Pinkwashing’s Complicated Context

Israel is known as the most advanced country in the Middle East on LGBT rights issues. It has openly gay politicians, a parade and bars in Tel Aviv, open service in the military, and a burgeoning queer film and arts scene. This positive atmosphere, however, is largely useful only if you happen to be Jewish and are living on a certain side of the West Bank separation wall.

For more than a decade, Israeli and Palestinian LGBT activists have debated the concept of Pinkwashing — whether the Israeli government’s promotion of LGBT rights is used to deflect attention from human rights violations in the Palestinian territories.

Almost unknown in the United States, the concept came to widespread attention in New York when Sherry Wolf and other LGBT activists affiliated with Siegebusters planned a party last March to mark Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual international mobilization by critics of the Jewish state’s treatment of the Palestinians who live in the territory it controls, at the LGBT Community Center in the West Village. Under pressure from gay adult film producer Michael Lucas, who famously made a gay porn video in Israel, the Center canceled the party and currently bars the group from meeting there.

The controversy would not die. In the nine months since then, a new group, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA), has pressed the Center on its exclusionary policy and several times occupied its lobby to hold unsanctioned meetings. After hosting a town hall meeting on the controversy in the spring, the Center has put off making a final policy determination and stopped fielding journalists’ questions, instead referring them to a statement on its website.

The concept of Pinkwashing, likely new to most New Yorkers, first came to my own attention in 2006 while covering Jerusalem’s World Pride for Gay City News. Based in one of the most holy cities in the world, with significance for all three of the main Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — World Pride was planned as a direct challenge to religious discrimination against homosexuality.

Originally slated for 2005, the event was postponed a year due to tensions surrounding Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Fears of violent attacks by the Israeli Orthodox right wing as well as government security concerns about the concurrent 2006 war with the Hezbollah in Lebanon almost permanently sidelined the event. The conflict with Lebanon dampened attendance and media coverage considerably, as did an international call for a boycott — particularly by a new Lebanese LGBT rights group HELEM — to protest the ongoing Israeli occupation.

There was an element of irony about the boycott calls, since World Pride organizers, most of them from the Israeli left, were also interested in bringing attention to the damaging impact of the occupation. In coordination with Rabbis for Human Rights, World Pride officials brought international attendees to the separation wall and to Palestinian homes demolished by the Israeli military.

During the Jerusalem events, there were also conversations about whether the Israeli government would offer asylum to gay Palestinians, though I was unable to confirm that this actually happened. I was never able to meet such men, if they did exist, in spite of attempting to conduct interviews through Shaul Ganon, a gay Israeli activist known to work with Palestinian asylum seekers.

The complexity and nuance that World Pride’s history pointed up were largely absent from last year’s Community Center controversy.

According to Aeyal Gross, an Israeli who is associate professor of law at Tel Aviv University, the subject of Pinkwashing dates back to 2001, when LGBT activists created the group Black Laundry — Kvisa Shchora in Hebrew — in reaction to the Israeli military crackdown following the Palestinians’ Second Intifada. Gross was part of this early movement, and on a recent blog post described an article about Pinkwashing he presented at last year’s Amsterdam Sexual Nationalism Conference.

“I will explore the politics of sexual freedom apparent in Israel’s attempt to brand itself as ‘gay friendly,’ and as a ‘western’ and ‘European’ country, as opposed to supposedly ‘backwards,’ ‘homophobic’ Islamic countries which surround it in the Middle East,” he explained. “One should not deny the progress in sexual freedoms in Israel, but address the way they serve to cover and legitimize the denial of other freedoms, especially from Palestinians.”

Gross told me after long battles for LGBT equality, the Israeli government co-opted advances for its own agenda, mostly under right-wing regimes. “It is a way for Netanyahu to talk about gay rights, but not too much,” he said. “He would use it against Iran and the Palestinians in the UN.”

At least Israelis are willing to talk about the Pinkwashing controversy, he added. “It is ironic that you could have this debate in Tel Aviv, but you could not have this debate in New York,” he noted.

At the same time, Gross argued, “the term Pinkwashing is not very successful. It causes people to misunderstand the situation,” because unlike the use of word Greenwashing to describe false environmental claims, Israel has had real LGBT rights advances.

A pillar of the Pinkwashing argument made by Siegebusters and QAIA is that Israel’s occupation oppresses Palestinian gays. According to Brad Taylor, an activist with both groups, “We’re a group of queers organizing contingents in parades on the issues which we as queer people see as important, not only because some sector of Palestinian society are queer, but because Palestinian oppression is on the basis of identity with which we as queer people find common cause.”

The other side of the Pinkwashing issue, however, is just how bad things actually are for LGBT Palestinians, both in the West Bank and in Gaza — there, especially since Israel’s 2005 pullout and the Hamas takeover. The plight of gay Palestinians raises the natural question of how willing Israel is to grant asylum to those who demonstrate persecution.

