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De-Pinkwashing Israel, By Toshio Meronek, Truthout | News Analysis


Participants in a gay pride parade wave rainbow colored streamers as they dance in Independence Park

in Jerusalem. (Photo: Ruth Fremson / The New York Times)

Palestinian, US and Israeli LGBT groups are mobilizing against Israeli "pinkwashing."

In 2009, a well-funded non-profit with the mission of enhancing Israel's public image in the world set its sights on gays and their allies. That year, the ten-year-old group StandWithUs launched its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-focused iPride campaign. Israel's newspaper of record, Haaretz, ran a positive article on the campaign:

"Tel Aviv's burgeoning gay scene may be the single most effective Israel-advocacy instrument in the Zionist toolbox, according to participants of a new program that uses Israel's vibrant gay culture to improve the country's image abroad."

iPride organizer Yoav Sivan explained to the newspaper that, "Israel advocacy needs to come from the gay community and it needs to come from the most liberal, leftist parts of society ... It receives much more credibility that way."

A few months later, StandWithUs planned one of its first gay-oriented offensives in the US when it registered to conduct a workshop at the US Social Forum, a leftist political conference that draws as many as 20,000 attendees. StandWithUs Program Director Brett Cohen was to lead a lesson entitled "LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex) Liberation in the Middle East."

Queer Arab groups sounded the alarm. In an open letter to US Social Forum organizers, they claimed:
"StandWithUs is cynically manipulating the struggle of queer people in the Middle East through its workshop.... StandWithUs has no connection with the LGBT movement in the Middle East apart from ties to Zionist Israeli LGBT organizations, yet it claims to speak for and about our movements. It has no credibility in our region, and as organizations working in and from the Middle East, we condemn its attempt to use us, our struggles, our lives and our experiences as a platform for pro-Israeli propaganda...."

As the progressive Jewish blog Mondoweiss reported, the result of the outcry was that the US Social Forum organizers cancelled the workshop, giving as their reason that StandWithUs had misrepresented itself.

In response to the cancellation, StandWithUs issued a press release that was picked up by big gay media outlets like The Advocate magazine. "'US Social Forum' Bans Advocate for Middle East Gay Community," the news release read. "They have shown that they are so focused on hating Israel that they cannot focus on standing up for the people at risk like those in the LGBTQI community who suffer under the oppressive regimes."

Israel touts certain policies that its supporters say make it gay-friendlier when compared to other Middle Eastern regimes (legally, gay people can serve openly in Israel's conscripted military, for example), but advocates for Palestinians emphasize that that doesn't excuse government-initiated violence against Palestinians.

Actions like StandWithUs's have originated a new word: pinkwashing - now a commonly used term in activist circles involved in the fight for Palestinian liberation. Such activists believe that Israel's government is using its so-called support for one traditionally oppressed group (LGBTQs) to erase the oppression of another (Palestinians). Recognizing that Israel is the single largest recipient of US military aid - an amount that has increased to more than $3 billion per year under President Obama - these organizers are pushing back against the practice in cities around the country, while facing some push-back of their own.

Exposing a Public Relations Campaign
In June 2012 at the world's largest LGBT film festival Frameline in San Francisco, an anti-Israeli occupation group interrupted one of the special Saturday night movie screenings. As Festival exec K.C. Price stood to introduce the director of an Israeli consulate-backed film in front of an audience of a couple of hundred people, an assemblage of 20 protestors from QUIT (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) took over the front of the theater.

An activist with QUIT handed Price its first "Pink Sponge Award" in the form of, yes, a pink sponge - a reference to pinkwashing. Another, reading from a scroll, listed the group's reasons for giving the award, including "leadership in silencing queers who want their film festival to stand up for the human rights of Palestinians" and the festival's apparent "steadfast defiance of the demand by Palestinian queers to stop partnering with the Israeli Consulate."

Audience members were handed moist towelettes bearing similar messaging. A cacophony of boos and applause trailed the protestors as they left the theater.

QUIT co-founder Kate Raphael coordinated the protest. Growing up in a staunchly Zionist, yet otherwise progressive family, "It was many years of questioning everything I believed in before I really became involved in the Palestine movement," she says. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which the United Nations condemned as an act of genocide, was a turning point. "Most Jews of my generation ... that was the moment when we felt, 'Now's the time I really have to do something.'"

Since then, Raphael has attended several trips to the West Bank, where she was arrested and deported for filming clashes between the Israeli military and activists. With QUIT, she's promoted boycott campaigns against companies such as the carbonated beverage machine-maker Soda Stream, which received tax incentives to move some of its manufacturing to a factory in the contested West Bank as part of the Israeli government's re-settlement campaign.

QUIT's public activities have garnered them a following - of both supporters and enemies. Zionists affiliated with StandWithUs regularly show up to QUIT-planned events to hold counter-protests. "The reason StandWithUs is so fixated on hating QUIT," Raphael says, "is they want to be able to use all the space that there is for queer issues to say, 'Look how great Israel is, they're so pro-gay.'" Plus, "a number of prominent people in that 'ultra-Zionist thug' community are unfortunately queer."

The "A"-Gays on Team Israel
The presentation of QUIT's Pink Sponge Award came a few months after the organization leaked a series of Frameline emails that have since been passed around thousands of times online. In the emails, Frameline Executive Director K.C. Price is clear about his support for the Israeli Consulate. But he's not the only visible gay person rooting for Israel's government.

