How 'Pinkwashing' Has Become an Authoritarian Creed of Intimidation

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A memorial service held for Shira Banki in Tel Aviv, August 2, 2015.Credit: Nir Keidar

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." This is the essence of what the debate about so-called "pinkwashing" is really about, and ultimately why the accusations leveled at A Wider Bridge at the Creating Change conference in Chicago were offensive, dehumanizing and homophobic. It was just icing on the cake that the protest also veered sharply into anti-Semitism.

To understand these pinkwashing accusations, let's go back to this 2011 op-ed by Sarah Schulman in the NY Times, which first introduced the word into the popular mainstream lexicon. Her essay is filled with false statements, misinformation and enormous flaws in logic that have been exposed elsewhere. But the essay offers this definition of pinkwashing that has become generally accepted: "A deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life."

So to boil it down, this is the charge against us: A Wider Bridge brought two leaders of the Jerusalem Open House to a reception at Creating Change in an attempt to conceal the plight of Palestinians and the occupation. And as a result, the reception needed to be shut down and our speakers silenced.

Let's take a moment to examine the absurdity of these charges:

It is offensive to us and to the intelligence of everyone who came to hear our guests. Neither we nor the leaders of Jerusalem Open House came to Chicago to defend the current government of Israel or the occupation. 

We believe our guests who came that evening came with a genuine curiosity and a desire to learn about and support the struggles of Israel’s LGBT community. They are intelligent enough to grasp that a conversation about LGBT life in Israel is not some subliminal message designed to muddy people's minds about the conflict. Smart, thoughtful LGBT leaders come to our programs and on our trips to Israel. It is not our goal to make them stupid, nor could we if we tried. No one has ever been brain-damaged by being given more information or being helped to see the nuances of a complex situation.   

What the protesters are really trying to silence is any conversation about Israel that is not solely about the conflict and the occupation. The real enemy they are trying to shout down is complexity, nuance and the possibility for empathy. The BDS movement uses the pinkwashing charge as part of their strategy to keep the U.S. LGBT community in a perpetual state of ignorance and myopia about Israel, silencing anything that does not corroborate their one-dimensional and one-sided caricature of the country. 

What the BDS movement truly fears is that people will meet Israelis that they care about, people whose struggles they identify with, and whose successes they want to celebrate. Then, in this moment of empathy, they will perhaps see how inhumane and counter-productive the calls to isolate Israel really are. But will they come to like the occupation more, to care less about Palestinians? That question is so ridiculous that it answers itself. This is not a zero-sum game.

In the days before and after the conference, the protestors have tried to justify their authoritarian behavior by spreading lies and misinformation about A Wider Bridge. We were accused of being agents of the Israeli government, partners with a host of right-wing organizations, or part of the Israeli Tourism Board. Everything was said about us except for the truth: we are an organization dedicated to building connections between the LGBTQ communities of Israel and North America in ways that strengthen both. Our recent conference provided a platform for a diverse array of LGBTQ leaders, including those from Israel’s transgender community, its Ethiopian community, and its Orthodox Jewish community. 

When we describe ourselves as a pro-Israel organization, we mean that we are not indifferent to its fate, that we care deeply about all the people who inhabit it, and we believe in its right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. And our Board, Staff and the vast majority of our leadership and supporters know that for that right to be sustained into the future, there must also be an independent Palestinian state. 

Our statement of principles declares"While our work is focused on building connections with, and support for, Israel’s LGBT communities, we are acutely aware that other human rights struggles exist, both within Israel and in the Palestinian territories. Our pride and celebration of Israel’s progress in LGBT rights does not mean that we endorse all the policies of its government.  We hope for a time when Palestinians will live in dignity, free from occupation, and Israelis will no longer live with the daily threat of rocket fire or terrorist attack, or the fear of nuclear war."

Those who know the leadership of A Wider Bridge know that the last thing on our minds is to "distract" people from any part of the reality of Israel. Israel’s LGBTQ community and the progress the country has made on LGBTQ rights, is one part of that reality, and is a topic that can stand on its own merits.   

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. This is the work of A Wider Bridge, and we are grateful to all the leaders in the community who have spoken out in our behalf these past few weeks.

The bottom line is that it’s time for all rational progressive people, LGBT or not, Jewish or not, to stop giving credibility to these accusations of "pinkwashing." It is a term that once had some narrow application (yes, Netanyahu and others in the Israeli government have occasionally spoken glowingly of Israel’s record on LGBT rights while opposing new legislation and policies that would help the community) but is now used so indiscriminately as to have lost any semblance of meaning.  

Rather than fostering understanding, we must see that it is now being wielded as a sledgehammer to shut down constructive conversation and to deny the humanity of Israel’s LGBTQ community. The protestors see pinkwashing everywhere, and the only remedies they believe in are censorship, silencing and intimidation. This has been the case for some time now, but it reached its apex last week in Chicago. It is time for it to stop.  

Arthur Slepian is the founder and Executive Director of A Wider Bridge, a U.S. organization working across North America to build LGBTQ connections to Israel. Follow him on Twitter: @aslepian