Opinion

U.S. Anti-pinkwashing 'Progressives' Don't See LGBTQ Israelis as Real People, Only Pawns

'Pinkwashing' is a dirty word for many on the left: rather than support our struggle for equal rights, they show the same hate towards us LGBTQ Israelis as Israel's own far-right theocrats and homophobes

Revellers take part in an annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, Israel June 14, 2019
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

This year, like last year, I slathered on layers of sunscreen, threw on my group’s wine-colored t-shirt, stocked up on bottled water and headed out to the Tel Aviv Pride Parade. It was already oppressively hot by late morning, but at the stand for IGY, the LGBT youth movement where I volunteer as a guide for new immigrants, the mood was electric.

Teens from all over the country displayed gay, bisexual and transgender pride flags, chatting excitedly with their groups and guides, feeling open and positively free.

During the parade, I joined the youth group’s sea of bordeaux-colored shirts, banners, signs and balloons, demanding equal rights through song and reminding everyone with our cheers that we are here and everywhere.

Participants in the annual Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv, Israel. June 14, 2019
Tsafrir Abayov,AP

I watched one of the young adults from my group, a recent transplant from America, as he navigated through the sensory overload of his first-ever Pride event. There were 250,000 people there, all of them to tell us that we’re not alone, to tell us that we belong.

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It was the internet that pulled me back to reality. While nursing a wicked post-parade sunburn in the quiet cool of my apartment, I made the rookie mistake of checking the social media responses to Tel Aviv Pride.

On pictures and articles about the event, anonymous commentators hurled the usual insults and slurs, adding homophobic and transphobic ones to the more common anti-Semitic tropes.

The more cerebral comments accused the parade and everyone in it of "pinkwashing," a claim I’ve been hearing in local circles as well. But these furious critics half a world away didn’t mean it the same way my friends did. To them, it has a different meaning entirely.

In essence, there are two definitions of pinkwashing.

The first is the home-grown, Israeli variety, which posits that the government shouldn’t trot out gay rights as its progressive selling point while voting down bills for legislative LGBTQ equality or roping "proudly homophobic" politicians into governing coalitions.

Pinkwashing, in this context, is spending billions of shekels on ad campaigns to bring LGBTQ tourists to Tel Aviv for Pride month, but not investing anything like the same fervor or resources in the safety, well-being, and equality of LGBTQ Israelis.

It’s the Jerusalem Open House, the home of the capital’s LGBTQ community, struggling for funding; it’s the AIDS Task Force under threat of closure after not receiving money promised from the Ministry of Health; it was the 20 percent slash in the Ministry of Education budget for IGY the very same year that a 16-year-old girl was murdered at the Jerusalem Pride Parade.

Hundreds of LGBTQ couples took part in a mass same-sex unofficial wedding ceremony organized by the Tel Aviv municipality to protest the lack of marriage equality in Israel. June 4, 2019
Oded Balilty,AP

It’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking the stage at AIPAC to tout  Israel’s acceptance of its LGBT community, but refusing to commit to advancing equal rights for the same people as a condition for joining the coalition during April’s elections.

And there is a second, international definition of pinkwashing, mostly espoused by supporters of the BDS movement.

That camp sees Israel’s acceptance of its gays as a cynical smokescreen on a grand scale. The Tel Aviv Pride Parade, with its revelry, open expressions of same-sex affection and quarter-million guests exists only as a fig leaf for the occupation, it says. While Palestinians are occupied in the West Bank and fenced in in Gaza, the Israeli government and its people indulge in rainbow frivolity in order to distract the world from its crimes.

The fact that Israel’s LGBTQ initiatives often provide life-saving support to queer Palestinians both within the Green Line and without isn’t relevant. If it’s Israeli, it’s already tainted with blood.   

This view reared its head in dozens of op-eds, thinkpieces and social media posts during Israel’s hosting of and continuous participation in Eurovision, an event with a massive gay fanbase. In their eyes, Dana International’s groundbreaking victory as the song contest’s first ever transgender winner in 1998 wasn’t a moment of much-needed representation for an at-risk community on the fringes - it was an Israeli PR ploy par excellence.

This pinkwashing doesn’t see gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Israelis as real and multifaceted people, but as political abstractions or mindless pawns in a zero-sum game of rights. Gay, bi and trans Israelis only hinder a free Palestine.

Supporters of the BDS movement protest outside the Eurovision Song Contest, in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 18, 2019.
Oded Balilty/AP

Both of these pinkwashings appear to resemble each other. Both of them accuse the Israeli government of using the country’s LGBT community and its freedom to promote itself, often at the expense of others. But these two definitions, and the camps that advance them, have a very different idea of what the government should, in fact, be doing with this disenfranchised community - and what the role and agency of the LGBTQ community itself is.     

The camp that is actually invested in the welfare of Israel’s LGBTQ community pushes for it to live without the fear that the decisions that govern their lives and livelihoods are made by people who hate them.

It wants the government to catch on to what the people of Israel already know: that LGBT people deserve the same rights as everyone else. It wants trans youth and adults to live, work and thrive safely; equality in marriage, adoption and surrogacy; and to love openly and without fear wherever we may be.

If the other camp - mostly based outside Israel - also wants equality for LGBTQ Israelis of all stripes and backgrounds, well, we haven’t seen it yet.

What we have seen is them shouting down an event because the Jerusalem Open House - which serves Palestinians and Jews alike - dared to show up, and banning Jewish symbols from Pride events.

It seems like advancing equality for the LGBT community in Israel, including within its Arab population, is last on their list of priorities.

And until international anti-pinkwashing activists stop espousing the same amount of hate and condescension for LGBT Israelis as Israel’s own parliamentary theocrat and homophobe Betzalel Smotrich does, I’ve told my Israeli friends from the community that, in the meantime, it’s best to drop the word "pinkwashing" from their lexicon altogether on trips abroad.

We shouldn’t give the other pinkwashing crew the chance to define us, and our own struggle for equal rights.

Linda Dayan is a Tel Aviv-based news editor at Haaretz