TEL AVIV, Israel — Tel Aviv's gay pride parade, in its 14th year, is such an established tradition that diplomatic delegations send representatives as if the pageant were its own nation: A multi-colored, laughing enclave within the greater, beachside city. An alternate Vatican.
Israeli soldiers marched alongside Arabs from Jaffa and Nazareth on Friday. Politicians of all stripes, right to left — from former Kadima Party leader Tsippi Livni to Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich — gave speeches to the cheerful crowd of over 30,000 people. Religious political parties, extreme right-wing parties and Arab parties were conspicuous by their absence.
American ambassador Dan Shapiro presented himself adorned with a rainbow flag pin on his shirt and, addressing the crowd in Hebrew, said "today is a day of celebration and joy. Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights."
Shapiro also underscored "efforts being made" by the Obama administration to rectify injustices against gay men and women in the United States.
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Homosexuals have always been drafted into the Israeli army, and to the surprise of many conservative American tourists to the Holy Land, neither gay rights nor abortion are sources of contention or controversy in Israel, where the overriding urgency of the country's geo-political problems rules the debate.
The issue of gay rights has on occasion raised hackles in meetings between Americans and Israelis, most notably before the State Department revised its policy on same sex partners of American diplomats.
On one occasion, a number of years ago, the Israeli army officer assigned to coordinate security arrangements in the West Bank with an American diplomat burst out in frustration, blurting, "Who are you to come and tell us how we should do things? You think you know everything? You're the one who comes from a country that prevents you from living openly with your boyfriend!"
Both, as it happened, were gay.
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This year, thousands of tourists participated in the Tel Aviv march, many of them destination gay travelers drawn by Tel Aviv's reputation for liberality and beach night life.
Pierre, on holiday from Paris, grinned when asked if he had come to Tel Aviv specifically for the march, saying "No, not at all, I'm on holiday. But it is good fun. And you see..." —he reached his arm out— "...there are lots of nice Jewish girls around." He refused to divulge his last name.
Adir Steiner, Tel Aviv City Hall's coordinator for the march, said the Gay Cities poll this year that selected Tel Aviv as the best gay-friendly destination "is a testament to the friendly reception gay tourists can expect in Tel Aviv."
Businesses lining the streets of the parade displayed rainbow flags, and cafés put out stands selling takeout coffee to participants.
Amer Dacca, 30, from Jaffa, Tel Aviv, said the march was "Fabulous. Wonderful. Amazing. A great, great march, full of color, music and the feeling of freedom. Freedom and safety."
"Here, it doesn't matter if you are African-American, Mexican, Arab, Jew, whatever. The only thing that matters is who you are as a human being, as an individual who is outside in the sun, with the music and all the other people, as yourself."
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At the same time that the Tel Aviv march was beginning, Jerusalem, which will hold its own gay pride parade later this summer, had its own mini-march.
Several hundred secular and ultra-orthodox Jewish youths participated in a "Love Parade" held in the strictly religious neighborhood of Meah Shearim, displaying signs with slogans such as "We are all brothers" and "Peace among us," calling for tolerance between two groups who have seen their dialogue fray badly in recent weeks: observant and non-observant Jews.