Last week Tel Aviv´s 2013 `Pride Week´ took place, painting the beaches and streets of the city in rainbow colours. The festivities, with the parade last Friday as the highlight, are one of the biggest such events worldwide. Apart from the parade, lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and anyone else up for partying met in clubs or on the beaches, where DJs heated up the atmosphere of an already permanent summer-feeling. No one seemed to think about regional conflicts, the cost of living, or insincere morals of religious institutions of all sorts in the region, and everything was about enjoyment and fun.
If you think this is too pink a picture, you have been anticipating this post’s topic. Critiques from around the world blame Israel for trying to polish its reputation by purposefully promoting its gay friendliness, while at the same time maintaining an aggressive policy of occupation and oppression, particularly against Palestinians. The phenomenon is being called `pink-washing´.
Jasbir Puar from the Guardian accuses Israel of handily using the liberal, progressive and, most important, democratic attitude when grappling with LGBT issues. This way, Israel seeks to attach itself to these `values´, while, at the same time, it tries to subtly reveal the backwardness and uncivilised nature of its Arab neighbours, again particularly of the Palestinians. Overall, her point is that the `Jewish state´ (mis)uses the LBGT-community for political reasons, insincerely playing their case against Palestine, other Arab states and Islam. Whereas it acts like being gay friendly, open and liberal, it uses this picture to cover up its policy of occupation and apartheid.
Sarah Schulman from the New York Times writes more generally about the discrepancy of gay and lesbian acceptance versus anti-immigration, which in wide parts of the Western world equals anti-Muslim attitudes. She sees a trend within the gay communities to oppose Muslim immigration as the religion and its people appear to be homophobic. Schulman however argues that two facts are overlooked by such a blunt judgement. First, there is a considerable number of people and movements in Arab/Muslim countries who are, or sympathise with, gays. And second, that such a claim turns a blind eye on fundamentalists, for instance within the Catholic Church or in Orthodox Judaism, who show a considerable amount of intolerance against gay people. She contends this morale, arisen in Europe and the US, was incorporated by Israel, using it for its own means.
Claiming that non-heterosexual life-designs are only possible in “above-board constitutional-capitalist” societies, Jan Feddersen form the Berliner taz, clearly rejects the notion of `pinkwashing´. Joining in with the known `Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East´ phrase, he argues that Israel is the only state in the region in which gays, lesbians and transgender can live undisturbed and confidently. He blames the “radical left” ganging up with Hamas and Hizbollah against the Zionist governments of Israel. However, he rightly points out that there actually are Israeli gay initiatives, teaming up with Palestinian and Jordanian groups as well as supporting them. He is certainly also right that the environment for LGBTs is less tense and more liberal in Israel than in most of its neighbouring countries. On the other hand, he is reduces Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan to Hamas and Hizbollah, causing irritation in an otherwise thought-provoking article.
Another critical voice in terms of this discourse and an old acquaintance when it comes to the defence of Israel against pretty much the rest of the world, is Alan Dershowitz, renowned Harvard Professor. He calls the discussion on `pink-washing´ an “absurd, obscene argument [which] is nothing more than anti-Semitism with a pink face.” Playing the usual anti-Semitism card, Dershowitz goes on with “[t]he anti-Semite just knows that there’s something sinister at work if Jews do anything positive. The core characteristic of anti-Semitism is the certainty that everything the Jews do is wrong, and everything that’s wrong is done by the Jews.”  While in the case of the administrative and public attitude towards gays in Israel, I am rather adopting a position of appreciation, these words of Dershowitz are once again underlining a deep paranoia and a firm unwillingness to differentiate between a worthy of condemnation-critique of Judaism or Jews and political Zionism. As much intellectual deficiency it is to accuse Jews of being behind `everything that is wrong´ in this world, as much weak-mindedness is it to denounce every critique on Israel´s politics as anti-Semitic. Dershowitz is contradicting himself by using a logic and terminology he at the same token condemns.
The actual legal situation in Israel is such that despite its apparent gay-friendly conduct, same-sex marriage is still not possible. As PinkNews reports, the fact that selected religious institutions are in charge of decisions on these matters, same-sex as well as inter-faith marriages are not allowed. The platform also reports that a bill, granting equal legal options for gay people, presented to the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) in May 2012 failed because the majority of MK (Members of Knesset) opposed it.
Taking a journey from the Middle East to Europe shows how strong opposition against equal gay and lesbian rights can be, even in highly praised modern Western societies. France´s new social-democratic government introduced a law allowing same-sex marriage in 2012. Since then protests, organised by the church and other conservative circles, took place on the streets of Paris. Recently far-right xenophobic groups join in to the opposition against the law, causing predominantly peaceful demonstrations to turn radical and violent. As the Independent reports, teargas had to be used and 96 people were arrested due to illegal possession of weapons during a demonstration last May. While these protests are supported by religious, and extreme right-wing groups, they are certainly also instrumentalized by the bourgeois, conservative opposition to weaken President Hollande, who’s performance has been indeed everything but convincing so far.
Thoughts on this topic came up while I was watching the spectacle of this year’s gay parade in Tel Aviv. I think, besides the gathering of thousands of people from all over the world, the link to `borderland´ is underlined by a somewhat confusing formation of alliances. In the debate, only briefly touched upon above, left and right, straight and gay, religious and non-religious, peculiarly join forces so that it becomes difficult to maintain these categorisations at all. Interests, oppositions, feelings of affiliation and denial intermingle in ways that blur taken for granted divisions and borders.
Living in Tel Aviv-Jaffa for a couple of months now and having witnessed the city´s actual openness and laid-back atmosphere, I would not want to hold the marketing activities of Israel and Tel Aviv-Jaffa in the gay sector against the state and the city. It seems to me to be authentic in wide parts, and, in addition, it is probably legitimate – and sadly necessary – to create a brand in order to attract tourism. As the spectrum of opinions at the beginning of this post show, however, I still think it is the obligation of critical minds to raise issues and write about them if they feel so. At the same time, we must not be hypersensitive and perceive bad intensions behind good actions. A slight critique of mine, and this might eventually fit into the big picture of `pink-washing and gay-bashing´ after all, is that almost no political agenda was noticeable during the celebrations; not even for the cause of LGBT in general. Therefore, the last word/picture in this blog is set aside for a French activist.
All pictures by the author
© All rights reserved Sigi Atteneder, 2013