June 12, 2015 at 5:05 pm EDT | by Alex Shams
Seattle mayor’s Israel trip highlights dangers of ‘pinkwashing’
Ed Murray, gay news, Washington Blade

Ed Murray (Photo by Ryan Georgi; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, Seattle mayor Ed Murray touched down in Israel as part of a trip where he is expected to march in Tel Aviv’s gay Pride parade, meet Israeli political and military officials, and give a keynote at a conference celebrating Israel’s LGBTQ rights record.

The trip has generated a great deal of controversy, especially after reports revealed that despite the fact that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs was paying for part of his trip — reportedly the first time in at least a decade a Seattle mayor has accepted such a gift from a foreign government — taxpayers will still be forced to foot $36,000 for the rest.

If that isn’t enough to cause reason for suspicion about potential underlying motives, there’s the fact of who is behind the trip. A major sponsor is the pro-Israeli lobbying group called A Wider Bridge that aims to improve the country’s image among LGBTQ-identified Americans. That organization is closely linked with StandWithUs, a group that has come under fire repeatedly for rampant Islamophobia, verbal attacks on pro-Palestinian students, and promoting narratives that whitewash the realities of Israel’s occupation and mistreatment of the Palestinians.

The largest opposition to the mayor’s trip has come from queer groups across the United States accusing the mayor of playing the fool in the Israeli government’s global campaign to highlight its LGBT-friendly policies as a way to obscure or cover up its ongoing crimes against the Palestinian people.

As scholars and activists have repeatedly highlighted, Israel has in recent years actively pursued a global PR strategy under its Brand Israel label, often called “pinkwashing,” that seeks to divert attention from its massive abuses of Palestinian rights, including the killing of more than 2,200 people, around 70 percent civilians, in Gaza last summer, as well as the brutal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967.

The strategy, which is complemented by a broader outreach to young, Western liberals through arts and culture, is rooted in the idea that if hipsters think Israel is a fun place to be gay, they might forget or at least ignore the fact that it maintains different systems of law for Jews and for Palestinians in areas under its military control or that it has kept Gaza under a nearly total economic siege for the last nine years.

After all, who wants to talk about racial apartheid when we could be talking about clubbing in Tel Aviv?

In this way, Israel’s strategy resembles that used by many corporations and politicians in the United States to distract from their own records of workers’ rights abuses or support for racist and classist laws, and instead refocus the perception that “being gay” is all about being able to party.

This strategy not only delinks queer and trans rights from other kinds of human, political, and social rights, it also de-historicizes the queer and trans rights struggles in order to delegitimize other forms of rights violations. In the case of Israel, “pinkwashing” sets up an opposition between the rights of queer and trans Israelis and those of Palestinians by calling for queers around the world to support a state friendly to Jewish queers but violently opposed to the rights of Palestinians — queer or otherwise — to live free, dignified lives.

For a queer or trans Palestinian living under Israeli occupation, the idea that global leaders should heap praise on Israel because Tel Aviv has a few gay clubs is not only absurd, it is also insulting and a direct expression of support for the denial of the basic rights of themselves, their families, and their people as a whole.

Amid the cynical use of “gay rights” as a cover for racial discrimination, it is no surprise that Palestinian queers have been at the forefront of the global campaign for the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel over the last decade.

In a 2010 statement, the Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions group wrote: “As Palestinian queers, our struggle is not only against social injustice and our rights as a queer minority in Palestinian society, but rather, our main struggle is one against Israel’s colonization, occupation and apartheid; a system that has oppressed us for the past 63 years.”

Mayor Murray has not remained silent on the accusations by activists, and a few days before the trip he even released a statement to a local radio station.

“To the extent that I can help advance the cause of equality in Seattle, in Israel, the rest of the Middle East, or in any other places, I welcome the opportunity to do so,” he said.

Murray’s statement highlights the shocking extent to which the mainstream gay rights movement in the United States has managed to so narrowly define “equality” that it embraces the freedom to fly a rainbow flag but not the freedom to live free of fear from military occupation.

Murray enthusiastically embraced calls for a boycott of the state of Indiana after it passed legislation deeply discriminatory to LGBTQ citizens, but apparently cannot extend that same empathy to both LGBTQ and straight Palestinians.

But queer and trans rights are not isolated discourses unrelated to the right to life, dignity, and freedom. If queer and trans rights are to be seen as nothing more than the ability to party or marry — divorced from an analysis of the political and economic realities that define our daily lives — then they are close to meaningless to the billions around the world, queer and otherwise, who daily struggle for better lives and a more just world.

In Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the West Bank where I live, the strategy seems so ridiculous that it can be difficult to know whether to laugh or cry when reports emerge of yet another Western leader or dignitary coming on an Israeli-funded trip.

