Pinkwashing, 2008-2011: Obituary for a hasbara strategy

Sarah Schulman’s New York Times op-ed Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’ outs Israel’s gay marketing plan that activists have termed “pinkwashing” and consistently sought to resist and expose.

The basic idea of pinkwashing is to portray Israel as a country that espouses ostensibly Western liberal or progressive democratic values such as feminism, gay rights and multiculturalism. The hope is that this will induce target Western audiences to identify with Israel and thus discount concerns about Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians.

This “Brand Israel” campaign also seeks to portray Israel as an environmentalist and high-tech hub and has become a mainstay of hasbara or pro-Israel propaganda from official and unofficial bodies.

The strategy is implicitly racist and Islamophobic because it often manifests in arguments that Israel is morally superior to Palestinians in particular, and Arabs and Muslims in general, who are portrayed as inherently lacking these “progressive” values.

At its core, pinkwashing is an attempt to change the subject: ‘don’t look at Gaza where we’re besieging 1.6 million people, look over here where we’re having a gay pride parade!’

Israeli official responds

Israel’s ambassador to the United States Michael Oren criticized the New York Times for publishing Schulman’s views at all.

Shame, shame on the New York Times for publishing an Op-ed by Sarah Schulman “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’ ” alleging that Israel’s outstanding record on homosexual rights is some kind of a sinister attempt to cover up Israel’s alleged injustice against the Palestinians. This convoluted and utterly unsubstantiated article is also based on a lie: homosexuality is tolerated in the Palestinian governed areas.

For a total reputation [sic] of this slander read the New Republics [sic] “Refugee Status” by Yossi Klein Halevi, an inside look at the personal stories of how homosexual Palestinians are treated….

Of course it is not Israel’s record on gay rights—outstanding or otherwise—that constitutes an attempt to cover up Israel’s injustices against Palestinians. It is the use of Israel’s allegedly outstanding record in propaganda that is the issue.

The 2002 article by Israeli writer and self-described former Kahanist Yossi Klein Halevi highlighted by Oren describes vile and horrible experiences of Palestinian men in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.

There’s no way to verify if these stories are real, but if Oren highlighted the article to suggest that Israel is an oasis for human rights and safety, it actually demonstrates the opposite. “Tayseer,” a man profiled in the article, was allegedly subjected to cruel, degrading treatment and sexual assaults by Palestinian Authority officers for being homosexual. Klein Halevi claimed that Tayseer’s “dream is to move to Tel Aviv.”

But when Tayseer does make it from Gaza to Israel via the West Bank, his story is one of fear of being expelled just for being Palestinian. The rest of what Klein Halevi describes of lives of such Palestinians is homelessness, prostitution, fear, alienation, compromise and violence regardless of the status of the Israeli-controlled territory where they are. Palestinian men live on the streets of Tel Aviv and work as prostitutes. Israeli Jews are their clients, benefactors, friends and even partners.

It’s hardly a shimmering portrait, and it’s also incomplete and outdated.

Mission civilisatrice

Usually Oren and other official Israeli propagandists seek to justify and explain Israel’s positions and actions in terms of peace process partners, terrorism and sovereignty. To do so on behalf of “homosexuality” implies that the siege of Gaza or occupation of the West Bank, expulsions in Silwan, demolitions in the Naqab are possibly justified, or at least should be overlooked, because of intolerance of homosexuality in “Palestinian governed areas.”

Oren, of course, would never argue that Palestinians who do tolerate homosexuality or fight for women’s rights should be allowed to displace or take the homes of Orthodox Jewish and other Israeli communities that are deeply intolerant of homosexuality.

Pro-Israel commentators promote a narrative in which “gay Palestinians” flee family and community violence and find refuge in Israel. But even Israeli studies of this topic have found that such Palestinians face all sorts of persecution and are not treated and protected as “asylum-seekers” in Israel. It’s also ludicrous to suggest that Palestinians might be asylum seekers in Israel when in fact they are indigenous victims of ethnic cleansing by Israel.

Muslim homophobia, queer depravity and leftist dementia

In her oped, Schulman rightly points to rising European Islamophobia as an enabler of pinkwashing, and the shared concern we presume to be “Muslim homophobia,” a post-9/11 anxiety popularized by The Independent’s Johann Hari among others. It is self-destructive and depraved for gays to endorse these Muslims in any way, because Palestinians “would kill or at least beat them” if leftists, queers and Palestinians were not all fixated on hating Israel, so the reasoning goes.

Pinkwashing was always based on an untenable tension: capitalizing on racist and Islamophobic rhetoric and fears while at the same time trying to appeal to progressive communities that have often, though not always, been allied with and participants in anti-racist struggles. It is the insistence that LGBT people cannot recognize their own interests, build solidarity and set political priorities that is dehumanizing and homophobic.

The Jewish state

Israel defines itself as a Jewish State. It doesn’t occupy, expel or besiege Palestinians because Palestinians are homophobic. It does these things because they’re not Jews and their bodies pollute land that Zionists believe should be inhabited only by Jews.

Moreover, Israelis have LGBT rights first and foremost because they’re recognized as Jews. Whether Israeli queers have rights because it is in the “Jewish culture’s DNA” or because they demanded and fought for these rights, the pinkwashing discourse will need to be replaced by one about nationalism and self-determination at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population.

The future of pinkwashing

Pinkwashing and other strategies rely on attacking and dehumanizing the people who stand in the way of Zionism’s fulfillment. They rely on a culturalist discourse in which Israelis are supposedly morally superior—and therefore worthy of support and empathy—and Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims are uncivilized, thus justifying Israel’s violence against them. What Israel has failed, and will continue to fail to do, is offer any affirmative arguments for why it should be allowed to carry on as it does.

The failure and exposure of the pinkwashing strategy is significant: gay pride parades in Tel Aviv no matter how loud and well-attended, cannot conceal the horror of Gaza and the continuation of the Nakba in every part of Palestine.

Pinkwashing has already faced a lot of resistance from those it is supposed to sway, yet the Israeli government is still seeking LGBT individuals who will use their sexual and gender identity to justify atrocities and disposession. And the Israeli Foreign Ministry continues to sponsor LGBT cultural events—clubbing in Brazil, film festivals in San Francisco and Boston—but if queers around the world are conscious of the strategy, the conversation can only continue in two ways. We can continue the meta-discussion about Israeli propaganda strategy that Schulman’s article has ignited or the conversation can further degenerate into base Islamophobia where Israel can kill Palestinians because they’re not secular western liberals.