In March 2011, bowing to pressure from a large donor (porn entrepreneur Michael Lucas), New York City's LGBT Center cancelled a planned "Party to End Israeli Apartheid" by a pro-Palestinian group. Lucas is also a columnist for Out magazine, the country's highest-circulation monthly magazine geared toward gays. In August, the publication accepted money from the Israeli government to cover the Tel Aviv gay scene, while generally skirting the Palestine issue.

In Philadelphia, organizers for the Equality Forum's annual LGBT rights summit chose Israel as their "Featured Nation" for 2012, bringing DJs and drag queens from Israel's gay hub, Tel Aviv, to perform at the conference. The event's keynote speaker? Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren - a selection that the group Pinkwatching Israel calls "akin to the Equality Forum inviting a white South African ambassador as a keynote speaker during the apartheid era." (Two months later, Oren would speak at the conservative Christians United for Israel conference alongside prominent homophobe and CUFI founder John Hagee, also known as the guy who called Hurricane Katrina God's response to a planned New Orleans gay pride parade.)

Other LGBTQ organizations say they want to remain "apolitical" on the issue. (For several years, Frameline had expressed as much.) But Raphael believes that standing aside isn't possible. On one hand, "We do understand that it's a big risk for any organization that depends on funding to come out and side with BDS," referring to the Boycott,
Divestment and Sanction approach employed with success by activists during South African apartheid, and now in this fight. She points to the Zionist community-initiated firing of the director of the San Diego Women's Film Festival in 2007, after the director boycotted the showing of Israeli films as a show of Palestinian support. On the other hand, ignoring the issue is tantamount to supporting Israel's actions, she says.

The South Africa Model: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions

In spite of the potential backlash, a number of queer and transgender people are speaking out in support of Palestinians and calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions. In June, bisexual author Alice Walker wrote a pointed refusal to an Israeli book publisher requesting to reprint her bestseller The Color Purple:
It isn't possible for me to permit this at this time for the following reason: As you may know, last fall in South Africa the Russell Tribunal on Palestine met and determined that Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories. The testimony we heard, both from Israelis and Palestinians (I was a jurist) was devastating.... Indeed, many South Africans who attended, including Desmond Tutu, felt the Israeli version of these crimes is worse even than what they suffered under the white supremacist regimes that dominated South Africa for so long.... 

Dean Spade, a Seattle-based law professor and the founder of the country's first transgender legal aid organization, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, mirrors the sentiment. Spade visited Palestine's West Bank on a trip with other LGBT observers last January. "What I saw helped me understand why Palestinians have called for a boycott of Israel, utilizing the strategy taken up against apartheid South Africa," he says.

In March, Spade initiated the cancellation of a Seattle LGBT Commission-sponsored public event featuring several Israeli LGBT speakers. In his letter to the Commission, Spade wrote that aspects of his trip to Israel were "utterly devastating. I visited a Palestinian village where the Israeli military uses tear gas and skunk water to harass families engaged in peaceful protest against the theft of their land and water every week and met a family whose son had been killed in December from a tear gas canister fired at his head. I sat in their living room and watched video footage of Israeli soldiers waking their children from bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night, arresting children and shooting gas canisters into their homes."

Sa'ed Atshan helped with ground support for the first-of-its-kind LGBT mission that Spade was a part of. A gay Palestinian now attending grad school in Boston, he says that the most common presumption that people in the United States have about gay Palestinians is, "Life must be hard, and we hear that you guys want to escape to Israel for your freedom." It's a peculiar assumption, however. "You can't tell Palestinians, 'We want to have interventions into Palestinian society to quote-unquote rescue gay people,' but at the same time ignore the fact that someone's home is about to be demolished, or about to be shot on the way to school or work, or going to be denied health care," says Atshan. "You have to understand what are, in a sense, priorities."

As a member of the LGBTQ Palestinian organization alQaws, Atshan believes gays aren't the only ones being targeted by groups like StandWithUs, or the Zionist public relations firm BlueStar. Israel also touts its supposed environmentalism ("greenwashing") and technological innovation to keep peoples' minds off the Palestine problem. In these cases, "It's not necessarily targeting a queer audience, but it's targeting liberal, Western, intellectual, progressive people, and it's trying to detract attention away from the gross violations of human rights."

Organizations like alQaws, formed by Haneen Maikey in 2007, have helped to bring political pluralism into Palestinian society, Atshan says. They've shown other Palestinians that "Queer Palestinians are activists; they're politically conscious, and they're part of the Palestinian nation." Meanwhile, the Zionist campaign promotes the idea that queer Palestinians "have given up on Palestinian freedom and are concerned only in some notion of sexual liberation."

Dunya Alwan co-led the observers' mission that Atshan and Spade were on. Raised in the US in a multicultural household, she has both Jewish and Muslim family members. Her Iraqi-American family had many Palestinian friends. "I grew up thinking 'Iraqi' was synonymous with 'exile', and 'Palestinian' was synonymous with 'refugee,'" she says. Today, she regularly leads tours called Birthright Unplugged - a play on Birthright, the Israeli organization that offers free ten-day trips to Israel for young, mostly American, Jews, sponsored in part by the government.

Describing the goal of Birthright Unplugged, Alwan believes that, "It's important that foreigners who support human rights and liberation do that in conversation with the people who are most directly affected." After the trip, tour members return to the US, "having formed relationships with a range of people in Palestine, who the foreigners will then be accountable to."

