.