Sexuality Policy Watch

Pinkwashing: The promised land beyond the rainbow

Text by Berenice Bento (UnB) published at Outras Palavras, on Dec. 12, 2018. Translated by SPW. Available here.

At first glance, nothing seems stranger to an LGBTTIQ+ human rights activist than to see fellow activists join the boycott against the Tel Aviv/Israel Pride. This is so because, after all, it is assumed that in Israel as in so many other places on earth, the LGBTTIQ+ population constantly struggle to have their rights respected. In light of that, many ask why artists who are so active in the defense of human rights have refused invitations to attend the Tel Aviv International Film Festival, a satellite event to the Tel Aviv Pride?

Yet, other questions must be raised: can Israel be, in fact, considered a democracy for the LGBTTIQ+ population? If the answer is yes, the call for a global to boycott appears to further meaningless given that the Parade is the moment to celebrate the conquests and advance the rights struggle.  But if the answer is no, the boycott would be bluntly nonsense: it is our duty to support the struggle of those who suffer oppression and the Pride, despite being festive, is still a place where a disrespected population can gain visibility. One element is, however, missing in the correlation between LGBTTIQ+ freedom and Israeli democracy. It must be properly named before this essay proceeds: Palestine.

What is the rapport between the Israeli State policy towards the LGBTTIQ+ population and Palestine? Nothing, absolutely nothing in the realm of what has been theorized on the State of Israel can be disentangled from the situation in Palestine.

It was rather surprising to hear from an important gay expert on Brazil about the incoherence of boycotting the Tel Aviv Pride, which did not make any mention to the State of Israel necropolitics (a concept developed by Achille Mbmbe) against the Palestinian people. This silence on the situation experienced by Palestinians constitutes one of the most violent instruments of war against Palestinians: it pretends they do not exist or try exempting the “Israel society” from the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe).

In this essay, my ideas are organized in blocks. I will first try to answer the question of whether Israel is what it claims to be: a democracy. Then, I will discuss the relationship between democracy and the rights of the LGBTTIQ+ population. Lastly, I will resume the current discussion on the boycott of Israel, departing from the antisemitism/anti-Zionism debate and them examining the growing support now gathered by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Is Israel a democracy?

On August 2018, the Knesset approved a law that defines Israel as the “Nation-State of the Jewish people”[1]. Under the new legislation, over 20 percent of Israel’s population, comprised of Palestine-Israelis, will become second-class citizens. This law, we can undoubtedly argue, does not inaugurate the apartheid against Palestinians, who only managed to survive an ethnic cleansing started in 1948, due to their persistent strategy of remaining in their cities of origin.[2]

The law formalizes and ensures a legal- democratic frame (it was put to a vote in the Parliament) to sustain a system of organization of the Israeli State in which to be a Palestinian is the defining mark to determine who has or does not have rights. Consequently, how can one possibly imagine that Palestinian-Israeli gay/lesbian/trans persons can have their sexual and gender identity respected when their Palestinian identity automatically situates them in the lower rank of the social hierarchy? But there are other aspects that compel us to further criticize the myth of Israel as a truly democratic country: Israel does not have a Constitution; civil marriage does not exist and the enactment of divorce is an exclusive attribution of rabbis.

Another crucial dimension of this undemocratic frame is that even though leis may exist that ensure the rights of all (which is not the case in Israel) in daily life across diffuse social relations these rights are not respected because their premises have not been internalized. Here we are in the domain of the asymmetry between juridical norms and social life. The realm of law and lived worlds do not walk hand in hand. And, in this fault line, a tense ground is opened in which people struggle to be recognized. In an imaginative effort, let us think of Israel as a place where all are equal before the law (as was said before, Israel is a segregationist state today). Would this automatically mean that LGBTTIQ+ rights are respected?

In the book Mirage gay à Tel-Aviv [3], Jean Stern argues that Israel remains a deeply homophobic country, in which 47 percent of the population considers homosexuality to be a disease. At the 2009 and 2015 Jerusalem Pride march, conservative Jews charged against demonstrators.[4] One of the injured protesters in 2015 died. This data indicates that Israel is not a sound democracy. Its LGBTTIQ+ population does not live in paradise, neither in the rainbow promised land. A profound aversion to LGBTTI rights remains unchanged in daily life. In light of that, one could argue, perhaps, that these limits would be a good reason to encourage participation in the Pride Parade and leave behind the so-called boycott, as suggested by previously mentioned the expert on Brazil.