Alwan is quick to point out that Israel is not exactly a gay haven, either. In the country, known in Arabic as "the '48" (so named because that's the year Palestine came to be called Israel in much of the world), violence against sexual minorities persists in spite of a few relatively progressive laws including the allowance of gay civil unions. Several high-ranking public office-holders are openly homophobic in their words and political platforms, and in 2009, a gunman entered an LGBT community center in Israel's "gay capitol," Tel Aviv, and opened fire, killing two.

"We're not saying that there aren't problems for queer people in Palestine," emphasizes Raphael. "There are, just as there are for queer people in many countries, including [the US and Israel]." But, as Alwan says, "Zionism created a state so that whether you're LGBTQ or not and you're Palestinian, you're a second-class citizen, and at risk of a great deal of violence and harm."

For Palestinians, there's still "a sense that the mainstream American press is so biased toward the Israeli government, that people feel in many ways that Palestinian suffering continues with impunity for Israel, and that in the world, especially in the United States, the world is blind to that suffering," Atshan says. "When Palestinians are asked, 'What can we do for you, how can we help you?' Usually people don't say, 'Provide me with aid or with clothes, or send us medicine.' They say, 'Please, when you go back, share our stories with the world.'"

Adds Alwan: "The US is propping up an apartheid state and without that bolstering, it couldn't function at all the way that it does." International support is key, especially from the US. Both sides are depending on it.

In the US, the concept of pinkwashing is starting to click. The first academic conference exclusively regarding pinkwashing is set for next April at the City University of New York. The New York Times published an op-ed critique of the practice late last year.

And the queer Palestinian movement in the '48 continues to grow. Groups like alQaws, ASWAT (a collective of Palestinian lesbians), and Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, are working with Israeli LGBTQ groups like Black Laundry, which has organized actions similar to QUIT's within Israel. "The Zionist propaganda hijacked the voices of gay Palestinians, and exploited them to further their own political projects. In time, we realized that we have to create an organized response," says Atshan. "We have to reclaim our voices."

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Queers Resisting Zionism: On Authority and Accountability Beyond Homonationalism, October 2012


Queers Resisting Zionism: On Authority and Accountability Beyond Homonationalism

Oct 10 2012, by Heike Schotten, Birthright Unplugged's Director of Communications and Haneen Maikey, Director of Al Qaws

[This article was written as a response to a recently published article by Maya Mikdashi and Jasbir Puar on the intersections and impasses between US centered pinkwashing and pinkwatching activism.  Click here to read Mikdashi and Puar's rejoinder to this response. Clear here to read the original article by Mikdashi and Puar]

Jasbir Puar and Maya Mikdashi’s recent “Pinkwatching And Pinkwashing: Interpenetration and its Discontents” challenges those of us who work for Palestinian liberation to re-think our practices of solidarity and queer resistance.  The authors suggest that pinkwatching, as a form of political activism, fails to be sufficiently radical. That is, pinkwatching fails to get at the roots of pinkwashing, which lie in settler colonialism, Islamophobia, and homonationalism. Pinkwatching therefore reproduces the discourses and dynamics that enable pinkwashing, thereby perpetuating it. 

We fully appreciate the importance of self-critique, especially for activist movements.  However, we think Puar and Mikdashi lean rather too heavily on the conceptual framework of homonationalism in their analysis of pinkwatching, making it do more work than it can bear. This overreliance on homonationalism obscures specific, politically relevant features of pinkwatching activism that are particular to Palestine and Palestine solidarity work.  Moreover, we believe the authors’ self-exemptions from activist struggle pushes their criticisms dangerously close to a rehearsal of academic critique at the expense of contributing to movement building. Finally, the lack of a single example of the kind of work they critique renders their argument impossible to actually assess, leaving us grasping at straws – and, as we shall argue, straw caricatures of ourselves and our movement.

We write this response as activists, writers, and thinkers who are committed to justice for Palestinians.  Haneen is a queer Palestinian activist living in Jerusalem, while Heike is an American queer academic and activist located in Boston.  Both of us participate in and organize anti-pinkwashing activism. Haneen’s work in this area is much more extensive (as co-founder of alQaws and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [PQBDS], as well as a member of Pinkwatching Israel's coordinating team).  Heike has focused more generally on various BDS campaigns, but she has also incorporated Palestine and pinkwatching activism into her academic life as both teacher and researcher. Together, we have carefully considered Puar and Mikdashi’s claims. We have also engaged friends and comrades (activists and academics alike) in discussions about this piece. Our response, then, reflects our views as well as the views of activists and academics from our respective communities. We offer this piece, in part, as a response to Puar and Mikdashi. We hope, too, that it will serve as an invitation to further engagement, collaboration, and collective struggle for the liberation of Palestine. 

Homonationalism and Pinkwashing:  On Palestine and Solidarity

Puar and Mikdashi’s virtually exclusive reliance on homonationalism to evaluate pinkwatching leads to a number of difficulties. First, this framework obscures the specific manifestations of pinkwashing in the Palestinian context, rendering Palestine somehow beside the point. Second, the focus on homonationalism allows for easy—but misplaced—critiques of Palestinian “authenticity” and pinkwatcher solidarity.  Finally, the authors’ failure to cite a single example of the pinkwatching activism they critique further compounds the problems engendered by the narrow confines of this theoretical framework. The lack of concrete evidence raises not simply logical questions for their argument, but ethical and political questions as well. 

