Shutting Down a Pinkwashing Event Is a Smart, Legitimate Protest Against Israel's Occupation

We shouldn’t expect Palestinians and their allies to stop protesting for justice or temper their message because of the emotional toll on Jews.

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Protesters at an LGBTQ conference in Chicago accused Israel of obscuring its treatment of Palestinians by touting its record on gay rights.
Protesters at an LGBTQ conference in Chicago accused Israel of obscuring its treatment of Palestinians by touting its record on gay rights. Credit: Courtesy of A Wider Bridge

Solidarity with Palestine is entering the LGBTQ mainstream, but that doesn't mean there's any contradiction between being a queer activist and being Jewish.

Dozens of my queer Jewish friends found themselves in a conundrum last weekend, when a multiracial and intergenerational group of 200 queer and trans leaders shut down a Chicago reception about gay rights in Israel. The host of the reception was Israel advocacy organization A Wider Bridge (AWB), and the occasion was Creating Change, the largest annual LGBTQ conference in the U.S.

Here’s some context. In 2005 the Israeli government launched “Brand Israel,” a public relations campaign intended to combat growing pressure on Israel to end its occupation and oppression of Palestinian people. The global campaign sought to portray Israel as hip, modern, and liberal to paper over its oppressive policies. They highlighted Israel’s tech innovation, environmental sustainability, popular culture, and yes, gay rights.

Israel has a relatively progressive record on gay rights, but Brand Israel deliberately contrasts this record with racist stereotypes about Palestinians and the Arab/Muslim world. This effort to exaggerate homophobia in Palestine and downplay homophobia in Israel, encouraging liberals to excuse Israeli violence, is called Pinkwashing.  Pinkwashing is so ubiquitous in LGBTQ spaces that queer Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim people often feel excluded.

The #CancelPinkwashing coalition protested A Wider Bridge (AWB) because their mission is to promote Israel’s image abroad by forging relationships between LGBTQ Jews in Israel and worldwide. Activists marched to the reception Friday night, carrying messages like “Queers for Palestinian Liberation” and “No Pride in Occupation.” 

Watching on Twitter, I saw queer activists whom I'd met in different social movement spaces come together to declare that Palestinians won't be left out of queer spaces.  When the fight for justice in Palestine is so often siloed from other progressive movements, this struck me as a true turning point.

But I heard from queer Jewish friends who watched the action with pain. The crowd of hundreds protesting Jewish speakers triggered memories of anti-Semitic bullying, or inherited family trauma. I heard people call the protest itself anti-Semitic, unnuanced, unstrategic, divisive, and a distraction from the broader struggle against homophobia.

With love, I ask my queer Jewish friends to hold this discomfort and listen to the #CancelPinkwashing protesters.  It's easy to criticize the time, place, and messaging of the action, or to disparage the character of the protesters. But we can grow so much from these tensions if we allow ourselves to listen to the other side of the picket line.

So let me dispel a few of the impressions that are preventing my queer Jewish friends from listening.

Protesting pinkwashing is, in fact, an effective strategy toward justice for Palestine.

AWB promotes harmful stereotypes of Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab queers, so #CancelPinkwashing was partly about making Creating Change safe for the entire community.  

It was also a smart strategy for resisting Brand Israel’s attempts to silence Palestinian criticism of Israel. The BDS movement is growing, pressuring more global institutions to end complicity in Israeli human rights violations. Shifts in public opinion are leading more U.S. policymakers to speak against Israeli crimes. This pressure forces Israeli officials to take Palestinian demands seriously. But wherever BDS debates emerge, Israel’s defenders invoke pinkwashing arguments to deflect responsibility.

Resistance to Israeli propaganda re-centers the narrative around the urgent need for justice, and the activism hub Creating Change was a strategic platform for that pushback. 

No, the #CancelPinkwashing protest did not target or threaten Jews.

Jewish community programming took place throughout the Creating Change conference, including a Shabbat organized by Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago, in support of #CancelPinkwashing. The protesters were careful not to interrupt a prayer service attended by AWB, waiting until the political part of the reception began.

Accusations of anti-Semitism have hinged on the chant "From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free." Some U.S. Jews associate the chant with a fear that Palestinians want to “push Jews into the sea,” or that freedom for Palestine means an evacuation of Jews living there.  However, most Palestinians understand the chant as a call for full and equal rights for all people living in Palestine/Israel.  This implies an end to a system of ethnocratic rule where Palestinians are seen as a “demographic threat” and lack rights under the government that rules them.  U.S. Jews probably misunderstand this chant because the Israeli government and its supporters claim that Jews can only be safe while holding a demographic majority over Palestinians.  This message is rooted in Islamophobia and racism, but it resonates because of legitimate Jewish fear and trauma.

We shouldn’t expect Palestinians and their allies to stop protesting for justice or temper their message because of the emotional toll on Jews. Instead, Jews can support each other in learning to separate Palestine solidarity from anti-Semitism. People can find a place for that processing, rooted in a commitment to end all oppression, in their local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

No, this protest wasn’t an anomaly. The fight against pinkwashing is moving toward the mainstream.

Progressive Jews have found themselves at a turning point. Protests against Israeli policies are spreading. Campaigns are popping up in queer spaces, schools, religious institutions, government, labor unions, cultural centers, non-profits, and even Jewish community groups.  It’s becoming harder for progressive people to justify a Palestinian exception to their support for human rights. The political situation in Israel is multi-dimensional, but it’s not that complicated: Israel must end its oppressive control over Palestinians, and like the U.S. government, it’s not going to change without some pressure.

There’s no contradiction between being a queer, progressive Jew and participating in progressive movements. But we need to work together to overcome any fear that we associate with discussion of Palestine. Freedom for Palestine, Jews, and all people are intricately connected. Let’s be a part of that movement.

Liza Behrendt is an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace in Boston.

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