Why I Am a Proud, Queer, Jewish ‘Pinkwasher’
In 2008, I emerged from the largest and scariest closet I have ever lived inside: I came out as a proud, queer, Jewish “pinkwasher.”
I am now the pro-Zionist Jewish lesbian who cheers loudly for the Israeli LGBT delegation at Gay Pride parades. Meanwhile, other queer parade-goers, showing their reflexive antisemitic and anti-Israel animus, boo and heckle while moving away from me, my wife and my friends, treating us like ignorant pariahs within our supposedly collectively oppressed community.
I am now the lesbian who, as a professor, regularly shows Israeli LGBT films in my class in queer literature and film, including Keep Not Silent (2004, dir. Llil Alexander), about Orthodox lesbians, and The Bubble (2006, dir. Eylan Fox), about a love affair between an Israeli and Palestinian gay man.
I am the lesbian professor who, when teaching sexuality and ethics, discusses the legal landscape for LGBTQ persons in the Middle East. In Egypt, same-sex sexual relations are punishable by 17 years in prison with hard labor; in Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and the UAE by flogging, the death penalty by hanging or decapitation, or both; in Iraq and Jordan, while such relations have been decriminalized, honor killings, abuse and silencing remain common.
In Israel, in bold contrast — the only democratic state in the Middle East — the record of LGBT civil rights is not only sterling but also groundbreaking, preceding developments in the United States and much of Europe by years and, sometimes, decades. Israel banned workplace and housing discrimination against LGBT persons in 1992, and legalized open military service in 1993; same-sex relationships in 1998; inheritance rights in 2004; adoption rights in 2005; civil unions in 2008, and civil divorce in 2012. Further, in 2008, the Interior Ministry granted a gay Palestinian from Jenin a rare residency permit to live with his Israeli partner of eight years after he asserted that his sexuality jeopardized his life in the West Bank.
Given such an inspiring progressive record, which stands as such an outstanding example of the success of the modern LGBT movement, why in the world would queers at Gay Pride parades in the United States (and Europe) volubly deride queer delegations from Israel? Why has Israel, with its struggles, achievements and history of antisemitic persecution, become a pariah within so much of the queer communities of America and, to a larger extent, Europe?
The answer lies not only in the sordid history of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, but also in the portmanteau compound word “pinkwashing” — a term of opprobrium I have decided to co-opt, to wear with pride on my own terms. Jasbir Puar, associate professor of women’s studies at Rutgers University, most recently infamous for claiming, in a lecture at Vassar, that Israelis engaged in “stunting” the growth and “harvesting the organs” of Palestinians, first coined this term to castigate Israel for its pro-LGBT civil rights record. Puar and other proponents of the notion of pinkwashing claim that Israel, concerned about its negative image of militarism and religiosity abroad, attempts to cover up its conflict with Palestinian Arabs by touting its achievements regarding queer civil rights. In her unfortunate screed, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007), Puar argues that queers in Western liberal countries that have afforded them significant civil liberties, have become co-opted into “homonationalism” and “homonormativity,” and feel sufficiently privileged to voice complaints about other minorities, specifically Muslim immigrants, who they, in exaggerated fashion, accuse of harboring homophobia. This formulation not only exaggerates the extent to which queer persons, particularly transsexual people, have achieved acceptance in liberal Western states, but also frankly whitewashes the significant homophobia (as well as antisemitism and sexism) in which many — if not all — Muslim immigrants partake, reflecting the precepts of Islam and the prejudices of their home countries. In addition, Puar points to Israeli comparisons between the status afforded LGBT people in Israel as opposed to the Palestinian territories, where gays have no legal protections and are the objects of discrimination, abuse, shunning, honor killings and murder, as instances of pinkwashing.
According to this view, Israeli LGBT activists who labored long and hard, often against entrenched ultra-Orthodox prejudice, to secure equal rights, did so only to disguise — or engage in a purposive “cover up” — of the presumed oppression of Palestinian Arabs. It has become impossible to celebrate gay achievements in Israel, and to suggest that Israel stands as a shining example for other Middle Eastern countries, as well as those ranging from Russia and Jamaica to Brazil and Uganda, to emulate. Instead, Puar and others position “homosexual rights” as an imperialist and anti-Palestinian Western phenomenon — despite the long histories of queer cultures in non-Western lands.
In brief, according to such critics, Israel can do no good. But the more that detractors reject her, the stronger I, as a proud, queer, Jewish pinkwasher, who knows that Israel’s LGBT achievements are a shining light unto the nations, hold fast to her in love.