That’s what Tom Canning, Director of Development at the Jerusalem Open House and one of the organizers of the Jerusalem Pride March, saw last Thursday on King George Street in Jerusalem.
“He” was Yishai Schlissel, who stabbed seven marchers, critically wounding two – including a sixteen year old Shira Banki, who participated in the Open House’s youth group. Banki succumbed to her wounds on Sunday night.
The Pride March began normally enough. Unlike in some past years, there was relatively little in the way of counter-protest: no rotten eggs, no chants, no dirty diapers. An officially-permitted protest by the far-right group Lehava was small and contained. “They were cordoned off and surrounded by police,” said Canning. “We weren’t worried about them.”
And so, Canning told the Forward, “We were walking down the street, I was with friends, we were talking, laughing, as you would expect.”
Then suddenly, everything changed. “We heard a big scream from behind, there was a big disbursement, we saw people running forward, and then we saw Shai Schlissel.”
“I moved aside, I saw people going down. The police and other marchers jumped on him and held [Schlissel] down. I saw the injured bleeding. It was a very gruesome sight.”
As the Israeli police have now confirmed, Schlissel is the same person who stabbed three people – including a father and daughter – at the 2005 Pride March. He had just been released from prison three weeks ago, and had appeared on Haredi radio warning that he would attack again. Yet somehow, he was not being monitored by the police.
“We weren’t worried about Shai Schlissel,” said Canning, “because we couldn’t believe the police weren’t on him. I guess they weren’t.”
Unconfirmed reports said that Schlissel had been briefly stopped by police en route to the March, but was let go.
Immediately after Schlissel was pinned to the ground by police, Canning and Sarah Kala, the executive director of the Open House, met to decide what to do. “The obvious decision was that we had to finish the march. We didn’t stop in 2005, and we weren’t going to stop now.”
Most of the marchers did continue to Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park, where Rabbi Benjamin Lau – cousin of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau – spoke to the crowd and asked for “forgiveness in the name of the Torah.”
The question now is what comes next. Israeli politicians across the political spectrum have condemned the attacks, as have both chief rabbis.
For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a supportive but somewhat perplexing statement that “Freedom of individual choice is one of the fundamental values of Israel.”
Most LGBT people do not consider their sexual orientation or gender identity a matter of choice.
Canning told the Forward he was shocked by the day’s events. “The truth is, I didn’t believe that something like this could happen. It’s not that we weren’t being threatened – we’re threatened all the time in Jerusalem. Just a few months ago, a city council member called JOH a school for Sodom and Gomorrah. We get dozens of messages and calls every week. But we just felt that we had to live with it. We’ve become complacent.
That, of course, changed today. “This is a game-changer for us. What seemed to be acceptable in 2005 is not acceptable in Israel in 2015. But the truth is, not much has changed.
There’s still homophobic, inciting rhetoric in Jerusalem, even in the city council. “We have this image of Tel Aviv being the free, accepting land for gays, but what goes on outside Tel Aviv?” Yet Canning refused to cast blame on the police, or on Ultra-Orthodox religious communities.
Regarding the police, he said, “It’s difficult for me to common on what the police did or didn’t do. We’ve been in contact with the police for months, we’ve had meetings all through these last few weeks. We were told that 500 police officers were protecting the event, and there was a helicopter in the sky. I’m not a police expert. Obviously they did something wrong, and they’ll have to look into that. I don’t think it was for lack of trying.”
Nor would Canning blame the Ultra-Orthodox. “This attack is not about the religious community in Jerusalem. They don’t support these sorts of acts. Many of our community members are Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox. We don’t see them as our enemies and we don’t think that Shai Schlissel is a sign of sentiment in Ultra-Orthodox communities.”
So who is responsible, other than Schlissel himself?
“I point the finger at the leadership, at politicians,” Said Canning “At Shas, and at city council members for inciting this violence. If for five years you call the Jerusalem Open House sick, and delegitimize us, then yes, someone will come along and act.”
Canning told the Forward that the Open House is planning a rally in the next few days to oppose the attacks. Noting that fewer politicians spoke at Jerusalem Pride than at Tel Aviv Pride, he said, “We expect politicians from Left and Right to come [to the rally]. If they are critical of the parade, we can discuss their issues, but it’s not acceptable that the gay community in Jerusalem is an open target.”