Wednesday, May 15, 2013

“Pinkwashing” Israel

Activists Explain How Israel Uses Queers to Rehabilitate Its International Image


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Nasser Barghouti and Sara Giordano

“Tel Aviv: This City Is HOT!,” read the slogan on the ad, which featured three scantily clad young men in an attempt to sell Queer tourists — Gay men in particular — on vacationing in Israel. It was on a PowerPoint slide shown by San Diego State University women’s studies professor Sara Giordano and Nasser Barghouti, president of the San Diego chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, at Canvass for a Cause headquarters in Hillcrest May 10. Giordano and Barghouti came to talk about how Israel’s increasingly desperate attempts to rehabilitate its international image have taken a new form: “pinkwashing,” attempting to convince the world’s Queers that Israel is a Queer-friendly country and deserves both political and financial support from the Queer community.
“The term ‘pinkwashing’ was started in 2002 by Breast Cancer Action (BCA),” Giordano explained. “As the feminist movement raised awareness of breast cancer, corporations took over the anti-breast cancer campaigns.” What BCA was trying to do, Giordano said, was raise awareness that companies that were cultivating “women-friendly” images by donating to breast cancer groups and sponsoring big events like the Susan G. Komen three-day walks were also “producing many of the toxins that cause cancer. BCA started a campaign called ‘Think Before You Pink.’ A lot of corporations use women’s, Gay or environmental issues to cover up the atrocities they are involved in worldwide.”
Giordano said that the first time the term “pinkwashing” was applied to Israel was by College of Staten Island professor Sarah Schulman in an op-ed in the New York Times in November 2011 ( Schulman said that improvements in the status of Queers in the U.S. and western Europe “have given rise to a nefarious phenomenon: the co-opting of white Gay people by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political forces in western Europe and Israel. … [D]epictions of [Muslim] immigrants — usually Muslims of Arab, South Asian, Turkish or African origin — as ‘homophobic fanatics’ opportunistically ignore the existence of Muslim Gays and their allies within their communities. They also render invisible the role that fundamentalist Christians, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews play in perpetuating fear and even hatred of Gays. And that cynical message has now spread from its roots in European xenophobia to become a potent tool in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
According to Schulman’s article, Israel’s government launched an international public relations campaign called “Brand Israel” in 2005, with help from U.S. marketing executives. Intended to convince people in developed countries that Israel was “relevant and modern,” the campaign included efforts to attract Queer support — and tourist dollars — for Israel. In 2010 an Israeli Web site reported that the Tel Aviv tourism board had allocated $90 million to sell their city as “an international Gay vacation destination.” The campaign included depictions of young same-sex couples and funding screenings of pro-Israel movies at Gay and Lesbian film festivals in the U.S. Giordano explained that the “Brand Israel” campaign was launched in response to increasing anti-Israel sentiment over its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — and, indeed, over its colonization of virtually all of historic Palestine.

