The Real Pinkwashers
From 1988, when sodomy statutes were repealed in Israel, to 2014, when Tel Aviv unveiled the first memorial to LGBT victims of the Holocaust, to 2016, when the ruling of the National Labor Court in the Meshel case meant that trans people became covered under the Israeli Equal Employment Opportunities Law, Israeli gay activists have waged a long, hard, but impressively successful, battle for LGBT rights in the only nation in the Middle East that protects them, their friends, their spouses and their organizations. Perhaps most encouragingly, the once silenced and closeted voices of religious, Mizrachi, and right-wing Israeli queers are now coming and speaking out to create fundamental transformations in Israeli culture, politics and religion. Negative stereotypes about LGBT Israeli Jews, Christians and Arabs are becoming history.
This is not to say that the queer rights movement in Israel does not continue to face significant challenges, setbacks and tragedies. Some of these emerge from familiar religious fundamentalist sources. For instance, gay — as well as heterosexual — marital unions remain outside Israeli law, because the Orthodox rabbinate controls marriage. Further, in 2006, Muslim Knesset member Ibrahim Sarsur warned gays that if they dared to approach the Temple Mount during the World Pride parade in Jerusalem, they would do so “over our dead bodies.”
In response, gay rights leader Charles Merrill stated that if Christianity, Islam and Judaism wanted homosexuals stoned as dictated by their ancient scriptures, then “our gentle innocent blood will be on their hands.” Such innocent blood was indeed shed on July 30, 2015, when Shiri Banki, a 16-year-old high school student, became one of six people stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the Jerusalem Gay Pride march. Tragically, Banki, who had gone to the parade to support her queer friends, lost her battle for life on August 2.
Other dispiriting setbacks issue from anti-Zionist voices within the queer community who allege “pinkwashing,” using strikingly fallacious arguments. Jasbir Puar, an academic feminist who coined the term, contends, along with many others, that Israel uses its sterling record of LGBT human rights as a deliberate ploy to detract attention from the conflict with Palestinians and the putative denial of political justice. Such charges are tantamount to contending that American queers use Gay Pride parades to distract from the mistreatment of indigenous tribes or that Israelis tout their sterling medical, technological and environmental achievements as purposive diversionary tactics. These invidious accusers toss everything together and assert that one cannot laud queer Israeli rights or any other worthy achievement because of “the occupation,” which remains the only facet of Israeli life that has real meaning. Solidarity with Palestinians, including terrorist organizations like Hamas, requires nothing less than calls for the end of the Jewish state, which of course includes its queer community.
However, perhaps the most infuriating threat to the honorable Israeli record on LGBTQ rights has come from those who really deserve the label of pinkwashers.
These are the right-wing “pretend friends” of LGBT people in Israel and abroad who really do use Israel’s superb record on queer rights only for propagandistic purposes — to burnish the international image of Israel as a modern, progressive nation of civil liberties and inclusion, not militarism and religiosity. This would be all to the good except for the fact that the real pinkwashers point hypocritically to Israeli queer civil rights, while at the same time they remain members of the right-wing parties and organizations that resisted gay rights in Israel, vigorously oppose LGBT rights in the United States and ignore the suffering of queer people in all other nations. Moreover, even as these real pinkwashers market the gender inclusivity of the Israeli Defense Forces through images of super sexy IDF female soldiers, so too do they never tire of pointing out the abject status of LGBT people in the Middle East. They do so not to advance measures to assist persecuted queers, but rather to make self-serving comparisons between Israel and its neighbors, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where gay Palestinians have no legislation to protect them and who are targets of harassment, exclusion, silencing, and, sometimes, honor killings.
In empowering left-leaning accusers of “pinkwashing” to ignore the hard-won achievements of Israeli LGBTQ activists, the real pinkwashers not only end up compromising Israel’s image abroad, but also give pro-Israel queer activists yet another battle against discrimination to fight — this time against other LGBT people around the world who harbor anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic prejudices.
This newest battle began innocuously enough in 2006 — significantly, after many of the most crucial battles for LGBT rights in Israel had already been won — when the Israeli foreign and tourism ministries engaged an American PR firm to establish its Brand Israel campaign. As part of this campaign, gay rights was promoted and Tel Aviv lauded as the “Gay Capital of the World.”
Now, on its own, there is nothing wrong with launching a PR campaign to attract LGBT tourists to Tel Aviv, which is indeed a supremely friendly international gay destination.
The problem is, however, that LGBT people are used merely as propagandistic tools by these real pinkwashers. The right-wing Netanyahu government lauds the wonderful state of Israeli LGBT communities to gain support from American and European nations otherwise critical of its policies on settlements and, for some, “the occupation” itself. Worse still, members of the Likud Party visit the United States to encourage queer Jewish Americans to support this party because Israel stands as the beacon of queer rights. And yet at the same time the Likud Party and their allies encourage gay Jewish Americans to support the Republican Party because it stands for Israel “no matter what” — while the Republican Party would, if they could, declare my marriage to my wife legally void, and roll back rights and protections for American LGBT people.
Right-wing Jewish American mega-billionaire Sheldon Adelson perfectly exemplifies this hypocritical ethos of these real pinkwashers, with their actual disregard for the well-being of queers everywhere. This mega-donor selectively supports the LGBT rights record in Israel, while giving money to Republicans in the US who aim to legalize discrimination against LGBT people in conducting business and, for trans people, using bathroom facilities appropriate to their gender identities. Yes, he recently convened a meeting to provide $50 million to wage war against the BDS movement on college campuses. But while I applaud his righteous stance against the immoral BDS movement, his financial backing comes with a price. He provides his funds only to those who would also join the Republican Party, thus once again demanding American queers to sacrifice their interests at home to promote the safety of Israel.
Admittedly, the situation is complicated. Interest groups align, and misalign, in many inconsistent ways. But the truly ethical path is, ultimately, the consistent one. To truly support LGBT causes is to support them across the board. When you support them only for other ends — including the noble one of defending Israel — you ultimately do more harm than good.