Joseph Berg, a 43-year-old entrepreneur, sat brooding and alone on a bloodstained sidewalk Sunday, a few feet from the policeman blocking the stairwell to the basement crime scene.
Fifteen years ago, Berg first took refuge in that basement, then a newly established community center of the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Assn. “I came here, found people to share myself with, to be who I was with others,” he recalled. And so it had been for a generation of young gay men and women who came for company, counseling and courage to come out.
“This basement is our home,” and the teens who had frequented it lately are “our kids,” Berg said. “Last night someone came into our home and killed our kids.”
An unidentified gunman’s attack Saturday night in the basement sanctuary, which left two people dead and 11 others wounded, shattered the gay community’s relative sense of security in freewheeling Tel Aviv, the Israeli city where it felt most accepted.
As hundreds of gay men and women gathered in mourning Sunday near the scene of the attack, Israel’s bloodiest recorded assault on homosexuals, expressions of outrage came from national leaders, lawmakers across the political spectrum, and the Orthodox Jewish religious hierarchy. Some secular politicians called the shooting a hate crime and demanded an end to incitement against gays by elected officials, religious leaders and others.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned what he called a “horrific killing” and told his Cabinet, “We are a tolerant, democratic country governed by the rule of law, and we must respect each and every person.”
Police said the masked gunman holstered his weapon and fled on foot into central Tel Aviv’s busy streets. Limited by a court-imposed gag order, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld offered few details. He said the assailant used a pistol, not an automatic rifle as some witnesses first reported. And he said police had discarded the possibility that the gunman was a Palestinian militant.
“All indications point to a criminal incident and not a terror attack, which was most likely deliberately directed against the gay and lesbian community,” Rosenfeld said.
The crime dominated Israeli headlines Sunday. People awoke to front-page photographs showing overturned furniture on the blood-streaked floor of the community center. Newspapers and websites ran guest columns by gay celebrities and articles on the two people killed.
One of the dead was Nir Katz, 26, a counselor at the center who devoted himself to helping closeted teenagers. The other was Liz Trobishi, 16. Relatives and friends said she did not identify herself as gay but frequented the center to support friends who were.
Most of the wounded were teenagers. Four were listed in serious condition Sunday and breathing with the aid of respirators. Two adult counselors were undergoing surgery.
Community leaders said some of those wounded had concealed their sexual orientation from their parents, who were doubly shocked by the shooting attack and the revelation of where their children had been.
Berg, the entrepreneur who years ago gained parental acceptance of his homosexuality, said he worried about the effect of the shooting on Israel’s young homosexuals.
“What happened last night takes us back years in the fears of parents and families,” he said. “But we cannot let anyone or anything take us back into the closet.”
Shaul Ganon, who runs the center, said the gay community was angry and determined “to fight back,” not cower in fear.
“Just like we do not stop riding the bus after a suicide bombing, we will continue meeting and holding our activities,” he said.
Mourners lingered in front of the center in the predawn hours after the shooting and for much of Sunday. They lighted candles on a sidewalk littered with the blue surgical gloves of the paramedics who had helped the wounded.
In the late afternoon the crowd swelled, hoisted rainbow flags and held a rally in the middle of nearby Rothschild Street, a main thoroughfare.
“Perhaps this terrible day can be a turning point,” said Tzipi Livni, leader of the center-left opposition in parliament. “It is true, we do not yet know who the murderer is and what his motives were. But we do know that there was hate here. . . . We must all ask ourselves whether we have truly done enough to prevent incitement and derision.”
Some of the public discussion of incitement against gays focused on statements by lawmakers with Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious party. One lawmaker had suggested establishing “rehabilitation centers” to “cure” gays of their sexual orientation. Another said homosexuals had caused Israel’s most recent earthquake and were “poisoning” the Jewish state.
Shas issued a statement condemning the killing but not addressing the issue of vilification of homosexuals.