Over the weekend, the NPR program The State We’re In aired an interview with a Palestinian man named Louie whose family tried to kill him when they found out he was gay. He fled Nablus for Tel Aviv, where he found refuge in its sizable gay community. Of course, as a Palestinian, he had no legal right to be there, and he lived essentially underground before finding asylum in an unnamed European country.
Is Louie’s story “good for Israel”? On the one hand, Israel’s relatively open attitude to gays is a point of pride. Although things aren’t perfect there, LGBT activists will say that Israel is one of the most gay-friendly places in the world.
On the other hand, Louie is also a casualty of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — unwelcome at home and stateless and powerless as soon as he crosses the Green Line.
Louie appears in the documentary film The Invisible Men, which was shown last month at an LGBT film festival in San Francisco. For a dozen or so protesters, there was no doubt that the film was “good for Israel.” They claimed the screening — and the participation of the Israeli consulate as cosponsor — was “pinkwashing”; that is, deflecting attention from the Palestinian situation by touting Israel’s liberal record on gay rights. The protest was part of a wider campaign by pro-Palestinian activists — most aligned with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — to blow the whistle whenever Israel is depicted as anything less than an oppressor state.
“Pinkwashing” is the subject of a fascinating back-and-forth in the current on-line edition of Tikkun magazine. Essentially, it’s a debate among leftists over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s proposition that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
The debate is led off by Arthur Slepian, whose A Wider Bridge organization promotes dialogue between gays in Israel and abroad. He celebrates Israel’s record on gays and charges that those who accuse Israel of “pinkwashing” are engaging in their own “disinformation campaign.” At the same time, he remains “acutely aware that other human rights struggles exist, both within Israel and in the Palestinian territories.” Slepian passes the Fitzgerald test: “[C]elebrating gay rights in Israel has never stopped anyone, including our speakers, from criticizing the policies of the Israeli government toward Palestinians,” he writes.
Those waving the “pinkwashing” flag, meanwhile, continue to regard discussion of the conflict as a zero-sum game: What’s good for Israelis is bad for Palestinians. As Seattle peace activist Wendy Elisheva Somerson puts it, “Having gay rights for Jewish Israeli LGBT folks doesn’t make life at all easier for queer Palestinians.” Katherine Franke of Columbia Law School puts the same idea this way: “As some states expand their laws protecting the rights of LGBT people, pinkwashing has become an effective tool to portray a progressive reputation when their other policies relating to national security, immigration, income inequality, and militarism are anything but progressive.”
Or, as Will sings in Oklahoma!, “If you cain’t give me all, give me nuthin’.”
Note how Somerson and Franke give no credit to the folks who attend these presentations or read about them. In their minds, a lecture or a film screening is propaganda, and its audiences are passive vessels for indoctrination. They don’t consider the audience member who might appreciate Israel’s progressive record on gay rights, and at the same time have questions about the settlements, the checkpoints, and the two-state solution. They can’t imagine someone listening to the NPR show about Louie and emerging ambivalent about the Mideast situation. To them, it’s one or the other: Israel good, Palestinians bad; Palestinians good, Israel bad.
Nor can they imagine that maybe — just maybe — progress on peace begins with progress in other areas of human and civil rights, and that the momentum for coexistence is more likely to come out of tolerant and multicultural Tel Aviv than the parts of Israel where homosexuality — like trading land for peace — is treated as an abomination.
They can’t imagine this sort of complexity because, well, complexity is the enemy. Simplification helps in their goal of demonizing Israel. And that process of simplification begins with erasing Israelis and Palestinians — the actual people who must confront the conflict and face the consequences of its resolution, for good and ill.
Because, let’s face it — dismissing Israel’s progress on gay rights as so much “propaganda” is also erasing the teenager who finds refuge in a Jerusalem “safe” house, or the office worker who can come out to his colleagues without being fired, or the lesbian who serves beside other soldiers in Israel’s tolerant military.
As Slepian puts it, “Israeli LGBT communities, organizations, leaders, and artists existed long before the pinkwashing debate. The Israeli government didn’t conjure them into existence as part of a PR campaign, nor did they come into being to serve as a foil for BDS supporters and the anti-occupation movement. They are their own people with their own objectives, leading real lives, often with great struggles, and there is much we can learn from both their triumphs and challenges.”