Israel’s pinkwashing exposed as dishonest at New York debates

Pinkwashing has unwittingly generated resistance and debate.

Steve Rhodes Flickr

“Pinkwashing is a way to normalize Zionism in a queer context.” So said Nadia Awad, an American-born documentary filmmaker of Palestinian ancestry, at a panel titled “(Un)Occupying Territories of Gender and Sexuality in Palestine,” at the New School for Social Research in New York.

“Pinkwashing” comes to the fore

The term “pinkwashing” has been used by activists for some time, but came to wide public prominence last November due to a New York Times op-ed by Sarah Schulman.

In general, pinkwashing refers to an Israeli hasbara (literally “explaining” in Hebrew) — or propaganda — strategy to portray Israel as espousing liberal or progressive democratic values such as feminism, gay rights and multiculturalism, in order to distract from or discount Israel’s systematic human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Awad’s was but one of several definitions, descriptions and analyses of the term that reverberated in downtown and uptown Manhattan on 4 April, as members of the first American LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) delegation to Palestine and a handful of other scholars and activists presented their experiences and thoughts at the New School and at Columbia University Law School earlier in the day.

Awad agreed to modify her statement to the effect that there is not much queerness in pinkwashing itself, but more so in our opposition to it and to the Israeli occupation as a larger project.

The session at Columbia aimed to explore pinkwashing more directly. “The Ethics of Pinkwashing: LGBT Rights in Israel/Palestine” featured Katherine Franke and Kendall Thomas, both professors at Columbia Law School, as well as Vani Natarajan, a writer, activist and librarian at Barnard College.

All three were members of the LGBTQ delegation to Palestine. Neta Patrick, an Israeli lawyer and a fellow at the Human Rights Institute at Columbia, moderated the discussion.

The panelists spoke of various encounters that the delegation members had had with victims of Israeli occupation, violence by settlers and the army, not only in the West Bank but in Israel, sometimes with devastating details which would be sadly familiar to regular readers of The Electronic Intifada.

Hebron reminiscent of Jim Crow America

But then came the story of al-Khalil (known to many by its Hebrew name, Hebron). It was also not new to me. I have read and heard about it numerous times, and I have walked along Shuhada Street with a guide from Breaking the Silence and witnessed exactly what the members of the delegation had seen.

Yet I couldn’t help but be moved by Professor Kendall Thomas’ retelling of this tale, with a very precise graphic description of the concrete barriers and the width of the sections of the road allotted to each of the ethnic groups populating the city.

Thomas is an African-American, which everybody in attendance could see. And he verbalized it very eloquently, yet gently, when he said, “people who look like me remember what it was like in some parts of this country,” referring to the United States in the days of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

His words resonated even more when Natarajan spoke of “intersectionality,” as every member of the panel, and indeed most of us have more than just one identity, and, in a way, pinkwashing seeks to simplify not only the conflict, but also the human beings involved in it.

Propaganda conceals key facts

Given that this was a law school event, there was naturally some commentary on matters of legislation and court rulings. Franke, for instance, indicated that indeed Israel has allowed the registration of same-sex marriages before most states in the United States (most of the United States still do not allow such unions), and that the Israeli military has allowed lesbians and gays (but not transgendered people) to serve openly for many years before the US as well.

However, she reminded us, the contexts for both are very different, and this is something that the official Israeli pinkwashing propaganda does not bother to explicate. In the case of matrimonial law, only same-sex marriages that were carried out outside of Israel in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal (for example, Canada) may be registered in Israel, since Israel itself has no secular mechanism for matrimony, and no Orthodox rabbi (or clergy member of any of the recognized religions) would perform a same-sex union.

And in the matter of military service, we are not dealing with permission to serve, but rather with a legal obligation to serve, given Israel’s laws of conscription. Either way, Franke noted, this would be of no relevance to Palestinians. A gay Palestinian, Franke said, may try to pass through a checkpoint staffed by gay Israeli soldiers and still be harassed and denied entry to the supposed “gay haven” about which the pinkwashing project keeps boasting.

Selling women as sex objects

The imbalance between Israel as a modern, gay-friendly, secular-leaning society and the same Israel being a traditional, patriarchal, (hetero-)sexist one was raised by the moderator, Neta Patrick as well.

In her introduction to pinkwashing, she revealed that Israel’s so-called Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, which, along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Tourism are the architects of the current ongoing pinkwashing campaign, has very different content on its Hebrew website than on its English counterpart.

The Hebrew site has a section entitled “Myth vs. Reality,” with talking points for Israelis living abroad (such as Patrick or myself) to convey to the alleged ignorant goyim.

One of these alleged myths is (my translation): “In Israel, women wear keffiyehs or headscarves.” To Debunk this “myth,” I am supposed to tell you that “most Israeli women wear nothing on their heads,” and also that “Israel is considered in the world to be as much of a fashion capital as New York, Paris and London,” and (emphasis in the original) “our beautiful [female] models star on the covers of the most prominent magazines in the world.”

Although the same government website does indeed acknowledge that there are many different ethno-religious groups in the country, the image of the “Israeli woman” that the government emphasizes and urges Israelis to propagate and foreigners to consume is strictly a sexualized and secular one. This image obscures the reality of a country where many women — Muslims and Jews — dress modestly and cover their heads due to their religious observances.