Anat Ben-Dor is an attorney with the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University. She and Michael Kagan co-authored the 2008 report “Nowhere to Run” that looked at gay Palestinians and the asylum question. Ben-Dor addressed the issue cautiously, aware of the political dimensions of her work. “I am in the field,” she said. “I am not in New York or in the Knesset. I am not debating these issues politically. I am surprised how this issue is misrepresented.”

Kagan and Ben-Dor’s report is based on a number of interviewees, all from the West Bank except for one Gazan. It reveals horrific treatment, often at the hand of the Palestinian Authority, including one young man who witnessed the insertion of a glass bottle into the anus of another young prisoner until he bled and also described his own forced immersion in sewage pits.

Their research, Ben-Dor explained, “was to support asylum cases. When you seek asylum, you need to show the phenomenon you are talking about in an objective way.” Issues can be distorted, she said, by “human rights activists, many with a very concrete agenda — and some would want to downplay and some would want to exaggerate.”

For LGBT Palestinians, she said, “Gaza is worse and Gaza is closed. The West Bank, clients can leave.” She mentioned being unable to help a Gazan who contacted her, explaining, “We didn’t know what to say to him. If he can’t get out and we can’t get in, what can we do?”

One of the report’s interviewees alluded to the ways in which politics on both sides of the separation wall play a role. “In Palestinian culture, being homosexual is not only a great offense on the part of the homosexual, but is also a disgrace to his entire family and an abomination against Islam,” the man explained. “It is also viewed as an act against the Palestinian struggle for independence. Known homosexuals are presumed to be weak and to identify and collaborate with Israeli Jews. The sanctions are extremely harsh, beginning with physical and verbal abuse and often ending in death at the hands of one’s own family or others.”

The report’s authors, however, were not willing to ascribe anti-gay attitudes in the West Bank and Gaza wholly to anti-Israeli suspicions. “Because homophobia is so widespread both in the Middle East and worldwide, we hesitate to conclude that Palestinian homophobia results mainly from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” they wrote. “However, it does appear plausible that the conflict heightens the dangers to gay Palestinian men.”

Israel, unfortunately, offers no haven for these endangered men. “If a Palestinian gay person comes to my office, he cannot seek asylum like any person of any other nationality,” Ben-Dor said. “He is excluded from the very beginning of the process. We never managed to get protection for gay Palestinians in Israel. The solution was to try to resettle them outside of Israel.”

This reality is partly due to Israeli law, which denies some Palestinians the right to live within Israel, a tragic byproduct of a much larger political conflict — involving Palestinian demands for the right of return to homes and land lost in the creation of Israel — that has hobbled the two-state road map.

“I am baffled by this,” Ben-Dor said of Israeli intransigence over the asylum requests of gay Palestinians. “I think in general, if you don’t look at refugee issues, not just Palestinians and other gay refugees, I think Israel is quite generous and liberal with gay rights.” She doesn’t know why some answering the Pinkwashing argument persist in encouraging the mistaken belief that Israel offers asylum to gay Palestinians. “Why exploit this issue, which is not true?” she said.

In my own visits to the West Bank, in particular Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, I found a relative lack of visible gay life. This is a stark contrast not only to Tel Aviv, but as well to other Arab cities, including Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, and even war-torn Baghdad. In spite of Ramallah’s cosmopolitan and international atmosphere, it is the only major Middle Eastern city I have been to where I have been unable to connect to an indigenous LGBT movement.

A different perspective on gay life in the West Bank, however, was offered by Michael Tarazi, a Palestinian-American who was a legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority. “I can honestly say I have no evidence that being openly gay negatively impacted me,” he said. “I am gay, and if the Palestinian authority is so homophobic, why would I be working for them?”

Tarazi pointed out he had an Israeli partner while living in Ramallah and marched in a Tel Aviv gay pride parade carrying a sign saying, “Gay and Palestinian: Freedom Twice Denied” which appeared in Associated Press dispatches.

He acknowledged that the freedom he found was “one of class, not one of culture. It is the same phenomenon around the world. The more educated classes tend to be more tolerant. I had certainly heard of gay men, particularly from Gaza, with problems. That doesn’t surprise me. It was much more impoverished.”

Tarazi insisted, however, “I had never heard of honor killings of gay men” within Palestine by families feeling disgraced.

Tarazi also made a different argument — that how the Palestinian Authority treats its LGBT citizens is not necessarily an important issue within the larger debate over the Israeli occupation. Pointing to the role Bayard Rustin, a gay African-American civil rights leader, played as Martin Luther King Jr.’s right hand, he asked, “Who knew if blacks at that time would support gay rights? For me, judging the Palestinians on this issue is out of order. Gay rights didn’t happen in South Africa until after apartheid ended.”

Oppression of Palestinians, however, should trouble the LGBT conscience, Tarazi argued. “We as gay people are better positioned to understand oppression and the need to speak up for those who can not speak up for themselves,” he said.

Rauda Morcos, a Palestinian-Israeli living in Haifa who is the former leader of ASWAT, a lesbian Palestinian group, voiced a similar view. In an email, she wrote, “My struggle with Israeli LGBTIQ organizations is also around the issue of occupation. They are not willing to recognize the occupation. They can be gay and serve in the Israeli army. For me this is something that doesn’t make sense. How can you be queer and understand oppression and be aware of it and then also serve in the military?”