Pinkwashing is more than a branding campaign that queer Americans can congratulate themselves for opposing.  The conventional depiction of pinkwashing as an attempt to divert attention away from the occupation is simplistic and one-dimensional. In Palestine, pinkwashing is part of the ongoing Nakba. Both Zionism and pinkwashing depend on a notion of the prior destruction and continued negation of Palestine and Palestinian belonging. This is the case whether one interprets Zionism as homophobic, gay-friendly, or—in its popular narrative form—as having followed a historical trajectory from an originary homophobia toward ever-increasing tolerance. Zionism must be understood as a historically specific, racialized process through which different discourses of sexuality emerge that bolster, rather than undermine, Zionist ideology.  

In this context, pinkwashing is a tactic of Zionism and an influential discourse of sexuality that has emerged within it.  As PQBDS/alQaws consistently point out, the disavowal and erasure of (queer) Palestinian bodies and subjectivities constitute pinkwashing. This invisibility of Palestinian bodies and images is matched only by a hypervisibility when they do appear. Palestinians are seen only as “backward” or “threatening,” while queer Palestinians only become legible as either “gay” or “victims of culture.”  Invisibility and hypervisibility are results of the ongoing erasure of Palestinian belonging.

Pinkwatching, then, is neither a narrow rejoinder to pinkwashing nor a promotion of global queer solidarity. Pinkwatching reframes queerness as a politics by revealing the sexual politics inherent to contemporary Zionist ideology. Pinkwatching’s attention to the biopolitics of Zionism disrupts the latter’s regime of surveillance. Pink-watchers return the gaze; they disrupt the hierarchical positioning of subject and object. Initially, pinkwatching activism was based on the dismantling of Palestinian erasure, the reclamation of international queer spaces, and the promotion of new queer Palestinian bodies, images and voices.  Today, pinkwatching continues to uncover and make visible the racial, ethnic, and sexual violence that informs Zionist ideology.  

For these reasons, the authors’ focus on “authenticity” (sorry–at least one of us does not know how to articulate a non-authentic queer Palestinian voice) is limited by a critique of homonationalism that ignores the specificities of Palestine. This oversight may be read as slightly patronizing, suggesting that Palestinian queers are either too naïve or lacking in enough critical insight to discern between activist commitments that are appropriate and those that tokenize them. More problematic still are the ways in which an emphasis on authenticity ultimately overlooks queer Palestinians’ strategic uses of recognition and visibility.  Beyond simply “making our voices heard” or claiming "authenticity,” these tactics are intended as a direct and immediate challenge to the presumptions of pinkwashing’s Zionist logic.  Finally, such claims overlook the fact that Palestinian queers daily work against, and re-define, fixed notions of queerness as well as narratives of the closet, coming out, and rights typically associated with a politics of visibility and recognition. For example, in the face of repeated questioning by members of the first LGBTQ delegation to Palestine (in January 2012), local activists continually challenged the delegation by refusing to engage in discussion about “the situation of LGBTs in the West Bank.”  Instead, the work was repeatedly framed as solidarity with Palestine (the outcome of this work is evident in point two of the delegation’s solidarity statement). Similarly, in New York, SiegeBusters asked PQBDS to take part in their action protesting the LGBT Center’s ban of their event during Israeli Apartheid Week. PQBDS felt this was a clear example where such work is not the role or the responsibility of queer Palestinians. Participating in such actions, we felt, might have resulted in tokenizing us, despite the organizers' good intentions.

The authors’ homonationalist emphasis also misconstrues pinkwatching activist work.  The authors contend that pinkwatching activists myopically focus on Israel and neglect the larger, enabling frames of imperialism, racism, and Islamophobia.  But why does activist focus on Israeli pinkwashing entail a neglect of US pinkwashing, Islamophobia, neoliberalism, or the difficulties of rights discourse?  This is faulty logic. It is simply untrue that focusing on one struggle precludes concern for, or work towards, other struggles, much less does it entail a limited analysis of local or global politics.  Rhetorically, such an assertion is reminiscent of the oft-repeated Zionist objection “Why Israel?” or “Why don’t you protest X country’s human rights violations?” It is almost as if the authors view pinkwatching work as problematically “singling out” Israel.  Empirically, however, this claim is simply untrue.  Just as BDS activists resist the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, protest the United States’ hidden wars in Pakistan, Bahrain, Yemen, and Somalia (among others), and actively resist the impending US-Israeli war on Iran, so too are pinkwatchers vigilant regarding the United States and Europe’s deployment of their own Islamophobic versions of pinkwashing to justify war, imperialism, and discriminatory immigration policies. Indeed, the only example of supposedly neglected pinkwatching activism the authors cite in their article concerns a float in the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. Sponsored by Zionist front-group Iran180, the display featured a blow-up doll of Ahmadinejad being beaten and sodomized with a missile by a white dungeon master, ostensibly in protest of Iranian oppression of LGBT people and to manufacture American LGBT support for war on Iran.  This grotesque – and strangely homophobic – instance of pinkwashing was, however, systematically de-bunked by BDS and pinkwatching activists.  In other words, the single piece of evidence cited in Puar and Mikdashi’s article only confirms the opposite of what their argument contends.  

