Israel, the rainbow flag and the ‘pinkwashing’ problem

The country’s championing of gay rights is a mere public relations activity.

International trumpeting of Israel's gay rights seems more like a reinforcement of the country's narrative as a modern nation surrounded by swathes of uncivilised backwardness, writes Shabi [AP]

Weeks ago, the White House and thousands of Facebook profile pictures turned rainbow coloured in celebration of the US Supreme Court decision to legalise same-sex marriage. In the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian artist painted the same rainbow symbol in giant format on a prominent part of Israel’s separation wall – and then Palestinian protesters painted over it. Cue the media items that juxtaposed the intolerant Palestinian position against Israel’s gay-friendly track record.

But is it really this simple? The artist who painted the rainbow colours on the graffiti-covered separation wall – right next to paintings of Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders – doesn’t think it so.

Khaled Jarrar, whose work has been exhibited internationally, says that the viral rainbows prompted by the US same-sex marriage decision “got me thinking about all these international activists and ordinary citizens who were celebrating freedom for a group of people who have historically been oppressed,” he wrote. “And the use of the rainbow as a symbol of freedom and equality and what it could represent for other oppressed groups.”

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But what could have started an intersectional conversation about struggles – one that historically has been in the weave of the LGBT movement – was narrowed down, he says, to the usual battle lines of enlightened Israel v the backward Middle East.

Of course, none of this is to dispute the basic facts: Tel Aviv has become a gay-friendly tourist destination – it would be churlish to claim otherwise, or pretend that this isn’t important. Meanwhile, Palestinian society treats homosexuality as taboo – and while there are several local organisations working to challenge this on the ground right now, to suggest this isn’t an issue would plainly be a bad case of cultural relativism.


There is something more going on here – the bit that gets called “pinkwashing”, by which Israel actively uses its gay-friendly status to deflect attention from the occupation and its discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens. Beyond Israel the deployment of this tactic has been identified across Europe, too – in the “co-opting of white gay people by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political forces”.

But Israel has been clocked as upping the PR on its gay tolerance as part of a specific campaign to improve “brand Israel”.

And commentators have noted that the tendency for government officials – most notably the prime minister – to go on about this issue on a global stage seems disingenuous at best. As Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, has observed:

“In Israel, Netanyahu flees from LGBT issues as though they were on fire, but abroad he enjoys using the community for propaganda purposes in his war against a nuclear Iran.”

You don't get to boast about being a democratic country if the premises of that aren't applied universally. Of course it's good to be proud of the rights you do have. But these can't be used to absolve for the ones you don't.


Ravid adds that Netanyahu has pointed to Israel’s gay pride parades, as compared to Iran’s public hanging of gay people “in almost every speech he has made in the United States or Europe”.

Pointing to the gay pride parades might have more credibility if Netanyahu talked the talk to a domestic audience, too – if the government were actively engaged in promoting LGBT rights, say, or even just mentioned, occasionally, the successes and struggles in this realm.

Presumably, it isn’t politically expedient for the prime minister to openly support gay rights within a flimsy coalition including an assortment of distinctly intolerant religious and rightist groups. They might understand the propaganda purpose of celebrating gay rights while abroad – but back home? No thanks.

And as Aeyal Gross, associate law professor at Tel Aviv
University, has pointed out, it actually goes deeper than that – with the Israeli state taking credit for the rights that the country’s gay community actively fought for, often through the courts. In other words, as he wrote in an essay on the subject for the Columbia Human Rights Law Review: “The state smugly lauds itself for rights and achievements that it actually resisted.”

Meanwhile, another quirk of this particular issue, as applied by Israel, is that the country exposes how it seems selective over its own place in the world. Israeli officials have always asserted the nation to be European in outlook and construct – remember the former prime minister Ehud Barack, describing the country as a “villa in the jungle”.

Safeguarding rights selectively

So why, when discussing gay rights, does the country compare itself to the Middle East? If the point of reference were to be Europe or the “West” – the community of nations that Israel claims to belong to – then Israel would be behind the curve.

After all, same-sex marriage is now legal in 20 countries, but not in Israel – although it does recognise such marriages performed elsewhere. Meanwhile, due to religious control over the issue, nobody can have a civil marriage ceremony in Israel, although again, such ceremonies carried out elsewhere are recognised.

Extending this sort of “not in our backyard” approach, Israel also doesn’t allow surrogacy for same-sex couples – a fact that came to light when Israel rescued babies born to surrogates for Israeli gay couples from an earthquake in Nepal earlier this year.

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The Israeli cabinet has since given preliminary approval to a “surrogacy equality” bill – despite opposition from rightist sections of the coalition.

Meanwhile, since 2008, same-sex couples have been able to adopt in Israel, but are routinely “pushed to the bottom of the list”, according to Nitzan Horowitz formerly of the Meretz party, who was then the only openly gay member of the Israeli Knesset.

So, with campaigners cautioning that Israel’s progressiveness on LGBT issues is now out of date, the constant, international trumpeting of the nation’s amazing gay rights seems more like a crude reinforcement of Israel’s routine narrative as a modern nation surrounded by swathes of uncivilised backwardness.

And this attempt keenly misses a basic point about rights: that they aren’t rights if they are applied selectively. You don’t get to boast about being a democratic country if the premises of that aren’t applied universally – and upheld in full spectrum. Of course it’s good to be proud of the rights you do have. But these can’t be used to absolve for the ones you don’t.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.