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How a Brutal Murder Is Changing Jerusalem’s LGBT Community

In the week after a deadly stabbing at Jerusalem's gay pride parade that shocked Israel, the Holy City's LGBT and Orthodox communities have been thrust into a moment of crisis.

by Kevin Dolak
Aug 11 2015, 2:05pm

Photo by Monique Jaques/VICE News

Shira Banki wasn't murdered at Jerusalem's gay pride parade because she was gay. The 16-year-old was straight, and supporting a close lesbian friend at the July 30 march when an ultra-Orthodox extremist stabbed her and five others. The senseless murder shocked Israel, and over the past weeks has thrust the city's LGBT and Orthodox communities into a moment of crisis.

Shira was marching down Keren Haisod Street in the Holy City with about 4,000 others in a procession that was relatively solemn for a pride parade when Yishai Schlissel attacked with a butcher knife.

"We started hearing screams — I looked backwards and the whole street cleared off. It was like the Red Sea opening in half," Ido Nahari, a 21-year-old art student, told VICE News while seated outside the Radio pub in Jerusalem's downtown triangle, where he tends bar. Like Shira, Ido was at the parade to support his gay friends. Though he had no way of knowing at the time, Ido was within a few feet of Schlissel just before the extremist launched his lethal attack.

"A guy bumped me, and I wasn't understanding what was going on," Ido said. "Then he starts running with a knife, stabbing whoever he sees. And then I saw a girl I understood later to be Shira, lying on the street, with her neck open, and blood gushing all over. And I didn't get it."

Schlissel, who was quickly tackled and arrested, had just been released from prison three weeks prior, after serving 10 years of a 12-year prison sentence. He was jailed for stabbing three people at the same pride parade in Jerusalem in 2005.

Shira fought for her life in a local hospital, but she had lost a massive amount of blood. She died of her wounds a few days later. 

Related: Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade Stabbing Suspect Identified

Ultra-Orthodox Jew Yishai Schlissel just moments before he pulled a knife from under his coat and started stabbing people at Jerusalem's gay pride parade on Thursday, July 30, 2015. (Photo by Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

"Flames Have Engulfed Our Country"
A chorus of condemnation rang out after the attack, and not just from Jerusalem's small but tight LGBT community. Israel's chief rabbis, members of Jerusalem's secular majority, and leaders of the country's newly minted far-right government all decried Schlissel's violent actions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly called the attack a "despicable hate crime," and "an incident of the utmost gravity." Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also condemned the attack, and authorities are now investigating the death threats that followed.

Rivlin also spoke harshly of an arson attack on two houses in the West Bank village of Duma the day after the pride parade. The firebombing killed an 18-month-old child named Ali Saad Dawabsha and his 32-year-old father, and left the boy's mother and 4-year-old brother critically injured. Hebrew graffiti that read, "Long live the Messiah," and "Revenge," was found at the scene, and authorities suspect that far-right Jewish extremists were responsible.

"Flames have engulfed our country. Flames of violence, flames of hatred, flames of false, distorted, and twisted beliefs," Rivlin wrote on Facebook. His post received thousands of user comments, many of which said that Jews could not be terrorists. He was called a traitor, Photoshopped with a Hitler mustache, and told that he should die. But others have said that mere words are not enough to combat hate crimes, and that the government is doing little to protect the LGBT community.

On Friday afternoon, a cordial but defiant Rivlin stepped out of the presidential residence in Jerusalem's upscale Rehavia neighborhood to address a group of about 100 supporters that had gathered. He recalled that Israeli politician Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 20 years ago amid similar hate speech, and remarked that Israel does not want anyone to be murdered for political or religious reasons.

"We have come together today, from different schools of thought, all together, even if we sometimes have differences of opinion," Rivlin told the crowd. "Disagreements will always occur between us, but we all approach them wanting the best for each and every one of us, for the whole people… All of us, citizens of this state, are equal to one another, and that is how we want to live, as equals among equals."

Related: A City Divided: Jerusalem's Most Contested Neighborhood

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks to his supporters outside the presidential home in Jerusalem on August 7, 2015. (Photos by Monique Jaques.)

"It's Something That's Deep in the DNA of the City"
Sipping a beer and smoking outside Radio pub, which sits around the corner from Jerusalem's only gay bar, Ido was pessimistic about the future of the city and the role that his gay friends will play in it.