Tel Aviv Pride: an official event of the State of Israel

What is the importance of the Tel Aviv Pride for Israel? The Pride Parade is part of the national official calendar. The State openly promotes the alleged “truth” that the country respects LGBTTIQ+ rights, (supposedly) converting the event into a national differentiation mark in comparison to neighboring countries that do not respect the same rights.” But, as we have seen, this does not happen in real life and, therefore, the question that remains is why the state invests so much to globally sell, as one of its main export products – the image of a democratic country inhabited by people who respect the multiple expressions of sexuality and gender.

All states must be legitimated to exist. Acting consistently according to shared values is considered fundamental and necessary to ensure a quantum of credibility that grounds international legitimacy. In that regard, the State of Israel has built a discursive strategy to convince the West, especially the United States, that Western values (the value of individual freedom and autonomy) are the hallmark of its state policies. In this context, LGBTTI rights occupy a central place in the official Israeli propaganda agenda.

In 2005, following the violent repression against the second Intifada (the Palestinian resistance movement), the “Brand Israel” campaign began. Tzipi Livni (a former Israeli Secret Service agent), the Foreign Minister at the time, was a mains protagonist in the design of a “gay city” to be sold internationally. Since then, Western journalists began receiving official State invitations to visit the city. The number of tourists in Tel Aviv Pride rose from 7 thousand in 2006 to 35 thousand in 2017. By 2018, this number reached 250 thousand people. Also according to Jean Stern, the Pride is a political trick, fabricated, organized and financed by the state.

The Tel Aviv gay center is a Municipal Center whose personnel is funded by the city government and it hires the Pride advertisers. Everything is official. In 2005, a unit was created to manage the trade of the country’s image, which is named Brand Israel Management Team and is coordinated by Saatchi & Saatchi, a leading international business agency. The first step taken by Brand Israel was to replace the old slogan “Jewish Heritage”, considered too tacky, by “Innovation for Life”, as a new label of the country. The Brand Israel Management Team has also strengthened the operational capacity of tourism outposts based in Europe and in the United States and has multiplied advertising campaigns worldwide to project the image of a peaceful, entertaining and creative country, totally apart from images of or ideas concerning territorial occupation or colonization.

If we do a quick Google search for “gay parade + Tel Aviv” images such as the one below appear:

I went through the dozens of them but could not find a single photo connected with the violations of LGBTTIQ+ rights that occur in Israel, due to homophobic violence. There is no mention either of the situation of Palestinians, even when exactly on the day of the 2018 Tel Aviv Pride, three Palestinian teenagers were murdered in Gaza and the Israeli army injured over 500 civilians. The apparent spontaneity of the free dancing bodies that these images project are intended to conceal the fabricated and controlled character of the message that must be internalized by foreigners and visitors: Israel is a free and happy country.

In addition, demonstrations organized by LGBTTI human rights groups against the Palestine occupation and colonization are violently repressed [5] and do not appear in any mainstream media vehicles. Beneath the images of celebrating bodies, a “media occupation war” is underway. Or, in terms of the documentary The Occupation of the American Mind, an absolute control over the flow of news prevails over any issue linked to Israel. The hasbara’s (propaganda) magic is based on tricks. For example, it removes the signs of a female soldier’s uniform whom hours before arresting some Palestinian child for the alleged crime of throwing stones at Israel soldiers was singing and dancing in the Parade floats. It hides the systematic breaking through Palestinian homes perpetrated by soldiers with the aim of incarcerating one of its members. But in the Parade, the same soldier is a happy lesbian. This other identity inhabiting her skin does the miracle of turning her from oppressor into an exemplary figure of Western civilization.

Carl von Clausewitz stated that war is the continuation of politics. Michel Foucault reversed this aphorism by asserting that politics is war continued by other means. In Tel Aviv, the most Western city of the Middle East, another reversal takes place: the party is also war by other means. It is not an extraordinary event. Rather it is fully aligned with the ongoing policy implemented by the State aimed at concealing the necropolitics governing the Palestinian people. Not far from the festival streets, there are still several refugee camps inhabited by Palestinians who have certainly had their homes expropriated by the State of Israel in order to build the streets that, in the heat of the Mediterranean summer, welcome tourists to celebrate the beauty of freedom.

The question must be reversed now: how is it possible that no denunciations are made against the Israel strategy to seize the LGBTTI activism flag as a tool for maintaining colonial power and segregation? How is it possible to enjoy the turquoise color of the Mediterranean Sea without experiencing an ethical dilemma? How not be aware that Palestinians cannot access these spaces? Or to acknowledge that the Israeli gay slender body now parading may have been, few hours before, discharging heavy ammunition to execute a young Palestinian man who had threatened him with a knife at one of Israel’s numerous checkpoints?

