OPINION: The Case Against Pinkwashing, Or Why I’m Gay For Israel
Imagine a nation that prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, allows gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, provides domestic-partner benefits in the private and public sectors, recognizes gay adoptions (and gay marriages performed abroad), has LGBT celebrities whose careers haven’t been hurt by their coming out, and saw more than 100,000 people attend its most recent Pride parade—even though the whole country is smaller than the state of New Jersey?
What if I told you that, despite being one of the most pro-gay democracies on Earth, this country is under fire from the gay-activist set?
You may have guessed: I’m talking about Israel—a country that, when it comes to Pride, proves size doesn’t always matter.
As an American Jew born and raised in New York, my connection to Israel as a child was somewhat limited. I wasn’t one of those cool kids whose family did a bar mitzvah tour of the Western Wall, but I do remember being extremely annoyed receiving as gifts, certificates of trees that were planted in Israel in honor of my becoming a “man.”
But I lived in Israel for two years after high school and have made several trips back since. I am active and support various LGBT organizations in Israel and other pro-Israel organizations in the USA.
I’m not exactly sure what Zionism really means today. But “Zionism” was my winning word in a game of Scrabble during a Fire Island Pines weekend back in 2008.
My love and passion for the State of Israel actually matured after I came out: I truly felt comfortable in Israel as a country that supported and accepted my two greatest identities: gay and Jewish. It was amazing to be in a place that provides legal protection to LGBT people and has a rich cultural gay life—and simultaneously embraces my Jewish identity. It felt like home.
But lately my home is being attacked by other gays, Jewish and non-Jewish. And that makes me uncomfortable and even angry.
Many vocal queer activists are accusing Israel of using its positive record on LGBT rights to divert national and international attention away from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. They’ve created a term for this: Pinkwashing.
In the New York Times op-ed “Israel and Pinkwashing,” Jewish lesbian writer and playwright Sarah Schulman defines the term as “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”
Pinkwashing is a misleading term because it implies that Israel’s treatment of gays is merely a stunt, which is completely invalid. Are pinkwashing activists really suggesting that the richness and diversity of pro-gay life there is all a conspiracy by the government to distract me from other issues within the region? It would be hard to make up the reality that is gay life in large swaths of Israel.
You really can’t invent a climate of not just tolerance, but acceptance, for the sole sake of propaganda.
If people like Schulman are claiming that progressive attitudes towards the gay community are being used to conceal certain violations against Palestinian people, then they must also accuse Israel of womenwashing (for the rights women have), speechwashing (for freedom of speech), presswashing (freedom of press) and other transgressions.
Each year the Human Rights Campaign applauds Fortune 500 companies that provide benefits to their LGBT employees. Is HRC pinkwashing by not highlighting some questionable practices of Corporate Equality Index honorees like Bank of America and Nike?
In January, members of our LGBT community have been arrested and tortured in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for their sexual identity. Why have we heard so little from these same activists protesting such atrocities?
And how many of them protested Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s anti-gay statements when he visited New York City?
I have no issue with people criticizing Israel’s policies or treatment of the Palestinians but the Jewish State is singled out more than many other nations. Activists are perpetually dismissing Israel’s record on LGBT rights for the sake of highlighting other issues.
This is wrong.
Israel is held to a standard that no other country has to clear: In the last ten years, the United States went to war with Iraq and Afghanistan and civilian losses there caused by the U.S. military are far higher and have continued longer than any conflict in Israel.
When Israel pulled out of Gaza, Hamas was elected by the Palestinians—a known terrorist group now issuing bans on women from riding on the back of motorbikes, men from working in hair salons, and most recently, the Palestinian version of American Idol, calling such things indecent.
Where are the queer marches against Hamas?
I think one of the main reasons why queer American activists and organizations don’t target many Middle Eastern countries where gays are truly oppressed is because there’s little satisfaction protesting countries where freedoms (sexuality, speech, assembly) are limited for everyone. Has New York’s LGBT Center held a Sanction Iran Day, the way it attempted to host Israel Apartheid Week?
Yes, Israel is advertising its homo-loving tendencies to the world. And, yes, GayCities members just voted Tel Aviv Best Gay City in the World, with 43% of vote.
But that’s isn’t to say things are perfect. It’s no secret that the Israeli LGBT community is still dealing with major issues: Just as in the U.S., the religious right is attempting to strip queer Israelis of their rights. Additionally, some gays suffer mistreatment in the army, basic rights of HIV carriers have been violated, many are still recovering from the 2009 shooting at Tel Aviv’s LGBT center, and the recent closing of the city’s last lesbian bar has saddened locals.
And Israeli LGBT activists are still pushing Israel for further civil protections and protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians—with no reprisals because they live in a democracy.
In a recent article in Tablet, James Kirchik sums up claims of pinkwashing by saying :
“[They reveal] the bare delusion, paranoia and cynicism of the Jewish State’s most earnest detractors. In their minds, any positive statement made about the country is necessarily part of a propaganda campaign in the service of a far-right agenda. For an increasingly large swath of the international left, there really is no good Israel can do, short of disappear.”
Israel’s immediate neighbors are Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria—I can tell you for a fact that the rights of gays and lesbians in these countries aren’t boastworthy—they’re nonexistent. LGBT activists should spend more time, money and energy protesting nations where gays and lesbians are persecuted, jailed, tortured and even killed.
To put this into context, during my last trip to Israel I logged onto Grindr while spending some time near Kibbutz Misgav Am near the Lebanese border. I chatted briefly with a guy who was just a couple of miles away.
Here’s part of our conversation:Me: Where u at?Me: ???Him: Southern Lebanon.Me: Ohhh… um, I’m in Israel. I can’t get across the border because I have Israel stamped in my passport.Him: Well, I can’t come across either, well, because I’m in Lebanon.Me: Damn you Middle Eastern politics for getting in the way of my possible future husband! How about you add me on Facebook?Him: Too risky, your Facebook profile is too gay.
I was stunned—I never had to worry about being too gay in Israel. But just a couple of miles away, in South Lebanon, the fear a gay man had of befriending me—for being too gay, mind you, and not too Jewish—was quite telling.
I will continue to show the world that I love Israel and believe in its inalienable right to exist—and I appreciate the liberties and confidence it gives me as a gay Jew. I don’t necessarily have to agree with all the policies of the Israeli government.
I would encourage our community not to create a queer value of condemning a nation that has progressive LGBT rights to its citizens just because there are other unresolved conflicts.
Meanwhile, I am trying to locate my bar mitzvah gifted-trees so I can cash them out for my next summer-share on Fire Island.
Jayson Littman is the founder of He’bro, a social group that produces and promotes events for secular and cultural gay Jews in New York City. The views presented here do not represent the opinions of He’bro. For more information, please go to myhebro.com or contact Jayson at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him at twitter.com/jaysonlittman