"You can't have gay rights in a country that is basing its whole existence only on religion," he said, emphasizing that the dwindling gay community is ditching Jerusalem for more welcoming metropolises like Tel Aviv, Paris, and London.

"A lot of the people from the community here are afraid," he added. "It's not like the pride march you see in New York or London. People here get death threats that they take very seriously because this is a militant society. It is. And because of that, these threats don't surprise anyone… It's something that's deep in the DNA of the city."

Jerusalem's pride parade is smaller and more sober than the large, joyful march held annually in Tel Aviv, and the brutal attack left the community shaken. A week later, it was business as usual in some areas — with plenty of drunken partying in the downtown triangle on the night of Shabbos — but Schlissel's rampage and Shira's death may have lasting effects. Jerusalem's Orthodox and LGBT communities, along with members of the secular left, are looking both inward and forward, toward a future where the city can embrace the gay community and overcome religious differences.

'People here get death threats that they take very seriously because this is a militant society.'

As Shira was clinging to life in the Hadassah Medical Center, spontaneous rallies erupted in both Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, where hundreds flooded into Zion Square, a cultural focal point in West Jerusalem. The rallies brought out the gay community, rabbis, and secular residents. They mourned for the slain teen, spoke about unity and tolerance, and vented their rage that this sort of violent, anti-gay act could happen in their streets. Many at the event painted their hands red in protest.

Shira's death demanded questioning across Jerusalem and Israel about what inspired Schlissel to go berserk at the pride parade for the second time in a decade. Is he just a deranged murderer? Or is he the product an ultra-Orthodox community that has misinterpreted Jewish teachings?

"We see him as having acted as a lone wolf, but we also see him as a product of ongoing incitement against us that's been happening for years," Tom Canning, who works for the grassroots LGBT activist organization Jerusalem Open House, told VICE News. "And also neglect. He went through our prison system and received early release, and no one thought they should see if his convictions have changed."

Jerusalem Open House, which was founded 18 years ago, stepped up its outreach in the week after the attack. Emily, an 18-year-old who was draped in a pride flag while dancing at with her friends on Friday night at Video bar, Jerusalem's lone gay bar, told VICE News the group's efforts have been crucial.

"The Open House was open in an emergency kind of way, so we were holed up together. There were professional-like psychiatrists and social workers who came to talk to us," she said. "I think it would be really, really difficult for me to survive this week if I couldn't be in the Open House all the time."

Emily, 18, poses inside Video in Jerusalem on August 7, 2015. (Photo by Monique Jaques)

Canning said more bridges have been built between the organization and the Orthodox community in recent months, both before and after the attack.

"We've been working with rabbis, there are Orthodox LGBT organizations that are active in Jerusalem, and it's really jumped into public attention following the events," he said. "There's this understanding that the issue of homophobia was rejected here for years, and we talk about how things were in 2005, and nothing has changed in Jerusalem since then. But we hope that now attention is changing — within religious communities, but also on the political level."

A crop of younger and more progressive rabbis joined the crowds of mourners and protesters after Shira's death to make it clear that they are willing to work with the LGBT community to achieve understanding through education.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who joined the crowds in Zion Square after Shira's death, told VICE News that there are compelling arguments for recasting traditional gender and sexual norms, and noted the significance of meetings with the LGBTQ community leading to public statements.

"The test of tolerance and pluralism is 'how do we relate to those who we take difference with?' I view this as an exercise in humility. I may have a moral judgement, but it may be wrong," he said. "There are compelling arguments for recasting traditional gender and sexual norms. While my religious beliefs are clear, I acknowledge the challenge those arguments create and welcome the conversation."

The World Union for Progressive Judaism, an umbrella organization for forward-thinking movements, also condemned the attack as "cold-blooded acts of cowardice," and noted the call for unity by Rabbanit Hadassah Froman.

"To merit living in this country we must chose life and see the spark of God in everyone," Froman said. "We must remove the barriers between us and create a bridge, because anything is possible but it depends on us."

But not everyone has been so magnanimous. Rabbi Yaakov Meidan, a leader in Israel's Orthodox community, made statements last week indicating an acceptance of gay Jews, but condemned the parade.

"I, personally, am adamantly opposed to the gay community," he said. "This is a community which carries out these parades and there is a purpose here to sway youths to try [homosexual relations]. These are people who do things in order to provoke, on purpose. A person who goes to march in Jerusalem, the Holy City, his purpose is simply to anger others… These are things I strenuously oppose."