These considerations certainly make no sense to those who reduce or interpret the world from a purely identity-based perspective, who choose a single dimension of their existence as sole reference encompassing their political acting and whole existence. The identity struggle, when it is not connected to other struggles for recognition and social justice, can easily be co-opted by the logic of domination. In times of “progressive neoliberalism,” in Nancy Fraser’s terms [6], identity movements can fend off struggles for social transformation and be colonized by liberalism.

From this perspective, it does not matter if the lesbian who is there performing her sexual orientation is also a soldier in an army that systematically perpetrates crimes against humanity denounced in International Courts. Her participation in the parade, in fact, does not interrupt her military activities. On the contrary, to attend the Pride Parade is a civic task as important as the micromanaged control of Palestinian lives. There are no disjunctions between the tasks of celebrating and killing. In the Parade, the lesbian soldier continues the war of elimination. This is the meaning of pinkwashing [7],[8].

In an article published in the New York Times in 2011, Sarah Schulman coined this term widely quoted today. Making an analogy with whitewashing, the State of Israel does pinkwashing. The expression means a set of discourses that resort to supposedly existing LGBTTIQ+ freedom as to cleanse and conceal crimes against humanity perpetrated by the State of Israel. In the article [9] A Documentary Guide to Pinkwashing, published in 2016, the same Sarah Schulman has historicized pinkwashing and analyzed its unfolding in time.

It is not my goal to exhaust all discursive strategies deployed by the State of Israel, to redress its image blurring the reality of a country that has systematically violated international laws and agreements. There are many forms of “washings”, however, such as veganwashing [10] and artwashing [11] but also redwashing [12]. This latter is a concept I propose to depict the discourses of left-wing Zionists who insist on the argument that both sides must be “listened to” as if Palestine and Israel were in symmetrical situations.

The common trait of these discursive “cleanups” is to reproduce and sell Israel as a cosmopolitan, emancipatory and morally superior country in relation to its Arab neighbors because it respects the autonomy of individuals. Some time ago, the “organic intellectuals” of the Israeli State realized that not only highly sophisticated weapons may win a war. They began doing the best to ensure that after each massacre against the Palestinian people, these horror scenes were erased from the memory of the world. This is the function of media washing. Faced with the Israel pinkwashing, what should do LGBTTIQ+ activists committed to an intersectional perspective of justice and social transformation? I have no doubts: our task and challenge are to engage and mobilize with the global boycott of the Parade and all activities linked to it.

Boycott and anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism

I have explored three arguments. Israel is not a democracy, neither in legal nor in substantive terms. In cultural terms, Israel society does not fundamentally characterize respect sexual and gender differences. The Tel Aviv Pride Parade is another instrument of war deployed by the State of Israel. But I want to address as a fourth and final question: the triangular relationship between the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.  I will do so in responding to two questions: Is BDS [13] a contemporary form of anti-Semitism? Does the call for the boycott of the Pride Parade conceal a new form of anti-Semitism?

As never before, we are seeing an offensive on the part of the State of Israel to make coincide or create a confusion between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, as a strategy to attack and debilitate the BDS. The logic informing this offensive is to induce a simple equivalence between these two terms. In other words, the terms become interchangeable: a person who raises a critique to Zionism is automatically qualified as anti-Semite, especially if he/she articulates the BDS acronym that is considered abject by the State of Israel.

In various parts of the world, human rights activists and defenders of Palestinian self-determination have been fiercely attacked. In England, Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn [14] and countless other members who denounce Israel’s crimes and endorse the BDS, were accused of anti-Semitism. In Brazil, former federal Congressman Milton Temer [15], acknowledged as one of the most committed voices to social justice and for his solidarity with the Palestinian people, has also suffered constant defamation by Zionists.

One of the most in-depth arguments on the necessity to separate Judaism and Zionism has been developed by Judith Butler — herself a constant victim of slander because of her supposed anti-Semitism – in the book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism [16].  One of her main arguments is that the ethical tradition of Jewishness (the term coined by Hannah Arendt), contains structural elements that preclude Zionism to be an icon of core Jewish values. As noted in the first chapter of the book:

“If I succeed in showing that there are Jewish resources for the criticism of state violence, the colonial subjugation of populations, expulsion and dispossession, then I will have managed to show that a Jewish critique of Israeli state violence is at least possible, if not ethically obligatory. If I show, further, that there are Jewish values of cohabitation with the non-Jew that are part of the very ethical substance of diasporic Jewishness, then it will be possible to conclude that commitments to social equality and social justice have been an integral part of Jewish secular, socialist, and religious traditions.” (p. 1)

Even before his book had been published, Butler had already explored the complex relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence [17], for example, she had already concluded that:

“(…)If we think, though, that to criticize Israeli violence, or to call for specific tactics that will put economic pressure on the Israeli state to change its policies, is to engage in “effective anti-Semitism,” we will fail to voice our opposition out of fear of being named as part of an anti-Semitic enterprise.” (p.103).

