An Inconvenient Truth: The Myths of Pinkwashing
(Please note: This article is part of a broader debate on pinkwashing. For the debate’s full table of contents, click here).
I am a gay man, an American, and a Jew. I am passionate about Israel, devoted to its well-being, and I want to see a resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that will enable both to live in peace and security. My love for Israel and my commitment to LGBT equality led me to create A Wider Bridge, an organization dedicated to strengthening the bonds between the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities in Israel and America. I believe LGBT Jews have been a transformative force for good in the Jewish world, and that LGBT Israelis have been and will continue to be a vital force in creating a stronger and better Israel.
According to a group of activists who have gained a national megaphone, our work is “pinkwashing,” part of a conspiracy orchestrated by the Israeli government and many American Jewish groups to use Israel’s progressive record on LGBT rights to divert attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some suggest that visits by Israeli LGBT leaders, including some of our programs, should be boycotted.
Recent events, including the Equality Forum’s annual Global LGBT Summit in Philadelphia in May, which selected Israel as this year’s “featured nation,” and Tel Aviv’s fourteenth annual Gay Pride Parade in June, have brought forth new rounds of pinkwashing accusations. In May, Tikkun published “Boycotting Equality Forum’s Israeli Sponsorship,” an article by Columbia law professor Katherine Franke and Rabbi Rebecca Alpert.
But the event that has continued to provoke the most controversy took place a few months ago: in response to pressure from advocates of BDS—boycott, sanctions and divestment from Israel—the Seattle LGBT Commission cancelled a scheduled public meeting with the leaders of three prominent Israeli LGBT organizations visiting the West Coast. A Wider Bridge was the lead sponsor of this West Coast visit.
Some BDS supporters declared the visit a “pinkwashing tour.” This charge was expanded upon in Richard Silverstein’s June online Tikkun article, “U.S. Gay Rights Activists: Stop Pinkwashing Palestinian Suffering.” An earlier New York Times op-ed on “Israel and Pinkwashing” by Sarah Schulman, a lesbian civil rights activist and professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), helped place such claims on a national stage.
These and other anti-pinkwashing articles are rife with errors of fact and logic, generating more heat than light. It’s time to set the record straight.
Israeli LGBT leaders will continue to visit the United States, and will likely return to Seattle this fall. No doubt, BDS activists will try to silence their voices in an effort to “reprise Seattle,” both there and elsewhere. Bursting the myths of pinkwashing has never been more timely.
A Failure of Imagination
The fundamental problem with anti-pinkwashing rhetoric is that it proceeds from imagined motives to imagined outcomes, projecting invented intentions onto Israeli and American Jewish and LGBT leaders. Then it takes two unrelated topics—Israel’s LGBT communities and their progress in the struggle for equality and inclusion, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict—and asserts that they are inextricably intertwined. It implies that learning about the former will somehow magically dull people’s ability to think about the latter. Those who level charges of pinkwashing at A Wider Bridge would render us invisible through caricature, pretending that we fit into a box of their own making. It’s time for people to hear directly from us about exactly who we are and why we do what we do.
- We believe that Israel is the most important project of the Jewish people. And we believe in K’lal Yisrael, that all Jews share a fundamental connection and responsibility for one another. Forty percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel, and it will soon surpass the United States as the country with the single largest Jewish population in the world. We are struck by how little the American Jewish and LGBT communities know about Israel’s LGBT communities (and vice versa), and we aim to change that.
- We believe, that all Jews, both straight and LGBT, have a stake in Israel, in learning about its past, experiencing its present, and helping to shape its future. That stake impels us to strive to understand, participate in, and often wrestle with, Israel. We hope that people will come to care enough about Israel that when they do criticize, whether on LGBT or Palestinian issues, they will do so from love.
- We are not a political organization, but our work is founded on two basic tenets. First, we believe in Israel as a democratic Jewish homeland, and that Israel not only can but must fulfill its founding commitment to democratic values and civic equality while maintaining its identity as a Jewish state. We believe that working for LGBT rights in Israel helps it move closer to fulfilling that vision. Second, we believe that Israel is a country worthy of more engagement, more dialogue, more exchange of culture and travel, and should not be the object of boycotts and sanctions. On these points A Wider Bridge is aligned with J Street, the New Israel Fund, Jewish Federations throughout the country and a great many other Jewish organizations across the political spectrum.
