JERUSALEM – Over 15,000 people marched in the Gay Pride Parade through Jerusalem on Thursday, partying in the shadow of a recently passed surrogacy law that excludes homosexual fathers and outraged the gay community.
Waving rainbow flags emblazed with the Star of David and blasting music, throngs of people marched through the streets of central Jerusalem amid tight police security. Same-sex couples held hands, others held signs reading "proud to be equal" and "I want to be a father."
A few dozen people demonstrated against the parade. Some held signs reading "Israel is the holy land not the homo land." Several protesters scuffled with police and officers made four arrests, police said.
Festivities mixed with anger this year after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month pledged to pass legislation supporting surrogacy for gay fathers, but then voted against it, apparently under pressure from ultra-Orthodox Jewish coalition partners.
Some marchers at the parade Thursday chanted slogans calling Netanyahu a "homophobe."
Israeli LGBT advocates and their supporters went on strike across the country about two weeks ago in protest of the legislation. The protest generated widespread support and hundreds of employers said they allowed employees to observe the strike without penalty. It also grew into a general call for equality, following other recent controversial legislation that appeared to target Israeli liberalism.
"I'm here because I'm an LGBT that lives in the state of Israel," Omer Yehoshua, wearing red lipstick and carrying a rainbow flag, said. "I want my rights to be equal to those of a straight person who lives in this country, so that in the future I can, if I'm with a partner, get married and register as parents, to bring children to the world, that our rights be equal."
Chanoch Obel was among the protesters demonstrating against the parade. "They want to destroy our culture, they want to destroy our society, they want to destroy the nature of family. In Jerusalem, of all places in the world. ... Tel Aviv we understand, Jerusalem ... horrible," he said.
Jerusalem holds a modest parade annually in contrast to festivities in nearby liberal Tel Aviv, which drew over 250,000 people to its parade this year.
Many of Jerusalem's residents are observant Jews, Muslims or Christians, communities that often frown on homosexuality. But violent attacks on gay people are rare.
A radical ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed a 16-year-old girl, Shira Banki, to death at Jerusalem's parade in 2015. The attack was widely condemned across Israel's political spectrum and the killer was convicted of murder.
A giant placard with a picture of the murdered girl was positioned on the parade route. Marchers placed flowers at the foot of the picture. Some said prayers and others stood in silence.
Police closed off roads in central Jerusalem and thousands of officers secured Thursday's march.
Ofer Erez, who heads a center for gays in Jerusalem, told Channel 2 TV the big police presence was reassuring but added: "I fear for tomorrow." He said that on Wednesday two young members of the LGBT community "were attacked in a Jerusalem neighborhood just because they are LGBT."
Israel has emerged as one of the world's most gay-friendly travel destinations in recent years, in sharp contrast to the rest of the Middle East where gays are persecuted and even killed.
In Israel, homosexuals serve openly in Israel's military and parliament, and many popular artists and entertainers are homosexual.
However, leaders of the gay community say Israel still has far to go in promoting equality.