Revealing the Truth Behind the Rainbow: Seattle’s Anti-Pinkwashing Success

As a queer anti-Occupation Jew living in Seattle, I was part of the coalition that worked to get the Seattle LGBT commission to cancel the pinkwashing event, “Rainbow Generations: Building New LGBTQ Pride & Inclusion in Israel,” sponsored by Arthur Slepian’s organization, A Wider Bridge. In response to Slepian’s article, “An Inconvenient Truth: The Myths of Pinkwashing,” I want to clarify why we worked to cancel the event and counter his misinformation about pinkwashing.

Credit: Steve Rhodes.

Our group of queer Jewish and Palestinian American activists protested the Israeli government-sponsored tour of Israeli LGBT leaders because of an explicit, well-documented public relations campaign called Brand Israel. We were not “projecting invented intentions” onto anyone; our aim was to peel back the rainbow sticker plastered on top of this tour to reveal how this government campaign attempts to use our queerness to justify the oppression of Palestinians.

The Israeli government launched this public relations program in 2005 to combat the growing success of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, which draws attention to Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. To deflect attention from its treatment of Palestinians and re-brand Israel in a positive light, the Israeli government has been promoting Israel as the progressive center of cultural advances in the Middle East. Pinkwashing refers to the arm of this campaign that positions Israel as an oasis of gay freedom surrounded by uncivilized and homophobic Arabs, particularly Palestinians. Israel advocacy organizations, such as A Wider Bridge and StandWithUs, highlight the homophobic persecution that gay Palestinians face in the Occupied territories. However, they never mention the rampant homophobia in Israel or the daily violence, persecution, and restriction that all Palestinians, whatever their sexual orientation, face from the Israeli government under Occupation.

Our group of activists attended the LGBT Commission meeting the night before the event was scheduled to take place and spoke out against holding the event. Two Jewish Voice for Peace activists, Stefanie Fox and I, explained the concept of pinkwashing and how we were not opposed to hearing from individual gay Israelis, but that we could not support a tour backed by StandWithUs and the Israeli government. We described how StandWithUs, a self-proclaimed “Israeli advocate” organization, argues that Israel’s settlements are legal, despite the U.S. government and international community’s declaration that they are illegal. Explaining our skepticism that StandWithUs cared about LGBT rights, we described their history of bullying and shouting homophobic taunts at peace activists. Our description of the government campaign and background of the sponsors behind this tour laid the groundwork for our Palestinian American friends, Selma Al-Aswad and Laila Assal, to tell their stories.

At the LGBT Commission meeting, Al-Aswad read a letter to the commission that traced her family history to her current identity as a queer Palestinian American living in Seattle: her family relocated to Washington State after her father became a refugee in 1948 when he was pushed out of his home in Palestine. She explained, “my queer identity is steeped in and inextricably linked to the dispossession of my family and community by the state of Israel.” She then described how pinkwashing attempts to cover up the crimes Israel continues to commit against her family and community. Assal, a queer Palestinian American whose family has Israeli citizenship, explained that her family members are treated as fourth-class citizens within Israel. She described how her visits to Israel are accompanied by government harassment simply because of her ancestry. Explaining that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship represent 20 percent of Israel’s population, Assal pointed out how they were not being represented on this tour.

Moved to tears by Al-Aswad and Assal’s testimonies, the commissioners described their own naiveté when they agreed to host this event. After hearing how pinkwashing is designed to conceal a government campaign and support covert racism by erasing Palestinian LGBT voices, a majority of commissioners voted to cancel the pinkwashing event. Something momentous and unusual happened that night in City Hall: by making visible what was invisible in the official descriptions of the event, we were able to place Palestinian American stories at the center of the room. The Commissioners heard Al-Aswad and Assal’s moving stories about their painful experiences and incredible resilience as queer Palestinian American activists and were compelled to change their minds.

When the LGBT Commissioners took the courageous stance of cancelling this event and refusing to be complicit in pinkwashing, they privileged the voices of individual queer activists in our communities over the Israeli government-backed mainstream Jewish organizations that seek to use our queerness to forward their pro-Occupation agenda.

Reversing Power Dynamics

In his attempt to rebut the charges of pinkwashing, Slepian reverses the power dynamics that exist within American Jewish communities around discussions of Israel. The reality is that well-funded American Jewish institutions consistently use their power to shut down conversations about Palestine every chance they get. Yet Slepian charges anti-pinkwashing activists with silencing the voices of LGBT Israelis. What enables him to make this reversal? He does this through the very logic of pinkwashing, which attempts to hide a powerful Israeli government-backed campaign behind the voices of a minority in Israel—LGBT Jewish Israeli activists—in order to justify the oppression of Palestinians. The people whose voices are actually being silenced are LGBT Palestinians who want to talk about how the Israeli Occupation is affecting their lives and LGBT Jewish Israeli activists who are working against the Occupation.

