Palestine & the pinkwashing of the Israeli occupation: the case for BDS (Hunter College, 11.30.16)

Palestine & the pinkwashing of the Israeli occupation: the case for BDS (Hunter College, 11.30.16)
a presentation by Pauline Park
“BDS: A Striving for Palestinian Liberation”
at Hunter College
City University of New York
30 November 2016


I would like to begin by thanking Rani Allan and Rania Hattab of the Palestine Solidarity Alliance for organizing this forum and inviting me to participate in it; I am honored to do so and would like to use the opportunity to explaining the phenomenon of  ‘pinkwashing’ and the role in which the LGBT community is being cast in pinkwashing the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

To begin with the term ‘pinkwashing,’ I would cite Sarah Schulman’s definition of the term from her article, “A documentary guide to ‘Brand Israel’ and the art of pinkwashing” (, 11.30.11): “Pinkwashing is an explicit strategy taken up in recent years by the government of Israel to portray Israel as a leader in gay rights and a gay tourism destination to improve its human rights image while deflecting attention away from the extreme violence of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Through a campaign called ‘Brand Israel,’ Israel has tried to change its public image, promoting itself as a ‘modern democracy’ – and projecting an ‘LGBT-friendly’ image is just one part of this.” Pinkwashers make a number of absurd assertions; these are five of the most important claims:

1) Palestinian society is monolithically homophobic and transphobic. Pinkwashers never provide any evidence for this and in fact make false claims such as the assertion that homosexuality is illegal in the West Bank and prosecuted by the Palestinian Authority. In fact, Palestinian society, like American society and every other society on earth, is dynamic and complex. Part of the implicit assumption underlying the characterization of Palestinian society by Zionists and pinkwashers is the notion that Islam itself is inherently and monolithically homophobic and transphobic. Clearly, generalization about a religious community of 1.6 billion people spread across five or six continents and dozens of countries is risky to say the least. And it is absurdly reductive and misleading to generalize from the most extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism such as Wahabi Islam in Saudi Arabia. It is also hypocritical for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do so, given the tactically alliance he has forged with the despotic Saudi regime. In fact, like the Christian world and the Jewish world, the world of Islam is a highly complex and variegated one, with attitudes towards homosexuality and transgender ranging from harsh condemnation to complete acceptance.  Homophobia and transphobia are a serious problem in many if not most countries around the world, whether or not they have a Muslim majority population; singling out Palestinian society for condemnation on this point is absurd.

the Umayyad caliphate (661-750) at its greatest extent, compared with the United States and Asia

2) Israel is a gay paradise. Maybe for wealthy Jewish gay men in Tel Aviv, but Jewish lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people and Mizrahi (Sephardi Jews of Arab origin) have very different experiences even in Tel Aviv; trans people in particular often face police harassment and brutality in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Outside of Tel Aviv and Haifa, attitudes towards LGBT people are often far from fully accepting. Israel also does not recognize same-sex marriage. What is particularly ironic and indeed hypocritical of Zionists pinkwashing the occupation is the way in which they ignore the deep homophobia and transphobia of much of Israeli society, especially in the ultra-Orthodox haredi community. In fact, the man who stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Pride Parade last July 30 was Yishai Schlissel, an Orthodox Jew who carried out a similar attack in 2005; one of his victims, 16-year-old Shira Banki, died from her wounds. Jerusalem is not regarded by anyone I know as being an LGBT-friendly city, dominated as it is by ultra-Orthodox haredi. And smaller cities and town in Israel are also not known to be particularly queer-friendly, either. So to base Israel’s reputation as a ‘gay paradise’ on only one city — and even more so, just certain areas of North Tel Aviv — is extremely misleading at best; certainly no Zionist would accept the notion that one should judge Palestinian society by the relatively LGBT-friendly climate of Ramallah, the one city in the West Bank that has an emerging gay ‘scene.’ Why, then, should Israel be promoted as a ‘gay paradise’ based only on the experiences of just a segment of the LGBT community living in North Tel Aviv?