Israeli Jews: Oppressed Become Oppressors

Barghouti’s role in the presentation was to explain just how Israel took over Palestine and how, in order to rule as a minority population in the Middle East, Israelis had to adopt many of the practices of the apartheid government in South Africa. Barghouti is Palestinian, although he was born in Egypt after his family was driven out of historic Palestine by Israelis, and so the issue for him is both personal and political. “The term apartheid is Afrikaans for ‘segregation,’” Barghouti explained. “Israel says it’s a ‘Jewish state’ and indigenous Palestinians are a problem. They’re not considered part of the [Israeli] state even though we were here before the state was founded.”
Citing the definition of apartheid adopted by the United Nations in 2002 — “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of one racial group over another” — Barghouti explained why he believes Israel qualifies as an apartheid state. “If you are Jewish and you emigrate to Israel, you automatically become a citizen and can own land anywhere in the country,” he said. “If you are Palestinian, you cannot own land in 93 percent of Israel. That land is controlled either by the state or the Jewish National Fund. The areas Israel took control over in the 1967 war are all under military occupation today, and in effect Palestinians only have access to 10 percent of that land. The rest is taken up by ‘security checkpoints’ and ‘access roads’” over which only Jewish Israelis can drive.
Barghouti showed a slide of four maps of Greater Palestine that starkly demonstrated how complete the Jewish takeover has been. The first map was of Palestine as it existed before World War II, with a series of small white dots representing the 7 percent of Palestine in which Jews had settled. The remaining 93 percent, occupied by Palestinian Arabs, was in green. The next map was of the U.N. partition of Palestine, approved in 1947, which showed the original portion of Palestine assigned to Jews. The third map showed the state of Israel as it existed after the 1948 war, which Israelis call the “War of Independence” and Palestinians call the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe.” “The Nakba cost us 80 percent of our historic land in one day,” Barghouti said, “and since 1967 Israel has occupied 100 percent of historic Palestine.” The final map shows Palestine today, with a handful of green dots representing the parts of the West Bank and Gaza that haven’t been taken over by Jewish settlers, encouraged by all Israeli governments regardless of political party, and the infrastructure of walls, checkpoints and “access roads” with which Israel protects the settlers against the indigenous population.
“My ancestors didn’t do the Holocaust,” Barghouti said, “but we’ve become the victims of the victims of Europe.” He talked about one of the most insidious forms of anti-Palestinian apartheid: the fact that Israel’s expansions in 1948 and 1967 left Palestinians literally unable to return to the homes and villages from which their ancestors were driven out by Israeli arms. “Palestinians who still have the keys to their homes are not allowed back,” Barghouti said. “Any Jew can come to Israel and immediately become citizens and keep land. That’s why it’s apartheid.” Barghouti noted that one of the leading Black South Africans in the struggle against apartheid, Bishop Desmond Tutu, has said conditions in Israel are even worse than in apartheid South Africa because “the white South Africans at least allowed the Blacks to live there. We are treated like immigrants in our own land. … Human Rights Watch says Israel has a ‘two-tier system’ for the two populations of the West Bank.”
Barghouti discussed conditions for Palestinians not only in the West Bank and within the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel itself, but in Gaza, the thin strip between Israel and Egypt. The Israeli government formally “abandoned” Gaza in 2006, but has maintained a siege that prevents Gazans from receiving food or trading with the rest of the world. Given Gaza’s location — the only countries that border it are Israel and Egypt, and the Israeli navy has sunk boats that sailed in from Turkey attempting to land supplies for Gaza’s people — the Israeli blockade, supported by Egypt, has essentially turned Gaza into a giant open-air prison for its people, Barghouti said.
“The International Committee of the Red Cross has called Gaza a prison,” Barghouti explained. “The siege is completely against international law. Israel controls Gaza by controlling its borders and not allowing anything in. Even [Conservative British Prime Minister] David Cameron has called Gaza an ‘open-air prison.’ Amnesty International, Oxfam and Christian Aid have called for ‘unconditional lifting of the blockade’ against Gaza.”
When the pro-Western, pro-Israeli government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fell as a result of the “Arab Spring” protests in 2012, Gazans hoped — and Israelis feared — that the new Egyptian government would end their participation in the Gaza siege and let goods flow freely between Gaza and Egypt. But that hasn’t happened, according to New York Times contributor Issandr el-Amrani (, because the current Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of Egypt “fears Israel wants nothing more than to dump its Gaza problem on Egypt’s lap. … For Egypt, the risk is not only further entrenching the divide between Gaza and the West Bank it has tried to heal through inter-Palestinian reconciliation talks, but also creating new security and political problems.”

