Queer and transgender activists protested an event featuring an Israeli soldier in Seattle on 5 April.
The event was supported by the LGBTQ Commission, a body that advises city leaders on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
Two commissioners resigned in protest just days earlier, criticizing the group’s participation as an act of pinkwashing.
Pinkwashing is a public relations strategy that deploys Israel’s supposed enlightenment toward LGBTQ issues to deflect criticism from its human rights abuses and war crimes and as a means to build up support for Israel among Western liberals and progressives.
Lt. Shachar Erez, who has been in the Israeli army for five years, is its first transgender officer, according to The Jewish Daily Forward.
Along with advising the army’s “gender affairs office,” The Forward reports that Erez works “on a national project to relocate military bases from the center to the periphery of Israel.”
This indicates that Erez, a commander in his unit, is involved in helping coordinate the mass expulsion of Palestinian Bedouin communities from their ancestral lands in the southern Naqab region of present-day Israel, part of the “Negev 2020” plan to “develop” the area exclusively for Jews.
Negev 2020 is billed as creating “the Israel of tomorrow” by the Jewish National Fund, the quasi-official, state-backed institution that has carried out operations to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their lands since before Israel was established.
According to the Jewish National Fund, the plan involves the “relocation of all the IDF [Israeli army] bases to the Negev,” the region where indigenous Bedouins are resisting further forced displacement.
In the early 1980s, the Israeli government confiscated Palestinian Bedouin lands in the region to relocate an air base from the Sinai Peninsula, as it withdrew from the Egyptian territory under its 1979 peace treaty.
The government forcibly removed approximately 5,000 Bedouins and expropriated 16,000 acres of their land, according to Human Rights Watch. This process of forced removal continues.
Speaking to The Forward, Erez claims that “Israel is progressive about LGBT rights and it has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian situation.” The article adds that he “rejects the notion” that the Israeli army, “which features his story on its website, is using him to deflect criticism about the military’s treatment of Palestinians.”
Yet Dean Spade, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law and a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, told The Electronic Intifada, “It is disturbing to learn that the Israeli government is sending a trans Israeli army commander on a public relations tour in the US, [and] to see this blatant attempt to co-opt the trans liberation struggle to make a brutal colonial military seem like a site of diversity and inclusion.”
“How can it be a victory for trans liberation when trans people become embedded in the most violent operations of settler-colonialism and genocide?” Spade added. “How can we celebrate trans people clearing the land of indigenous people, arresting children, maintaining checkpoints and launching tear gas?”
Battles against pinkwashing
Spade and other anti-pinkwashing activists in Seattle are also dismayed at the ignorance displayed by city representatives regarding historic battles over Israeli propaganda.
In 2012, the commission announced that it would host a public meeting featuring Israeli LGBTQ speakers co-sponsored by StandWithUs and A Wider Bridge, an advocacy group promoting LGBTQ voices for Israel.
Spade directed a documentary, Pinkwashing Exposed, about the efforts by activists to resist the 2012 event and what happened after their success in having the meeting canceled.
“I am extremely disappointed that this is happening again in a city that has been educated, where the history of pinkwashing is absolutely a part of the institutional memory of the LGBTQ Commission,” Nada Elia, a Seattle-based academic and member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, told The Electronic Intifada.
Specifically, StandWithUs has been exploiting the LGBTQ community to promote Israel as a queer-friendly place as it strengthens relationships with ultra-right-wing homophobes and racists, Elia noted.
This exploitation is especially troubling given the current panic by right-wing politicians over which bathrooms transgender people should use, Spade observed.
“But on the other hand, the right in the US is also very tied to uncritical support for Israel, including Israel’s worst actions,” Spade said.
“That same right-wing is willing to lift up these trans heroes as is convenient – and to lift up the Israeli military as the site of liberation and progressive values using the images of trans people,” he added.
Since the 2012 event, A Wider Bridge has distanced itself from StandWithUs – with an Israel advocate describing it as “an ill-fated partnership” – but A Wider Bridge continues to promote Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, and to claim pinkwashing is a “myth.”
Last year, an event sponsored by A Wider Bridge was protested by activists with Black Lives Matter Chicago, Tarab-NYC – an LGBTQ group organizing in Middle Eastern and North African communities – and others over its inclusion in the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference.
And in 2010, a workshop on LGBTQ liberation in the Middle East, led by StandWithUs, was shut down by queer Arab activists at the US Social Forum.
Seattle’s LGBTQ Commission voted against a public invitation for a screening of Spade’s Pinkwashing Exposed in 2015, but accepted the invitation to participate in a roundtable with the Israeli officer.
“So we know that the commission is in a position to decline events, even events by their own local constituents,” Elia said.
About a week before this month’s event with the Israeli officer, two members of the LGBTQ Commission resigned.
“We all have issues that we stand for and for me I stand for the boycott, divest and sanctions movement. For me, it is an issue similar to South Africa apartheid,” Luzviminda Uzuri Carpenter wrote her colleagues in a resignation letter on 28 March.
“I personally stand against the genocide of Palestinian people and cannot support militarized efforts or military personnel regardless of gender identity, gender expression, or sexuality or other identity markers,” Carpenter added.
In discussions with the other commissioners about her opposition to the event, “I stated everything that I could possibly state about this particular issue,” Carpenter told The Electronic Intifada.
Carpenter said she was frustrated that the commission was not able to “hold onto the history” and explained that she will remain a community-based advocate.
Yani Robinson, another member of the LGBTQ Commission, confirmed to The Electronic Intifada that they also resigned in protest of the Erez event, but will continue to urge the commission to screen Pinkwashing Exposed.
Meanwhile, Bridge Joyce, a former commissioner implored the body to focus on issues facing queer and trans members of the Seattle community, including LGBTQ youth homelessness, gentrification, transphobic and homophobic attacks and police violence.
“I am at a loss to see what policy issue relevant to Seattle’s LGBTQ folks that the commission is addressing by this event,” Joyce wrote in an email to current commissioners seen by The Electronic Intifada.
“Participating in an event designed to glorify the Israel Defense Forces aligns the commission with values that are directly at odds with the racial justice and social justice values claimed by the City of Seattle,” Joyce added.
After protesting the Israeli soldier event, activists say they are mobilized against what they see as deepening relationships between Israel advocacy groups and the city’s mayor, Ed Murray.
Murray, who is gay, traveled to Israel in 2015 on a junket paid for by the Israeli foreign ministry. There, he delivered the keynote speech at a conference co-organized by A Wider Bridge. He will accept an honor from StandWithUs’ Northwest chapter at a gala next month.
Spade sees ample opportunities to strengthen coalitions in support of human rights and pressure city representatives not to take the bait from Israel propagandists.
“A big part of this is both helping queer and trans organizations be more prepared to identify certain propaganda and also increasing educational resources to be able to respond,” he explained. “Our work is a continuing work.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.