Israel stresses tolerance after gay-center attack

The assault Saturday in liberal Tel Aviv, which killed two people, surprised many and drew widespread condemnation.

TEL AVIVIsrael's political leaders condemned Sunday a shooting rampage in a gay youth center here the night before that killed two, sparking a national discussion on the limits of tolerance.

As local police pressed a manhunt for a masked gunman that sprayed bullets in a basement meeting room in central Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the murder “shocking.”

“Ours is a country built on tolerance and we must respect all people as they are,'' he said.

As Israel's gay community has broken barriers in the media and politics over the past two decades, tensions have often flared over public events like pride marches in Jerusalem, whose Orthodox Jewish population has said they are a provocation.

The shooting is surprising because of its location. Tel Aviv has functioned as a shelter of acceptance both in the public and private realms, with a gay community center, gay elected officials on the city council, and an annual gay pride parade that draws tens of thousands. (Click here to read Tel Aviv’s openness and here to read about its rise in gay tourism.)

Avner Berenheimer, who co-wrote a movie about gays in the Israeli military, says there's been a revolution in the attitudes of the Israeli public in the past decade.

“If it’s a hate crime then it’s the first major hate crime in Israel since the foundation of the country. If that's true it’s a really bad feeling,'' he said at a march just a few blocks away from the site of the shooting. “Suddenly we've joined all the countries with violence and bigotry against gay people.''

No suspects have been named in the shooting. Though the ultra-Orthodox religious party Shas joined in condemning the attack, left-wing politicians accused the party of inciting hatred against the gay community.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Ronit Levy, who said her son is a member of the gay community, called the shootings “an earthquake.” “Now I have to explain to my kids what this means about us as a society.''

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