Sharon’s gay legacy

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Jerusalem – Some of Ariel Sharon’s unfinished business clutters the corridor outside my room at the Jerusalem Gold, a modest but comfortable hotel with spa on Jaffa Road near the bus terminal.

Sunburned men, husky women and their offspring overflow their rooms and turn the hallway into a living room where kids careen about by day and baby strollers rest against the wall by night.

A year ago, these guests (who have been here long enough to have carte blanche to enter the hotel kitchen and personally place special breakfast requests) were noble settlers in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory known as Gaza.

Today they’re long-term inmates marking time in a tourist hotel, lamenting the betrayal of the former best friend who oh-so-quickly yanked them out of their homes and forgot about them when the deed was done.

But as Ariel Sharon lies in a coma, the musings over his legacy go beyond his about-face on settlements. Gays in these parts have their own assessment.

While Sharon’s background as a fearsome military commander might suggest hostility toward gay rights (homosexuality undermines operational effectiveness, generals usually allege), Sharon was an unlikely supporter of the queer cause.

He met with Israel’s gay activists a number of years ago and told them that though their issues were not his, their human rights efforts had his blessing.

And on November 1, 2000, at the swearing-in of Uzi Even, the first openly gay member of the Knesset, all the religious parties were absent, but Ariel Sharon was not. In fact, Even tells me, Sharon took the stand and addressed him while he was still walking to his seat. Sharon said, “Let me be the first one to congratulate you. I am glad that you had this opportunity to stand here after a long struggle.’

As Even (who ran under the banner of the left-wing Meretz party and is now a professor of chemistry at Tel Aviv University) tells me, “He did not have to say those words.’

Certainly, nothing of that sort is expected from Benjamin Netanyahu, the former and perhaps future prime minister currently leading the Likud party vacated by Sharon because of internal oppposition to returning more land to Palestinians.

Queers have a particular loathing for Bibi (as Netanyahu is known) for his long-standing association with homophobic U.S. evangelists like Jerry Falwell. “Please, not Netanyahu,’ groans Noa Sattath of the committee organizing World Pride For Jerusalem this August, speaking to me at the Jerusalem Open House on Ben Yehuda Street.

For queers and secular Jews, there’s already enough religious extremism in the Holy City – like the sabbath clock at the entrance to a city that’s also a holy place for Christians and Muslims – without importing the Christian variety from the U.S. via Bibi. And fewer and fewer places are open on Shabbat, sending Israel’s second city into a religious lockdown. “Little Tehran” some Jerusalemites are now heard calling their town

Sometimes the religious frenzy boils over into violence, as it did last summer when an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed three people at a Jerusalem Pride parade. “I came to murder on behalf of God,’ the accused told his interrogators. He was convicted of attempted murder last month.

Ariel Sharon was prepared to milk extremist sentiments when it suited him: witness his visit with several hundred policemen to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount complex in 2000 that set off the second intifada. But in the end, he was more about securing the land of Israel than creating a religious state, so there is a place in his Zion for all Jews – even the homosexuals.

One of the legacies of a man who has been at the centre of Israel’s triumphs as well as its tragedies.

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