While Slepian proclaims his concern for “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,” he shows no concern for all Palestinians whose daily lives are in constant danger because of Israel’s military occupation. As Palestinian activist Nada Elia writes in her blog, having gay rights for Jewish Israeli LGBT folks doesn’t make life at all easier for queer Palestinians. Just because Jewish Israeli LGBT folks can serve in the army, doesn’t mean that these “soldiers will wave a young Palestinian man through a checkpoint because he’s gender non-conforming. Not a single soldier will ask if you’re gay before demolishing your home.”

Slepian creates “The Top 5 Myths of Pinkwashing,” in an attempt to deny that pinkwashing exists, but his “facts” falsely position LGBT Jewish Israeli activists as victims of anti-pinkwashing activists. Anti-pinkwashing activists are actually targeting the Israeli government and Israeli advocacy organizations that are hiding behind LGBT Jewish Israeli activists in order to silence conversations about the Occupation of Palestine.

Slepian Myth 1: It’s really about something else.

Slepian claims that the Rainbow Generations tour had the sole purpose of allowing Israeli LGBT activists to share their experiences with LGBT folks in the US. By stating that Israeli LGBT activists have existed long before the pinkwashing campaign, Slepian concludes that these particular activists were not part of a pinkwashing agenda. However there is no causal relationship between those two facts: LGBT activism in Israel certainly exists outside of this campaign, but these particular activists were here on a tour whose hotel accommodations for the entire trip were being paid for by the Israeli consulate. Activists on the tour were either actively participating in pinkwashing or being used in the service of pinkwashing. While Slepian argues that they weren’t chosen on the basis of their views on Palestine, it seems unlikely that any of them would speak out against the Occupation on a tour being financed by the Israeli government. In fact, one of the gay rights activists on the tour, Iris Sass-Kochavi, just happens to be living in an illegal settlement that steals Palestinian natural resources. Furthermore, it’s difficult to believe that the tour had no pinkwashing agenda when it has been documented that Slepian himself has been in communication with Akiva Tor, the Israeli Consul General, to counter pinkwashing accusations against Frameline, a LGBT film festival in the Bay area that takes financial support from the Israeli consulate to show Israeli films.

Fact: Tours financed by the Israeli government are promoting an Israeli government agenda.

Slepian 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.

While Slepian argues that A Wider Bridge was the principal sponsor of the Rainbow Generations tour, there’s no getting around the fact that StandWithUs and the Israeli Consulate also sponsored the tour in Seattle. He tries to downplay these ties, but the larger question remains: If this were a tour simply about LGBT rights in Israel, why would StandWithUs or the Israeli consulate even be involved? Notorious for promoting pinkwashing, StandWithUs demonizes Arabs and Palestinians with Islamophobic claims, such as “Arab and Palestinian leadership’s repression and religious fundamentalism are at the root of many of the Palestinians’ problems.” Actually, Israel’s military occupation is at the root of their problems. Arguing that Israel is a “sanctuary for the gay community,” StandWithUs ignores the fact that gay Palestinians are specifically ineligible for asylum under Israeli law. Indeed, it’s a little difficult to believe that StandWithUs cares at all about LGBT rights unless they are in the service of Israeli propaganda given its use of homophobic taunts at peace activists and its extensive ties to homophobic groups and individuals, such Pastor John Hagee, who once claimed that Hurricane Katrina was caused by “homosexuals.”

Fact: The “Rainbow Generations” tour was sponsored by SWU and the Israeli government.          

Slepian Myth 3: Israeli gay rights can’t be separated from Palestinian Human Rights.

Anti-pinkwashing rhetoric, according to Slepian, 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.” Actually, the Israeli government intertwined these topics with its pinkwashing campaign. Furthermore, if we take into consideration the struggles of queer Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as Palestinians in the Occupied territories, it is clear that these topics are completely connected. Israel reserves its LGBT rights for a small group of LGBT folks—Jewish Israelis—and offers nothing but inequality for all Palestinians—gay or straight.

Slepian attempts to draw an analogy between Israeli LGBT rights and African American’s civil rights by arguing that advances in civil rights took place during and despite U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. According to Slepian, “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.” The comparison is problematic for several reasons. First of all, by objecting to pinkwashing, activists are not condemning all of Israeli society. We are simply asking the Israeli government and Jewish American institutions stop using LGBT rights to cover up the illegal and immoral treatment of Palestinians. Second, Israel is not engaging in a “war abroad.” It is engaging in a war against its own citizens who happen to be Palestinian, as well as the Palestinians living under its Occupation. Third, African American civil rights and the Vietnam War were also inextricably intertwined together as Martin Luther King Jr. detailed in his famous speech “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” He describes his disappointment with the United States’ inability to deal with “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism,” which, not coincidentally, are contemporary evils of the Israeli Occupation, which denies Palestinian’s civil rights.

Slepian again reverses power dynamics when he argues:

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.

In reality, Pinkwashing uses LGBT rights to quash dialogue about the Occupation. What actually dishonors Israeli LGBT activists is using their struggle to cover up the oppression of Palestinians.

