Pinkwashing Israel

The US Social Forum brings together organisations from across the United States with the aim of working for social justice. This year's forum, which opens next week in Detroit, includes a workshop on "LGBTQI Liberation in the Middle East". According to the blurb:

The purpose of this workshop is to expose the underground LBGTQI Liberation movements that currently exist across the Middle East ... We will introduce participants to the stories of young people from across the region striving for acceptance. Some stories are harrowing and gut wrenching, while others are triumphant, but all are inspirational. The end goal is to engage the participants in supporting the cause of LGBTQI Liberation, and to connect them with outlets through which they can offer their support. 

So far, so good. But the workshop is organised and sponsored by Stand With Us – an organisation which describes itself as "the next generation of Israel advocacy" and claims to employ "a powerful breadth of strategies to elevate the level of consciousness and understanding of the State of Israel".

Stand With Us is not just about "understanding" Israel. It's a militant Zionist organisation which has been accused ofoffensive behaviour towards Jews who don't share its opinions and it recently organised a campaign of public support for the "brave men" from the IDF who attacked the Gaza flotilla.

Though not an LGBT organisation itself, Stand With Us has latched on to the gay rights issue as a way of "pinkwashing" Israel's image.

Last year, for example, it organised iPride – a campaign to link "gay pride with pro-Israel pride" (as Jewish peace activist Richard Silverstein put it on his blog). The idea was to invite gay Jews from the diaspora to Israel and give them the message "that Israel is a liberal country, a multicultural, pluralistic country".

Exactly what message Stand With Us will bring to the Social Forum next week remains to be seen, but two of its fliers are probably a good indication. One, showing an executioner's noose, is headed: "Treatment of Gay Men by the Palestinian Authority". The other, showing a happy bunch of people waving rainbow flags, asks: "Why does Israel look like paradise to gay Palestinians?" It adds: "Israel is a sanctuary to many gay Palestinians, who suffered beatings, imprisonment, and death at the hands of their families and the Palestinian Authority police ..."

Not surprisingly, Arab LGBT organisations are furious at this apparent attempt by pro-Israel extremists to hijack the Middle East gay rights agenda. Four of them – HelemAswatal-Qawsand Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – have issued a joint statement:

Stand With Us is cynically manipulating the struggle of queer people in the Middle East through its workshop ...

Stand With Us has no connection with the LGBT movement in the Middle East apart from ties to Zionist Israeli LGBT organisations, yet it claims to speak for and about our movements. It has no credibility in our region, and as organisations working in and from the Middle East, we condemn its attempt to use us, our struggles, our lives, and our experiences as a platform for pro-Israeli propaganda.

Since Israel’s brutal wars on Gaza and Lebanon in 2006 and particularly after the recent unprovoked attack on the flotilla of activists going to Gaza, the Israeli government has found itself increasingly marginalised ... To remedy this, it has launched a massive PR campaign using organisations such as Stand With Us to convince the world that Israel is not a brutal settler-colony state, but rather a free democracy where human rights in general, and LGBT rights in particular, are respected and upheld. 

Stand With Us deceptively uses the language of LGBT and women’s rights to obscure the fact that institutionalised discrimination is enshrined within the state of Israel.

Our struggle is deeply intertwined with the struggle of all oppressed people, and we cannot accept that we are being used as a tool to discredit the Palestinian cause. 

It is true, of course, that Israel has a number of achievementsto its credit in the field of gay rights. It legalised same-sex relations between men in 1988. Four years later, it went a step further and became the only country in the Middle East that outlaws discrimination based on sexuality. A series of court cases then put the theory into practice – for example, when El Al was forced to provide a free ticket for the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline already did for the partners of its straight employees.

Despite what the Stand With Us flier suggests, however, its treatment of gay Palestinians seeking refuge in Israel has beenless than admirable.

But it is the attempt to harness gay rights to the Zionist cause that mostly troubles LGBT activists, including a some Israeli activists. Hagai El-Ad of Jerusalem's Open House described his ambivalent feelings about this in 2002 when Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to formally meet a gay delegation. He wrote:

Is this an achievement for our community, or an example of a lack of feeling, callousness and loss of direction?

... It would be unbearable to simply sit with the prime minister and, on behalf of our minority, ignore the human rights of others, including what's been happening here in relation to Palestine for the past year: roadblocks, prevention of access to medical care, assassinations, and implementation of an apartheid policy in the territories and in Israel.

The struggle for our rights is worthless if it's indifferent to what's happening to people a kilometre from here ...

All we get by holding the meeting with the prime minister is symbolic legitimacy for the community. What he gets for sitting down with us is the mantle of enlightenment and pluralism.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 June 2010.