Against the pinkwashing of Israel

Why supporting Palestinians is a queer and feminist issue.

The Israeli army does not give a 'free pass' to queer Palestinians; in fact, its soldiers target LGBTQ Palestinians, writes Bohrer [Getty Images]

As the latest round of Israeli fire reigns down on Gaza, a problematic discourse has resurfaced in the West. This discourse seeks to convince white Americans and Europeans that supporting Israel is an imperative for women, LGBTQ-identified individuals and their allies.

This line of thinking alleges that Israel has enacted legal protections for LGBTQ folks and is therefore a bastion of liberty for queers in the Middle East. The rhetoric of many mainstream feminist outlets has been similar, arguing that because Jewish women enjoy legal equality with Jewish men in Israel, women and feminists are obliged to support the current campaign of terror and destruction in Gaza.

Examples of this troubling and misleading argumentation can be read in James Duke Mason’s article for The Advocate on July 9, Robert Trestan’s article for The Rainbow Times, and any number of articles by arch-conservative Phyllis Chesler, including one published on July 26 at Israel National News.

This “pinkwashing” of Israel not only plays on a variety of racist and Islamophobic tropes but also impedes a thorough and nuanced analysis of queer and feminist liberation. 

Rights for some, violence for others

Pinkwashing replays a frequent trope in discussions of conflict in the Middle East: that Israel is a democracy committed to human rights. What these discussions continually fail to address is that these human rights apply only to Jews and are consistently, flagrantly disregarded for Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid.

The millions of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank are not enfranchised in this so-called democracy. The millions of displaced Palestinians living in exile or in refugee camps are not enfranchised in this so-called democracy. The thousands of Palestinians caged in Israeli jails are not enfranchised in this so-called democracy. Nor are they protected by the legislation that supposedly supports and protects women and LGBTQ folks.

The more than 1,900 Gazan civilians who have been slaughtered in the past four weeks, many of them women and children, were never afforded the protections of basic human rights accords, let alone democratic procedure.

This pinkwashing is thus misleading, purporting to secure rights for women and queers which are routinely violated along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. Just as feminists and LGBTQ activists are obliged to dismantle racial hierarchies in our own communities, so too must we reject them in Israel and Palestine. We must assert unequivocally that anything less than liberation for all is unacceptable.

To refuse to do so retrenches the all-too-common neoliberal strategy of divide and conquer. The idea that Israel must be defended regardless of its human rights abuses or racist violence, separates LGBTQ liberation from larger social and structural phenomena.

It refuses to acknowledge that Palestinian queers are among those who are harassed, brutalised, displaced, bombed, and incarcerated. Whatever liberties might be extended to Jewish queers in Israel, being queer does not save Palestinians from the constant and brutal assault that forms the conditions of their lives. The Israeli army does not give a “free pass” to queer Palestinians; in fact, its soldiers target LGBTQ Palestinians.

Stories over the past few months have revealed that in fact the Israeli army pressures LGBTQ Palestinians into becoming informants against their friends and families by blackmailing them and threatening to expose their sexualities. This so-called gay-friendly state of Israel preys on the vulnerability of queer Palestinians, a vulnerability that many of us who live in “progressive” “human rights-friendly” countries still face.

Israeli LGBT organisation Aguda estimates that around 2,000 Palestinian queers live in Tel-Aviv at any one time, most of them illegally. The dismantling of economic stability and opportunity inside Palestine forces LGBT Palestinians to leave their homes and to live as undocumented, precarious workers in Israel, where they have no protections against harassment, rape, intimidation, or job discrimination, and in which finding safe housing and steady employment are scarce.

The options presented to LGBTQ Palestinians are living as stateless, undocumented migrants or braving the constant violence and indignity of living in occupied territories. Neither of these sounds like LGBT liberation to me.

Neither does it sound like feminist liberation. An image has been circulating twitter in Israel that at one and the same time justifies the rape of Gazan women and the seige of their communities. The photo, accessible here shows a woman wearing a hijab with the words “Gaza” written on her chest. Her body is splayed in a sexually provocative position, and a message in Hebrew is emblazoned on the top: “Bibi, finish inside this time”. It is signed “Citizens for the Invasion.”

This invitation to rape replays the same kinds of victim-blaming narratives and images that feminists have no problem condemning in Western contexts. This image, and the glee with which that image has been shared on twitter dramatises the ways in which racist violence and sexual violence are bound together in the Palestinian experience of occupation, siege, and war.

This disgusting image is merely one effect of the deeply anti-feminist strains of the occupation of Palestine. When Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer on Arabic literature at Bar Ilan University, made the following statement, he was not reprimanded, but rather defended by the University and the State: “A terrorist, like those who kidnapped the boys [in the West Bank on June 12] and killed them, the only thing that will deter them, is if they know that either their sister or mother will be raped if they are caught.”  

Colonel Eyal Qarim of the Military Rabbinate has declared publicly that it is permissible for Israeli soldiers to rape Palestinian women for the purposes of “maintaining morale”. These statements merely crystalise what the women of Palestine know very well: that the unjust, racist occupation of Palestine is not only Islamophobic, but misogynistic and heterosexist.

Just as in the United States and Western Europe, oppression is a multi-faceted phenomenon, one which works through the simultaneous mobilisations of race, gender, sexuality, and class. And if we fail to address the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class in our analysis of Palestine, we contribute to a system of ideological cover that shields Israel and the IDF from having to account for its crimes.

It is thus incumbent upon Western feminists and queers to support the demands of Palestinian women and LGBTQ folks for their liberation. We should support their demands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). And we should support them in their demands for equality inside Gaza, the West Bank, and diasporic communities.

We should support organisations in Palestine pushing for feminist and queer liberation, organisations like Aswat, Kayan, Al-Qaws, Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (PQBDS). We should begin to see the struggle for queer and feminist liberation, not as a single issue struggle to rally behind, but as a crucial dimension to the project of global, universal emancipation for all. Anything less is unacceptable.

Ashley Bohrer is a queer feminist Jewish activist and academic based in Chicago. She is a founding member of Jews for Justice in Palestine.