Israeli LGBTQ rights campaign under causeless fire by critics

by Beacon Staff • November 10, 2011

, Beacon Correspondent/strong

October is a month for pink. Breast cancer charities have successfully branded the month into 30 days of awareness and searching for a cure.  Now it’s time for November to have its own, somewhat different, shade of pink.

For the first time, the Consulate General of Israel to New England is presenting Out in Israel Month in Boston, a magenta-tinged campaign to celebrate and raise awareness of LGBTQ rights in Israel.  The campaign is bringing openly gay Israeli celebrities like Big Brother host Assi Azar and rapper Shorty to Boston to promote the event and talk about their experiences as prominent gay figures in a part of the world that, on the whole, is incredibly hostile toward homosexuals.

You’d think that in the United States, in a liberal bastion like Massachusetts, no less, such a campaign would be uncontroversial — but it’s coming under fire from an unlikely source: other gay rights activists.

When I told my Jewish, lesbian mothers that I’d be working with Out in Israel to bring some of the events to Emerson’s campus, they teased me about joining the Israeli propaganda machine.  They said it in jest, but there are plenty of members of the LGBTQ community who aren’t joking about their distaste for Israel’s emphasis on its progressive gay rights record.

Out in Israel Month, and Israel’s general focus on promoting awareness of its gay rights policies, have recieved criticism from LGBTQ rights groups and anti-Israel groups.  These detractors, including organizations such as Queers Against Israeli Apartheid or Pinkwatching Israel, founded by self defined “queer Arab activists” call it “pinkwashing.”  In Pinkwatching’s description of their efforts, they explain “pinkwashing” as “Israeli efforts transform public perception of Israel from an Apartheid occupying power to a harmless, liberal, gay-friendly playground.”

Joseph Massad, a Palestinian professor of Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, claims in an interview with Time that “the Israeli government and its propaganda organs ... insist on advertising and exaggerating its recent record on LGBT rights ... to fend off international condemnation of its violations of the rights of the Palestinian people.”

That kind of prejudiced diatribe needs to stop: It’s harmful to Israel, it’s harmful to the international community, and it’s harmful to gay rights everywhere.

It’s no secret Israel is engaged in a messy and controversial conflict with the Palestinians, and no one’s going to forget that after some glitter and rainbow flags. The conflict with Palestine doesn’t define the nation.  To reduce eight million people to a single identity — one that is at odds with Palestine — is ignorant to the extreme.  Israel is a diverse and vibrant nation with plenty to be proud of, their record on LGBTQ rights included.

It’s hard to deny that the Middle East as a whole has downright appalling policies on homosexuality and gay rights.  According to a 2010 report from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Israel is one of only five countries in the region (comprised of 16 nations) in which being gay is not a crime.  In some parts of the Middle East, such as Iran, homosexuality is still punishable by death.  Additionally, Israel is the only country in the region to recognize same sex marriage, allow adoption by same-sex parents, or allow gays to openly serve in the military.  Israel was even the first nation on the entire Asian continent to pass laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.  It seems that Israel has a record of LGBTQ rights that doesn’t require any exaggeration. The damage that claims of “pinkwashing” does to Israel and its international reputation is bad enough, but what it does to the LGBTQ community is truly upsetting.  Shaming Israel for its pride in its progressive stance on gay rights turns the country into a “pink leper” in the words of filmmaker Yair Qedar — promoting blind homophobia over open dialogue about the issues facing the Middle East.

In an op-ed for the The Guardian, queer theorist and Rutgers University professor of gender studies Jasbir Puar even went so far as to say that Palestinian oppression of gays and lesbians shouldn’t be discussed because “it dilutes solidarity with the Palestinian cause.”  It’s saddening to discourage pride in strong rights for LGBTQ individuals, but it’s downright sickening to suggest silence about the abuse of human rights for gays and lesbians in order to further the Palestinian political agenda.

It’s time to put down the pitchforks and stop the accusations of “pinkwashing.”  Regardless of your feelings about Israel’s stance on Palestine, LGBTQ rights deserve to be celebrated, no matter who’s providing them, and that’s what Out in Israel is all about.  Let’s make November a month of tolerance and joy, not an excuse for hatred.  As they say at the Tel Aviv Pride Parade, “shaveh l’hiyot ge’ah” — it’s worthwhile to be proud.

emElijah Clark-Ginsberg is a sophomore marketing communication major. Clark-Ginsberg can be reached at hello@eliyahu.me./em