Two years ago, Haaretz political correspondent Barak Ravid wrote that he doesn’t recall Benjamin Netanyahu ever saying “homosexual” or “lesbian” in Hebrew, but does recall at least 10 instances in which the prime minister spoke about “gays” in speeches he delivered in English. In Israel, said Ravid, 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 Iran.
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In almost every speech he has made in the United States or Europe, Netanyahu points out that in Iran they hang gay people in the public square, while in Israel we have gay pride parades.
Similarly, after the flotilla incident in 2010, when the Israeli navy killed nine activists aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, Netanyahu urged peace activists: “Go to the places where they oppress women. Go to the places where they hang homosexuals in town squares and deny the rights of minorities... Go to Tehran. Go to Gaza." He continued: "Anyone for whom human rights are truly important needs to support liberal democratic Israel."
These statements by Netahnayu encapsulate what has came to be known as “pinkwashing,” essentially the use of LGBT rights by Israel as propaganda, in a way that seeks to brand Israel as a liberal democracy – one that, even if it violates human rights in some areas, shares basic liberal values with other Western countries – and divert discussion of the occupation and the violation of human rights it entails.
When Netanyahu says those who seek to protest the continued siege of Gaza should go to Gaza to protest the Palestinian violation of gay rights but not the Israeli violation of Palestinian rights, he is suggesting that gay rights should be the yardstick based on which we should measure a country’s human rights record – as if the Israeli occupation, which this week enters its 49th year, does not undermine democracy and human rights.
However, the occupation, which has lasted so long it can no longer be considered temporary, undermines the most basic tenets of democracy. It is a regime based on the dispossession of land and water resources, as well as the rule of law; on separate legal and judicial systems for the Jewish and Arab populations; and on the denial of the most basic democratic principle, consent of the ruled. Jewish settlers in the West Bank vote in Israeli elections while Palestinians do not, even though they are affected by the decisions of the Israeli government no less than Israeli citizens.
There are many other examples that illustrate the appropriation of Israeli LGBT rights for propaganda purposes. Consider a poster from the California-based BlueStar agency, which has described its mission as humanizing perceptions about Israel. It shows Israeli soldiers and asks, “Where In the Middle East Can Gay Officers Serve Their Country?” The poster provides the answer – “only in Israel” – and asks the audience to “Support Democracy. Support Israel.” Here the irony is blatant, as this is the same army that takes part in the oppression of Palestinians in a way that undermines democracy.
Part of a pro-Israel poster put out by the BlueStar agency.
Some dismiss the pinkwashing arguments as some bizarre conspiracy theory positing that Israel has gay rights so it can use them to divert the discussion from the occupation, or that Israel invents arguments on gay rights in the country for this purpose. But that line of thought misses the point, which is not that gay rights in Israel were developed to serve some propaganda purpose, but rather that they are being appropriated for that use.
The bottom line is that the state of LGBT rights in Israel, however good or bad it may be, should in no way deflect from the state's human rights violations or its deprivation of democratic rights in other contexts, especially that of the occupation.
Having said that, it is essential do discuss the way in which the Israeli government, which rarely acts to actively promote LGBT rights itself, appropriates the LGBT community’s hard-won achievements, which often come in the form of court rulings that grant those achievements in the face of the government’s opposition. No less troubling is "internal pinkwashing,” the way in which supporting LGBT rights gives a liberal aura to conservative Israeli politicians supporting the denial of the rights of others, such as Palestinians and asylum seekers.
For the Israeli LGBT community, this appropriation is tricky business. We should celebrate our achievements and take pride in them, while continuing to fight for full equality. But since LGBT rights are not more important than the rights of other groups, we must reject the practice of turning our rights into a propaganda tool that will allow Israel to continue oppressing others.
Aeyal Gross, Haaretz's legal commentator, is an associate law professor at Tel Aviv University, where he focuses on international law, constitutional law, human rights and queer theory. He is a co-founder of Tel Aviv University's LGBT and Queer Studies Forum, which organizes the university's annual LGBTQ Studies Conference.