How Tel Aviv LGBTQ film fest serves Israeli state propaganda

Israel is having a hard time fighting activist call on artists to boycott Tel Aviv LGBTQ film festival. (via Pinkwatching Israel)

Organizers of Israel’s premier LGBTQ film festival are reeling from a successful Palestinian-led boycott campaign and they are trying to fight back with misleading messages to artists who have pulled out.

TLVFest has been hit by a wave of cancellations by artists expressing solidarity for Palestinian rights.

The Jerusalem Post has had to concede that though TLVFest “has been around for more than a decade, it has never faced a campaign this successful against it.”

In an email sent to artists who canceled, TLVFest director Yair Hochner denies that the festival aims to pinkwash Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

Pinkwashing is the public relations strategy that deploys Israel’s supposed enlightenment toward LGBTQ issues to deflect criticism from its human rights abuses and as a means to build support for Israel among Western liberals and progressives.

Pinkwashing often involves gross exaggerations of Israel’s supposedly progressive policies, accompanied by outright lies about Palestinians and a good dose of Islamophobic smears.

For example, it is often falsely claimed that “progressive” Tel Aviv is a safe place of asylum for Palestinians who seek same-sex relationships, and that Palestinian law outlaws same-sex relations.

The email from TLVFest’s Hochner, sent to several artists and seen by The Electronic Intifada, calls their decision to pull out “disappointing and unfortunate.”

“However, our festival does not ‘pinkwash,’ nor does it represent the policy of any government,” Hochner claims.

“Culture loyalty”

But this is disingenuous. Claiming not to represent the government’s policy does not exonerate the festival from pinkwashing, particularly because TLVFest is funded by Israel’s culture ministry, which has been explicit about its policy of using artists to improve the state’s image.

In March, for instance, the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s main film fund, financed entirely by the culture ministry, had added a requirement to its contracts that filmmakers “avoid disparaging Israel or denying that it is a Jewish and democratic state.”

Last year, the culture ministry announced plans for what it has dubbed the “culture loyalty” law.

Culture minister Miri Regev explained that the aim of the law is “for the first time, to make support for a cultural institution dependent on its loyalty to the State of Israel.”

“We do not deny being partially sponsored by the Ministry of Culture,” Hochner writes in his email, “but no large-scale film festival in Israel can be held without their support.” That only confirms just how closely tied Israel’s supposedly vibrant and independent cultural scene is to the government.

Hochner tries to further deflect criticism by boasting that the festival’s opening film last year was Oriented, which portrays Palestinian men who identify as gay living in Tel Aviv.

“The decision to open our festival with this film caused right-wing people in Israel to call for boycotting our festival,” Hochner states in a textbook example of pinkwashing: using LGBTQ issues to position himself and his festival as progressive allies of Palestinians, while remaining a fully funded part of Israel’s government-backed marketing and propaganda apparatus.

Serving status quo

Absurdly, Hochner claims that TLVFest is “using our financial support from the government to support the peace process and to promote freedom, justice and tolerance.”

If that were the case, Hochner would not be attacking the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement which has become the most effective and high-profile means for people around the world to support freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians and hasten an end to Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.

“We despise separation, war, violence and occupation,” Hochner asserts. “Instead, we support love, peace and building bridges, and we support the existence of two states for two nations.”

But if TLVFest threatened the status quo, or undermined Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip – even in the mildest way – it would likely incur the government’s full wrath, just like the anti-occupation groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, which government officials have dubbed “enemies” of the state.

Instead, TLVFest enjoys the full backing of the Israeli government because it serves its purposes.

Cultural events and activities “partially or fully sponsored by an official Israeli body or a complicit institution” are boycottable, according to the guidelines issued by PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Anti-Palestinian group

TLVFest has also recruited Creative Community for Peace in its effort to undermine the LGBTQ Palestinians who have spearheaded this boycott campaign.

Creative Community for Peace is a thinly disguised front group for StandWithUs, a far-right anti-Palestinian organization funded directly by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The email to artists from Creative Community for Peace, seen by The Electronic Intifada, claims that the BDS movement uses “false narratives” about pinkwashing “to demonize Israel.”

What makes TLVFest particularly valuable to Israel’s propaganda is precisely that by focusing on LGBTQ communities it presents a “progressive” face to the world.

Israel’s propaganda masterminds have made clear time and again that their key goal is to co-opt progressive figures in Western countries as the best way to divide critics of Israel and weaken Palestine solidarity.

Indications are that TLVFest’s messaging is not working. Cast and crew members of The Misandrists have spoken out publicly against the decision of the film’s director Bruce LaBruce and producer Jürgen Brüning to cross the BDS picket line and screen the film in Tel Aviv.

Palestinians are “organizing towards their own freedom [by] asking us to stand with them in solidarity,” five actors and one crew member in the film state. “Unfortunately we cannot stop the film from being shown, but it is showing against our will.”