- Within this very broad framework, we do not espouse a particular party line. We welcome those with firm views, as well as those who are undecided, confused or uncertain about how much all this matters. Our goal is to create opportunities for education, engagement and experience, new pathways for Americans and Israelis to learn from one another. We bring Israeli LGBT leaders to the United States and lead trips for LGBT Americans to Israel, fostering dialogue and collaboration. We trust in people’s ability to make up their own minds.
- While our work is focused on building connections with, and support for, Israel’s LGBT communities, we are acutely aware that other human rights struggles exist, both within Israel and in the Palestinian territories. Our pride and celebration of Israel’s progress in LGBT rights does not mean that we endorse all the policies of its government. We hope for a time when Palestinians will live in dignity, free from occupation, and Israelis will no longer live with the daily threat of rocket fire or terrorist attack, or the fear of nuclear war. We care about the lives of LGBT Palestinians, who often face extraordinary and heartbreaking challenges.
There are those for whom the only frame through which to see Israel is the conflict, with a one-dimensional country cast as a colonial, racist oppressor worthy of the pariah status of South Africa in the days of apartheid. This is the taproot of the BDS movement; it is why there is so much agitation in some quarters about “pinkwashing.”
I reject that frame, along with the portrayal of Israel as a nation that can do no wrong. Israel is a complicated, challenging, messy, inspiring, and exhilarating country. It is a land full of seeming contradictions that cannot be reduced to simplistic slogans.
But one of the most remarkable things about Israel is that over the past twenty-five years there has been great progress in the area of LGBT rights, which has made it easier for gay people to lead open lives, create families and serve their country.
This is not to suggest that Israel has become some kind of gay paradise: no country in the world qualifies for that title. It is still very hard to be gay in many parts of Israel, there are still many rights battles to be fought and won, and there have been some tragic incidents of anti-gay violence. But there is great work being done on the ground by activists of all kinds. Israeli LGBT filmmakers, performers, writers, and artists are creating groundbreaking work that is transforming culture. And never mind the obvious comparison with its neighbors. Relative to most nations of the world, including the United States, Israel is a good place to be gay.
All this is an inconvenient truth for those who want to demonize Israel, or turn every conversation about LGBT progress in Israel into an argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Much of the discussion of “pinkwashing,” both in general and with regard to the recent Seattle events, is rooted more in myth than fact. Here, then, are the myths, in the critics’ own words, and the evidence which explodes them.
The Top 5 Myths of Pinkwashing
Myth #1—It’s really about something else. What appears to be an event about LGBT issues in Israel is really an attempt to “justify the Israeli occupation” and deflect attention from it, a ruse to “ignore the oppression of Palestinians” or “promote Israel’s human rights record.”
Fact: Untrue on all counts, as anyone who came to any of the events would know. The delegation we brought to the West Coast educated people about the Israeli LGBT community, its issues and struggles, and about their work. The leaders spoke frankly about both the positives and the negatives in Israel’s gay rights record, in some cases highlighting shortcomings that they are fighting to change. Our aim was to enable Israeli LGBT activists to meet with and exchange ideas with organizations in the United States facing similar challenges. Conversations focused on ways to help LGBT teens in crisis, prevent queer teen suicides, help parents LGBT children find support, and share strategies for HIV testing, prevention and care, among other topics.
Not surprisingly, many LGBT Israelis are people of the left. Many of the Israeli LGBT leaders we have brought to the United States hold very critical views of the occupation and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Even if it is not the main topic of discussion, audience members nearly always have some questions that in some way relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—usually about the situation of Palestinian gays in Israel, or occasionally about pinkwashing—and we and our speakers welcome that. Our guests respond with a variety of nuanced answers which would often surprise anyone who expected our speakers to parrot a single viewpoint. We don’t select the LGBT activists we bring to the U.S. based on their views on Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Israeli LGBT communities, organizations, leaders, and artists existed long before the pinkwashing debate. The Israeli government didn’t conjure them into existence as part of a PR campaign; nor did they come into being to serve as a foil for BDS supporters and the anti-occupation movement. They are their own people with their own objectives, leading real lives, often with great struggles, and there is much we can learn from both their triumphs and challenges.
Myth #2—The problem is our cosponsors, our West Coast events were an “official” tour, and we are really just a mouthpiece of the Israeli government. The West Coast LGBT leaders’ visit was a “pinkwashing tour.” The delegation was “in large part doing the bidding of the Israeli government,” and tour participants were “an official delegation … chosen by the Israeli government,” says Silverstein. We “teamed with Stand with Us” to bring the delegation to the West Coast.