"There Was an Opening Through the Confrontation"
For Sarah Weil, a native Californian who has lived in Israel for 10 years, the week after Shira's death was at times complex, harrowing, and inspirational. Nearly four years ago, Weil founded a lesbian social activist group in Jerusalem called Women's Gathering, and last week she decided to bring her fight for equal rights to the streets of her city — along with her Jewish identity — in the form of both a public Shiva for Shira in Zion Square. During the weeklong mourning period, Weil draped herself in a rainbow pride flag adorned with the Star of David.

"I haven't really ever publicly identified myself as a gay person," she told VICE News while proudly carrying the flag on her way to Zion Square. "So why do I have to identify with a flag? For a lot of gay people in Jerusalem, it's not their primary identity. This attack really shocked me into realizing how important it is to identify with the flag, and to hold the flag publicly. It represents us having visibility in Jerusalem. And visibility is what is bringing the conflict to the fore, and what's allowing there to be this confrontation."

Sarah Weil walks through Jerusalem on her way to Zion Square on August 7, 2015. (Photo by Monique Jaques)

Passing by the massive nightly public Shiva in the heart of Jerusalem, onlookers read cloths placed in the square that were adorned with the names of both Shira and Ali, the toddler who died in the West Bank firebombing. Many were confused, some were sympathetic, and others became very, very angry.

"There were hundreds of people who went through the square," Weil said, recalling the week. "Every night I was there with a lot of other gay activists, standing there, being confronted. And you had these circles of confrontation around the square. There were many different levels of intensity and bumping heads."

One child walking through Zion Square, upon seeing Weil's pride flag, decided to run up and kick it. Another man who was in his 70s screamed at the group and confronted them, refusing to listen to anything they had to say. She said the man was the only passerby with whom she couldn't find common ground.

"When someone comes at you in a hostile way and tells you that you're wrong, normally I would avoid the situation," she said. "In this case, I felt like that confrontation is why we were there. Almost every single encounter that I had — they started off in a certain hostile way… some came out to share through the meeting. Through the face-to-face meeting, after a little bit of an exchange, they felt me responding, there was an opening through the confrontation."

Related: In Photos: Clashes Erupt During Jerusalem Day Parade

Mourners sit in Zion Square in Jerusalem on August 6, 2015. (Photo by Monique Jaques)

On Friday afternoon, as a handful of participants in the Zion Square Shiva sat and sweated in 100-degree heat in the hours just before the city shut down for Shabbos, a well-dressed but livid man approached the encampment. Weil, who spent the week diffusing such situations, calmly took the man aside and listened to what he had to say. He mostly yelled for about 20 minutes, but she listened patiently.

His point, she said, was that while he is sympathetic to the public Shiva and the deaths of Shira and Ali — both victims of Jewish terror — he wanted to know where the group of mourners are when Israelis are victims of Arab terror. He specifically recalled to Weil the 2011 Itamar massacre, in which members of the Fogel family, who lived in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, were murdered in their sleep. Two Palestinian cousins later confessed to the brutal crime.

After their discussion, Weil returned to the encampment visibly shaken but determined. He's right, she said, we do need to mourn all loss.

"In Israel, politics are vicious. And there's a big divide between the left and right. He was looking at it from a political perspective," she said. "Not only does the entire world hate us, he said, not only are we given an unfair deal in the international media, but you too are also against us… It's this genuine sense of real betrayal that he was feeling."

Sarah Weil argues with a passerby in Zion Square on August 7, 2015. (Photo by Monique Jaques)

The encounter gave Weil an idea. Why not, after the seventh day of the Shiva, continue to come to Zion Square on a weekly basis to carry on the dialogue between Jerusalem's disparate communities?

"All these different groups, when a moment like this comes, it springs up in a lot of people's minds," she said the following day, as she headed from Zion Square to a separate gathering being held in the neighborhood where Shira lived. It was the final night the community was sitting Shiva for their lost one.

"I think now is an opportunity to promote values that all of us can get behind," she said. "Ideas like tolerance, valuing diversity… and disagreement. And love, as abused as that word is. I believe, and many believe, that Judaism needs to take the lead for human rights in Israel."

Follow Kevin Dolak on Twitter: @kdolak

This story was produced with support from LG as part of the Photos from Beyond program — click to see more photos from this series. VICE News maintains all editorial independence in the production of this content.