On “Pinkwashing in Israel” – My Response to a Friend’s Blog Post

My friend and colleague Rabbi Gail Diamond recently wrote an eloquent post in her blog discussing Sarah Schulman’s recent op-ed about Israeli “pinkwashing” in the NY Times. I submitted a comment but alas, it was too long to post. So I’m posting it here.

If you’d like to participate in our dialogue, first read the op-ed, then click here and read Gail’s post, then go ahead and read my response below. Respectful comments – on her blog or mine – are always welcome.

Dear Gail,

Thanks for an eloquent post. I’m happy to discover your blog and am grateful that you’re willing to publicly consider these kinds of tough issues.

Re your first response: I couldn’t help but detect a very palpable alienation, isolation and overall spirit of “it’s us against the world” in your and your friend Rich’s words. I know that this feeling of growing isolation from the international community is widespread among Israelis across the political spectrum. There’s no small sorrow in all this, especially considering that Zionism arose in part to solve the problem of Jewish “otherness” in the world. Nothing else to say about this except that politics aside, it’s just so sad to consider the extent to which the Jewish political/national project only seems to have exacerbated Jewish isolation on an international scale.

In your second response, you agree that there is something unjust about the fact that as a gay couple, you and your partner can take advantage of laws in Israel that privilege you as Jews. You add, however, that

The reality is the every country that surrounds Israel has human rights issues. Nothing is black and white, and every country lives with a messy reality. Because Israel is subject to an organized media campaign of de-legitimization, and because Israel cares about its image in the eyes of the western world, for self-serving reasons no doubt, we have people out there making the case for what’s good about the reality here.

With respect, Gail, try though I might, I just can’t accept this argument. Of course nothing is black and white and of course every country lives with a messy reality. But there is messy and there is messy. And I simply cannot agree with the claim that Israel is essentially a healthy Western liberal democracy with some “human rights issues.” I have come to believe that there is a much more fundamental form of oppression going on here.

I respect and celebrate the fact that, as you put it, “the reality of gay rights is directly impacting the lives of many people in Israel – for the good.” But if we’re truly going to calculate the greater good here, it’s difficult for me to weigh the benefits enjoyed by LGBTQ Israelis against the massive injustices Israel committed – and continues to commit – against millions of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and throughout the Palestinian diaspora. It’s just not a level playing field. And unless these inherent injustices are dealt with fairly and directly, I don’t think it’s honest to speak of Israel as an essentially healthy, if blemished, democracy.

I was taken – and somewhat surprised – by your reference to “an organized media campaign of de-legitimization” against Israel. In the first place, I’m just not convinced that the media has nefarious designs on the state of Israel. If there is any “campaign,” I’d say it’s less a media conspiracy than a growing movement of activists throughout the world who are responding to the Palestinian call for solidarity with their struggle. I think it demeans the motives of those of us who are publicly holding Israel to account on very real and serious issues of human rights by saying we are trying to “de-legitimize” the state. This is a term wielded wantonly by Israel’s hasbara machine, and I believe it’s only real purpose is to muzzle honest and open debate on this issue.

You write that “none of us knows where this is all leading.” While this is true, of course, I think we can certainly predict certain general trends. And in this regard, I am truly frightened that in Israel, the direction is moving directly away from democracy and toward the greater influence of the ultra-right and the ultra-religious. (I think you know what I’m talking about, so I’ll spare you’re the links to the op-eds – most of them from Ha’aretz and Israel’s increasingly embattled progressive blogosphere). Unlike you, I’m less sanguine about “the intertwining of Jewish tradition and politics.” I genuinely fear that this particular marriage is leading us all down a very dark road.

Gail, I understand the reality that because you and your partner and are a bi-national same sex couple, your family cannot live together in the US. I realize that for you, this is your life we are talking about. And I deeply respect the courage it took you to publicly air the ways this reality impacts on you and your family. I think I know you well enough to know that you did not raise this point to in any way shut down debate with those outside Israel who don’t share your reality – only that you wanted to sensitize your readers to the deeper human truth of this issue.

I have faith that we can continue to keep this conversation going, as difficult and painful as it is. Thank you for putting yourself and your feelings out there. I hope you know that I offer mine in the same spirit of dialogue and friendship.

Kol Tuv,

Brant


10 Comments on “On “Pinkwashing in Israel” – My Response to a Friend’s Blog Post”

  1. Seth Morrison says:

    As an out gay man — something I was not willing to face up to when I was in Brant’s former congregation in Denver — I am very proud of Israel’s record on LGBT rights and I am concerned about LGBT rights throughout the world. There are both positive and negative examples within the Palestinian territory.

    Sadly the deligitimization argument has been used all too often to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel, which I believe will harm Israel in the long run. I have no problem with anyone crediting Israel for accomplishments regarding LGBT rights while strongly condemning Israel’s treatment of both Palestinians living within the 1948 borders and those in the Occupied Territories.

    My mother used to say that two wrongs don’t make a right. I would amend that to say that positive activity in one arena does not justify bad behavior in another area.