Finally, the authors claim that pinkwatchers compromise on divisive questions “in the name of political expediency and coalition building.”  Again, the authors offer no examples of such compromise.  By rebuking imaginary activists for failing to broach subjects like the legitimacy of violent resistance, such criticisms simply appear untethered to the difficult and complex processes that face any developing movement, this one in particular. Two years ago, we collectively began to raise awareness about Palestine, colonialism, and Israeli apartheid through the example of pinkwashing and the politics of sexuality. To the audiences we addressed, Palestine was the divisive question. It continues to be the most challenging aspect of this movement.  In other words, divisive issues are far from avoided in pinkwatching work. The divisive issue is Palestine. Indeed, as Haneen argued in the “Queer Palestinians Talk Politics” speaking tour, LGBTQ communities should be divided over Palestine. Her claim entreated audiences to link organizing on justice in Palestine with the organizing of people of color, anti-war activists, HIV activists, and more.  In pinkwatching work, we bring Palestine and the relentless attempts to erase it to the foreground.  It is the very naming of this erasure, the calling out of Zionism, that “divides” people. Certainly, violent resistance, refugees, and “final status” issues are also divisive, but they are parasitic on the primary issue of Zionism itself, which pinkwatching, by its very character, is committed to uncovering. To pinkwatch is precisely to talk about Palestine, and to force the divisive issue of Zionism into the conversation.

A very concrete example of such inter-movement negotiation of Zionism is the writing of the LGBTQ Palestine delegation’s solidarity statement (with which Puar was involved). For Palestinian participants, a lot of compromising happened in this process, one of which was the group’s repeated assertions (throughout the text) that they support Israeli progressive activists. We understand activists’ fear of being labeled "anti-Semitic.” But for Palestinians, these comments put Israel and Israelis on an equal footing with Palestinians. They expressed a “coalition” interest that distorted the meaning of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Nevertheless, the announcement of “acknowledging and resisting US complicity and settler colonialism” was actually one of the crucial parts of the statement that was included and, moreover, added a new layer to the growing debate. It is worth noting that here, the “divisive issue” of Zionism was implicitly on the table, and what is evident in the statement is both an egalitarianizing of Israelis and Palestinians and a simultaneous critical acknowledgment of (US) settler colonialism.  Such compromise and negotiation is part and parcel of this work.  Such interactions allow us to develop a sharper discourse, expose its limitations, and construct a future vision together that is compatible with long-term movement building.   

We are well aware of the problematic hegemony of particular gay Western notions and strategies.  It is true that a significant challenge of pinkwatching activism has been to draw a line between queer involvement in the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the tendency to make pinkwatching about queers and sexuality in Palestine/Israel. But we find this to be a problem much more in Israel than in the US or Europe.  There are still many gay Israeli activists who insist that “Israel does have gay rights, and we as gay activists worked hard to make it happen,” doing what we call “pinkwashing in reverse” (see, for example, this interview with Hagai El-Ad and the writings of Aeyal Gross).  But careful examination of most of the pinkwatching materials, statements, and actions produced in the last three years reveals a movement committed to channeling all of our capacity and vision to expose Israel’s colonial project, occupation, and apartheid.  

Pinkwatching is not about gay rights; it is not about gay Israelis (progressive or not); it is not about the status of homosexuals in Palestine; it is not about self-congratulatory gay Americans or Europeans. Indeed, Queer BDS and Pinkwatching are part of a Palestinian-led campaign. Pinkwatching originated by promoting the Palestinian liberation struggle as relevant to worldwide queer movements by highlighting our responsibility to engage in and fight other struggles. From the beginning, BDS was a key practice that shaped pinkwatching activism. Rather than viewing pinkwatching as homonationalist, then, we understand it as an act of solidarity, akin to the BDS work of people of conscience all over the world. Pinkwatching activists  defer to the leadership of (queer) Palestinians in their work not as an exercise in homonationalism, but rather from a commitment to working in solidarity with those most affected by violence and domination, a central principle of anti-oppression organizing. This work is undertaken not “in the name of” Palestine, a Palestinian nation, or an exceptional Palestinian sexual subject (much less from a superficial celebration of identity politics). It does not commit one to any particular state or state formation whatsoever (just as BDS work does not commit one to a one state solution). It is instead a form of holding ourselves accountable to the needs and requests of those most affected by violence and oppression.  We see such acts of solidarity as, if anything, a deflection of US homonationalist practices.

Positionality and (Self-)Critique 

The authors’ acknowledgements of their positionality was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this article. Despite the fact that both authors are themselves part of pinkwatching efforts (through writing and by participating in the first queer delegation to Palestine), they nevertheless offer their article as a series of “observations.” Such a choice locates the authors outside the movement, a convenient position that relieves them of complicity or responsibility for the problems they point to, while explicitly dissociating themselves from the questions and complexities of activist struggle.  This disassociation is confirmed by their reference to “divergences between academic and activist concerns and strategies.”  What precisely are these divergences? As “observers” of pinkwatching, are the authors claiming a (solely?) academic perspective? Is academia (or are academics) outside of or beyond activism? Do the authors (or academics more generally) have an analytical framework that activists lack?  We are concerned that the authors are implicitly presenting activist work as less thoughtful or intellectually sophisticated than academic work, and thus needing to “learn from” the lessons being taught in this piece.

