There is an old joke around these parts. Question: Other than Jerusalem, what do ultra-religious Jews, Muslims and Christians love? Answer: They love to hate homosexuals.
But travel the 60km (40 miles) from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and you enter a world apart. Major streets are decked with the multi-coloured Gay Pride banner.
In this centenary year of the city, this is now Gay Pride month. On Friday, in Meir Dizengoff park, tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the annual Gay Pride parade which will end, this year, with a twist.
Four couples will take part in what is being called Israel’s first, public, gay wedding ceremony.
Tal Dekel and Itay Gourevitch, are sitting, wedged happily next to each other, on a park bench. Tal is a fashion designer, Itay a website editor. Both are 33. They have been together for eight years, since the night they met in a club.
Two weeks ago, they decided to get married. “It’s a chance to have our own rights: to have a quiet corner with our family, just like everyone else,” says Tal.
Itay says that things have improved for gay and lesbian Israelis. He can now, at least in Tel Aviv, walk down the street, arm in arm with his partner. “Fifteen years ago, I would have been beaten up.”
But there is still discrimination, he says. “As a gay couple, we can’t get a loan to buy a house together. We don’t have the right to adopt a child: we’d have to go abroad to do that. But we have all the obligations: we have to pay all the taxes.”
The idea of the “weddings” was Yaniv Weizmann’s. He has a unique position in Israeli local government. He is the advisor to the mayor of Tel Aviv on gay affairs, as well as tourism.
Mr Weizmann says that he wanted to draw attention to the fact that Israel’s gay community (which he estimates is one in 10 of the population) is growing older, and so cares now about getting married and starting a family.
The weddings will, he predicts, be “very beautiful and very, very emotional”. They will have all the Jewish trimmings: a canopy, a glass to break, a certificate.
But he also is aware of the limitations. State-recognised non-religious marriages, along with all the tax breaks and legal rights which those afford, will only come, he says, when Russian immigrants (many of whom are not Jewish) and gay people, and other groups who do not meet the religious standards of the Orthodox establishment, campaign together. Until then, “the power will stay in the hands of the religious guys in Israel.”
One of those “religious guys” has an office in City Hall just down the corridor from Mr Weizmann.
As he squeezes into his small room, Councilman Binyamin Babayoff, from the ultra-religious Shas Party, produces a Bible and a fluorescent green marker pen.
He highlights Leviticus Chapter 18, Verse 22, for my benefit: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.”
Mr Babayoff says that the weddings will turn Tel Aviv into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. He reaches for the rhetorical question: “If a man wants to marry his sister, would that be OK? Would it be alright if, tomorrow, he wanted to marry his mother?”
But despite his profound convictions, he accepts that the highly religious are in a minority in Tel Aviv, and that “we live in a democracy”.
“Just because you don’t agree, it doesn’t mean that you then have to go and make a big noise about it in public.” It is enough, he says, to point out that “it is such a grave offence according to the Torah.”
Israel’s democratic credentials, are, however, questioned by the lawyer, Irit Rosenblum. Her New Family group is run out of one of the most handsom streets in Tel Aviv.
“We are the only democracy in the world,” she says, “that has no civil marriage.”
She began her fight to change that, nine years ago. Back then, she says, they were “weirdos”. Now, though, she sees more and more consensus.
New Family has produced a card, which, for about $60, will aim to prove, officially, a couple’s commitment.
They sign an affadavit in front of a lawyer, and in return receive a small laminated card which, Irit Rosenblum says, affords the couple a range of municipal benefits, including easier parking, reduced health club membership, and lower local tax. “Now they are considered to be a family.”
All this is still some distance from the situation in, for example, Britain – where the state now recognises civil partnerships between same-sex couples. But last week, there were signs of change stirring.
The speaker of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) attended a conference, in the Knesset, on gay rights.
Reuven Rivlin, of the governing right-wing Likud Party, declared: “The gay sector has been persecuted for many years… I need to stand up straight and say that you can be respected for any way in which you choose to lead your lives. Bear the flag that you hoist with pride.”
A selection of your comments:
The issue of gay marriage is against the purpose of marriage. In fact, it’s evil and unbiblical. Those involved in it should come out from it before they will attract God’s anger. Okorondu justin, Porth Harcourt, Nigeria
With all the fighting in the region one would think the country would embrace the thought of two people creating love and peace, not war. I say we need more celebrations not funerals. I wish everyone a happy pride day! Verge, Toronto, Canada
Homosexuality has always been condemned by God in the scriptures, be it Old Testament, New Testament or even the Muslim Holy Book. If we believe that the scriptures are God breathed, then how does that which is an abomination in His eyes become OK if enough people agree? In Sodom and Gomorrah, God killed the entire city save 8! Democracy doesn’t make evil become good! KS, Fort Myers, FL, USA
If someone wants to have gay marriage what’s the problem. Until and unless the couples are not satisfied with each other, then there is a problem. Shahbaz Khan, Baghdad, Iraq
This is typical of Israeli democracy. The only one in the region! It is very often forgotten by the BBC to mention just how pro-gay Tel Aviv and Israel is. The fact is it’s one of the most advanced and pro-gay societies in the world. Wise, London