    Thanks Brant for your leadership in obtaining human rights for all Palestinians and all LGBT people.

  2. Avi says:

    thank you for sharing your letter rabbi brant. i would add one simple idea, even if it is not my own…Israel is not a safe place for Palestinian queers who are, at the least, oppressed daily within Israel proper and the Occupied territories. So, to avoid a straight out lie, Israel/hasbaristas need choose to change their focus to something like “Israel grants rights to queer Jews and Jews only”. Which, as you point out, would disprove the myth of Israel as a liberal democracy…

  3. Seth Appel says:

    Brant:
    Much if not most of what you write rings true. But that doesn’t alter the deep absurdity of the Pink Washing Op-Ed. It takes some really twisted moral logic to somehow transform Israel’s acceptance of its gay community as a negative trait. In nearly all of the Arab nations having gay sex is punishable by a lengthy jail sentence or even death. Hence, on this topic the moral calculus is really simple: Israel has the right to brag about its internal tolerance. End of story.

    • Seth,

      Israel certainly has the right to “brag” about it’s liberal internal policies, but I’d say its cynical at best when it consciously cites these policies in order to direct attention away from its larger policies of oppression. It’s even more egregious when Israeli ministers who are clearly on record in their opposition to liberal causes (and the NGOs that advocate for them) wield “liberalism/tolerance” in order to whitewash Israel’s larger crimes. (Check out this article from Ha’aretz for more on that.)

  4. Steve Hinman says:

    Avi – let’s keep our facts straight. No doubt there is oppression. However, one of the LGBT groups mentioned in the New York Times op-ed piece is located in Haifa because of intimidation / oppression from the PA in the West Bank. Israel also gave residency to a gay man from the West Bank to live in Tel Aviv with his partner, noting the risk to the West Bank man’s life if he were to remain in the West Bank as a gay man.

    • Steve,

      Do you have a source for your claims? They certainly seem to fly in the face of this Forward article written by Kathleen Peratis as far back as 2006:

      When gay Palestinian men run for their lives into Israel, they do not seek — and they cannot get — “asylum,” which is a special status under international law available to those who can establish a “well founded fear of persecution” in the country of their nationality or “place of habitual residence.” Israel has never granted asylum to Palestinians, gay or not, says Anat Ben-Dor of the Refugee Rights Clinic at the Tel Aviv University Law Faculty — even those who can credibly claim they will be killed if they are sent back to the West Bank or Gaza. This is because Israel interprets international asylum law — the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Israel has signed — as inapplicable to Palestinian nationals…

      So gay Palestinians who make their desperate way to Israel simply hope to disappear into the gay subculture of Tel Aviv or Haifa. Slipping into Israel is still not impossible, though it has gotten harder. But with no money, no Hebrew, and no employment, they sooner or later come to the attention of the police, where they are arrested or summarily expelled.

      The best hope for the lucky few is unofficial and temporary protection — weeks or a few months — while an NGO seeks to arrange asylum in a third country. But this is a long shot. In the three years the Refugee Rights Clinic in Tel Aviv has been operating, they have gotten third-country asylum for a grand total of three gay Palestinians, admits Ben-Dor…

      In the current climate, Israel is not opening its doors to gay Palestinians, period. Nothing personal. With more sadness than outrage, the activists acknowledge that erstwhile Palestinian asylum seekers in Israel are simply further examples of collateral damage in the ongoing Middle East tragedy.

  5. Thank you, thank you, Rabbi Brant, for an excellent analysis of a very intricate ethical situation. So good, so very good to read this depth of thought and reasoning! Thinking and writing like this is why I, as a Christian minister, have absolutely immense respect for Judaism.

  6. Richard Kahn says:

    “But if we’re truly going to calculate the greater good here, it’s difficult for me to weigh the benefits enjoyed by LGBTQ Israelis against the massive injustices Israel committed – and continues to commit – against millions of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and throughout the Palestinian diaspora.”

    Nobody is asking you to weigh these benefits against each other. You can recognize Israel for what it’s good at and attack Israel for where you think it is committing injustices. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Or do you think that Israel’s human rights abuses are so flagrant that we shouldn’t be talking about anything Israel does besides abuse the Palestinians?

    “I think it demeans the motives of those of us who are publicly holding Israel to account on very real and serious issues of human rights by saying we are trying to “de-legitimize” the state.”

    But don’t you hold Israel to be an illegitimate state insofar as its national identity is based on religion/ethnicity?

    • Richard,
      Absolutely we should recognize Israel for what it’s good at. But this good must be viewed within a larger context. This particular good benefits a relatively tiny number of privileged citizens, within a state that institutionally oppresses millions of residents that live upon the land it controls.

      Yes, I do believe that Israel’s reliance upon an ethnic national identity has led to some very troubling human and civil rights abuse. Having said this, I don’t think arguing over the definition of national “legitimacy” is a particularly useful endeavor. I’ve written repeatedly here that when it comes to a state’s “right” to exist, I believe that historically, “might makes right.” The critical question for us is not to argue whether or not a state is “legitimate,” but how we hold states to account for the way they wield their power.


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