The intended audience of this article is also unclear, as pinkwatchers have waged similar critiques. Haneen has written publicly about these issues. The compiled statements, writings, and activism of PQBDS and pinkwatchingisrael.com (including the latter’s new Pinkwashing Kit) offer vast resources for thinking through issues of pinkwashing and pinkwatching in ways that clearly resist homonationalism.  Both the recent LGBTQ and the Indigenous and Women of Color Feminists delegations to Palestine have offered anti-homonationalist opposition to pinkwashing. Globally, queer Palestinian groups succeeded in re-locating the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organization's (IGLYO) General Assembly that was planned to take place in Tel Aviv outside of Israel.  US-based queer theorist Judith Butler refused to accept the Civil Courage Award from Berlin’s Pride Committee in 2010 because of complicity with racist and homonationalist formations. Various Arab and Muslim queer organizations from around the world resisted and effectively shut down a panel on LGBTQI Liberation in the Middle East by Zionist front-group Stand With Us at the 2010 US Social Forum.  Meanwhile, within the United States, smaller pinkwatching actions have questioned homonationalist assumptions and fought pinkwashing in an anti-colonialist frame, whether through clever guerrilla art in the Bay Area or the ongoing efforts of Boston activists to get Israeli films out of the city’s LGBT Film Festival. 

This proliferation of existing critical theory and activism raises the bar for arguments like Puar and Mikdashi’s, challenging all of us not simply to re-hash familiar critical terrain, but to begin to speak the language of complicity, contradiction, and, crucially, strategy. In other words, what now? Indeed, the article left us wondering, “how can this criticism help to advance our work?”  Part of the reason we believe we can find no answer to this question is because the critique of “they” and “them” unfolds in a moralizing manner that would otherwise have been impossible if the authors had included themselves within the movement.  Our fellow activists felt blamed, humiliated, or singled out by this piece. Some were unsure if they were the target of critique, given that the authors did not cite any examples. The authors may have been legitimately cautious about naming specific people or organizations in an already small movement.  However, the lack of concrete evidence for their claims leaves us wondering just where the finger is pointing. And it is clear that finger-pointing is going on.  Although the authors are careful to specify that their argument about the homonationalist structure of pinkwatching is not a normative one, by the end of the article, pinkwatchers’ alleged complicity with homonationalism emerges as an egregious intellectual, political, and strategic error. This error needs to be called out, but apparently lacks any solution or productive mode of address (or at least none the authors care to offer).  Such finger-pointing is, we believe, very different from invitation or constructive critique.  

Unfortunately, this dynamic is nothing new in solidarity work.  Many of us may recall working under the powerful shadow of Joseph Massad’s work on the Gay International.  For many, Massad’s work effectively produced a straw image of the “Gay Arab” who is, by definition, complicit with cultural imperialism and an agent of international gay organizations. Massad's discourse reinforced an academic/activist hierarchy that obscures the ways in which academics' privileged position can force activists to spend their time measuring and assessing themselves according to the academic’s discursive rubric, putting themselves on trial before one another and the academy. However, Massad’s critique did not by any means promote a new discourse, more aware communities or better queer activism in Arab societies. This came from within activist fields of experience, through activists’ efforts to analyze their own needs and explore their internal and external working dynamics.

We want to suggest that the “homonationalism” and “normalization of settler colonialism” of Puar and Mikdashi’s article have the potential to operate in much the same way. To praise the piece for its properly critical perspective (i.e., for its willingness to provoke disagreement and divisiveness) is a familiar academic positioning that we ought to be cautious about reproducing. As well, the claim that homonationalism is not only a contemporary critical model but, moreover, the state of things today might be understood as a form of bolstering one’s own academic brand.  Puar and Mikdashi’s vague generalizations, academic authority, and general lack of evidence have the potential to produce a new set of straw caricatures—not the Gay Imperialist and Gay Arab this time, but the Homonationalist Pinkwatcher and Token Palestinian Queer.  Moreover, these new characters seem to be offered not in the spirit of furthering a movement, but rather from a position of academic observation, analysis, and judgment. It is almost as if the task has become to differentiate the “proper” pinkwatcher from the “improper,” homonationalist pinkwatcher (much less the “proper” Palestinian queer from the patsy for homonationalist gay American activists). 

We appreciate Puar and Mikdashi’s vigilance in holding us accountable to our principles in our activist work. However, we are troubled by the ways in which they fold pinkwatching into a homonationalist framework. While they offer a worthy critique of pinkwatching activism, because of the implicit valorization of academic theorizing and analysis and the gaping lack of specific examples of homonationalist pinkwatching, we end up wondering not only to whom, but about whom, this article was written.  We worry that a set of straw caricatures is being erected, and entreat the authors to specify in greater detail to what (or whom) they are referring.  Such vague, critical musings seem less productive to us than an engaged critique that implicates its authors even as it prods a movement to look more closely at its own workings and motivations.  The relationship between academia and activism is potentially a positive and interactive one, wherein both sides can inspire and sustain one another organically, with the ultimate goal of pushing our movement(s) forward together. We hope that this exchange can initiate precisely such a constructive and self-reflective process regarding pinkwashing, pinkwatching, and homonationalism within our movement.

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An Open Letter to LGBTIQ Communities and Allies on the Israeli Occupation of Palestine & Peririon, Winter 2012 Birthright Unplugged Delegation


We are a diverse group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and trans activists, academics, artists, and cultural workers from the United States who participated in a solidarity tour in the West Bank of Palestine and Israel from January 7-13, 2012.