Israel Tries to Clean Up Its Image

Though most Americans don’t realize this because both the U.S. government and media have generally been cheerleaders for Israel — indeed, Israeli media contain more criticism of Israeli’s policies towards the Palestinians, including the occupation and settlement of the West Bank, than U.S. media — in the rest of the world “Israel’s image is not good,” Giordano said. Israel has been working on its international image since 1948, she explained. “There have been different stories about how you can claim domination over a land,” Giordano said. “You don’t generally say you’re occupying another country to hurt their people.” Instead, she argued, Israel’s flacks currently call their country “the only democracy in the Middle East” and “a more progressive country” than its Arab neighbors.
Giordano identified three components of Israel’s outreach towards Queers: “tourism, culture, and Gay rights and activism.” The tourist component, she said, has mostly been focused on “Gay male tourists from Europe,” with an ad campaign that basically sells Israel as a venue for sex tourism. The Israelis have also started including Jewish Queers in their long-standing policy of offering young Jews from other countries, particularly student activists and community leaders, all-expenses-paid trips to Israel in hopes that when they return they’ll talk up their experiences to their friends and promote Israel as a wonderful country. “Unintentionally, well-meaning LGBT [Queer] groups are convinced to get with Israel,” Giordano said. “There are lots of different Gay tourist sites in Israel.”
On the cultural front, Giordano noted, Israel mounted a major outreach to the Queer community in 2010, when it sponsored an “Out in Israel LGBT Culture Festival” and an “Israeli Pride Month.” They also bought a major sponsorship in the Frameline Queer film festival with the understanding that Frameline would respond by showcasing films with positive depictions of Queer life in Israel. “It’s for the U.S., not for their own Gay citizens,” Giordano explained. “They’re taking out ads in San Francisco trying to promote how Gay-friendly they are.” According to Giordano, Queer-friendly countries like the Netherlands and Sweden don’t feel they have to do that kind of marketing to American Queers — but Israel does.
Giordano also mentioned the role of pornography — and one pornographer in particular — in promoting Israel to U.S. Gay men as a sex-tourist destination. “Michael Lucas produces porn and is very rich,” she explained. “He’s not Israeli — I believe he was born in Russia — but he’s taken it upon himself to promote Israel as a sexually free land for Gay men. During Israel’s war with Lebanon he did a USO-style live sex show in Tel Aviv with free admission for soldiers. In 2009 he filmed Men of Israel, with scenes set in the ruins of Palestinians’ homes depopulated during the Nakba. His latest project is Israel Undressed, trying to show Israel as a Gay-friendly destination. He’s out as being very anti-Arab and anti-Islam.”
Indeed, Lucas has not only produced porn movies to boost Israel’s image among U.S. Gay men, he’s used his money to suppress discussion about Israel’s occupation of Palestine in Queer venues. In February 2011 the Siege Busters, a group working to raise money for yet another attempt to crash Israel’s blockade of Gaza by boat, arranged with the New York LGBT Community Center to use their space for a party to publicize Israeli Apartheid Week. When Lucas heard this, he went ballistic and threatened to organize a contributor boycott of the Center if they allowed the Siege Busters’ event to take place. “If the LGBT Center wants to host a fundraising and awareness party for anti-Semites,” Lucas said, “they might as well go all the way and host a tea dance for Fred Phelps.”
The Center caved completely; they imposed a ban on all events about Israel and Palestine which lasted for two years — until the Center caught flack last February for banning a reading by Sarah Schulman to promote her new book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. According to Giordano, it took a sit-in at the Center to get them to lift the ban.
The third issue used by Israel to appeal to Queers, Giordano said, is “claiming Gay rights and using Gay rights in Israel.” Giordano compared this to the justification offered by the U.S. government to go to war against Afghanistan by saying we needed to “save” Afghan women. Indeed, one of Israel’s arguments is that “Israel is a haven for Gay Palestinians and other Gay Arabs,” Giordano said. “They’re blocking all access but they say they’re doing it to ‘save’ Gay Arabs from their ‘backward’ countries.” One of Israel’s arguments is that if Gay Palestinians want to meet potential sex partners or social companions, they have to do it in Israel because no Gay bars or Queer organizations exist in Arab countries.
Of course, as Giordano and Barghouti both pointed out, any Gay Palestinian who tries to go to an Israeli Gay bar will have to deal with the same checkpoints and general hostility of any other Palestinian trying to move about freely in Israel. “Most Gay Palestinians [in Israeli bars] risk being discriminated against in the bar, being arrested by police and called ‘terrorists,’” Barghouti said. “In the 1980’s Israeli police would arrest Gay Palestinians and blackmail them, threatening to expose them to their families if they didn’t cooperate with Israel.”
In a particularly startling example of what Jews used to call chutzpah, the Israelis are even trying to sell their country as a haven for marriage equality — despite the fact that Israeli marriage law is so totally controlled by the Orthodox community that many straight Israelis don’t have marriage equality because they’re not considered “Jewish” enough. “Ninety percent of the Israeli population doesn’t have marriage equality,” Barghouti said. Straight couples who don’t qualify for a marriage in Israel can get married elsewhere, and the Israeli government will recognize their marriage — which has led Israeli travel agents to book tours to Italy so Israeli couples who don’t meet the Orthodox community’s standards for marriage in Israel can sail across the Mediterranean and get hitched, ironically enough, in the home country of Roman Catholicism.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

Not only are pro-Palestinian activists comparing Israel’s policies towards Palestinians to apartheid, they’re adopting a strategy based on the one that finally put enough pressure on South Africa’s white leadership to realize the game was up and they’d have to relinquish power. It’s called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — or BDS for short (a set of initials uncomfortably reminiscent of the sexually kinky community’s current designation of itself: BDSM, or Bondage, Discipline and Sado-Masochism). The BDS movement, Barghouti said, “is non-violent, international and includes both Palestinians and Jews. The movement wants to isolate and pressure Israel until it: 1) ends the occupation of all the lands seized in 1967; 2) recognizes the full rights of all 1.2 million Palestinians in Israel, who now cannot vote or serve in the Israeli military; and 3) recognizes the rights of Palestinians to return to their homes as stipulated in U.N. Resolution 194.”
Barghouti said the idea behind the BDS movement is to make Israel “a pariah state” worldwide, much the way similar campaigns against South Africa made that country a pariah state and hastened the nonviolent end of apartheid. He noted that BDS has attracted support from leading world figures such as Desmond Tutu, Ralph Nader, physicist Stephen Hawking (who turned down an invitation to attend a scientific conference in Israel this June), The Color Purple author Alice Walker, feminist philosopher Judith Butler and British musicians Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Damon Albarn of Blur. Among BDS actions in the U.S. have been culture-jamming the posters for the Israeli-sponsored Frameline film festival and pickets at benefits for the Jewish National Fund, including one that Giordano said “was trying to organize LGBT Jews” to support an organization that helps keep ownership of property in Israel reserved for Jews.
Asked how they justify support for the BDS movement, Barghouti said that it’s supported by the majority of Palestinians, while Giordano became more autobiographical — and more philosophical. “I have a strong feminist background, I teach in women’s studies, and I’m part of a Jewish anti-Zionist family,” she said. “My grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. A feminist principle is to listen to the voices of the most oppressed people. There are Palestinian and other Arab Queer groups who are calling for BDS.”
For more information on the BDS movement, visit its official Web site at For more information on Queer participation in BDS, the “pinkwashing” of Israel and what you can do about it, visit or