ORIGINS OF THE TERM “PINKWASHING”
“Pinkwashing” refers to the strategy of promoting LGBTQ+ rights to distract from other violations. The origins of the term, however, are a bit concerning.
Feminists originally coined the term “pinkwashing” in the early 2000s to protest against the Susan Komen Foundation and its corporate sponsors’ monetization of breast cancer through its pink ribbon campaign.
The color pink, however, has long been associated with queer issues, specifically male homosexuality. The Nazis, who persecuted homosexuals on the basis that homosexuality was “a Jewish perversion” (more on this later), assigned the pink triangle symbol to gay men in concentration camps, similar to how Jews were assigned the yellow star. Since the 1970s, LGBTQ+ folks began “reclaiming” the symbol as a marker of queer liberation. This trend only grew in the 1980s, when gay activists used the pink triangle to protest against what they called the “AIDS Holocaust.”
About a decade after feminists in the United States coined the term “pinkwashing,” specifically to protest against the pink ribbon breast cancer campaign, a few academics associated with the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement appropriated the term to describe Israel, claiming that Israel’s progress toward LGBTQ+ rights is in reality all a ploy to whitewash (or “pinkwash”) its crimes against Palestinians. Oftentimes these “pinkwashing” accusations went hand in hand with accusations that Israelis are Nazis, worse than Nazis, or perpetrating a “Holocaust” against Palestinians (in other words, Holocaust inversion, which is a form of Holocaust revisionism and Holocaust denial).
The term was only further popularized in 2011 when an anti-Zionist Jewish activist with ties to “Jewish” Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, Sarah Schulman, wrote an editorial in the New York Times about Israel’s supposed “pinkwashing.”
Since then, the term has also been used in the context of corporations who extend symbolic support to the LGBTQ+ community as a marketing ploy, generally during pride month, while not making any tangible changes to support queer folks. However, given its questionable origins, a better alternative is the term “rainbow-washing.”
IS THE ACCUSATION ANTISEMITIC?
Antisemitism and Holocaust experts widely agree that projecting ancient antisemitic tropes, conspiracies, and stereotypes onto the Jewish state is antisemitic.
Remember, antisemitism is a bigotry not only directed at Jewish individuals or individuals perceived to be Jewish, but most importantly, a bigotry directed at the Jewish People as a collective. There is nothing more “collective” about the Jewish People than the State of Israel. The State of Israel proclaims itself to be the Jewish state. It uses Jewish symbolism for its national symbols. And nearly half of the world’s Jewish population lives there.
Every single country — every single one — has a public relations team. There is nothing odd or inherently sinister about Israel advertising or highlighting good things about the country. To assume that every single thing the Jewish state does has some sinister, manipulative intent behind it is literally a projection of an ancient antisemitic trope onto the Jewish state.
Queer Israelis are real people. They’re not a secret ploy by the Israeli government to silence Palestinians. In fact, this idea echoes antisemitic conspiracies that homosexuality is a Jewish ploy to deteriorate society and oppress others.
Israel, like all other countries on planet earth, is capable of both good and bad things. Two things can be true at once. Celebrating Israel’s successes and progress in LGBTQ+ rights doesn’t take away from you criticizing the country when necessary. If you think every last thing about Israel is inherently uniquely and supremely evil, what you’re doing is you’re projecting ancient antisemitic ideas onto the Jewish country.
ISRAEL & LGBTQ RIGHTS
Though Israel is generally progressive in LGBTQ+ issues, this wasn’t always the case. Leftover laws from the British occupation outlawed homosexual activity, though in 1953, the Israeli Attorney General instructed police not to enforce the law in the case of two consensual adults. In 1963, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the law should not be enforced when homosexual activity took place between two consenting adults in private. In 1988, homosexual activity was finally legalized.
In 1992, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was prohibited. In 1993, the Israeli Defense Forces opened the military draft to all regardless of sexual orientation; in the past, soldiers had been prosecuted for same-sex sexual activity. In 1998, the IDF stopped linking sexual orientation to security clearances.
Israel was the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex unions. Israel allows same-sex marriages performed elsewhere to be registered; however, same-sex marriages are not performed in Israel. The main barrier is that Israel does not have civil marriages. As far as Jewish marriages go, the Israeli Rabbinate is Orthodox and does not recognize same-sex marriages, even though other Jewish religious movements do. Same-sex couples are allowed to adopt children since 2008. A 2018 opinion poll found that 58 percent of Israelis are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Israel’s public health insurance service can pay for treatment for gender dysphoria, but accessing such treatments can be difficult due to numerous barriers.