Fact: False all the way around. The six Israeli leaders came here on their own initiative, and participants were selected by the Israeli LGBT NGO’s together with A Wider Bridge. They came here—as numerous other Israeli LGBT leaders have—to strengthen the LGBT community in Israel by connecting with counterparts here and to share their work with the U.S. LGBT community. We helped them come here because we share those goals.
A Wider Bridge was the principal U.S. sponsor of this West Coast tour. Individual programs were cosponsored by numerous organizations including LGBT Jewish groups and synagogues, the New Israel Fund, local federations, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Israeli Consulate. Stand with Us helped to arrange and cosponsored several events in Seattle; they provided no funding for the tour. No matter who joins in with us, our audiences are always treated to an open, engaged conversation with an array of activists from Israel’s LGBT leadership. We partner with a variety of cosponsors, on the right and on the left, even if we do not fully share their agendas, priorities or communication styles. But this need not mean that we cannot sometimes find common ground to work together. Nor do we believe that every cosponsorship of an event requires us to defend all that our cosponsors do or distance ourselves when we disagree. The presence of cosponsors does not change the fundamental nature and purpose of our events.
To state the obvious, we are not surrogates for the Israeli government. We are clear about our own mission and objectives. We do believe in Israel’s right, like every other country, to conduct public diplomacy, whether as an antidote to demonization, to encourage trade and tourism, or for other legitimate purposes. We take pleasure in the fact that among the multitude of things that Israel chooses to promote about itself (and there are a great many facets of Israel in which to take pride and celebrate), it devotes a small amount of attention to its LGBT community. Where our interests converge, we are happy to cosponsor programs together.
Yet sometimes the actions of the Israeli government on LGBT rights are not aligned with its rhetoric, and sometimes both the rhetoric and actions fall short of where they should be. We support many campaigns for change within Israel in this arena. Among these are the efforts to enact civil marriage, including same-sex marriage, and the recent initiative in the Knesset to bolster protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. And we support those who are working to persuade the government to develop more compassionate policies regarding gay Palestinians who flee the West Bank and seek refuge in Israel because their lives are in imminent danger either from their families or the Palestinian police.
Sidenote: Now let’s correct a matter of “photographic error.” Silverstein alleges that a photo from the West Coast LGBT Israeli NGO leaders’ tour depicts “an LGBT staff member from Israel’s NW Consulate [who] accompanied the delegation and appeared on a panel with it as if he were a member,” proving that the tour was an exercise in “Israeli government pinkwashing.”
In fact, everyone in the photo was a delegation member, and not from the Israeli Consulate. JTNews mislabeled the photograph, confusing Avner Dafni, the executive director of Israeli Gay Youth, with a representative of the Israeli Consulate, who was not on the panel or in the photograph. Those who attended the event and got to see what it was really like, knew who the panelists were. Those who boycotted it, and encouraged others to do so, relied only on secondhand inaccurate information. This is one of the problems with cultural and educational boycotts: they prevent us from understanding each other, learning from each other, questioning our own assumptions, and even from knowing the facts.
Myth #3—Israeli gay rights can’t be separated from Palestinian human rights: When we celebrate gay rights in Israel, it is impossible to focus on “the human rights violations taking place in Palestine.” To talk of one, is to deliberately ignore, or drown out, the other. The two can never be separated.
Fact: Progress in LGBT rights in Israel is not about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. A comparison with the U.S. civil rights movement might prove instructive. Advances in the United States toward African American civil rights and desegregation in the mid-1960s and beyond took place despite U.S. participation in a war in Vietnam that most Americans came to oppose. Celebrating and aiding that progress—marked by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—was not rendered inappropriate by a war waged by the very same American administrations that backed the civil rights struggle under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. A great many Jews fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. It would have been wrong to condemn American society or government in toto because of opposition to the country’s actions abroad. It is wrong to do so to Israel today.
Whatever one thinks about Israel’s role vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the attempt to reduce everything that happens in Israel to the conflict, to use its treatment of Palestinians to quash dialogue about LGBT life in Israel—that is the real disinformation campaign. Most importantly, doing so dishonors the courageous decades-long struggle of Israeli LGBT activists to transform Israeli society.
Myth #4—It’s either Israelis or Palestinians: “Pinkwashers aim to harness the global LGBT movement into supporting Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.” Exchanges with Israeli LGBT leaders “invisibilize” and “marginalize” LGBT Palestinians.
