The recent attack on the gay pride march in Jerusalem that left one dead and five others injured has led to a great deal of soul searching in Israel about the challenges facing the LGBT community in a country often lauded for being progressive on sexuality issues.
Anger in Israel has focused both on the lack of police preparation for a possible attack as well as the climate of growing Jewish religious extremism in which it occurred.
Shira Banki, 16, was stabbed to death on July 30 with a butcher’s knife by a Jewish religious extremist named Yishai Shlissel who considered the holding of a gay Pride in Jerusalem repugnant to God and against Jewish religious law. Shlissel charged the march and stabbed at random, hoping to kill and maim as many as possible.
Shockingly, Shlissel had been released only days before from prison. The crime? He attacked the same gay Pride march with a butcher knife 10 years before, stabbing three participants that time.
Although Jerusalem has always been a religious city, in recent years ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups have been given increasingly free reign in deciding how the lives of citizens will be run.
As in all of Israel, public transportation shuts on the Jewish Sabbath, but increasingly in West Jerusalem private businesses that open on Saturday are pressured to close and ultra-Orthodox demonstrators frequently target those that do not, even shutting down roads in order to prevent others from driving.
In religious neighborhoods, advertisements featuring women are torn down by ultra-Orthodox youth who also organize modesty patrols targeting women’s dress, and in some areas public buses and sidewalks are informally and formally gender segregated. Secular Jewish citizens often complain they are being squeezed out, and it is not hard to see why.
But to explain Banki’s killing by focusing on ultra-Orthodox Jews enforcing religious codes on secular Jews tells only a part of the story, and does little to account for the violent tactics used, a rarity in inter-Jewish disputes.
It is more instructive to look at the kind of violent religious Jewish extremism that has become all too common in Israeli society in recent decades: anti-Palestinian racism.
Hours after Banki was stabbed, Jewish extremists firebombed a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Douma, killing a Palestinian child named Ali Dawabsha and leaving the rest of the members of his family with severe burns.
The attack was not an isolated incident – since the beginning of the year, Palestinian authorities say Jewish settler radicals have carried out nearly 370 attacks on Palestinian civilians, and nearly two-dozen Palestinian churches and mosques have been targeted. The United Nations recorded 2,100 settler attacks against Palestinians between 2006 and 2014, leaving 10 dead and 17,000 injured.
Israeli human rights organizations say that nearly 99 percent of Israeli investigations into these incidents are dropped without any convictions, while the few sentences that are given to Jewish radicals are extremely lenient. For comparison, 99.74 percent of Palestinians arrested for any kind of security-related offense by Israeli authorities are found guilty and sentenced, regardless of the evidence in a specific case.
But the Israeli state is not just indifferent to such racist terror; Israeli authorities themselves have encouraged such violence by referring to Palestinians as “savages” and using dehumanizing language to justify their deaths.
Israel’s current deputy-defense minister, Eli Ben-Dahan, has previously claimed that Palestinians “are beasts, they are not human,” while justice minister Ayelet Sheked has argued that the “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy.”
The backdrop of this culture of racist incitement is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967, where millions of Palestinians are kept under military rule while the 500,000 Israelis living in settlements built on land confiscated from Palestinians enjoy the full benefits of Israeli civil law. Shlissel, the gay pride attacker, himself lived in Modiin, an Israeli ultra-Orthodox settlement in the West Bank.
The system of apartheid in the West Bank, combined with the system of two-tier citizenship inside Israel itself — where the majority of Palestinians once lived until being forced out and forbidden from returning in 1948 — has made anti-Arab racism normative and anti-Palestinian violence forgivable.
It is no wonder that the killing of more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza – more than 62 families bombed in their homes — by the Israeli military was met with more than 90% approval by the Jewish Israeli public (i.e. excluding the 20% of Israelis who are Arab), who even urged the government to go even further.
By permitting Jewish settler terror against Palestinians to go unchecked, the Israeli government has encouraged a culture of impunity for Jewish nationalist and religious violence.
While the majority of this venom has been directed at Palestinians, the potent mix of racist nationalism and religious extremism that Israel’s settler movement embodies is a threat to all of those who fail to adhere to it.
Less than a few hundred meters from the site in West Jerusalem where Shira Banki was stabbed, a group called Lehava holds weekly rallies. The group’s main goal is to prevent Arabs from being allowed to mix with Jews, and a primary target are Jewish girls who date Arab men, even holding protests at marriages to ensure Arab blood not “taint” the Jewish gene pool.
Hatred of “the other” has gone unchecked for so long in Israeli society that the weekly rallies hardly draw attention. Nor do the regular attacks on Palestinian passersby in the area that too often follow.
But the group’s goal is not only preventing racial miscegenation; it is also about ensuring heterosexuality in order to preserve what they deem the Jewish race. The same day the stabbings took place, members were protesting the gay Pride march, and a Lehava leader even compared “being homosexual” to “robbing a bank” and argued that the LGBT community harmed the “Jewish nation.”
It is no wonder that in such a climate, where difference is vilified and violence in the name of nation and religion is encouraged by the powers that be, the LGBT community has ended up being a target as well.
The killing of Shira Banki, a young teenager expressing her solidarity with the queer community, is intrinsically related to the killing of Ali Dawabsheh.
These two deaths – which were immediately followed by the killings of two Palestinians protesting Dawabsheh’s death by the Israeli military – highlight the fact that homophobia cannot be separated from racism, and that violence against national “others” will inevitably lead to violence against internal others.
A state built on racist exclusion can hardly be a safe space for queers – Israeli or Palestinian – or anyone else.
Perpetuating the idea that Israel is somehow a gay paradise, in line with a government-sponsored campaign to promote the country’s gay-friendly image and cover up its violence against Palestinians, only hurts Israeli queers in the long run, as it obscures the fact that nationalist, religious, and homophobic terror and violence are all intrinsically connected.
By supporting pinkwashing efforts, queers around the world risk embracing Israel’s racist policies against Palestinians and its encouragement of terror and hatred against the state’s perceived others. Sadly, the deaths of Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsheh demonstrate this all too clearly.
Alex Shams is a journalist based in the West Bank and a doctoral student of anthropology at the University of Chicago.