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Is the Israeli Government "Pinkwashing" the Palestinian Occupation?

In 2012 at the Equality Forum in Philadelphia, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, proclaimed proudly that his country’s record on LGBT rights was commendable, stating: “Israel’s LGBT community is part of the fabric of Israel’s diverse and vibrant society … In Israel, LGBT rights is not an issue that divides us. It is a vision that unites us.” In the same speech, Oren flaunted that “Even when Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing up our restaurants and buses, and terrorist missiles were pummeling our neighborhoods, Israel still provided shelter for LGBT Palestinians.”

Oren and other pro-Israeli figures and organizations have come under severe scrutiny for playing up the Israeli government's tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality in an attempt to present a softer image of itself, while at the same time highlighting what they claim to be the brutal treatment of gay populations the Arab world. This phenomenon has come to be known as "pinkwashing" — in which Israel diverts attention from the terrible crimes being committed in its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by highlighting its supposedly progressive stance on gay rights.

Israeli Pinkwashing

Ironically, many LGBT-rights advocacy groups in Europe and North American have slammed Israel's strategy unequivocally. Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) are one of the foremost opponents of the Israeli pinkwashing strategy. They were formed to defend what they see as the “manipulation” of the LGBT community by Israeli state propaganda, as well as highlight the plight of the Palestinians who have found themselves to be at the brutal end of the Israeli state's behavior.

In my interview with QuAIA spokesperson Tim McCaskell, the prominent activist alleges that the roots of the phenomenon was Israel’s attempt to remove the stereotypical images associated with the Jewish state, such as conflict and occupation: “Basically Brand Israel was to use modern advertising technique to improve Israel’s image. They know it was associated with war and religious fundamentalism and they didn’t want to deal with it so you associate it with things that people would be more favorable to. They decided to associate it with arts and music and mainly liberal issues.”

“These days they figured being liberal was to portray yourself with LGBTQ rights and hence it becomes an oasis for homosexual individuals, and hence a legitimate case can be made to pursue the LGBTQ community,” McCaskell said. He added that tactics would include “making films that are related to LGBTQ issues, as well as funding film festivals. In 2010 they had a float in the big Pride celebrations in Madrid.” Furthermore McCaskell added that the Israeli state continues to work with gay travel associations and hasromoted places like Tel Aviv as gay tourist destinations.

 

The backlash against anti-pinkwashing activists and groups has been relentless. Over three years ago, when QuAIA first registered in the Toronto Pride event, several pro-Israeli organizations started a campaign to delegitimize the organization. The city council went even so far as to threaten pulling funding for Pride. Only at the last minute was the group was allowed to partake in the parade.

Alan Dershowitz, a well known law professor at Harvard, claimed, “The newly-fashioned charge of pinkwashing is little different from the old-fashioned charges leveled by anti-Semites — namely, that neither the Jews nor the Jewish state ever does good things without bad motives." However, a 2009 article, “Israel Advocates Play the Gay Card” in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, indicates that pro-Israel advocates see potential in advertising Israeli policy towards homosexuality.

“Israel advocacy needs to come from the gay community and it needs to come from the most liberal, leftist parts of society,” said Yoav Sivan, a veteran gay rights campaigner who helped StandWithUs activist Ohad Salmon from Tel Aviv University put together the event. “It receives much more credibility that way,” said Sivan, a former Meretz Party activist.

LGBT Rights in Israel

McCaskell asserts that one of the most detrimental and outright fallacious claims of the pinkwashing phenomenon has been to present Israel as a hub for Palestinian LGBT individuals, while Arab nations are places of extreme homophobia.

 “You hear this all the time that Palestinian gays are coming to Israel.” This, he says, needs to be clarified. “Palestinians cannot get refuge in Israel, gay or straight. Period. They are considered illegal, and if caught they are sent back.” McCaskell adds that while “Tel Aviv can be compared to Toronto in its gay life, it is not reflective of the rest of the country, just like in the rest of Canada or America.”

The irony, he says, is that in 1967 Israel had criminalized homosexuality, but Jordan had decriminalized homosexuality in 1951. Furthermore, he adds that “it wasn’t the Knesset that won those struggles for LGBT equality in Israel, but gay activists who struggled against the state for decades to attain equality”. 

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