Israel’s separation wall and policies of building Jewish-only settlements and roads for 500,000 settlers in the West Bank have chopped the region into little tiny bits of limited Palestinian sovereignty surrounded by Israeli military checkpoints.

The reality on the ground makes a mockery of Murray’s claims that he supports a “two-state solution” — a policy the sitting Israeli prime minister has said he refuses to consider — and a quick glance around Palestine and Israel would show that Israel has made this an impossibility.

Supporters of the trip have noted that Murray is meeting with exactly two Palestinians during a jaunt to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, as if to demonstrate that his participation in a multi-day trip coordinated by the Israeli government with the support of pro-Israeli advocacy groups and including meetings with Israeli military officials can be “balanced out” by a few hours in the West Bank.

These claims are disingenuous, to say the least, and rely on the notion that there are two sides in the conflict. But there are not. There is a military superpower that occupies the land and dispossesses a people who have been denied basic human, political, and civil rights for decades.

In this context, playing along with Israeli government efforts to raise publicity about how gay-friendly it is should be recognized as a form of complicity in the occupation and dispossession of Palestinians.

Unfortunately, Ed Murray isn’t the only who has been duped. Both Jenny Pizer of Lambda Legal and Brad Sears of the Williams Institute, two prominent LGBTQ advocates in the United States, are also speaking at a Tel Aviv conference Murray is attending intended to celebrate its record of gay rights.

U.S. queer organizations need to understand that participating in the pinkwashing of Israel and allowing “gay rights” to be used as a tool to suppress the rights of others wherever it happens is an ethical betrayal of the decades of queer struggle in the United States.

For the last decade, Palestinian activists have called on those who support justice and equality in the Holy Land to join the movement for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctioning of Israel in order to hold the state accountable.

They have urged people around the world to be conscious of how the long struggle for queer rights is now being cynically co-opted by the Israeli government for its own agenda that entails using gays as window-dressing for its brutal policies.

It is time for Ed Murray, and U.S. queers more broadly, to listen.


Alex Shams is a journalist based in Bethlehem and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. Follow him @SeyyedReza.

  • When did you last write about the oppressed homosexual muslims?

    This article highlights the danger of ignoring gay people around the world. There are more gay muslims “in the closet” than Palestinians.

    When did you last write about the oppressed homosexual muslims?????

  • Hey Alex, why don’t you highlight the plight of gays in Palestinian controlled territories? Palestinian gays are safe in Telaviv, use your investigation skills and report what it is like for them in Gaza or Ramallah or Bethlehem. Have you been to the Gaza Gay Pride Parade?

    • RE: “Palestinian gays are safe in Telaviv” ~ Gerry

      SEE: “Israel’s Treatment of Gay Palestinian Asylum Seekers” ~ by Caroline Esser, The Washington Note, 6/06/11

      [EXCERPTS]. . . The newest way to sell Israel to Americans: LGBT rights. Search gay rights on the Anti-Defamation League’s website and what do you find? A ready-to-print and available for order poster that reads, “Which of the Middle East nations protects the legal rights, safety & freedom of the LGBT communities? Only Israel.” . . .

      . . . In their 2008 study, “Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum-Seekers in Israel,” Michael Kagan and Anat Ben-Dor describe in detail Israel’s unsympathetic and unbending policy towards gay Palestinians. . .

      . . .In pursuit of protection and the ability to openly express their sexuality, there have been at least ten cases in which gay Palestinians have sought refuge in Israel. However, despite their desperation, Israel refuses to even review gay Palestinian applications for asylum (those who have successfully received asylum have had to submit their cases directly to the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva). Moreover, gay Palestinians who have illegally entered Israel have been arrested and promptly deported–returned to the very environments in which their lives were at risk and in which they will now face further danger as they are questioned not only for their sexuality but for their choice to spend time in Israel. . .

      ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/2011/06/israels_treatme/

      • So, what is your solution? Destroy Israel, send all the Jews back to Europe, and replace it with a liberal pro-LGBT Arab government? Has one of those ever existed, anywhere?

    • palestinian gays are not safe in tel aviv cos they are not allowed into tel aviv. israel does not grant political asylum to palestinians based on their sexuality, where the hell do you people get this nonsense from? there is a gay scene in ramallah and other west bank cities, albeit underground secret ones obviously but the notion of openly gay public identities is not the same in every country because you know, complex historical political and social contexts…! and if you can’t understand this or the fact that brutally occupying palestine for nearly 70s isn’t going to bring about the liberation of anyone, queer or otherwise, then you are absolute moron and i can’t be bothered with your sort any more. it’s always the same unsubstantiated nonsense every damn time.

  • as always the sort of snide and totally misinformed nonsensical comments left on articles about pinkwashing prove just how important it is we don’t stop talking about pink washing.

