In 1988, Israel decriminalized homosexuality, and within five years, the country had begun allowing openly gay soldiers to serve in the military and instituted a ban on anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination. Since 2006, Israel has recognized same-sex marriages performed abroad; 2008 marked the year that Israel began allowing same-sex couples to adopt children together; and, in 2014, Israel lowered the minimum age requirement for gender-affirming surgery for the transgender community. Just this month, incoming Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced that he would remove all questions about sexual activity from questionnaires for prospective blood donors, thus allowing gay men to give blood.
Over the past twenty-three years, LGBTQ rights have progressed at warp speed in Israel. In Tel Aviv, a city where only twenty or thirty years ago gay men were harassed on the streets by bullies both civilian and police, there is now a Municipal LGBT Center. Funded by the city government, this center aims to support, educate, and empower the city’s LGBTQ residents. The idea that taxpayer funds could go toward such an effort – especially in a state so influenced by intolerant religious attitudes – is nothing short of revolutionary.
As an LGBTQ Jew, I am proud of the strides Israel has made in this domain. It is a privilege to know that I can attend pride parades, walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand, and live a full life in Israel in relative safety and comfort. In a country which can easily ostracize outsiders – especially those who are not Orthodox or do not hold the mainstream political beliefs – it is a comfort and a joy to be able to live as my full self in a Jewish state. When I visited Israel for the first time, as a teenager just coming into my own identity, it felt like a revelation to walk the streets of Tel Aviv surrounded by gay men speaking Hebrew, the language of my grandparents. Having often felt like an outsider in Jewish spaces because I am gay, I will always be grateful for that feeling.
Yet, despite major strides in LGBTQ acceptance, queer Israelis still do not have all the same rights, safeties, and advantages as their heterosexual neighbors. Because marriage in Israel is relegated only to the religious sphere, same-sex marriages cannot be performed in the state; same-sex couples hoping to wed must travel abroad to do so. In 2016, the Knesset rejected a bill that would have banned the harmful practice of conversion therapy for minors, and in 2019 then-Minister of Education Rafi Peretz endorsed conversion therapy. And, reflecting a horrifying pattern of anti-trans violence around the world, a 2015 Israeli study found that half of Israel’s transgender population has experienced hate-driven physical assault.
Pride parades, a hallmark of LGBTQ acceptance in much of the world, are not always safe in Israel. In 2005, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stabbed participants in Jerusalem Pride, wounding three attendees. After being released from prison, in 2015, he once again attacked Jerusalem’s pride parade, this time killing a teenage girl and wounding six others.
The right-wing in Israel also combines its homophobia and anti-Palestinian agenda in a sinister way. When Yuli Novak, the Israeli executive director of Breaking the Silence, wed her girlfriend in 2016, a right-wing “activist,” Shai Glick planned to protest at her wedding and doxed her, sharing the date, time, and location of her wedding with countless like-minded extremists. These men threatened Novak’s physical safety, due to the perceived threat of her progressive activism and her queer identity.
While Israel has made true strides over the past twenty years in the field of LGBTQ acceptance, some of that progress has been overshadowed by heavy investment in public relations efforts to attempt to exploit this acceptance and gain approval from the liberal societies of the West.
This effort takes Israel’s genuine progress and manipulates it into pinkwashing, which refers to the process by which a state or organization attempts to “use” its work on LGBTQ rights in order to deflect attention from its harmful practices in other areas. In the case of Israel, pinkwashing refers to the government downplaying its violations of Palestinians' rights by touting its human rights record with LGBTQ people. It also refers to Israel attempting to justify the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, by contrasting Palestinian Authority and Hamas treatment of queer people with its own.
One indication of pinkwashing in Israel is the international portrayal of Tel Aviv, a city which Israel has worked to brand as the Middle East’s gay utopia. In 2010, the city of Tel Aviv launched an eighty-eight million dollar campaign to rebrand it as an “international gay vacation destination.” It paid off, and by 2011, Tel Aviv was named the “Best Gay City” by an international competition sponsored by American Airlines. Travel websites list Tel Aviv among the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the world, and according to the Tourist Israel website, a full 25% of Tel Aviv residents identify as members of the LGBTQ community.
Tel Aviv is certainly a city accepting of its LGBTQ community, but the Israeli government has taken that public relations effort one step further: marketing the entire country as a bastion of LGBTQ rights, in an obvious effort to garner positive press with liberal Westerners, particularly with the goal of refuting accusations regarding human rights violations, such as those the IDF visits on Palestinians.
During 2012 Pride, for example, the army posted and widely circulated a photograph of two uniformed male soldiers holding hands. If the IDF accepts openly gay soldiers, the photo seems to ask, how can it be a violator of human rights? Ultimately, this photograph was revealed to be staged. It did not portray a couple, but rather two random soldiers who happened to work in the IDF spokesperson’s office, only one of whom was actually gay. This photo did not mark the acceptance of a gay couple in the IDF, but rather a top-down well-choreographed effort to generate positive buzz on social media.
Pinkwashing is found not only in Israeli government efforts, but also in the work of pro-Israel organizations in the United States. In December 2014, for example, the U.S. organization StandWithUs partnered with American right-wing celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to publish a full-page ad in the New York Times, featuring a gay man and the caption: “Hamas, ISIS and Iran kill gays like me.” The accompanying letter explains that the author, a gay, non-Jewish American, supports Israel, because it is the only place in the Middle East in which he can live without fear of persecution as a gay man. The letter describes in graphic detail the way gay men have been killed in the Middle East and lambasts those who “scapegoat Israel” for not standing for LGBTQ rights in the Middle East. It also claims that “many” Palestinian men “seek refuge” in Israel, ignoring the fact that many of them must do so illegally and are therefore denied state services and have trouble finding employment. This emotionally manipulative advertisement creates a false moral dichotomy, implying that the despicable homophobic practices of Islamist regimes should somehow excuse the anti-Palestinian practices of Israel’s occupation, and that Westerners must support Israeli policies if they do not want to be accused of “ensur[ing] that LGBT people in the Middle East continue to live under constant threat of violence and death.”