In her reflections, among other values of Jewishness, the philosopher highlights the principle of coexistence. Jews have lived and continue to live in different countries. They have had to live through centuries with cultural differences and strive to maintain their own values. Inevitably, however, they were affected by encounters with other values. This makes it impossible to think that the Jew is an armored, universal subject, unaffected by the specific cultural contexts surrounding him. Although Jewishness is grounded on the tradition crystallized in the sacred books, Jews were and are exposed to local contexts and as a result of this experience, a re-reading (or cultural translation) of the Jewish “being” emerges. One strong trait of Judaism would be, therefore, the ability to live, cohabit and translate culturally characteristics completely foreign to the racist ideology of Zionism. Yet, where Judaism says “cohabitation,” the Zionists are implementing ethical cleansing. This is why the s the globalized Jewish movement “Not in my name”[18] is one of the most powerful political expressions of Butler’s elaborations. This movement is formed by Jews who refuse to give up their identity within the Jewish tradition, but also refuse any identification with Zionism. More than a passive refusal, theirs is an activism that denounces Zionism as one of the narrowest expressions of contemporary racism. Their main aim is to try saving Judaism from Zionism.

Voices against the segregation of Israeli-Palestinians and the Israeli colonization of Palestine territories that were scattered around the world, now have as a point of convergence, which is the international solidarity movement with the Palestinian people that call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of the State of Israel. This movement is a specter now haunting the Brand Israel politics. In response Israel, systematically calls BDS a form of anti-Semitism, in an attempt to control the discourses circulating in the public sphere through hat can be called a terrorism of accusation.

BDS is inspired on South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. It is a global (non-violent) call from the Palestinian civil society. It is based on the “spirit of international solidarity, moral coherence and resistance to injustice and oppression” (BDS Manifesto). Its goas goal is to mobilize boycotts and implement disinvestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa during the apartheid era. These measures are intended to force Israel to fulfill its obligation to recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and fully comply with the precepts of international law and the universal principles of human rights.

BDS has become one main political target of the State of Israel. In several countries, the Zionist lobby tries to approve laws that define BDS activists as anti-Semitism [19]. It is exactly in the context of this war against BDS that the State of Israel increased investments in one of its major events, the Pride Parade. In contrast, a violent offensive against artists who join the BDS has also been unleashed to accuses and persecute them under the charge of anti-Semitism. In Israel, BDS is criminalized.

In the Tel Aviv airport, for example, it is quite common to witness the constant deportations of human rights activists who are identified themselves as belonging to BDS. In another article, I outlined the strategies I had to adopt as to avoid being deported when I arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv [20]. This growing of deportations that are symptomatic of a paranoid state [21], reminds me of the Brazilian military dictatorship motto: “Love it or leave it”. In Israel, however, its meaning is reversed: “Love it or do not dare enter”.

In conclusion, I would like to share Hansen Maikey’s reflections. Maikey is a Palestinian queer activist who has written that: “there will be no lasting or just peace until Palestinians living inside Israel, the occupied West Bank and Gaza, are given full equality in their homeland and Palestinian refugees have secured their legal right to return”. [22] The question we should tackle is, therefore: what t can we – feminists, queers and LGBTI activists in Brazil and Latin America. do as to contribute to peace and social justice in Palestine?

[1] Read in The New York Times.

[2] See Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, ONEWorld Publications, 2007.

[3] Jean Stern, Mirage gay à Tel-Aviv, Les éditions Libertalia, Paris, 2017

[4] See in the NYT.

[5] See the Palestine Chronicle.

[6] Read in Portuguese.

[7] Read in the NYT.

[8] See the BDS Pinkwashing Commision Facebook page.

[9] Read in the Huffington Post.

[10] Read in the Warwick Globalist.

[11] Read in The National.

[12] Read in Portuguese.

[13] See BDS Brasil; and BDS Internacional Facebook pages.

[14] Read in The Haaretz and in the NYT.

[15] Read in Portuguese.

[16] Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism, New York, US: Columbia University Press, 2012.

[17] Judith Butler, Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence, London, England: Verso, 2004.

[18] See Jews Say No.

[19] Read in the American Thinker.

[20] Read in Portuguese.

[21] See, for example, on the Washington Post.

[22] Read on the Newsweek.

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