3) Palestinians find refuge from persecution in Israel. Zionist pinkwashers promote the image of queer Palestinians fleeing the West Bank to find refuge in gay bars in Tel Aviv, but in fact, Israel does not recognize or accept non-Jewish asylum seekers for political asylum, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity; in fact, the Israeli authorities often blackmail queer Palestinians into becoming collaborators, which creates a very dangerous and impossible situation for them. If LGBT people outside of Palestine actually want to help queer Palestinians, they can best do so by supporting LGBT Palestinian organizations including al-Qaws, Aswat (the Palestinian lesbian and bisexual women’s and trans organization based in Haifa) and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (PQBDS).

passing through the notorious Qalandiya checkpoint on the first US delegation tour to Palestine in Jan. 2012

4) Comparing Israel’s record on LGBT rights to Palestinian society helps queer Palestinians. When everyone from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to A Wider Bridge harps on Israel’s supposedly sterling record on LGBT issues actually makes things worse for queer Palestinians by pitting LGBT rights against Palestinian rights. What actually helps Palestinians is LGBT support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which is the best way queer people can show support for queer Palestinians, along with direct support for their organizations. When LGBT individuals and organizations join Palestinian society’s call for BDS, they show that many LGBT people are committed to human rights for Palestinians and help shift Palestinian attitudes on LGBT issues; rather than being viewed as Zionist or apologists for the occupation, LGBT people who participate in the anti-apartheid movement can show themselves to be allies and valuable allies at that; this is especially true in the United States, which is the power behind Netanyahu’s apartheid throne, which is precisely why the Zionist machine has geared up to do battle on American soil, with A Wider Bridge specifically founded to pinkwash the occupation and generate support for Israeli apartheid.

5) Israel’s record on LGBT rights justifies the illegal occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Many non-Muslim, non-Arab countries in the world have terrible records on LGBT rights, including Russia, Hungary, Nigeria, Jamaica; no one suggests that they deserve to be subjected to foreign military occupation. Would anyone support or even propose a German invasion and occupation of Russia simply because Germany has a much better record on LGBT rights than Russia? No amount of progress of LGBT rights in Israel can possibly justify the illegal and increasingly brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem or the incremental genocide being pursued against the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip all of which the United States subsidizes with more than $3 billion in US aid to the Israeli government a year. LGBT organizations based in Israel, Europe and especially the United States play a crucial role in advancing the discourse of pinkwashing, often directly coordinating with the Israeli government and sometimes funded directly by the Israeli government.

members of the first US LGBTQ delegation to Palestine standing in the ruins of Lajjun, a Palestinian village ethnically cleansed in the Nakba, with a Palestinian from Lajjun

Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s parting gift to Netanyahu was to present him with a check for $38 billion for a 10-year US aid package, the largest foreign aid package ever offered by the United States to any country and possibly the largest foreign aid package in history; most of this will go to the Israeli military to maintain the illegal occupation. Can you imagine what an extraordinary boost to the LGBT community in occupied Palestine if even just one-tenth of one percent of this were to go to al-Qaws and other LGBT Palestinian organizations?

It might be useful to conclude with this question: if BDS is completely ineffective, as some Zionists are trying to claim, why is it that the Israeli government and Zionist organizations have committed millions of dollars to disparaging the movement? The very attempt to discredit BDS suggests to me that it is what the Netanyahu government and the Zionist machine most fear. And LGBT community members in the United States, Canada, Europe and elsewhere can contribute most to the liberation of the Palestinian people by participating in the BDS movement. It took 35 years for BDS to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa, but in the end, it did. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said so famously, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice; we who identify as LGBT should contribute in speeding that bend.

Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA); she led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002. Park participated in the first US LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine in 2012. She did her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her M.Sc. in European studies at the London School of Economics and her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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