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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