After a Global Tour, Pinkwashing Comes Home

While LGBT rights have entered the Israeli mainstream, local LGBT activists should be wary of associating themselves with politicians who support the oppression of other groups.

For the first time in an Israeli election, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues have become significant topics of discussion. When Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu candidate and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's son Yair Shamir stirred up a storm with disparaging comments about same-sex marriage, other political parties used it to attack Shamir's own party. At the same time, Likud Minister Limor Livnat criticized the religious nationalist Habayit Hayehudi party for the homophobia of some of its Knesset candidates.

But all the while, the gay rights bills proposed by Meretz leader and MK Zahava Gal-On were bogged down by the opposition of the governing coalition. As MK Nino Abesadze (Kadima) said, "Just like the Foreign Ministry uses the gay community in order to promote Israel's image around the world but doesn't raise a finger to help it, so too the Likud uses its gay wing as a fig leaf, in an attempt to disguise the fact that it's a racist party."

Abesadze's comments must be taken in the context of the recent flowering of gay groups in Israeli political parties. Alongside the long-established gay groups in the left-wing Meretz and Hadash parties, gay groups have now been founded in the Labor Party, Kadima and Likud. The gay group Pride in the Likud has spoken about the warm reception it received, and the support given it by many Knesset members, even while the Likud's electoral list has a place for Moshe Feiglin, a man proud of his homophobia.

At first glance this appears like an LGBT victory. The LGBT community has joined the mainstream and LBGT issues are no longer considered the exclusive province of the left. Both right-wing and left-wing parties are competing for gay votes, and homophobic outbursts are considered cause to attack competing parties, even if your own party has avowed homophobes. The positive consequences from this development may include broader support for LGBT rights and significant progress in the struggle for equal rights.

But if this is a victory, it's a Pyrrhic one. What we are witnessing is the flip side of the mainstreaming of the LGBT community: appropriation. LGBT rights are being appropriate by right-wing parties in order to further their own image as being enlightened, just like they have been appropriated by the Foreign Ministry in order to promote Israel's image as being an enlightened country.

From this phenomenon we get the term "pinkwashing": Using gay rights as a fig leaf to hide the naked violation of human rights and the occupation. And pinkwashing doesn’t just occur in the arena of Israel's foreign relations. It's also present in domestic politics, where it is used as a tool by illiberal politicians. With such a tool in hand, they feel enlighted, and can promote such an image abroad.

The turning point in this process was the August 2009 murder at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv. Until the murder, right-wing politicians hardly ever came out in support of the LGBT community. But the universal condemnation of the murder gave right-wing an opening to come out of the closet as LGBT supporters while continuing to support policies that infringe on other human rights. The result is a type of Israeli Fortuynism – a line of political thinking named for the gay Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002 and was both pro-LGBT rights and anti-immigrant, particularly against Muslim immigrants.

Thus, Pride in the Likud's recent meeting with MK Miri Regev and their excitement over her support of the gay community begs the question: What does the support of someone who calls African asylum-seekers a "cancer," someone who believes in the continued rejection of Palestinian basic rights, actually signify?

When Regev meets with gay community activists, she doesn't just legitimize them – they also legitimize her. Gay activists who play a part in this exchange need to ask themselves how they would feel if political activists openly embraced someone like MK Nissim Zeev (Shas), who said that homosexuals should be treated like avian flu. There is no real difference between Zeev and Regev's comments.
LGBT activism that supports the discrimination and oppression of other groups, rather than showing solidarity with them, contradicts the LGBT community's demand for solidarity from others. It's true that not all members of the LGBT community are cut from the same cloth, but there is a contradiction between liberal talk about LGBT rights and an illiberal and anti-democratic policy that denies rights to others.

Putting LGBT activism in a political framework that denies the rights of Palestinians, asylum seekers and others makes it hollow. It can only be accepted if one believes that LGBT rights take precedence over other human rights. Unlike the case with parties that fight for LGBT rights as part of a comprehensive philosophy of social equality, for parties that have just recently discovered the LGBT issue, these are empty promises. Even if these parties follow through on some of their promises, it will be in a "homo-nationalist" context that appropriates LGBT rights in order to continue trampling upon the rights of others.

Two men march in Tel Aviv's Gay Pride Parade in 2011.