Arthur Slepian’s contribution to Tikkun, “An Inconvenient Truth: The Myths of Pinkwashing,” is quite persuasive in its way. If you knew little about Israel and its LGBT issues, you might actually find it quite convincing. It is heavy on what I call aspirational rhetoric. It reminds me of all those grand speeches Barack Obama delivered during the 2008 campaign leading up to the Gettysburg-like Grant Park address in Chicago on election night. Oh how hopeful we all were when we heard those stirring phrases. Change, if not revolution was in the air. But the reality of Obama’s presidency has turned out to be quite different than his electrifying speechifying. We once aspired to greatness but presently remain mired in the tawdry reality of Obama’s betrayed promise. So the same holds true for Slepian’s grand liberal Zionist vision.
He tells us of his love for Israel, of his hope for its future, of his commitment to LGBT rights for Israelis. Of course, those are all laudable goals. But aside from rhetoric, there’s precious little actual content in his piece. It is high on generalities and low on specifics. It eschews facts and evidence in favor of the grand gesture.
One of the major arguments I made in my own Tikkun article was that the struggle against Occupation and for Palestinian justice and rights is inextricably intertwined with the struggle for human rights inside Israel, including LGBT rights. You cannot extricate one from the other. If you attempt to do so you end up isolating these goals from each other and diminishing their collective power to promote change.
Slepian argues quite the opposite, saying the two phenomena are separate. Of the anti-pinkwashing movement, he writes:
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.... Progress in LGBT rights in Israel is not about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
He is quite wrong in his characterization. My article criticizing pinkwashing never claimed that learning about Israel’s LGBT community would dull anyone’s ability to perceive the injustices of the Occupation. It did argue that celebrating the condition of Israeli gays as A Wider Bridge tends to do, and divorcing from each other the injustices experienced both by Israeli gays and Palestinians, fundamentally distorts Israeli reality.
In order to support his argument, Slepian argues that the United States, during the 1960s, observed two disparate phenomena: the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights:
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.
In arguing that the American civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were two issues having nothing in common, Slepian contradicts no less a civil rights visionary than Martin Luther King. In 1964, as the war escalated and more African-American men started coming home in body bags and more of the national treasury that might have supported Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was drained by the war effort, King came to understand that the war and his struggle must be tied together. Without ending the war, there could be no domestic peace. No equality for America’s Blacks without ending the conflict in Southeast Asia.
At the time, King faced enormous criticism from his own followers and liberal whites who believed that the civil rights leader was heading off on a tangent from his main goal. At the time, no one knew who was right. But history ultimately judged King correct. Those like Slepian, who said civil rights and the anti-war movement should remain separate, were proven wrong.
The civil rights movement taught us that America’s original sin was slavery and its offspring, racism. Freeing American Blacks from the oppression they’d endured for two centuries proved the key to redeeming those primal American sins and freeing this nation to realize its full economic and democratic potential.
Similarly, Israel faces its own original sin: Nakba and its kin, Occupation. The forced exile of nearly 1 million Israeli Palestinians in 1948 serves as the primal stain on Israel’s identity as a so-called western-style democracy. Every major inequity in Israeli society echoes the fundamental act of injustice on which Israel was founded.
It will only be when Israel repairs this injustice by ending Occupation, recognizing a Palestinian state and awarding full equality to its own Israeli Palestinian citizens, that it can offer the same rights and benefits to all of its minorities, including the LGBT community.
Martin Luther King understood that the massive social investment LBJ had heralded in his Great Society was in jeopardy from the expenditures demanded by the Vietnam War. The Israeli Occupation similarly poses an economic drain on Israel’s budget that prevents it from addressing social inequalities like poverty, gender discrimination, and ethnic discrimination. In 2007, Yediot wrote that Israel had spent $50 billion on maintaining the Occupation. Such enormous sums would be far better off spent addressing the massive levels of social injustice highlighted by the J14 social justice movement.
Only when Israel is able to focus inward on the ills that afflict it, will it be truly able to address them. Occupation is not just an economic albatross—it prevents Israelis from seeing the injustice that is right in front of their eyes.
We learn yet more lessons from the American civil rights movement that parallel the struggle against Occupation and for gay rights in Israel. The Stonewall Riots, the first organized mass movement for gay rights in this country, began in 1969. Though there were numerous causes that may’ve been unique to the oppression suffered by American gays, there can be little doubt that those who raised holy hell in Thompson Park that sweltering June night were inspired by the Freedom Riders, SNCC activists, and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s campaign for racial justice.
One could easily make the same argument for American feminism, whose full power arose after the civil rights movement. Again, American women had their own unique issues and oppressions to deal with, but they took hope and inspiration from the example of American Blacks.
Similarly, the injustices faced by the Israeli LGBT community are not fundamentally different from those inflicted both on Palestinians living under Occupation and Israeli Palestinians who live as second class citizens in their own country.
You cannot separate these issues from each other and say they must be addressed separately and individually. Improving the lot of gays in Israel without addressing the suffering of Palestinians under Occupation is a palliative measure. The oppression facing Israeli minorities, whether they be LGBT or Israeli Palestinians derives from the same root: the original sin of racism and dispossession.
Admittedly, Slepian is a more sophisticated pro-Israel advocate than most. He doesn’t make the mistake made by many of his colleagues who argue that those who fight pinkwashing are anti-Israel. That, of course, is nonsense. Those fighting pinkwashing have a vision of a different Israel, one that is fully democratic, grants equality to all minorities, and is rid of racism and oppression. It’s a very similar dream to the one Martin Luther King had in 1963 before the Washington Monument. But unlike Arthur Slepian, we see the Israel that is and say it’s nowhere near what it needs to be.
(Please note: This article is part of a broader debate on pinkwashing. For the debate's full table of contents, click here).