The Tel Aviv Pride Parade is the largest pride parade in Asia. It is also the only pride in the Middle East, save for a small pride parade in Beirut from 2017-2022, which the Lebanese authorities cracked down on.
LGBTQ+ rights in Israel have come an incredibly long way since the days of the British Mandate. Queer Israelis are well within their right to celebrate this, and acknowledging this does not take away from criticizing Israel in other aspects.
PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES & LGBTQ RIGHTS
Palestinian society is statistically overwhelmingly queerphobic. This does not mean, of course, that every single Palestinian is queerphobic. Of course not! However, queerphobia is certainly a societal problem, one that, believe it or not, very much long predates the establishment of the State of Israel, the occupation, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. To say that Palestine is hostile to queer folks is not Israeli “pinkwashing.” It’s fact.
Scapegoating the Jewish state for the queerphobia in the Palestinian Territories is textbook antisemitism. It’s also racist and infantilizing. Palestinians have personal agency and are capable of making their own decisions, like literally everyone else. The idea that marginalized folks can do no wrong is, again, racist, infantilizing, and dehumanizing.
A 2013 Pew Research survey found that 93 percent of people in the Palestinian Territories believe homosexuality should not be accepted. A 2019 BBC Arabic survey found that 95 percent do not accept homosexuality. Gay marriage is not recognized or legal in the Palestinian Territories. In the Gaza Strip, male homosexuality is punishable by up to ten years in prison, but in practice it has led to the death penalty, as was the case with Hamas commander Mahmoud Ishtiwi, who was executed by Hamas in 2016 following allegations of gay sex.
While homosexual relationships are technically “legal” in the West Bank, in practice, the situation is much more dire. Honor killings are commonplace. According to @palestinian_lgbtq_v_2 homosexuality is so taboo that people won’t even use the words “LGBT” or “gay,” but “abomination” or “sodomite.”
The Palestinian Authority continuously blackmails gay Palestinians. An anonymous gay Palestinian told VICE News in 2013 that “police are aware and keep files on him and other homosexuals, blackmailing them into working as spies and informants…guys [are] called at random and told to come into police stations, with threats their families would be told about their sexuality if they [do not] show up.” In 2019, the Palestinian Authority banned entry to a gay rights group to the West Bank, though the decision was reversed following international outrage.
For this reason, thousands of gay Palestinians seek asylum in Israel. In the same interview, an anonymous gay Palestinian claimed that Israel had tried to recruit him as an informant. Though he feared his identity would be revealed to his family if he refused, he refused anyway; as far as is documented, Israel did not reveal his identity to anyone.
JEWS & LGBTQ RIGHTS
Jews have been at the forefront of the fight for queer rights for centuries. Acknowledging and celebrating this is not “pinkwashing” or inherently deflecting from legitimate criticism of Israel. Excluding Jews or Jewish symbols from queer spaces, as was the case with the Chicago Dyke March in 2017 and 2019, is antisemitic, period, especially when so many Jews paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights.
During the Talmudic period (70-500 CE), Jewish sages wrote about gender diversity through the context of Jewish law; since Jewish law is generally quite binary, the sages tried to work out where folks who are neither men nor women would fit in. Each gender was ascribed various protections, duties, and limitations, but perhaps most importantly, the sages emphasized that gender-diverse folks are to be treated with the same humanity as cisgender folks.
Born in 1868 in Kolberg, now Germany, Magnus Hirschfeld was a gay Jewish sexologist and physician most known for his groundbreaking advocacy for gay and transgender rights.
Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee provided a plethora of medical services for LGBTQ folks, including contraceptive treatment, gynaecological examinations, treatment for STDs, marital and sexual therapy, and other treatments, such as treatment for alcoholism. Additionally, the organization provided educational resources. Most significantly, the organization pioneered gender-affirming surgeries, including one of the earliest sex-reassignment surgeries in 1931.
Other trailblazing Jewish queer rights activists include Edie Windsor, whose civil rights case landed in the Supreme Court and eventually led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States, Harvey Milk, Frank Kameny, and countless others.
