Noa Sattath isn’t afraid to cry. Though Israeli and hardly unfamiliar with Orthodox Jerusalem’s animosity toward all things gay, the 30-year-old lesbian activist has been known to shed a tear or two.
Her most recent tears were the joyful kind, shed during this past November’s gay-pride rally in Jerusalem. The city’s Orthodox leadership spent many months trying to prevent this affirmation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) rights and demonstration for tolerance. For one week prior to the rally, Jerusalem’s black-hat community set dumpsters ablaze and blocked major roads with burned-out cars in protest.
In the end, Israel’s Supreme Court and Attorney General ruled in favor of the freedom of expression cherished by Israel’s secular “silent majority,” and Jerusalem’s rabbis told followers to stay home and recite psalms instead of attacking gays, as had been previously encouraged. According to Sattath, the rally was a victory for Israeli democracy against extremist voices that seek to destroy it.
“The Supreme Court and Attorney General sent a clear message to inciting sources who make cynical use of violence and terror to change the political reality,” Sattath said. “We will continue to do all we can to safeguard the freedom of expression for everyone in Jerusalem.”
Sattath’s quiet but steady leadership distinguishes her from the city’s stone-throwing yeshiva students and divisive municipal officials. Just weeks before the demonstration, she became executive director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH), a community center for the city’s GLBT population. In a notoriously conservative city where even straight people rarely hold hands in public, the decade-old Open House faces an uphill battle.
Early in 2006, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the Jerusalem Municipality to pay the Open House $77,000 in mandatory cultural funding. According to the Court, the city illegally discriminated against JOH when it failed to allocate municipal funds for three consecutive years. The Open House runs a host of social, cultural and health programs for GLBT individuals and their parents and supporters—activities that have been labeled “ugly, insulting, offensive and provocative” by Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mayor Uri Lupolianski.
Tensions between the Open House and Jerusalem’s holy homophobes culminated in the stabbing of gay-pride parade participants by a yeshiva student in 2005. In the weeks leading up to last summer’s Jerusalem WorldPride conference, posters in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim offered a $5,000 reward to “whoever causes the death of one of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.” And though November’s pride rally drew thousands of GLBT individuals and straight supporters, Jerusalem’s mayor and religious leadership vowed to prevent the demonstration in 2007.
“The thing that is unique in our struggle is the level of violence that is targeted at us and our commitment to respond in a way that is not inciting,” said Sattath, who first came to the Open House in 1999 seeking a community of other lesbians. “Jerusalem is probably the most religious city in the world that has a gay center [like JOH], which is a huge challenge. Religion is not inherently violent and we cannot respond to hate with violence.”
Since coming to the Open House seven years ago, Sattath has served as an outreach volunteer, board chair and, most recently, the center’s first lesbian executive director. Impeccable English and a rare ability to navigate between the center’s largely Israeli clientele and donors abroad made Sattath a hot commodity at the Open House, in addition to what former JOH Executive Director Hagai El-Ad calls her “unstoppable charisma and natural optimism.”
The long-haired, earthy Sattath says although the atmosphere for gays in Jerusalem continues to be hostile, Israel’s environment for gays has changed dramatically since she first walked into the Open House nearly 10 years ago. The
watershed decade included national legislation granting rights to gay partners and instituting non-discriminatory measures, often years before the U.S. even began to consider similar legislation.
Homosexuals have been able to serve openly in the Israeli military since 1993, the same year that President Clinton introduced the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has been maintained by President Bush. And while the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled sodomy laws unconstitutional only in 2003, Israel’s sodomy laws were formally repealed back in 1988. Now, the Israeli government affords same-sex partners most of the same rights it does straight couples, including spousal benefi ts and pensions, as well as residency permits for foreign partners in a same-sex couple. And in a precedent-setting ruling in November 2006, shortly after the pride rally in Jerusalem, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that gay couples wedded abroad could be registered as married in Israel. Despite the Orthodox leadership’s assault on everything under the rainbow, Israel now offers GLBT individuals more rights than the United States does.
“Perhaps the most prominent change is how the Jerusalem GLBT community has become an activist community engaged outside the city,” Sattath said. “Our very first debate was over whether to hang a pride flag outside our office. People were afraid it would intimidate residents or invite violence. Those arguments are over and it is clear that we need to be vocally involved and out to the community around us. We have more confidence that we have a right and a mission to impact the city around us.”
In the coming years, Sattath aims to expand the Open House’s connections to Jerusalem’s diverse GLBT sector, ranging from closeted Orthodox men and women to gay Palestinians who face isolation and, occasionally, murder if others in their community learn of their sexual orientation. The center also attracts a wide range of out Jewish Israelis, students from abroad and teenagers coming to terms with their sexual identity.
Beyond extensive grassroots programming, the Open House advocates for social change on the national level, meeting with government ministers, Knesset committees and social-change leaders. Efforts are run out of the organization’s modest headquarters in the heart of Jerusalem’s pedestrian mall, close to City Hall and the venerable Old City walls.
The Open House recently filed an event permit with the police for this year’s pride parade, scheduled for the summer. Activists and JOH staff members are gearing up for another attempt by ultra-Orthodox leaders and the municipality to prevent the parade, Sattath said.
“It’s so rewarding for me to focus on these issues,” said Sattath, whose other concerns include several cats and a partner of fi ve
years. “The challenges are immense and it’s a very long battle we have ahead of us. But the resources that we have in the community and the resolve we’ve shown have been very encouraging. This gives me hope for the future of Jerusalem.”
2009 Jerusalem Pride will take place on June 25th (Thursday)