How Israel uses pinkwashing to position itself as a “gay paradise”

It’s almost comically paradoxical the way Israel positions itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. This while also carrying out settler colonialism and ethnic genocide against Palestinians. Needless to say, there’s a giant PR strategy backing it. Enter pinkwashing: a twist on greenwashing, where Israel weaponises LGBTQ rights to detract from its gross human rights violations. 

Western, mainstream media is awash with the image of Israel as a “haven for the gay community” with a flourishing party scene and an annual gay pride. Tel Aviv is marketed one of the most “gay-friendly cities in the world”. This is despite that the conflation of Zionism with queer liberation has been criticised by queer activist groups worldwide, but especially Palestinian groups. Let’s break it down by SHAAZIA EBRAHIM.

What is pinkwashing?

Pinkwashing explains the way the Israeli government, agencies and LGBTQ groups uses its seemingly progressive stance on gay rights in Israel to detract from its persistent settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing in historic Palestine. The term pinkwashing comes from queer Palestinian groups and has been widely used since 2010. 

Pinkwashing allows Israel to position itself as a democratic, liberal and gay friendly country supported by its relatively gay-friendly laws. On the other hand, pinkwashing paints a false, racist and Islamophobic picture of uniformly backward, barbaric and homophobic Arabs/Palestinians.

Read more: South African Muslim Activism Must Go Beyond Palestine

How does pinkwashing function?

As a political strategy, pinkwashing is a form of identity politics which functions on a bedrock of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. Pinkwashing Israel functions on an Orientalist understanding that the East remains “backwards” in its stance on homosexuality/ or other expressions of queerness because it refuses to learn from Western progressivism. There is a wealth of research that we can draw from to further explain this but for the purposes of this article, let’s keep it concise. 

It’s important to understand that racist understandings of sexuality are currently being weaponised to maintain contemporary imperialist and colonial political aims. The best theory which explains this is homo-nationalism. Homo-nationalism explains the way the right to, or quality of sovereignty is now evaluated by the way a state treats its homosexual subjects. For example, the US has positioned itself as a global defender of LGBTQ rights in its capacity as a world superpower despite its shoddy domestic treatment of queer rights. This is similar to the way the US positioned/ still positions itself as a saviour of Muslim women to further its own imperial aims in the Middle East. 

This is all to say: don’t be fooled by the way western powers claim to care about the rights of oppressed groups while ignoring justice.

What exactly does Israel hope to achieve with this campaign?

For starters, pinkwashing absolves Israel of its harmful military and colonial policies which have killed many Palestinians and continue to make life unbearable for Palestinians. Then there’s contextualising Israel in the Middle East and being judged by regional standards but also being treated as a cultural extension of Europe. (Hello Eurovision!) 

How has Israel marketed its identity as a “gayhaven”?

Well, a handful of laws suggest that Israel has a relatively progressive stance on queer rights. Gay people are generally protected by anti-discrimination laws and can openly serve in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Same-sex marriage isn’t legal in Israel, but its recognised if performed elsewhere. Israel’s religious authorities, who control marriages, don’t sanction civil marriages for both heterosexual and same-sex couples. Same sex couples also enjoy significant rights and recognitions and have adoption and same-sex inheritance rights. Trans people can, since 2015, change their legal gender without having to under sex reassignment surgery. 

The laws are relatively progressive, but what is Israel really like for queer people?

Actually, Israel isn’t quite as queer-friendly as it’s marketed to be. Despite its relatively progressive laws, it’s still a pretty conservative society. Like many conservative countries in the world (we’re looking at you America), there is still homophobia and queerphobia in general among some sects of the countries’ leadership and hate crimes against queer people. For example, in 2015, an Israeli homophobe killed a teenager and wounded five others at a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. This is all if you’re Israeli and queer.

Queer Palestinians, like all Palestinians, are considered demographic threats to the Israeli state, and obstacles in the way of Zionist colonialism. Israel is by no means a safe space for them, as they are prevented from seeking asylum on account of being Palestinian. Palestinian queer activist groups have also said that gay people are often targeted by the Israeli security services and forced to collaborate with Israel or face being outed.

Okay but this doesn’t take away from the fact that Palestine is probably queerphobic right?

This is where it gets murky. How does the “largest open air prison in the world” which barely has electricity and potable water fare with gay clubs or access to Grindr as a measure of its success as a nation? Equating Israeli oppression of all Palestinians with Palestinian homophobia assumes that queerphobia is more threatening to queer Palestinians than colonialism, as if the two are not intrinsically linked. 

In fact, a settler-colonial state could even sustain or create the conditions for social ills, including homophobia. Zionists have for years both negated and attacked Palestinian culture, rendering it nonexistent, threatening or insignificant. This means that Palestinian society has become zealous about what it perceives as culture and tradition. This allows Palestinian Authorities to take on the role of “morality police” to safeguard Palestinians from what it perceives as the ills of the West. Queer Palestinians therefore face the threat of Israel and Zionism to Palestinians and the perception of queerness as a Western phenomenon.

Where does pinkwashing leave queer Palestinians?

Through the lens of pinkwashing, Palestinians are either reduced to being victims of homophobia in their own communities in need of saving from Israel and/or the West or as perpetrators of homophobia against Palestinians and terrorism against Israelis. This allows Israel to exploit Palestinian queer identities to further its project of dispossession, ignoring how Zionist colonialism shapes the queerphobia Palestinians face in their own communities.  

Palestinian Solidarity protest May 23, Johannesburg) by Fatima Moosa
How can I support queer people in Palestine?

There must be a commitment to ending all the intersecting oppression/s perpetrated against Palestinians. Queer Palestinian groups are calling for the support of Palestinian queer rights in a way that challenges the way Israeli organisations have appropriated and weaponised the cause. Instead they are calling for supporters to engage first and foremost with Palestinians, rather than perpetuating the erasure of Palestinians inherent to Zionism. Queer BDS activists have urged international queer groups to engage in solidarity actions with all Palestinians, and not confine their solidarity to Palestinian queers. 

Check out these international and Palestinian queer organisations:

Al Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society (Al Qaws)

Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism! (QUIT!)

Aswat – Palestinian Feminist Center for Gender and Sexual Freedoms (Aswat)

Pinkwatching Israel