Jerusalem’s gay pride parade kicked off Thursday afternoon with some 20,000 Israelis flooding the streets of the capital, under heavy police protection. Some reports put the number of marchers as high as 35,000, which would make it the largest ever; Hadashot TV news, citing the 20,000 figure, said the organizers were a little disappointed that the turnout wasn’t higher.
The two-kilometer (1.2 mile) march through the city center came after a month of LGBT community protests against a surrogacy law passed last month that excluded gay men — and three years after a deadly knife attack at the Jerusalem march by an ultra-Orthodox zealot that killed 16-year-old marcher Shira Banki.
Some protesters took a distinctly anti-government tone that reflected the anger in the LGBT community over the surrogacy law, calling on Netanyahu to resign and denouncing last month’s nation-state law, which critics say discriminates against minorities.
Some marchers carried signs that called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign, and termed his government “an embarrassment.”
Organizers handed out flowers to marchers in memory of Banki as they exited the starting point in Liberty Bell Park. Demonstrators chanted their way up Keren Hayesod street, but paused and quieted down when they reached the junction where Banki was murdered. Many placed flowers in front of a large poster with her picture on it.
Security at the annual parade was at an all-time high, with some 2,500 police officers, including border police and plainclothes cops, deployed in the capital to protect the event. As in each year since the 2015 stabbing attack, police restricted entry points into the march, and performed security checks on participants.
“Our job is to make sure everyone can express themselves,” Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich told journalists at the event, “and of course that no one gets hurt.”
Major roads through the city center, including Keren Hayesod and Hillel Street, were closed to vehicular traffic from 3 p.m.
Despite the heavy police presence, the crowd of mostly young Israelis appeared relaxed and upbeat before the start of the parade.
Participants sported rainbow stickers, flags, and signs with slogans such as “Born this way,” “There is love in me, and it wins,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Teenagers donned colorful face paint and older marchers draped pride flags over their shoulders as opening speakers encouraged them to celebrate their identity — and to drink plenty of water as they stood in the hot sun.
The crowd was also peppered with people wearing kippot provided by religious LGBT activists — one of the more unique aspects of the pride parade in Jerusalem.
While pockets of marchers helped stir a more festive atmosphere, dancing in circles to the tunes played by a number of small marching bands that had joined the rally, the overall ambience was more akin to that of a protest than of a festival.
Unlike in Tel Aviv where shop-owners across the city dig out their rainbow flags to hang weeks ahead of the parade, Jerusalem Pride is a one-day event that parts of the capital would rather hide. The fence surrounding Liberty Bell Park where marchers congregated was covered in a dark green sheet preventing passers-by from watching the festivities on the other side.
There is also no custom to roll colorful floats through the street’s of the capital as is common in other city’s parades.
Several supporters living in an apartment along the march’s midpoint blasted party music from their balcony, providing those below with a short dance break from the slogan-shouting.
“The energy is definitely different here than what you see in Tel Aviv, but it is just as high level,” said Jerusalem resident Noy Aharon.
“In some ways it’s more because with support of the LGBT community less of a given here, people are making a conscious decision to participate. Those who come are much more passionate about being here,” the 27-year-old draped in a rainbow flag explained.
As Aharon mentioned, not everyone was happy with the march. A small counterprotest led by Orthodox rabbis at Liberty Bell Park demanded a “normal country.”
Earlier this week, Bentzi Gopstein, head of the extremist Lehava organization, branded members of the LGBT community “terrorists” in an online video, and urged members of his extremist group to attend the protest under the banner “Jerusalem is not Sodom.”
Lehava activists claimed police officers “disguised themselves as gays” in order to infiltrate their protest and detain one of their members. A police spokesman denied the claim.
The official theme of this year’s pride parade was honoring elderly members and pioneers of the LGBT community.
Sixty-three-year-old Robin Rosenbaum said she was touched by the choice and said it signified “that we’re visible and that our voices and needs are going to be heard by the establishment.”
The San Francisco native, who has lived in Israel since the early 1990s, explained that, with health problems more prevalent among her demographic, “it is critical that the Israeli healthcare system be familiar with the needs of LGBT individuals.”
Rosenbaum said the theme helped “break the myth that aging is something negative.”
“You can still have passionate lesbian relationships at this age. I know this because I’m in one now,” she added.
The event was held in the shadow of widespread frustration over a recent law that bars gay men from surrogacy parenthood rights.
A nationwide strike was held shortly after the Knesset passed the legislation last month. Dozens of companies and the local branches of multinational corporations announced their support for the surrogacy protests and their willingness to allow employees to participate in it.
But for Eyal Lurie-Pardes, the LGBT protest extended well beyond the surrogacy law.
“It’s also about preventing hate crimes against LGBT people, outlawing conversion therapy, recognizing the marriages and adoptions of LGBT couples,” he said.
The 23-year-old is running as a city council candidate for the left-wing Meretz party in Jerusalem’s municipal elections in October. He was briefly detained last week by police for blocking an intersection while participating in an LGBT protest.
The pride parade is one of his favorite days of the year, he said. “There’s nothing like marching in the streets of Jerusalem draped in a rainbow flag with the strength of the entire community behind you.”
“I’m a third generation Jerusalemite. I want to be able to feel this way every day,” but could not because of the fear that LGBT couples often feel in Jerusalem.
“If I want to hold my boyfriend’s hand, I still need to check what neighborhood I’m in and if there are people around…. We’re still very far from the day when we can walk hand-in-hand in the street and not feel threatened.”
Both Rosenbaum and Lurie-Pardes also felt the presence of those who had passed away.
“We’re marching for people who have died, or who committed suicide, or who can’t be here with us. We’re marching for the other,” said Rosenbaum.
And for young closeted boys and girls who did not feel comfortable enough with their identity to participate, Lurie-Pardes added, “Those who see the number of attendees rising each year and hopefully understand that they are not alone and that they can be proud of who they really are.”