“Pinkwashing” pejorative wiping tolerance away

Pinkwashing pejorative wiping tolerance away

Fast becoming a viral sensation, a new YouTube video (below) shows two Spanish men “photobombing” an al-Jazeera broadcast by engaging in a long, passionate kiss in frame as the reporter is talking. 

The irony of the video is that while the two were supposedly making a point about marriage equality in Spain, they happened to do so on a state-owned network from a country in which homosexuality is punishable by lashings and imprisonment. Indeed, a report from the UN High Commission for Refugees has this to say on homosexuality in Qatar:

Homosexual behavior is illegal [in Qatar]. Islamic laws against homosexuality are applied. [In Qatari society], homosexuality is taboo. There is no visible social support for gay and lesbian rights.


On the topic of homosexuality in the Middle East, Sarah Shulman has written in the New York Times on the prominence of the gay community in Israel and Israeli officials speaking out against the intolerance shown to homosexuals in the rest of the region.

Last year, the Israeli news site Ynet reported that the Tel Aviv tourism board had begun a campaign of around $90 million to brand the city as “an international gay vacation destination.” The promotion, which received support from the Tourism Ministry and Israel’s overseas consulates, includes depictions of young same-sex couples and financing for pro-Israeli movie screenings at lesbian and gay film festivals in the United States. (The government isn’t alone; an Israeli pornography producer even shot a film, “Men of Israel,” on the site of a former Palestinian village.)

This message is being articulated at the highest levels. In May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress that the Middle East was “a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, Christians are persecuted.”

This seems fair so far, however Shulman then drops a bombshell, explaining what she and others in her circles think of Israel’s tolerant society:

The growing global gay movement against the Israeli occupation has named these tactics “pinkwashing”: a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life. Aeyal Gross, a professor of law at Tel Aviv University, argues that “gay rights have essentially become a public-relations tool,” even though “conservative and especially religious politicians remain fiercely homophobic.”

… In Israel, gay soldiers and the relative openness of Tel Aviv are incomplete indicators of human rights – just as in America, the expansion of gay rights in some states does not offset human rights violations like mass incarceration. The long-sought realization of some rights for some gays should not blind us to the struggles against racism in Europe and the United States, or to the Palestinians’ insistence on a land to call home.

This reads as perverse logic. Israel is one of the few countries in the world, even the supposedly tolerant West, that would not only see its gay community as an asset, but actually use it as a selling point to attract tourism. That the neologism “pinkwashing” is apparently gaining such momentum in anti-Israel circles that it would be given valuable column inches in one of the most well-respected newspapers in the world (and in the blog of another), speaks volumes about the thought patterns that characterise Shulman and her ilk.

The only possible conclusion to draw is that Israel can do no right. If Israel were intolerant to homosexuals, no doubt Shulman would be writing about this with indignation; yet Israel is tolerant, and still she becomes indignant.

Nothing illustrates the perversity of her argument better than a group that she herself endorsed. Her article contained a theory that recognising Israel’s tolerance plasters over the genuine tolerance for homosexuality amongst Palestinians, as evidenced by active Palestinian homosexual rights groups:

Pinkwashing not only manipulates the hard-won gains of Israel’s gay community, but it also ignores the existence of Palestinian gay-rights organizations … important is the emerging Palestinian gay movement with three major organizations: Aswat, Al Qaws and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

However, when one actually visits the website of Al Qaws, the page on the Palestinian LGBT community in the media contains story after story of Palestinians being oppressed in their community for their sexuality and then dreaming of, and in some cases finding, solace in Israel.

In fact, a 2009 Haaretz profile of Haneen Maikey, one of the co-founders of Al Qaws, reveals that Maikey is a citizen of Israel and lives on the Israeli side of the border. While she does have unflattering things to say about Israel, even she recognises that Israel has fostered a far more tolerant society to sexuality.

“People who go to Pride Parade [in Tel Aviv] do so to celebrate their gayness and their sexuality, [but] automatically Palestinians and other Arabs will be busy identifying where the cameras are, busy buying make-up or specific hats to hide. I don’t see why participating in the main tool of liberation by hiding yourself is a good and healthy thing for the liberation cause of the LGBTQ community.”

Of course, this is not to say that Israeli society is a utopia of tolerance with no discrimination. There are significant elements in Israel that are opposed to the state’s championing of homosexual rights. Herein lies the real tragedy behind the “pinkwashing” label being applied to Israel. As one reader of Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog noted:

She describes gay rights in Israel as an incomplete picture of civil rights in the country, which is fair enough, though as usual, it doesn’t acknowledge the arduous efforts of Netanyahu’s recent predecessors to grant the Palestinians almost all of what they purport to want. But it’s not in the nature of politics to be perfect, especially with regard to minority rights. It is always a struggle to build something inherently fragile in the face of a constant war of attrition against an often unyielding majority. If the Left is not willing [to] acknowledge the tangible differences between Israel’s treatment of its gay citizens and the persecution gay and lesbians face in many of the neighboring countries, and to throw its support to Israel, then it is risking seeing those hard-won gains evaporate.

In attacking Israel when it does something that she is generally in favour of (at least, for any other country), Shulman is encouraging the opposite behaviour. Instead of working with the many Israelis who have made tangible gains in their own society and would be more than willing to reach out to their neighbours, Shulman is isolating them, empowering their enemies and joining in the international campaign to cut them off from the rest of the world.

However allowing the gay community in Israel to work with any community in Palestine would of course be inimical to Shulman’s worldview – an irrational hatred of anything Israeli is opposed to cooperation on any level. How her camp believes that this will ever lead to peace is a total mystery.


Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz