Pinkwashing and the Dangers of Romanticizing Israel’s Queer Rights Record
For the past several years, and lately with growing intensity, Israel has come under fire by anti-Palestinian-occupation activists for its attempts to “pinkwash” its image in response to the growing outrage at Israeli settlements and human rights abuses in Palestine. Pinkwashing, Sarah Schulman writes in The New York Times, is “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”
As such, by portraying itself as a country that embraces queer individuals – or as a beacon of queer acceptance in the middle of a geographic area that is largely hostile towards queer people – Israel effectively affirms to the Western world that it is a modern, democratic, forward-thinking bastion of progressiveness in the otherwise conservative and queer- antagonistic Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
These charges of pinkwashing have attracted both supporters and critics. Some believe that pinkwashing is a very real phenomenon, which Israel employs regularly to exaggerate the positive qualities of its record on queer rights, while others believe claims of pinkwashing denigrate Israel’s reputation as a queer-friendly country and minimize the work Israel’s government has done thus far to extend social and legal equality to queer Israelis.
Israel’s Record on Queer Rights The basis of the arguments behind those who believe pinkwashing is a nonsense claim is that Israel is, in fact, relatively “progressive” in comparison to Palestine and the MENA as a whole. To this there is some truth: There are only four countries in the Middle East in which homosexuality is legal: Jordan, Bahrain, Iraq, and Israel. Israel is, by far, the most normatively queer-friendly country of these.
However, while homosexuality and other queer identities might be legal in Israel, queer people are still not fully equal to their straight and cisgender compatriots. Stephanie Skora writes in +972 Mag Israel does not perform same-sex marriages; has its own version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (legislation which U.S.-based activists might remember from 2015, when Indiana’s then-Governor Mike Pence signed a much-maligned similar bill); and failed to pass a package of comprehensive LGBTQ rights legislation following the 2015 stabbing death of a teenager in the Jerusalem Pride Parade. Yet the Brand Israel initiatives market the country as a paradise for queer and trans people around the world.
It is clear, then, that Israeli law and society is not wholly inclusionary of queer people. This shouldn’t minimize the work Israel has done in advancing the rights of its queer citizens, but Israel is still extremely far from being a “queer-friendly” country.
The image of a gay-paradise in Israel in advertisements and marketing campaigns geared toward foreigners and tourists is far from the reality of the actual society in which queer Israeli citizens live. To characterize the entirety of other countries in MENA as “anti-gay” and Israel as pro-queer and a gay haven is disingenuous and ignores and minimizes Israel’s ongoing failures to expand equal rights to, and address discrimination against, queer citizens.
It would be disingenuous to minimize the reality that the governments of all MENA countries are actively engaging in the legal oppression of queer people. In Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen homosexuality is punishable by death; although “no executions have been reported for at least a decade.” In other MENA countries, being queer can lead to imprisonment. Israel, while much more liberal with its queer politics than some other MENA countries, is far from perfect with its treatment of its queer citizens and its queer rights record should not be overly romanticized.
In the same vein, to portray MENA as a whole as anti-queer, or to frame Israel against other MENA countries as a “progressive” country in the middle of a “regressive” area, effectively erases the countless number of queer people who live in Arab MENA countries and the important work they do in advancing queer rights in their home states.
Is Israel “pinkwashing?” If so, what are the repercussions? In an article for Slate, author Tyler Lopez denounces those who claim Israel is “pinkwashing” as “trapped in their own gender studies/international relations fantasyland.” This claim seems misguided, at best.
“Pinkwashing” isn’t a term used to smear Israel’s queer rights record so much as it is to draw light to Israel’s attempts to better its image on the world stage in the midst of increasing criticism about its human rights abuses in Palestine. One can criticize Israel’s “pinkwashing” efforts while also acknowledging that it is more queer-friendly than other Middle Eastern countries; the two are not mutually exclusive.
Queer people do not have to wholly embrace Israel because of its status as some self-styled Middle Eastern gay Mecca and queer people should continue to criticize Israel for being slow to adopt more protections for its queer citizens. Likewise, queer people should be very much concerned with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and its treatment of Palestinians. As a queer person myself, I believe it is of utmost importance that we address abuse, oppression, and discrimination in all forms. We cannot simply campaign for queer rights and ignore all other forms of oppression.
