Earlier this week we marked the first yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Shira Banki, a 16 year old who was murdered by a Jewish extremist at last summer’s Jerusalem Pride March.
The past few weeks have been very difficult for all of us. Barely a day goes by without another terrorist attack somewhere around the world, a mass shooting, a horrific attack on police, an attempted coup… The shock of it all is overwhelming, and it does something to us – tearing at our sanity and our hope for a better future.
Amidst this despair, I’d like to tell you something that happened in the wake of Shira’s murder. In that first week, members and allies of the LGBTQ community, under the auspices of the Yerushalmit (Jerusalemite) movement, organized a public shiva (week of mourning) in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. As Sara Weil, an American who had made aliyah many years before, recalls:
"Every night I was there with a lot of other gay activists, standing there, being confronted. And you had these circles of confrontation around the square. There were many different levels of intensity and bumping heads."
One man challenged the mourners, asking why they didn’t gather in public mourning for victims of Arab terrorism. This led to a challenging, yet civil conversation, and to an idea – Why not, after the seventh day of the Shiva, continue to come to Zion Square on a weekly basis to carry on the dialogue between Jerusalem's disparate communities?
Thus began Meeting Place: Encounters in Zion Square.
Every Thursday night for the past year, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, LGBT and straight, left and right, have come to Zion Square to dialogue – with the aide and support of trained facilitators - about controversial issues affecting Israeli society. As Sara, now the co-director of this project, described it this week:
“Over the course of the year, I've spoken to over a thousand people, many homophobic, some violent. I've experienced over and over again the power of empathy for breaking down barriers of fear. I've witnessed heated confrontation with declared homophobes end in a handshake or hug. I've seen activists from Lehava (radical-right organization) soften their anger and hold respectful dialogue, one even becoming a friend. And I've observed myself, exposing my body and soul to the rugged street, participate in a small slow revolution in the City Center of Jerusalem.”
An advocacy campaign has led Mayor Nir Barkat to dedicate Zion Square to the memory of Shira Banki. Yesterday, under tight security, the Pride March - sponsored by the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance - returned to the center of Israel’s capital. This year’s 15th annual march brought a reported 25,000 members of the LGBTQ community and its allies out, by far the largest turnout in the history of this event.
Meeting Place was born out of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, and grew into a vehicle for engagement and social change through the practice of radical empathy, compassion, and civil discourse.
Conversations for the sake of conversation are rare and valuable. As we watch our historic and disturbing political year unfold here at home, and as we contemplate our inability to have healthy political discourse across our differences in our Jewish community, the goal of these Jerusalemites to build a “community of communities” is inspiring – for our hopes for Israel, and for us to think about what is possible here in the United States if we succeed in creating better conversations.
Of course, conversation alone isn’t everything. That Mayor Barkat can attend the conversation in Zion Square and sit on the ground with the activists, but a few days later announce that he would not attend the pride march out of respect for Ultra-Orthodox sentiment is a humbling reminder that good conversations need to be complemented with political strategy for achieving change.
Still, on this anniversary of Shira’s death, I find hope in the dialogue and engagement that have come from the horror of last summer. As Sara writes:
“My experience in Zion Square this past year has convinced me that empathic and patient grassroots activism, activism lead from the heart, not the head, from forgiveness, not anger, can and will heal our society. We will learn to live together.”
In this, and in so many ways, Shira Banki’s memory is truly for a blessing.