What we witnessed was devastating and created a sense of urgency around doing our part to end this occupation and share our experience across a broad cross-section of the LGBTIQ community. We saw with our own eyes the walls—literally and metaphorically—separating villages, families and land. From this, we gained a profound appreciation for how deeply embedded and far reaching this occupation is through every aspect of Palestinian daily life.

So too, we gained new insights into how Israeli civil society is profoundly affected by the dehumanizing effects of Israeli state policy toward Palestinians in Israel and in the West Bank. We were moved by the immense struggle being waged by some Israelis in resistance to state policies that dehumanize and deny the human rights of Palestinians.
We ended our trip in solidarity with Palestinian and Israeli people struggling to end the occupation of Palestine, and working for Palestinian independence and self-sovereignty.
Among the things we saw were:

  1. the 760 km (470 mi) separation wall (jidar) partitioning and imprisoning the Palestinian people;
  2. how the wall’s placement works to confiscate large swaths of Palestinian land, splits villages and families in two, impedes Palestinians from working their agricultural land, and in many cases does not advance the ostensible security interests of Israel;
  3. a segregated road system (one set of roads for cars with Israeli plates, and another much inferior one for cars with Palestinian plates) throughout the West Bank, constructed by the Israeli state and enforced by the Israeli army; these roads ease Israeli travel to and from illegal settlements in the West Bank and severely impede Palestinian travel between villages, to agricultural land, and throughout a territory which is and has been their homeland;
  4. a system of permits (identification cards) that limits the travel of Palestinian people and functionally imprisons them, separating them from family, health care, jobs and other necessities;
  5. militarized checkpoints with barbed wire and soldiers armed with automatic rifles and the humiliation and harassment the Palestinian people experience daily in order to travel from one place to another;
  6. the reconfiguration of maps to render invisible Palestinian villages/homelands;
  7. harmful living conditions created and enforced by Israeli law and policy such as limited access to water and electricity in many Palestinian homes;
  8. violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and the ongoing growth of illegal settlements facilitated by the Israeli military;
  9. homelessness as a result of the razing of Palestinian homes by the Israeli state;
  10. home invasions, tear gas attacks, “skunk water” attacks, and the arrest of Palestinian children by the Israeli military as part of ongoing harassment designed to force Palestinian villagers to give up their land;

While travel restrictions prevented us from directly witnessing the state of things in the Gaza Strip, we believe the blockade of the Gaza Strip has produced a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportion.
Our time together in Palestine has led us to understand that we have a responsibility to share with our US based LGBTIQ communities what we saw and heard so that we can do more together to end this occupation. In that spirit, we offer the following summary points in solidarity with the Palestinian people:

  1. The liberation of the Palestinian people from the project of Israeli occupation is the foremost goal of the Palestinian people and we fully support this aim. We also understand that liberation from this form of colonization and apartheid goes hand in hand with the liberation of queer Palestinians from the project of global heterosexism.
  2. We call out and reject the state of Israel’s practice of pinkwashing, that is, a well-funded, cynical publicity campaign marketing a purportedly gay-friendly Israel to an international audience so as to distract attention from the devastating human rights abuses it commits on a daily basis against the Palestinian people. Key to Israel’s pinkwashing campaign is the manipulative and false labeling of Israeli culture as gay-friendly and Palestinian culture as homophobic. It is our view that comparisons of this sort are both inaccurate – homophobia and transphobia are to be found throughout Palestinian and Israeli society – and that this is beside the point: Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine cannot be somehow justified or excused by its purportedly tolerant treatment of some sectors of its own population. We stand in solidarity with Palestinian queer organizations like Al Qaws and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (PQBDS) whose work continues to impact queer Palestinians and all Palestinians. (http://www.alqaws.org, http://www.pqbds.com/)
  3. We urge LGBTIQ individuals and communities to resist replicating the practice of pinkwashing that insists on elevating the sexual freedom of Palestinian people over their economic, environmental, social, and psychological freedom. Like the Palestinian activists we met, we view heterosexism and sexism as colonial projects and, therefore, see both as interrelated and interconnected regimes that must end.
  4. We stand in solidarity with queer Palestinian activists who are working to end the occupation, and also with Israeli activists, both queer and others, who are resisting the occupation that is being maintained and extended in their name.
  5. We name the complicity of the United States in this human rights catastrophe and call on our government to end its participation in an unjust regime that places it and us on the wrong side of peace and justice.
  6. We support efforts on the part of Palestinians to achieve full self-determination, such as building an international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement which calls for the fulfillment of three fundamental demands: (http://www.bdsmovement.net/call)
    1. The end of the Occupation and the dismantling of the Wall (jidar).
    2. The right of return for displaced Palestinians.
    3. The recognition and restoration of the equal rights of citizenship for Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent.
  7. We call upon all of our academic and activist colleagues in the US and elsewhere to join us by supporting all Palestinian efforts that center these three demands and by working to end US financial support, at $8.2 million daily, for the Israeli state and its occupation.

Signed, January 25, 2012:

Katherine Franke

Professor of Law and Director, Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, Columbia University; Board Member Center for Constitutional Rights

Barbara Hammer

Filmmaker, Faculty at European Graduate School

Tom Léger

Editor, PrettyQueer.com

Darnell L. Moore

writer and activist

Vani Natarajan

Humanities and Area Studies Librarian, Barnard College

Pauline Park

Chair, New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA)

Jasbir K. Puar

Rutgers University, Board Member Audre Lorde Project, author of Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times

Roya Rastegar

Independent artist and scholar

Dean Spade

Assistant Professor, Seattle University School of Law and Collective Member, Sylvia Rivera Law Project

Kendall Thomas

Nash Professor of Law, Columbia University

Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

intersections/intersecciones consulting

Juliet Widoff, MD

Callen-Lorde Community Health Center

All organizational affiliations are listed for identification purposes only and in no way indicate a position taken by such organizations on the issues raised in this statement.

