Gay Pride, Gay Marriage, and Israel: A Tale of Two Cities

President Obama's recent signing of the memorandum extending benefits to same-sex federal workers was designed to placate those pushing for gay marriage -- and it was carefully timed to take place during Gay Pride Month.

While most Americans are familiar with the gay marriage debate within the U.S., the controversy has reached across the world to the Middle East.

In Israel, Gay Pride Month's main attraction was an unprecedented and provocative public marriage ceremony joining five same-sex couples in civil matrimony.

The atmosphere at the ceremony was festive and traditionally Jewish: there was a chuppah and glasses were crunched underfoot. But it was completely symbolic. Civil marriages performed within the country's borders, even for heterosexuals, are not recognized.

The Jewish nation has no separation of church -- or synagogue, or mosque -- and state. Only weddings performed by clergy, or those legally performed overseas, are recognized. Traditionally, Israeli couples who do not want an Orthodox rabbi presiding at their nuptials have headed for a variety of locations, from nearby Cyprus to far-away Vegas.

But for the increasingly outspoken Israeli gay community the symbolic event was a first step toward receiving the social benefits and tax breaks that their counterparts in the U.S. are also fighting for. The community has traveled a long distance in a short time. A mere fifteen years ago, gays in Israel were subject to random arrests on trumped prostitution charges and couples were ridiculed or physically assaulted for holding hands or for any other displays of public affection.

Israel is a constant clash of religions, ideas, and politics. A running joke in the country is that the one thing Christian, Jewish, and Islamic leaders agree upon is their abhorrence of homosexuality.

And yet, this year's Gay Pride Month wedding drew scant protest. A meager show of protesters made an appearance at the parade, but there was no violence. There was, naturally, Deputy Prime Minister/Shas MK Eli Yishai publicly demanding the event be canceled. But he was doing his political duty. He is, after all, representing a party originally coined the "Sephardic Keepers of the Torah."

His call went unheeded.

Why did it go so smoothly, with nary a demonstration or a mention in the international news? It's all about location. "Only in Tel Aviv," the Jerusalem Post headlined the wedding.

In this case, it was an accurate assessment. Israel may be the "Holy Land," but Tel Aviv's mostly secular populace seems to fall under a disclaimer clause.

In Jerusalem -- a mere hour's drive away -- the scene is radically different.

In years past, Pride parade participants who dared to march the streets of Jerusalem have been jeered and stabbed. They have also been pelted with eggs, tomatoes, and feces.

In 2006, the mere announcement by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights advocacy group Jerusalem Open House of plans to parade through Jerusalem sparked weeks of unprecedented violent rioting by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators.  Haredim blocked traffic, set dumpsters, tires, and trash cans ablaze, and pelted cars and police with stones. And the chief rabbinate fueled the unrest by publicly referring to Israel's homosexuals as the "lowest of people" and urging rallies be organized to coincide with the Jerusalem march.

In 2007, police nabbed a man carrying a homemade bomb moments before the Jerusalem parade started.

All of these events easily grabbed international headlines. The cynical point out that the media are only too eager to portray Israel as closed-minded and intolerant.

Less worthy of international coverage: the situation in Tel Aviv, where Gay Pride events are part of the municipal landscape, and the city's mayor has an advisor on gay affairs.  And while Tel Aviv's religious party council members may not like the idea of a same-sex wedding -- one Shas Party councilman likened the nuptials to Sodom and Gomorrah goings-on -- they strike a more conciliatory note than their Jerusalem kin. "We don't have to make a big noise about it in public," the Tel Aviv Shas councilman said. "We live in a democracy."

That democracy, also applicable in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, recently led to a favorable ruling granting maternity leave benefits to same-sex partners. And a bill introduced this month proposes allowing lesbian partners to split maternity leave. In 2006, the state ruled in favor of granting same-sex couples married outside the country permission to register as married couples inside Israel.

A state-wide bill on same-sex marriage is not expected to be ratified anytime soon. The forces who have torpedoed Gay Pride events in Jerusalem are too politically powerful. If and when gays manage to expand their rights in Israel, one can be sure that the initiative will come from Tel Aviv.