Israeli Pride season is upon us. Thousands of LGBTQ individuals, their allies and tourists from overseas will take to the streets of Tel Aviv to participate in the week-long festivities, which will culminate in the Pride Parade across the city on June 9, and you can count me out.
As a gay Palestinian citizen of Israel, Pride week is anything but a celebration of freedom. The truth is that Israeli LGBTQ pride is a reminder of Israel’s questionable human rights record and its mistreatment of Palestinians, both in Israel and the areas it has occupied illegally since 1967. In this context, Israeli LGBTQ Pride is no private endeavor. It is a public relations instrument, widely known as “pinkwashing,” used by the state internationally to divert the conversation away from Israeli human rights violations in an effort to recast its image as a welcoming and democratic safe haven for LGBTQ persons in a region where most countries criminalize homosexuality.
However, the reality of Israel’s own LGBTQ record reveals it is far less committed to equal rights and protections than the government would like you to believe.
The bulk of LGBTQ rights in Israel was secured through litigation during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Often, the government opposed equality cases brought by LGBTQ litigants. According to a recent report by the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy – Molad, only one of 17 bills seeking LGBTQ equality and protections has been enshrined into law since 2013. The other 16 bills were defeated by a coalition of rightwing conservatives who have since ascended to the helm of political power and are spearheading Israel’s pinkwashing campaigns.
Furthermore, according to the Nir Katz Center, 2016 marked a new record high of LGBTQ-phobic incidents in Israel, stretching from severe violence to incitement on social media against LGBTQ individuals and mainly against trans individuals.
Yet, Israel has shown an increasing willingness over the years to paint itself as a gay-friendly country to encourage tourism. The Ministry of Tourism and the Tel Aviv-Yaffo municipality have led this effort. In 2016, for instance, the ministry was at the center of a controversy after publicizing its plans to invest $2.9 million in a campaign to encourage gay tourism in Israel, the main feature of which was a plane painted in the iconic rainbow colors of the LGBTQ flag to bring in tourists, all while government allocations to LGBTQ organizations in the country stood at only ten percent of that amount.
The disparity between Israel’s LGBTQ record and its campaigns is even more striking when considering allegations that the Israeli military has threatened to out gay Palestinians unless they collaborate with the occupation, a practice that has not been addressed by Israel’s own LGBTQ community to this day.
That said, pinkwashing requires us, Palestinians, to look inward as well, as it is only one side of the coin; the other being the responsibility of Palestinians to secure their own LGBTQ rights.
While the domestic challenges facing LGBTQ Palestinians in the occupied territories do not justify Israel’s colonial narrative that seeks to delegitimize the Palestinian cause, Israel nonetheless uses them to reinforce its distortion campaigns by juxtaposing the relative freedoms afforded to Israeli LGBTQ individuals and the lack thereof in the Palestinian society.
It is important to keep in mind that pinkwashing targets the entirety of Palestinians. It is not about, nor is it the sole responsibility of, the Palestinian LGBTQ community. However, it appears that the only actors combating such Israeli propaganda from Palestine are LGBTQ activists and organizations such as alQaws and Aswat, with minimal resources and no official support. In fact, the Palestinian political leadership in the OPT and Israel have failed to engage in this conversation. This failure does not relieve Palestinian leaders of the moral and political responsibility to advance a program addressing Israel’s pinkwashing efforts, starting with acknowledging internal LGBTQ issues, providing legal protections, and mounting a comprehensive anti-pinkwashing campaign.
Moreover, it is important to free the internal Palestinian LGBTQ struggle from the subversive effects of Israeli campaigns and instead look inward with a strategic vision grounded in local dynamics and needs. To begin with, the program of our LGBTQ politics cannot be informed by the fear of feeding the “pinkwashing monster.” That is, our criticism and struggle against heteronormativity and LGBTQ-phobia in Palestine should not be muted to prevent Israel from exploiting our words to serve its propaganda. Additionally, our program must recognize that being Queer and Palestinian are not mutually exclusive, and challenge the subjugation of queer politics as secondary to national politics against colonialism. This subjugation, even by some LGBTQ activists, amounts to practicing the same homonationalism we are critical of in other contexts such as “Gays for Trump.” Instead, as a Queer Palestinians we must insist on advancing a program that ensures that our national liberation project, whose language is that of human rights, rectifies its lack of commitment to LGBTQ rights.
To do so, we must work to engage a wider coalition of stakeholders, including politicians, legislators, faith leaders and activist alike.