Sign the petition:         http://www.queersolidaritywithpalestine.com

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Birthright Unplugged's Communiqué
Winter 2010

Dear All,

We are writing to update you on Birthright Unplugged’s most recent work, some of our alums’ work, and also to let you know what’s on the horizon.

Our recent work
This summer, Birthright Unplugged organized several workshops and presentations and participated in numerous meetings and conferences. We were a presence at the 2010 Allied Media Conference, the 2010 U.S. Assembly of Jews Confronting Israeli Apartheid and Racism, and this year’s U.S. Social Forum, all of which took place in Detroit. We really prioritized this work this year, since so many hundreds of activists came together at these meetings from across North America in order to develop national networks and initiatives related to justice for Palestine. We led and participated in workshops, meetings, and panels on “pinkwashing” (Israel’s use and promotion of gay and lesbian civil rights to obfuscate its racist practices), consumer and cultural boycott practices (with a focus on creative methods and the use of media), and increasing national networking for BDS and international solidarity in the Palestinian context. We are proud to say that numerous Birthright Unplugged alums were also organized, presented at, and/or participated in many of the offerings related to Palestine justice work at these meetings and are also hard at work in their own communities as well.

In addition, Birthright Unplugged produced, with the input of many movement workers, an exhaustive Boycott Divestment & Sanctions FAQ. Thousands of copies of this FAQ, in the form of posters and small postcards, were distributed at each of the above conferences. The FAQ was also issued as a poster at the Social Forum and is downloadable from our website at here.

Birthright Unplugged in the Media

Hampshire College’s successful 2009 divestment campaign has been chronicled in a short, 30 minute film by Will Delphia entitled To Know is Not Enough: How Hampshire Became the First to Divest. According to the website, “Hampshire is often credited with being the first US college to divest from the occupation, and this video attempts to understand the group and the campaign that made it happen. The video is constructed from interviews with over a dozen student activists from Hampshire College's Students for Justice in Palestine.” Two of Birthright Unplugged’s 2008 alums worked on this historic divestment effort. The documentary can be seen here (we welcome you to use and distribute it).

In Tikkun’s July/August 2010 issue there is an article entitled "Boycott Israeli Occuption?: Is BDS the Way to End the Occupation?"

This section includes a short write-up on our Unplugged program and some photographs from one of our recent trips. Note: A caption states that we “travel primarily with Jews,” which is not accurate.

German News Media
The is the second time Süddeutsche Zeitung, a widely distributed German daily, has covered Birthright Unplugged. We are pleased by the continued international exposure that this piece represents and also wish to note that it is limited in its scope and in some ways reinforces the “two-sides” narrative, which Birthright Unplugged rejects.

“The Promised Land for free,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 29 July 2010, by Ronja von Wurmb-Seibel

Culture Jamming/Spoof Article
The following news headline, of November 8, 2010 —“Taglit-Birthright and Birthright Unplugged to Merge”—came as a complete surprise to us here at Birthright Unplugged!

That’s because it is not exactly true. This article is part of a clever culture jamming effort by Young Jewish and Proud, a new group that espouses “a vision of collective identity, purpose and values written by and for young Jews committed to justice in Israel and Palestine.” You may know members of this group already from their recent disruption of Benjamin Netanyahu’s keynote address at the 2010 Jewish Federation General Assembly in New Orleans (you can watch a video of this disruption at their website). In their faux article “referring” to our work, Young Jewish and Proud writes:

“Taglit-Birthright program has decided to merge with Birthright Unplugged and welcome Jewish and Palestinian youth together to return to their ethnic roots in the Holy Land. The group, to be renamed Birthright for All (Taglit Le’Kulanu), will adopt the slogan: Israelis And Palestinians. Two People, One Future.”

While we at Birthright Unplugged are in no way in partnership with Taglit-Birthright Israel, we have been consulting with several Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim groups about helping them access travel to Jerusalem and beyond on an Unplugged-type program. Details coming soon!

Some Alumni Work and Reflections
Three of our 2010 alums – Ashley McAdam, Becky Barbrow, and Stuart (William) Pike – are behind Christmas Break in Palestine, a new documentary exploring “the many social and political costs of the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories.” The alums made the film in January 2010 on a university-sponsored trip to Israel and the West Bank (running time: 24 min).

Many of our alums are also actively involved in ongoing movement and campaign work and many credit their travel with Birthright Unplugged as a turning point in their lives and work for justice. Here are just a few of many examples, in their own words:

Lindsey, Birzeit University Right To Education Campaign, an effort to defend Palestinians’ right to education.

“I first came to Palestine during the winter of 2009, just a few days into the war on Gaza. An undergraduate International Studies major focusing on human rights and conflict resolution, what I knew and expected of Israel/Palestine, and of my Birthright Unplugged trip, was injustice. I had read about the settlements, the repression, the restriction of movement, the crippling of economies, the Wall; I had immersed myself in the history of expulsion, the long line of disappointments that has been each successive round