Fact: Gay rights and human rights are interconnected.

Slepian Myth 4: It’s Either Israelis or Palestinians.

According to Slepian, pinkwashing critics pit Jewish Israeli LGBT rights in opposition to Palestinian rights. In reality, pinkwashing creates this opposition by attempting to recruit gays around the world into sympathizing with Israel by creating concern for some supposedly universal category of LGBT folks. Queer Palestinians can only be a part of this category if they disavow half of their identity; as queers, they can be oppressed by homophobic Palestine, but as Palestinians, they cannot mention oppression by the Israeli government. While Slepian claims that “it is the pro-BDS movement that is attempting to silence and ‘invisibilize’ Israeli LGBT leaders,” it is actually pinkwashing that renders invisible the work of queer Palestinian activist organizations, such as al Qaws, Aswat, and Palestinian Queers for BDS, which simultaneously fight the Israeli Occupation and homophobia.

Fact: Pinkwashing uses Jewish Israeli LGBT rights to oppose Palestinian rights.

Slepian Myth 5: Anti-pinkwashing activists are for “true free speech.”

In his final and most dramatic reversal of power, Slepian suggests that “the effort to cancel events like those in Seattle is an attempt to police the bounds of what may be discussed about Israel.” In reality, we have asked to widen the discussion of LGBT rights in Israel to include the voices of queer Jewish Israelis and Palestinians critical of the Occupation. It’s ironic to hear that we are trying to police the bounds of discussions about Israel when mainstream Jewish organizations such as Hillel and the Jewish Federation have issued guidelines that they will not support programming that involves anyone connected to any organization that supports BDS. This censorship by Jewish institutions has led to many last minute cancellations of events, such as Peter Beinart’s talk in the Bay area and the recent Go & Learn event in New York City.

Fact: Anti-pinkwashing activists want to include the voices of queer Jewish Israelis and Palestinians critical of the Occupation.

Slepian concludes that pinkwashing “has become the new straw man of the pro-BDS movement” and ends his piece with a brazen appropriation of queer imagery:

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.

Pinkwashing is no straw man. It is an actual campaign supported by a desperate government trying to bolster an undemocratic state that is becoming increasingly unpopular in public opinion. Slepian’s attempt to distort reality with this piece is evidence that mainstream Israeli advocacy organizations are not succeeding in their pinkwashing attempts. Queers see through their propaganda campaign: we reject any rainbow that is used to cover up and justify human rights abuses. To build a path towards a just peace, we must include the voices of queer Palestinians and Israelis who are fighting the Occupation. Slepian’s path—paved with Israeli propaganda—can only lead to continued injustice.

(Please note: This article is part of a broader debate on pinkwashing. For the debate’s full table of contents, click here).


4 thoughts on “Revealing the Truth Behind the Rainbow: Seattle’s Anti-Pinkwashing Success

  1. Ms. Somerson certainly deserves her doctorate in English, for she writes beautifully, and with intense clarity. However her logic is flawed as time after time she fails to logically dispute the facts put forward by. Mr. Slepian, relying instead on repeating the very code words the BDS movement uses to denigrate Israel. I for example, and many other lgbt citizens, began our battles against homophobia in Israel in about 1976 – long before the 2005 date Ms. Somerson sets as the start of “pinkwashing”.

  2. With all due respect, Mr. Danilowitz, you seem to have missed many of the points of Somerson’s excellent analysis. One of these is that the BDS movement does not “denigrate” the state of Israel so much as call it to account for the continued illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the violent and repressive policies it has used to maintain that occupation. I don’t understand the connection you make between your work in the early gay and lesbian rights struggles and current government pinkwashing tactics . Opposing Israeli government attempts to pinkwash its human rights abuses has nothing to do with not respecting the work of Israelli lgbt activists historically or in the present. But I am an old-fashioned lesbian feminist and we have always believed that gaining our rights as queer people is meaningless if we don’t acknowledge all our diversity and fight for the rights of all.

  3. Standing up for others is fair. But the vitriol on both sides displays a lack of conviction to the core principles each say they represent. That is sad. I feel as if my sexuality for these people is not a part of my humanity, but a point score in a competition between tribes. Too many words, hostilities, hatred. Tikkun’s effort to be impartial while supporting it’s principles is to be commended, but…where’s the Spirit in this coverage? Or is it unintentionally become a part of the media hype from the sidelines? Some editorial intervention, as it does so sensitively on other issues, would help in this discussion. Thanks.

  4. So is it impossible for (albeit imperfectly) tolerant Israel to also oppress Palestinians who oppress their own LGBTs to the point that they flee to Israel where they cannot legally remain? What is the logic in this zero-sum analysis? Life is complex and sides are not pure.

    It is not pinkwashing to point out that Israel generally treats LGBTs better than its surrounding Arab states. That is a fact. And the occupation is still immoral. Both conditions can coexist. No need to squelch speech on the subject of LGBTs in Israel, or for that matter of Palestinians.