Pinkwashing Debate Israel Really Has Become More Gay-friendly – and There's Nothing Wrong With Saying So

Israel is far from perfect, but it has much to teach the Middle East – and, indeed, the world – when it comes to promoting acceptance of LGBT people.

James Kirchick
James Kirchick
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Israelis affiliated with Israel's Likud party march in Jerusalem's 2013 gay pride parade.
Israelis affiliated with Israel's Likud party march in Jerusalem's 2013 gay pride parade.Credit: Gil Kol
James Kirchick
James Kirchick

Israel is far from perfect when it comes to the equal treatment of its LGBT community, but it has much to teach the Middle East – and, indeed, the world.

Yet according to naysayers, the true purpose of this week's Tel Aviv pride parade, and the whole legal and societal architecture that has earned Israel a gay-friendly reputation, is just a massive con job meant to provide a smokescreen over the country’s oppression of Palestinians. This nefarious propaganda campaign is known as “pinkwashing,” according to its detractors, a motley crew including everyone from Muslim fundamentalists to left-wing fellow travelers of Hamas.

Reading about so-called “pinkwashing,” it is remarkable, yet hardly surprising, that – as is the case with so many alleged wrongdoings – it is the Jewish state and the Jewish state only that is singled out for this opprobrium.

I have written extensively on the topic of “pinkwashing” since it first made a splash in certain far-left academic and radical activist circles about four years ago. So preposterous on its face is this slander, and so disingenuous and dishonest are those who push it, that I hesitated to accept the offer from Haaretz to engage in this debate.

Gay people are protected and welcomed in Israel largely as a result of two factors: the hard work done by Israel’s own gay community to make their country a more open and diverse place, and the overall acceptance of homosexuality witnessed in the Western world (of which Israel, and not its neighbors, is part) over the past four decades.

The notion that these broad and ingrained societal accomplishments are the work of some sinister reactionary forces grasping about for justification to continue the occupation of the West Bank (forces that very much do exist, and that tend not to be very gay-friendly) is so absurd that it frankly, to my mind, deserves little more than ridicule.

For a real example of a government’s instrumentalization of specious gay rights narratives to distract attention from the crimes of the state, look no further than Cuba. There, a prominent member of the crime family running the country as its personal fiefdom – Mariela Castro Espin, daughter of the supreme leader Raul Castro – feints at being a straight ally of the LGBT community. She has set up a phony gay rights organization, holds carefully scripted gay-rights demonstrations in which only regime lackeys participate, and travels the United States telling credulous gay audiences how wonderful the Cuban Revolution has been for the island’s queers.

Cuba is a miserable place, a totalitarian dictatorship where LGBT people generally suffer even worse indignities than the average citizen, in the form of routine police harassment. A recent, in-depth report from the island in the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, found that independent Cuban LGBT activists consider Castro Espin a “fraud” who has cynically hijacked their issue as a means of legitimizing the dictatorship in the eyes of gullible Western leftists. If anything could be labeled “pinkwashing,” it is the efforts of Castro Espin and other Western apologists for the Castro regime.

Haaretz is a serious publication, and if its editors sincerely believe that this is a subject worth debating, then the intellectual scene has deteriorated beyond my worst imaginings.

James Kirchick is a Washington-based journalist who has reported from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and the Caucusus. He is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C., a correspondent for The Daily Beast and a columnist for Tablet. A leading voice on American gay politics and international gay rights, he is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's journalist of the year award. His 2013 protest of anti-gay laws on Russian state-sponsored television was seen around the world.

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