Last Sunday, at 11 pm, a masked gunman walked into a gay and lesbian youth center in Tel Aviv, pulled out a pistol and opened fire. He then fled into the night. Nir Katz a 26-year-old counselor at the centre, and Liz Trubeshi, 17, were killed on the spot. Eleven others were injured, some of them seriously.
At the time of writing the murderer has still not been apprehended and it is still unknown what his motives were. However, given the location of the centre in an inconspicuous basement and its nature, it is highly unlikely that he walked into the place by chance. It is safe to assume that he knew where he was going.
The carnage rocked Israel’s gay community. Its members were stunned. How could this have happened, they asked. Then they came up with answers.
This horror took me back to Israel of 1995. Throughout that year, in an attempt to derail the peace process with the Palestinians, political parties from the right engaged in a relentless campaign of incitement against then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. The campaign was sustained, harsh and personal. It was meticulously planned and strategically executed. It featured hateful graffiti, religious edicts and unabashed death threats. Photoshopped posters of Rabin dressed as an SS officer, or wearing an Arab head scarf, with the caption ‘traitor’, appeared throughout the land. A few months later, at the conclusion of a peace rally in Tel Aviv, Rabin was assassinated.
Immediately after, accusing fingers were pointing at the inciters. Leaders and preachers from the political right went into defense mode. None of them, they protested, pulled the trigger. None of them planned the murder. None of them were present at the scene of the crime. The assassin, Yigal Amir, was an errant weed.
All of this, of course, is true. But what the political right did then, and what the ultra-Orthodox establishment has done now, is sow the wind of hate and then feign shock when we all reap the whirlwind. Errant weeds also need fertile ground in order to grow.
Israel’s gay community has long been the object of a concerted hate campaign by the religious establishment, particularly by members of the ultra-conservative Shas party. While gay Israelis now enjoy many rights and equalities enshrined in law, these parliamentarians view with grave concern – and contempt – the trend to accommodate homosexuals into Israel’s legal and social framework. One member of Knesset, Nissim Zeev, recently labeled gay men as ‘lower than beasts’. He went on to describe homosexuality as a "plague which should be dealt with just as the Health Ministry is dealing with bird flu."
Four years ago, during a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, three marchers were stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox man wielding a knife. It was the culmination of a sustained barrage of verbal abuse, threats and litigation by ultra-Orthodox residents of Jerusalem against the organisers and participants of the event. And still the invectives continued and the hate spewed.
In June this year, in a Knesset plenum, Shas MK, Shlomo Benizri, blamed gays for the earthquakes that shook the region in recent months, warning that government legislation on homosexuality is largely responsible for the tremors.
Laughable though they may sound, these crass pronouncements fall on attentive ears. Ignorance is rife; hate is contagious. Shas has raised a generation of Israelis who will never hear about tectonic plates and will never know what causes earthquakes.
And so the wind was sown and the whirlwind reaped. And now, just as then, in 1995, the harvesters are claiming: we didn't know, we didn't mean, we didn't say.
Last Sunday two young people were murdered in Israel for no reason other than their sexual proclivity. They were beautiful people in the prime of life, with plans and goals; friends and lovers; hopes and dreams. Now they are dead.
Who can truly say that this massacre was a bolt out of the blue and not a tragedy waiting to happen? Can the politicians who fan the flames of intolerance across the land honestly claim their hands are clean and their conscience clear?
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21 year-old gay college student from Laramie, Wyoming, was abducted, tortured and murdered by two men. Shortly afterward, his mother, Judy, turned to the media. "Go home" she said, "and give your kids a hug and don't let a day go by without telling them you love them."
All over the world, in Australia, in Israel and elsewhere, young gay people grappling with their sexuality also face hostility, ignorance and hate. We should reach out to them; make them feel valued and loved. Right now, in a Tel Aviv hospital, there are victims of this hate crime who have undergone emergency surgery and have no family visitors at their bedside. They have been rejected by their families and ostracised by their community because of their sexual orientation.
We must adopt these people into our hearts. People like Nir Katz, Liz Trubeshi and Matthew Shepard. They are all our sons, all our daughters.
Ten years ago, shortly before he died, my brother asked for a room to be set up in Israel for young people who are coming to terms with their sexuality. It was to be a safe environment where they could meet and make friends; talk to a councilor or seek advice; a place where they could be who they truly were without fear or shame. The room was opened shortly after his death and still bears his name. Last Sunday it was the scene of a despicable hate crime.