The Greater Context of the Pinkwashing Debate

I applaud Tikkun’s willingness to provide a forum for the discussion of a complex range of perspectives on LGBT rights in Israel/Palestine. The opinion pieces written by Richard Silverstein and Arthur Slepian, along with Rebecca Alpert and myself, offer Tikkun readers a window into a productive and sometimes painful conversation going on among LGBT and Jewish people in the United States and in Israel/Palestine.

This staged photo of Israeli soldiers has been identified by critics as a prime example of pinkwashing. The Israel Defense Forces released the photo on Twitter, accompanied by a tweet that read: "It's #PrideMonth. Did you know the #IDF treats all of its soldiers equally? RT & spread the truth about #Israel. #LGBT."

I wanted to offer some reactions to the most recent opinion piece authored by Arthur Slepian in which he takes on those who charge the state of Israel with “pinkwashing” its dismal human rights record when it comes to Palestine and the Palestinian people. Rather than respond point by point to the bill of particulars he issues to the anti-pinkwashers, I prefer to situate this debate in the context of larger gay rights organizing.

While I can’t speak for all who charge Israel with pinkwashing, I think it’s fair to say that the aim of the pinkwashing critique is not LGBT Israelis, but rather Israeli state policy that uses members of our community and/or our interests to burnish its own international reputation. In this respect, the concern is how LGBT rights get taken up by the state as a marketing tool and are served up to an international audience as part of a national rebranding project that necessarily implicates geo-political, religious, and international relations that far exceed gay rights.

Of equal importance, the pinkwashing critique applies to all states, not just Israel. In the United States there are many of us who have expressed concern that the Obama administration is using its good gay rights record (repealing “don’t ask/don’t tell,” backing away from defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and endorsing marriage equality rights for same-sex couples, for example) to deflect attention from its otherwise objectionable policies (aggressive deportation of undocumented people, use of drones to execute civilians, and failure to prosecute anyone or any entity in connection with the 2008 financial crisis for example). As some states expand their laws protecting the rights of LGBT people, pinkwashing has become an effective tool to portray a progressive reputation when their other policies relating to national security, immigration, income inequality, and militarism are anything but progressive.

Transnational dialogue with LGBT people in Israel is extremely important to activists here in the United States. There is much we can learn from one another about a range of issues such as: the potential for progressive social change in an increasingly conservative society; tools for engaging homophobic arguments based in religion and tradition; how to build a progressive, global LGBT movement; and how to incorporate concerns of class/racial/ethnic/religious diversity into the movement’s goals and strategies.

Objections that have been raised in the name of pinkwashing to conferences featuring Israel (Equality Forum) or tours of LGBT activists in the U.S. have turned on the Israeli government’s (or its surrogates’) sponsorship of those community events, not to the opportunity to engage with Israeli queers. When these cross-cultural exchanges get bound up in Israeli national propaganda they are legitimately criticized as a form of pinkwashing. This would be true if the United States were doing the same thing to polish its international human rights reputation (a gay pride event this month held at the U.S. Embassy in Uganda came close, to my mind.)

As I’ve written in an article soon to be published by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review entitled Dating the State: The Perils of Winning Gay Rights, we stand at a critical juncture in the global gay rights movement, having won considerable victories in the recognition of queer families and in securing important civil rights. But gaining the state as a partner in combating public and private forms of homophobia and transphobia lands us in a new and complex place when we consider the traps that partnership can entail. This moment in the evolution of LGBT rights requires a new kind of moral courage to resist the pull of the state towards a kind of homonationalism that conscripts the gay community into the state’s larger, and often times less progressive, political projects. Critics of pinkwashing take aim at the difficult choices we have to make when the state offers a helping hand, then pulls us into its political landscape.

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


One thought on “The Greater Context of the Pinkwashing Debate

  1. Reading this sort of essay on pinkwashing reminds me of reading tweets and blogs by NYC upper East Side children of privilege who constantly complain about the problems they have — The bumpy cab ride they had to endure and the cabdriver smelled bad, that they are too fat, they don’t have a boyfriend, they can’t decide what brand nail polish to wear this summer — they are all too beautiful, their favorite club just shut down, and the list goes on. All the indignities of life!

    When you look at the standard of living and rights of LGBT in Israel compared to the rest of the Middle East, and pretend that’s not important, you’ve got to be living some kind of extraordinarily privileged and spoiled lifestyle. To criticize Israel for letting people know the positive facts about Israel when they are attacked daily by the OIC at the UN, whilst real human rights atrocities are routinely ignored, is simply lacking common sense.

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