Ever since Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Tourism Ministry and Strategic Affairs Ministry jointly launched the “Brand Israel” initiative in 2005, LGBTQI+ rights, culture and identities have been key elements of Israel’s global marketing and nation-branding.
This can be seen every year around Tel Aviv Pride, the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival, Israel’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest, or for any other events that pertain to the LGBTQI+ community – both direct and indirect.
Of course, pinkwashing in more general terms is nothing new. It’s defined as the exploitation of LGBTQI+ culture and identities for public relations purposes and can be carried out by any business, political entity or individual. But the Israeli state is its worst proponent, along with many Israeli institutions and organisations. They are no strangers to using a pro-LGBTQI+ agenda to mask or distract from its ongoing Zionist settler-colonial project.
One of the aims of pinkwashing is to protect Israel’s reputation and political upstanding among other western, LGBTQI-friendly societies and to absolve Israel of all criticism and accountability.
In the words of renowned activist and AIDS historian Sarah Schulman, Israeli pinkwashing is “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life”.
One of the aims of pinkwashing is to protect Israel’s reputation and political upstanding among other western, LGBTQI-friendly societies and to absolve Israel of all criticism and accountability. Another aim is to attract tourist revenue – particularly from LGBTQI+ tourists. But here’s the catch: when people pander to pinkwashing, they not only become complicit in and help normalise the Israeli state’s violent Zionist project, they're also harming LGBTQI+ Palestinians.
This is particularly important when you consider the fact that LGBTQI+ Palestinians, just like their wider Palestinian community, are not magically exempt from any of Israel’s discriminatory policies or brutal occupation.
Like every other Palestinian, queer Palestinians are also at the mercy of Israel’s violent, racist settler-colonial project. As former grassroots LGBT group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid once said: “there is no pink door in the apartheid wall”.
Like every other Palestinian, queer Palestinians are also at the mercy of Israel’s violent, racist settler-colonial project. As former grassroots LGBT group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid once said: “There is no pink door in the apartheid wall”
Perhaps the most common examples of pinkwashing are when celebrities beloved by the queer community visit Israel. This year alone, we’ve seen Christina Aguilera and queer singer Adam Lambert perform concerts in Israel. Imagine Dragons, known for being progressive and sometimes unfurling the rainbow flag on stage, also performed in Israel this year. And as usual, a slew of RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni performed in Tel Aviv, notably Canada’s Drag Race judge Brooke Lyn Hytes, while countless social media influencers (often cis-gay white men) flew into Israel to party at Tel Aviv Pride. Each and every one of their performances or social media posts undermines the calls for a cultural boycott, and further legitimises Israel’s racist apartheid regime, military occupation, freedom of movement restrictions, and the 65-plus pieces of legislation discriminating against Palestinians.
Queer British superstar Sam Smith also grabbed headlines earlier this year over a planned performance in Tel Aviv in June, which was eventually cancelled due to logistical reasons.
But I digress. Pinkwashing employs tropes based on a racist, Orientalist view that Palestinians remain “backwards” in their stance on homosexuality.
To be “gay friendly,” as gender studies academic Jasbir Puar explains, is to be modern, cosmopolitan, developed, first-world, Global North, and, most significantly, democratic – all things that Palestinians supposedly cannot achieve.
To place the blame solely on the colonised (the Palestinians) for not meeting the standards of the coloniser’s (Israel’s) “civility” is not just an example of euro-centric, western exceptionalism, it also reeks of anti-Arab racism, and racial supremacy in general
There’s often an insidious expectation that as queer Palestinians we must choose one or the other; that it’s not acceptable to be both. Worse yet, they expect us to capitulate and accept Zionism and everything that comes with it: apartheid, military occupation, ethnic cleansing, second-class citizen rights, and more. In other words, we’d be “better off” as colonised people. This erases the agency of queer Palestinians and the queer Palestinian community, as well as other progressive movements inside Palestine.
The Israeli state often flaunts its liberal openness to sexuality and gender diversity while contrasting it to the oppression among Palestinian society and neighbouring Arab countries. This then serves as an excuse for Israel to rationalise its occupation of Palestinians, and to “liberate” oppressed LGBTQI+ Palestinian people.
However, this is nothing but a blatant weaponization of LGBTQI+ identities to justify Israel’s occupation and oppression of Palestinians – a hallmark of pinkwashing.
Meanwhile, whenever anyone accuses Israel of pinkwashing, or whenever a queer Palestinian asserts their identity and rejects Zionism, it’s common to be met with the cliched “try being gay in Gaza,” or “try having a Pride parade in Ramallah” responses.
To place the blame solely on the colonised (the Palestinians) for not meeting the standards of the coloniser’s (Israel’s) “civility” is not just an example of euro-centric, western exceptionalism, it also reeks of anti-Arab racism, and racial supremacy in general.
When people pander to pinkwashing, they become complicit in the Israeli violent Zionist project. Our Palestinian identity is linked with our sexuality. We cannot and should never be asked to choose between the two, and we must call out pinkwashing when we see it
I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I’ve been challenged or trolled on social media for showing even the smallest ounce of agency as a gay Palestinian. These critics usually cannot understand why I do not follow their pre-conceived Orientalist script in being a passive victim of a deeply patriarchal, “backward” society. They cannot comprehend why I do not support a nation state that is supposedly “the only LGBTQ haven in the Middle East”, as if possessing basic critical thinking skills is beyond them and they do not ask the question of exactly who it’s a haven for. They also cannot fathom why I am proud of my gay Palestinian identities, or why I won’t turn my back on my culture, as if my worth as a member of the queer community is dependent on their approval.
It’s also quite telling how – at least in my personal experience – that the homophobia and racism I’ve experienced from these critics far outnumbers the homophobia and bigotry I’ve had to deal with from my own Palestinian and wider Arab communities. But here’s the thing: our Palestinian identity is linked with our sexuality. We cannot and should never be asked to choose between the two. This is why we must call out pinkwashing when we see it.
Queer-led Palestinian groups, like alQaws, have said stressed the nature of pinkwashing being a symptom, with settler-colonialism “the root sickness”. They have also on record several times to say that queer liberation for Palestinians is tied up with liberation from Zionism. In other words, we cannot achieve real liberation as queer Palestinians until we have a free Palestine.
* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22
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