Lopez continues: "Gays, perhaps it’s time to book your tickets to Saudi Arabia. (Don’t worry about finding a hotel; if you’re openly gay, the Saudi government will be happy toprovide accommodations.) Of course, LGBTQ rights aren’t the only marker of social change or human rights. But suggesting that they’re separate from any other universal human right is dangerous.
An accusation of pinkwashing presumes that gay human rights causes are less salient than Palestinian human rights causes, when in fact they’re all equal. (And sometimes the same.) Keeping gay visitors out of Israel also keeps Palestine—and much of the rest of the Middle East—out of their minds. By championing all gay rights causes, activists can better champion Palestinian causes. By claiming #pinkwashing, we only further segregate the human rights community, and that just isn’t something to be proud of."
The argument of the last sentence is one that is particularly unconvincing. Criticizing Israel’s record on queer rights is not segregating the human rights community whatsoever; it is literally necessary to put Israel’s queer rights record into perspective with its record on the human rights of Palestinians. Gay right are human rights, of course, and as such the queer community has a responsibility to speak out against human rights abuses in all forms; and that extends to Israel’s occupation of and ongoing violent campaigns in Palestinian territory, regardless of the country’s stance on queer rights.
The queer community cannot turn a blind eye to Israel’s abuses of Palestinians because it is relatively queer friendly. Further, queer people cannot simply ally with Israel out of camaraderie with other queers. That is, queer people cannot turn a blind eye to Israel’s abuses because they feel they must protect Israel and the queer people living within it.
Maya Mikdashi believes Israel is “pinkwashing” and she writes for Jadaliyya: "Many progressive critics miss the point that pinkwashing, the process by which the government of Israel attempts to promote itself as a safe haven for Palestinian queers from “their culture,” is not primarily about gay rights or homosexuality at all.
Pinkwashing only makes sense as a political strategy within a discourse of Islamophobia and Arabophobia, and it is part of a larger project to anchor all politics within the axis of identity, and identitarian (and identifiable) groups. Thus critics of pinkwashing who assume an international queer camaraderie repeat a central tenet of homonationalism: homosexuals should be in solidarity with and empathize with each other because they are homosexual."
Mikdashi draws pinkwashing to Israel’s efforts to negatively characterize Arabs and Muslims in neighboring MENA countries. She also reiterates that queer people risk erasing or even encouraging the oppression of others by only standing in solidarity with queer Israelis simply “because they are homosexual.” Lopez argues that “By championing all gay rights causes, activists can better champion Palestinian causes,” to which Mikdashi might respond by stating that championing only gay rights causes, or primarily gay rights causes, has the opposite effect: an effect that muddles which causes and people Euro-American queers should support.
That is, Euro-American queers would cede themselves to supporting Israel on the sole basis of progressing the rights of queer Israelis, entrenching themselves in “homonationalism” and falling into a discourse that prioritizes the lives of queer Israelis over the rights of Palestinians and other people in the MENA region.
Ultimately, Israel’s pinkwashing stands to diminish the focus on its violence toward Palestinians and portrays an image of a country that is more “progressive” or tolerant than might perhaps be true. While some people might be hesitant to criticize Israel or charge it with pinkwashing, these criticisms do not have to come from a place of anger or hatred. We must recognize that they are criticisms which, hopefully, encourage the country to dedicate resources to actually expanding full civil rights and liberties to queer citizens.
It is also necessary to keep the totality of the country’s actions in perspective. In other words, we (Euro-American) queers cannot let slide or ignore the oppression of Palestinians because Israel seems queer friendly. To criticize Israel’s pinkwashing isn’t to negate the good the country does for queer citizens.
Rather, it is a necessary action we must take to address oppression and discrimination within and outside of the country. To do so is to better the lives of queer citizens within Israel and then MENA, and to alter the discourse which demonizes Arabs and Muslims as anti-queer and “regressive” with regards to civil liberties.