Given the turbulent situation in the Middle East over the past three years, Israeli gay rights activist Hagai El-Ad says he often wonders if his cause is the most “worthwhile” one to champion. But the answer El-Ad said he came up with is that advocating gay rights in Jerusalem these days doubles as fighting for a broader cause: maintaining a sense of normalcy in a city — and country — for which the last few years have been anything but normal.

“When thinking about the big picture, about war and peace, people sometimes forget that there are still 600,000 individuals living in Jerusalem — and that one of them is a teenager thinking about coming out of the closet, telling his parents, coming out in high school, and how it’s going to be when he or she joins the [army],” El-Ad said.

El-Ad discussed lesbian and gay life in contemporary Israel Monday night with a group of 25 students and community members. Co-sponsored by the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, El-Ad’s talk focused on the broader social significance of gay rights activism in Jerusalem.

El-Ad, the director of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community center Jerusalem Open House, said that as a country, Israel is “not doing so badly” in terms of gay and lesbian rights. From 1988 to 1993, the country struck laws banning homosexual relationships and regulating the service of gays and lesbians in the army. But as the Middle East peace process faltered in recent years, El-Ad said, his country shifted its focus almost entirely to political issues.

El-Ad said that when the Jerusalem Open House was founded in 1999, he thought its purpose would be to bring gay rights issues back into the public arena. But instead, he said, the organization found itself taking on a larger role –changing attitudes and promoting tolerance in a city whose diverse population has led to a history of divisiveness.

“We wanted a center that is not only for the secular one-third of Israelis, but to really have a place that will affect the true underlying diversity of the city — a place that is not only gay-friendly, but also religious-friendly and Palestinian-friendly,” he said.

The city’s first gay pride parade in 2002 was a testament to the House’s role in fostering tolerance and a sense of normalcy even beyond the gay community, El-Ad said. The first public event to take place in Jerusalem for months, the parade drew 4,000 people and included speeches in English, Hebrew and Arabic. El-Ad said the parade also created “a sense of optimism and hope.”

“The idea of doing Pride in Jerusalem came to be at a time when the message this event wanted to articulate was really needed — a message of peace, a message of people from different communities doing something positive and hopeful together in Jerusalem,” he said.

Students who attended the talk agreed with El-Ad’s message of the significance of a gay pride movement in Jerusalem.

“I was hoping to find out how the Open House was able to hold such a controversial parade in a city like Jerusalem, where there’s such a solid community of Orthodox Jews,” Molly Zeff ’07 said. “What I realized from being here is that Jerusalem is actually a very appropriate place [for the parade], because it makes a much stronger statement than if the parade was in a more modern city.”

El-Ad said the success of the Jerusalem Pride led to the city’s selection as the site of the “World Pride” in 2005.