In 2017, StandWithUs also posted a video on Facebook with the caption: “What began with the persecution of LGBTQ, Jews, and other minorities in the Middle East, has now spread throughout the world because of extremist religious ideology.” This caption suggests that Middle Easterners are to blame for homophobia, antisemitism, and other persecution throughout the world, advancing a backwards, ahistorical, and Islamophobic way of thinking. By blaming the rest of the Middle East for homophobia throughout the world, StandWithUs endeavors to raise Israel up, through juxtaposition, as a shining light of gay tolerance. Yet, in addition to perpetuating incorrect stereotypes about the Middle East, this post ignores that many Israelis also hold “extremist religious ideology,” and many Orthodox Jewish Israelis too are vehemently opposed to LGBTQ rights. StandWithUs prefers to create a false black-and-white dichotomy, of Arabs as the oppressor and Israel as the liberator in order to uplift Israel as a positive force, rather than acknowledging the nuance and shades of gray which surround this issue.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) consistently engages in similar rhetoric on its social media, calling Israel “the only LGBTQ friendly country in the Middle East,” in addition to exploiting LGBTQ rights in Israel to distract from the government’s misdeeds. Last month, during the violent escalation between Israel and Hamas, AIPAC tweeted: “Do you support LGBTQ+ Rights? Hamas doesn’t. Hamas discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.” AIPAC captioned the post “Stand with Israel against Hamas.” Yes, Hamas persecutes LGBTQ Palestinians. That is not in question here. Rather, the question is: Why was Hamas’s persecution of queer people relevant to an escalation of violence during which Israel killed 248 Gazans and wounded nearly 2000 more? Was Israel bombing Gaza because of Hamas’s homophobia? Of course not. Rather, this tweet was an underhanded effort by AIPAC to change the subject in order to garner support for Israel.
Despite AIPAC’s professed desire to protect LGBTQ rights against “oppressive” Arab forces, the organization does not have a strong track record of speaking out when those rights are threatened within Israel. Just this February, AIPAC refrained from commenting on an intended alliance between then-prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Otzma Yehudit, a far-right, anti-gay party. That is why it is clear that AIPAC’s support for LGBTQ rights is propagandic: the group is interested in portraying Israel and LGBTQ-friendly but is not interested in doing the work to make sure it actually is. What matters is the perception that Israel is gay-friendly, not the reality.
One could argue that it is admirable and indicative of significant social progress that Israel wants to be perceived as gay-friendly, as that is not a distinction any country sought until recently, let alone a country so driven by religious dogma. But we must remember that a veneer of tolerance is not the same thing as true acceptance. Real progress is more important than public perception. When groups like AIPAC and StandWithUS focus their energy on improving the perception of Israel as a queer-friendly country, rather than working to increase LGBTQ acceptance in Israel, they exploit LGBTQ Israelis for their own agenda, while also draining resources that could otherwise be used to make change on the ground in Israel.
Not only does pinkwashing undermine the actual movement for LGBTQ acceptance in Israel by exploiting LGBTQ people and shifting the focus from progress to perception, but it also hides the sinister fact that Israel’s military and intelligence forces target, blackmail, and threaten queer Palestinians.
Israel’s intelligence services consistently blackmail gay Palestinian men, threatening to out them unless they agree to become informants. On the one hand, collaboration with Israel in Palestinian society is punishable by death or imprisonment; on the other hand, being outed puts Palestinian men at risk of violence or death. If Israel is truly horrified by the persecution of queer Palestinians, why would Israeli security services threaten to expose Palestinians to such danger? But they do. In fact, such efforts by the Israeli intelligence are so common that there is an Arabic term for blackmail of this nature, isqat, إسقاط, meaning to trip someone. While pinkwashing would have outsiders believe that queer Arabs are threatened by their own governments and families, it is often Israel itself which puts them in danger.
No matter how many pride flags may hang in the streets of Tel Aviv, if Israel continues exploiting queer Palestinians’ vulnerabilities, it demonstrates a willingness to harm LGBTQ people based on their sexuality. We who care about pluralism, acceptance, and peace within Israeli and Palestinian society must fight pinkwashing with the same ardor with which we celebrate the strides LGBTQ Israelis have made.
The famous Jewish poet Emma Lazarus wrote: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Until all queer people are able to live in safety as their full selves, there is no true liberation for those who already do. And, until all Palestinians live in freedom and dignity, we must continue to fight for them, because that is how we all become free. So long as there is an occupation, we are not free.
I am proud to work for Americans for Peace Now, opposing the Israeli occupation. Among other things, our work to combat the occupation will ensure that all Palestinians – queer and straight – can one day achieve the freedom they deserve. So too am I proud to advocate against pinkwashing, because it is antithetical to the fight for LGBTQ rights for both Israelis and Palestinians. Pinkwashing is exploitative of queer Israelis and a tool of the occupation which harms Palestinians. The tactics of pinkwashing used by “pro-Israel” organizations are not hallmarks of the progress Israel has made toward LGBTQ acceptance, but rather a corruption of that progress. This year, as Pride Month draws to a close, I invite you to join me in celebrating Israeli society’s embrace of LGBTQ Jews while also remembering that we cannot rest until everyone has that same freedom. I invite you to join me in the fight against the occupation, because Israel will not have queer liberation until it is ended.
Claire Davidson Miller (she/her)