Fact: Wrong. The anti-pinkwashing campaign helps feed the conflict by painting everything as a zero-sum game. Israel’s record on LGBT rights and its treatment of Palestinians are positioned in some imaginary game of “tug of war.” If you are discussing one, your agenda must be to conceal the other. Yet celebrating gay rights in Israel has never stopped anyone, including our speakers, from criticizing the policies of the Israeli government toward Palestinians. Being pro-Israel doesn’t make one anti-Palestinian, just as being pro-Palestinian doesn’t automatically make one anti-Israel; these are false choices.
What’s more, the idea that all gay people should automatically take either Israel’s or the Palestinians’ side in the conflict simply by virtue of being gay, as people on both the right and left sometimes claim, is equally misguided. In a response to Schulman, gay Jewish scholar and activist Jay Michaelson writes about the wide range of opinion among LGBT people on Israel: “LGBT people hold these views not because we are deluded or traumatized, but because people hold views. To suggest that queers should all have a certain view (i.e., the author’s) is the kind of essentialism one usually finds among homophobes.”
In reality, it is often “pinkwashing” critics who seek to harness the global LGBT community in support of the “pro-Palestinian” campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. We have never sought to cancel, boycott or silence Palestinian LGBT leaders, either in the United States or Israel. It is the pro-BDS movement that is attempting to silence and “invisibilize” Israeli LGBT leaders.
Myth #5—Anti-pinkwashing activists are for “true free speech”: Those who agitated to cancel the Seattle LGBT Commission event were not violating the tenets of free speech. True free speech requires the airing of a diverse range of views at every event.
Fact: The effort to cancel events like those in Seattle is an attempt to police the bounds of what may be discussed about Israel. For many BDS advocates, only the occupation may be spoken of—everything else is to be silenced and boycotted. For others, no conversation with Israeli LGBT leaders about the work of Israeli LGBT NGOs should be permitted unless it addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For these critics, speech is free only when it is “politically correct,” when it involves the “proper” range of political diversity, as defined by them.
Now some of those who protested the Seattle meeting suggest that if only the delegation were more diverse, if only a dozen other topics were added to the agenda, perhaps they would not protest some future meeting. Their arguments for canceling the meeting can be summed up this way: the meeting wasn’t going to reflect their views about Israel. They say they favor “true free speech,” but in practice it looks a lot more like censorship.
Arguments about diversity and an expanded agenda ring hollow. One single meeting can never be designed to satisfy everyone with divergent views. Must a panel of visiting religious leaders be canceled unless it includes atheists? Must a visit by the leaders of Planned Parenthood be transformed into a spirited discussion about the morals of contraception? When a delegation of visiting LGBT Palestinians toured the United States last year, should it have been criticized because no Israeli Jews were included? We did not think so then, and we do not think that should be the case now.
Here is one very timely example of how absurd this situation has become. On June 23 in San Francisco, Frameline’s LGBT Film Festival showed “The Invisible Men.” The film is a documentary by Israeli filmmaker Yariv Mozer about the struggles of gay Palestinian men who escape from the West Bank in fear of their lives, only to be forced to live illegally in Tel Aviv, with no possibility of Israel granting them asylum. The men live in constant trepidation of being discovered by the police, who usually deport them immediately back across the border. The Palestinian men are the heroes of the film, and the film shines a very critical light on Israeli policies that need to be changed.
Yet at the outset of the evening about a dozen people staged a protest inside the theater, accusing Frameline of pinkwashing. Why? Because the festival had allowed the Israeli Consulate to cosponsor the film and to provide funding to fly the director to San Francisco. The film and the director received a strong ovation from the audience. The protestors, who claimed to care about queer Palestinians, did not stay to see the film or hear the discussion with the director. The film also documents the efforts of Israeli volunteers, who work courageously (and in the case of the three men described in this film, successfully) to secure asylum for these men in an un-named European country.
Pinkwashing has become the new straw man of the pro-BDS movement. It sees pinkwashers wherever it turns its gaze, much as the American right once saw “communists” lurking under every bed. If the pinkwashers are everywhere, BDS advocates have perpetual cause for mounting the barricades, now on Israel’s LGBT front. Discourse about Israel must be all about the occupation all the time, or face charges of bad faith. If every visiting Israeli LGBT leaders’ event can be cast as a bid to divert the attention of Americans away from the conflict, if anything touched by the Israeli government automatically becomes treif, there is always a simple choice between good and evil. Simple, all too simple.
But LGBT people embrace the rainbow. It’s time we start seeing Israeli and Palestinian LGBT people—and Israel itself—through a lens that reveals every shade of the rainbow. Charges of pinkwashing distort the lens; calls for boycott and censorship shatter it. Now, more than ever, we must view Israel through a lens that shows the nuanced reality and illuminates the path toward a better future.