THE INTERSECTION OF “ANTI-ZIONISM” & QUEERPHOBIA
If you think LGBTQ+ Israelis do not deserve to celebrate Israel’s progress on queer issues, then check your queerphobia, xenophobia, and antisemitism. LGBTQ+ folks everywhere, in every country, have a right to exist and to celebrate their successes.
Though many “anti-Zionist” groups hide behind progressivism or leftist politics, when push comes to shove, they turn out to be homophobic and transphobic. For example, “Jewish” Voice for Peace is notorious for allowing homophobic and transphobic commenters to run rampant on their page, despite being quick to delete any Zionist comments.
Just last month, Detroit Imam Imran Salha warned Muslims not to ally with LGBTQ+ groups just because they support Palestine.
Last year, famous Palestinian activist Mohammed El Kurd was “cancelled” on parts of anti-Zionist Twitter after a 2019 photo of him with Palestine's only LGBTQ+ organization, alQaws, went viral.
Others, such as academic Nadia Elia, claim that Israel highlighting its LGBTQ+ rights record is “the twenty-first century manifestation of the Zionist colonialist narrative of bringing civilization to an otherwise backwards land.” This is a ridiculous, racist take. Tolerance of LGBTQ+ folks is not exactly a benchmark of colonialism. When you claim LGBTQ+ rights are a “colonialist Zionist” imposition, and that Palestinian society must be accepted as is, even when there’s such a widespread issue with queerphobia, you are throwing queer Palestinians living in the Palestinian Territories under the bus. (This doesn’t mean that queerphobic Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. It just means that queer Palestinians do too).
INTERSECTION OF ANTISEMITISM & QUEERPHOBIA
Antisemites have long considered homosexuality a “Jewish perversion.” In fact, the Nazi persecution of gay males was significantly rooted in this belief. For example, in 1930, the Völkischer Beobachter, a Nazi newspaper, stated the following:
“Among the many evil instincts that characterize the Jewish race, one that is especially pernicious has to do with sexual relationships. The Jews are forever trying to propagandize sexual relations between siblings, men and animals, and men and men. We National Socialists will soon unmask and condemn them by law. These efforts are nothing but vulgar, perverted crimes and we will punish them by banishment or hanging.”
Nazi propagandists spread the notion that homosexuality was rampant in Judaism and was a “disease” that needed to be eradicated. Throughout its course, the attitude of the Nazi regime toward homosexuality was that “homosexuality was wrong because it was a sick perversion of the Jews, while Jews were bad because they were sodomites and pedophiles just like homosexuals.”
The notion that homosexuality is a Jewish perversion sadly did not die with the Holocaust. It’s present in white supremacist circles to this day. The idea is that Jews use homosexuality as a means to deteriorate society and cause a white genocide by slowing down birth rates, since same-sex sexual relations can’t produce children.
It’s not just white supremacists that believe these ideas, however. Rather, this conspiracy is increasingly popular in the Middle East. For example, in 2019, an Iraqi TV report claimed that Jews are behind Iraqi NGOs, promoting homosexuality behind the scenes. In 2017, an Egyptian government official claimed that Israel is the world capital of homosexuality. In 2020, a former Hamas official claimed that Jews spread homosexuality. The list goes on and on.
In the United States, the supposed connection between Jews and homosexuality is a staple of the beliefs of the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, who is supported by numerous celebrities and supposedly “progressive” politicians.
Queer Jews and/or Israelis literally just existing is not pinkwashing. Queer Jews and/or Israelis celebrating their identities is not pinkwashing. Queer Jews and/or Israelis acknowledging and celebrating Israel’s progress toward queer liberation is not pinkwashing.
Just as nearly everywhere else, queer Israelis fought for our rights. We are allowed to celebrate our existence, our rights, and our progress. Period.
If you think queer Israelis or Jews and only queer Israelis or Jews should somehow be precluded from celebrating our hard fought rights, you are a hypocrite, a bigot, a queerphobe, an antisemite, and a xenophobe.
If you deflect from legitimate — the key word being “legitimate” here — criticism of Israel by bringing up Israel’s queer rights track record, that is whataboutism, and yes, "pinkwashing."
If you are a queerphobic Zionist who only brings up queer rights to deflect from legitimate criticism of Israel, then yes, that is "pinkwashing."
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