“Coming out” not a chief concern

The New School event was framed within a series on “Coming Out in the Developing World.” Interestingly, coming out, or indeed being out, in the Western sense, did not appear to be a chief concern of the Palestinian queers with whom the American delegation members had met during their visit.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the words of the first speaker, Darnell Moore, Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University (whose remarks were read in absentia by another panelist, Pauline Park):

“On our trip, for example, many of us American delegates (US Citizens) were quite upset when we discovered that it may not be a good idea to “out” ourselves with our host families. The profound disordering of our ways of being, quite understandably, provoked confusion and discomfort. Some felt that we had come too far in our own struggle for self-determination and acceptance as LGBTQ people in the United States to return to the proverbial “closet.” We asked questions and pushed back when we were told by our Palestinian hosts that negotiations around disclosure were often individual and contextual…that disclosure, in some cases, may not be the most appropriate move…that the sexed and having-sex lives of people regardless of sexual identity tend not to be the first line of discussion.”

Moore seems to have discovered first-hand that Western notions of what it means to be “gay” or to “come out” — may be unintelligible to Palestinians and others, because these concepts have a specific history that is not necessarily universal or transhistorical.

This is the thrust of Joseph Massad’s critique of what he calls the “Gay International” — a form of activism that insists that specific experiences and identities whose history lies in the West represent universal truths, and which has become increasingly tied to hegemonic foreign policy concerns of the United States.

“Forced into activism by circumstance”

“Coming out wasn’t a formative experience for me,” said Mahdi, an activist in Alqaws, originally from East Jerusalem, currently based in New York. Mahdi, who spoke at the New School panel, was introduced only by his first name. He reinforced Moore’s assessment of the disparity between Western notions of coming out and practices in Palestine.

A similar sentiment was expressed at Columbia by Thomas, who said that many of the activists he had met in Palestine were virtually forced into activism by circumstance.

Mahdi summed up Israel’s “pinkwashing” rebranding message: Israel — and especially Tel Aviv — is a gay haven, while Palestinians are all homophobic. And this message is always conveyed, he reminded us, without input from any queer Palestinians.

In response to an audience question, Mahdi revealed that a need had arisen for a “spatial manifestation” for queer life in the West Bank, and that a home for queer Palestinians had recently opened in Ramallah. “It’s underground. I can’t tell you where it is,” he added.

Forthcoming documentary

Nadia Awad, who headed the team that documented the journey of the American LGBTQ delegation to Palestine on video, displayed still images from her upcoming documentary which will be available in segments, online, in open-source format.

Carolyn Klassen, lead organizer with Young, Jewish and Proud, introduced her group, initially by screening a short video (Available on YouTube: “Jewish Voice for Peace: Young Jewish Proud Declaration.”) While the group isn’t an all-queer group, many — if not most — of its member identify as queer, and the issue of pinkwashing has “brought the struggle close to home” for them.

The presentation of Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and member of the LGBTQ delegation to Palestine, consisted of a visual report from the delegation’s visit to Palestine and Israel, as well as Park’s additional week-long stay in the region, mostly in Tel Aviv. The 25 photos (out of 2,000 she had taken) can be viewed online.


Both events had a little bit of friction when question-and-answer time came. This was somewhat more evident at Columbia, where one member of the audience tried to argue that the mere claim that pinkwashing even existed was “propaganda,” and another member, a former soldier from Israel, told us in a very emotional voice how offended he was to hear his beloved army being accused of war crimes.

At the New School, A self-identified gay Jewish pro-Israeli Zionist pleaded with the panelists to engage in “dialogue” with him and his friends, to which Awad bluntly responded that she was opposed to dialogue with people who refuse to accept the basic facts, as it is not a productive task for an activist to be engaged in.

The recent Penn BDS conference in Philadelphia had a panel on pinkwashing, and so did J Street in its recent meeting in Washington. Two additional events are slated for next week in New York.

Queering Solidarity: A Panel on Pinkwashing and LGBTQ Activism for Israel-Palestine,” will be held at Columbia University on 10 April and “Creating Solidarities: A Conversation with Members of the First US LGBTQ Delegate to Palestine” will be held at the Brecht Forum on 11 April.

As Israel engages in more propaganda to deflect attention from its numerous and vicious violations of human rights and shine whatever little light is left on its supposed accomplishments in the realm of gender and sexuality, we are certain to hear more opposition to this enterprise.

Uri Horesh is an Israeli linguist, educator and activist. Born in Jaffa in 1970, he was educated at Tel Aviv University and the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia. He has taught linguistics and Arabic at Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Georgetown University, the University of Texas at Austin and Franklin & Marshall College. His first political memory is demonstrating on his father’s shoulders at age 7 against the expansion of a West Bank settlement, the name of which currently escapes him. As a graduate student at Penn, he was among the co-founders of FPAN, the Free Palestine Action Network. He tweets frequently at @urihoresh.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the organizational affiliation with which Pauline Park participated in the LGBTQ delegation to Palestine and incorrectly stated that she had been in Tel Aviv as the guest of the Coalition of Women for Peace. It has been updated.