Pinkwashing, Morcos said, “existed long before people became aware of it and long before the term. When you say you are Palestinian in the West, someone is bound to stop you and say, ‘Ah, but in Israel there are queer groups and it is the only oasis in the Middle East.’ But that’s not true, I don’t know what they are talking about when they say ‘oasis’ or refer to ‘queer rights’ in Israel.”

Sarah Schulman is an activist and author based in New York, currently working on a book about Pinkwashing for Duke University Press. She has traveled through both Israel and Palestine, and believes Israel’s LGBT visibility and legal protections should not mask the occupation.

“If they have gay people in the army and because Tel Aviv has a gay enclave, why does that mean the occupation is fine?” she said. “No one has been able to make an argument that one negates the other. And it is only for Jews. In what other country in the world do we say moderate gay rights that are only for one group are expressly progressive?”

Schulman’s travels showed her there “is an emerging Palestinian gay movement in Palestine.” She supports the BDS movement – Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions — against Israel, but encourages visiting. “No one is saying, ‘Don’t go to Israel,’” she said.

Schulman, who is Jewish, took care to challenge some misconceptions she believes have plagued the LGBT Community Center debate. “The criticism of Jews who support Palestinian rights by those Jews who don’t support Palestinian rights is blown out of proportion” by media and others looking for an easy hook on the story.

She also said she saw anti-Semitism in the claim that wealthy Jews would pull funding from the Center over the controversy, a myth she said was based on a stereotype of Jews in control behind the scenes. “It shocked me,” Schulman said, “I just kept coming up against the same thing, using Jews who don’t exist to justify the censorship. If you can find one Jewish funder who has withheld funding I would be shocked. There is no such person.”

Others saw anti-Semitism behind the Center debate in other ways. Scott Piro, a former New Yorker now living in Tel Aviv, said of the Center debate, “I felt threatened just seeing that, and I am sure this is how someone who was my ancestor would feel in the 1930s.” He added that the concept of “Pinkwashing is just a new form of anti-Semitism. It’s not really about the lives of people in the Palestinian territories. It’s about hating Israel.”

Piro, a freelance public relations specialist who has widely blogged on the issue, believes there is a lack of recognition of how genuinely Israel has embraced LGBT rights. “Show me the smoking gun that it is the policy of the Israeli government to talk about its record on human rights to cover the idea of the occupation,” he said. “Where is the Free Syria?” Piro added, “They have made this a double standard, so that Israel cannot be proud of its record on gay rights or its role as a gay destination. No one says to Amsterdam that it is promoting itself as a gay destination to cover something else.”

Promoting gay tourism has clearly become a goal for Israel. The Israeli English language publication YNet recently covered Tel Aviv’s official evolution as a gay destination. Lucas uses his films to promote Israeli tourism and has led gay travel groups. He argued that the United States can also be accused of Pinkwashing, noting that some states have same-sex marriage laws even though the country invaded and occupied Iraq.

Brooklyn-born Russell Lord has lived in Israel since 1981 and was World Pride’s official travel coordinator. In 2006, he said, “the apartheid Pinkwashing people were new and inexperienced,” and contrasted their relatively ineffective opposition to the Jerusalem event against the sophistication of “right-wing political and religious people — from the Christian side, the Jewish side, and the Muslim side — as if Sodom and Gomorrah was going to be resurrected in West Jerusalem.”

By 2009, when Lord coordinated an Israeli symposium for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, he said, “All of a sudden they took off, the Pinkwashing people, sending email after email telling people not to come.” HELEM, the Lebanese group, was once again part of the boycott effort. “HELEM professes to be pro-Palestinian, but I am trying to bring people to Israel and to Palestine, to Bethlehem, where we specifically contracted a Palestinian guide,” Lord said. “Then I brought them to Jordan.”

He added, “I live in Tel Aviv, and I am a Zionist, but I believe in the theory that if my neighbors have everything they need, they won’t take it from me. I believe in being a good neighbor. A happy neighbor is a good neighbor.”

Ironically, neighbors Lebanon and Israel, whose borders are closed to each other, have become gay tourism rivals within the Middle East. The Lebanese gay travel company LebTour hosted a 2010 IGLTA symposium.

Israel, Lord insisted, is an important gateway to regional gay tourism. “Everyone on that conference has sent individuals or small groups, because of what they saw in Tel Aviv, in Israel, in the West Bank, and because of what they saw in Jordan,” he said. “I would say nine out of ten of those tourists go on to Jordan.”

Lord recommended that people visit the region and decide for themselves. “Everybody does not have to agree with me,” he said. “Come to Tel Aviv, talk to Arabs living in Israel, talk to Arabs with Israeli passports. Come to the West Bank and talk to people.”

Michael Luongo is the editor of the Routledge book “Gay Travels in the Muslim World” and was named the 2011 LGBT Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association.