(Crossposted from Jewish Voice for Peace)
Last night, Jewish Voice for Peace hosted an online workshop entitled “Why Pinkwashing Matters.” The event was hosted by Wendy Elisheva Somerson and Tallie Ben Daniel, both experts on the subject. Somerson has written about pinkwashing for outlets like Tikkun and Bitch Magazine, while Ben Daniel is a Ph.D. candidate whose dissertation – Branding Israel – is currently in the works.
Pinkwashing, Ben Daniel explained, is a propaganda effort that attempts to brand Israel as a “safe space for gay people.” At first glance, this may strike us as unproblematic. After all, Tel Aviv has often been called the gay capital of the world, and the country as a whole has widely publicized its Pride events and queer-friendly practices, such as the inclusion of gay soldiers in the IDF. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, which asked “Should society accept homosexuality?” Israel’s support was the highest in the Middle East.
But the discourse of safety that Israel employs requires painting other countries as patently unsafe. What this means, in short, is demonizing Palestinians. Throughout the Middle East – and especially in the United States – Israel is portrayed as a gay oasis in a desert of Arab intolerance.
It is important to understand who is doing the portraying. While the Israeli government is certainly responsible, much support for the propaganda comes from “pro-Israel” groups in the United States. Blue Star PR, an ad agency located in San Francisco, regularly puts out ads like the one below:
The ad lures us in with a focus on gay rights, but then asks us to make the explanatory leap toward Israel as a democracy worthy of our support. And what can it mean to support Israel if not, at least tacitly, to support the Israeli government? We are asked to suspend our criticism of the Israeli state because – well, heck, gays and lesbians can join the army if they want to!
Blue Star’s charade of cultural superiority does not stop at LGBT issues. Consider another ad focusing on gender:
It is not simply that Israel has fair elections, the ad reminds us. Israel has “the only free, open, and contested elections in the Middle East.” There can be little doubt that when Blue Star champions “support” for Israel, it is also asking for villainization of Israel’s inferior neighbors. What we’re seeing here is racism couched in the discourse of rights.
Many readers will recall the ads placed on San Francisco buses in August 2012. They state, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
This ad, along with those from Blue Star PR, is part of what Simon Anholt calls a competitive identity strategy. It is no longer enough to laud Israel’s wholesomeness or Palestine’s depravity. Instead, the Israel lobby must do both at the same time, emphasizing the chasm that exists between two vastly different worlds. To achieve this goal, groups like Blue Star and the American Freedom Defense Initiative (responsible for the bus ads) must spotlight any relevant contrasts they can find.
In essence, the Israel lobby cares very little about gay rights and very much about gaining support for the occupation. Abuses of human rights are made petty by Israel’s clear and obvious and unquestionable support for homosexuality (which, by the way, is one of the lowest among developed nations). Injustices against Palestinians are washed away in a tidal wive of fabulous irrelevance.
In the second portion of the workshop, Wendy Elisheva Somerson explored the movement against pinkwashing, including her own efforts in her hometown of Seattle. Last fall, Somerson learned that a documentary called The Invisible Men was coming to Seattle’s LGBT film festival. The documentary tells the story of three queer Palestinians and their struggle for asylum and acceptance. Though undoubtedly moved, Somerson and other activists found the documentary demonizing of Palestinian life, setting up yet another dichotomy between a hateful Palestine and and a welcoming Israel. During the screening of the movie, they handed out pamphlets about pinkwashing, featuring critical analysis questions like, “Does the film show the daily violence and harassment that all Palestinians face living under the Israeli Occupation?” As Somerson later explained, “Queer life, like all life in Gaza and the West Bank, is really difficult.” While Palestinians may face homophobia from their own religion and culture – and this is not to be trivialized – all Palestinians face the terror of life under a military occupation.
It is worth noting that the documentary was funded in part by the Israeli state, which raises key questions: What was the purpose of the funding? How did Israel stand to benefit from the showing of this film? Without a pinkwashing framework, answers to these questions are hard to come by.
In another revealing case, Somerson discovered that a pinkwashing event entitled “Rainbow Generations: Building New LGBTQ Pride & Inclusion in Israel” was heading to Seattle. The event – backed by the Israeli government and Israel lobbyist StandWithUs, attempted to embroil queer American Jews in the marginalizing of Palestinians. In the past, StandWithUs has claimed that Israeli settlements are legal and unworthy of concern.
At an LGBT Commission meeting the night before the event, Palestinian Americans like Selma Al-Aswad gave testimony. “My queer identity is steeped in and inextricably linked to the dispossession of my family and community by the state of Israel,” she said. Moved to tears by Al-Aswad’s story and others, commissioners agreed to cancel the event less than 24 hours before it would begin.
In Somerson’s words, the event was canceled because it was “damaging and invisibilizing to queer Palestinians.” But that is not how many Jews perceived the news when it was reported the next morning. Many Jewish groups contacted the Commission in outrage, claiming their safety was threatened by the event’s cancellation. Complaints against the Commission’s decision conflated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and implied that “the Jewish community is a pro-occupation community.”
Meanwhile, LGBT groups asserted that queer issues can and should be separated from issues of Israel/Palestine. Departing from the gay rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which challenged capitalism and other power structures, they framed queer identity as non-political and merely “cultural,” rendering it harmless. The move was unsurprising, Somerson explained, given mainstream attempts to make sexual minorities more palatable to straight society.
The pressure, unfortunately, worked quite well. Within the week, Seattle’s LGBT Commission had issued an apology for its decision.
As we saw in Seattle and San Francisco, pinkwashing is a growing movement that shows no signs of abating. How can we challenge it when it arises?
We have to recognize it. Ben Daniel gives us three warning signs. Pinkwashing:
1. Brands Israel as gay-friendly to attract investment, tourists, and media
2. Justifies and normalizes the occupation
3. Tells a story about “gay Palestine” where Israel is seen as the hero
Then, we have to resist it. Somerson tells us:
1. Insist on a power analysis
2. Investigate where funding is coming from
3. Center Queer Palestinian voices
Together we can stop Brand Israel.