    • Who is misinformed? Please explain, anonymous “dayglowjoe.” Please inform us about how well LGBT people are treated in the Palestinian territories or anywhere in the Arab world.

  • Holy crap, where to begin? Israel is where LGBT Palestinians go to escape their own people. Egypt is rounding up gay people and imprisoning and torturing them. Saudia Arabia? Please. Israel is a liberal, pro-Western democracy surrounded by social conservatives who are worse than the worst white Republicans from Mississippi. Reasonable minds can disagree about Israeli foreign policy, settlements, etc. – I am no fan of Israel’s government. But at least it is a democratically elected one, and one which respects human rights far better than any of its neighbors.

    • please stop, palestinians do not flee to israel – because israel does not grant asylum to palestinians…! that’s kind of a big part of the conflict, you know, ever heard about ‘right to return’? the millions of palestinian refugees banned from ever entering the country by israel?! israel does not grant asylum to any palestinians, on sexuality grounds or otherwise, so PLEASE stop peddling this completely erroneous propaganda. and those palestinians who do leave their families friends and livelihoods behind them to go and live in israel have to live off grid and risk imprisonment and deportation and sometimes even interrogation and torture. no one is saying palestine is a gay haven, but the conservative nature of most of palestinian society means most gays in the west bank actually enjoy a certain level of anonymity (because the idea of open gay identities in the public sphere is not really a thing in predominantly muslim societies) which allows them to have their own community, albeit an underground one, and focused in the liberal city of ramallah mostly, but still, even so, how do you expect a gay rights movement to flourish in palestine when israel curtails everyone’s rights?

      • Three points, Joe.

        1. Just because gay Palestinians cannot get legal status in Israel does not mean that they do not go there, and live there. There are refugees living without legal status in many countries, including many Latin immigrants to the US, and many Africans in Europe. Similarly, many gay Palestinians find it preferable to live without legal status in Israel than to live in Gaza or the West Bank. See http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/13/gay-palestinians-in-israel-the-invisible-men.html There are many similar articles, and I am sure you are familiar with them.

        2. “Right of return?” So, to be clear, what you want is for all people whose ancestry can be traced to persons living in what is now Israel, as of 1948, to be able to “return” to where their ancestors lived. This battle has been fought and lost many times. Negotiating for a two-state solution is feasible, right of return is not. Live your life in terms of what is possible. Think of the economic and social development of Gaza, and not about your great grandfather’s plot in Haifa.

        3. Don’t blame Israel for the lack of LGBT rights in the West Bank and Gaza. Blame Hamas and Fatah. But, more precisely, blame the socially conservative culture. There are no LGBT rights in the Arab world because your own people are hostile to LGBT rights. It is probably no worse in Gaza or the West Bank than it is in any other Arab country, but that’s pretty bad. I’m sure you live a very difficult life, and I am sorry. You have a terrible choice – stay and try to live with that situation or change it, or escape (to London, Toronto, LA, wherever….).

  • Apparently all it takes to buy the complicity of gay people is to allow a few gay bars in your capital city. Israel lost the moral high ground when they started pushing the settlements in the Occupied Territories. What’s the endgame? The elimination of the Palestinian People? As a U.S. citizen I wouldn’t have much standing on this issue if it weren’t for the fact Israel takes my tax dollars as uses the money to kill Palestian children playing soccer on the beach! But hey, at least you can dance with your boyfriend at a disco in Tel Aviv. The rightward turn of LGBT people in recent years has me questioning the worthiness of our “community”.

    • The Israel / Palestine conflict does not lend itself to notions of who has and who lost the “moral high ground.” It’s not all black and white. It’s complicated and if you are going to preach about morality, it be hooves you to inject some nuance and even handedness into the discussion. You want to criticize Israel? By all means go ahead. Here in Israel we criticize the government all the time. But try to at least acknowledge the fact that Palestinians are full partners to the conflict. How can you mention the tragic deaths of the Palestinian children on the beach in Gaza at the hands of the IDF and make no mention of the thousands of rockets indiscriminately fired by Hamas at Israeli civilians that precipitated the IDF’s presence in Gaza to begin with? How can you make light of the very real freedoms enjoyed by Israel’s homosexuals and not note the horrific lot of gays in the Arab Middle East? The accusation of pink washing implies that but for the conflict, gay rights wouldn’t exist in Israel because the main impetus for their existence is to distract from the occupation. That’s just ignorant. The same people celebrating at the pride parade are the same that are at the forefront of the struggle to make Israel a more just and equitable society for all. That’s how democracy works. It’s messy and only the biased or the simple minded think it’s simple.

  • To learn what Egyptian gay activists think about Israeli pinkwashing, read this: http://paper-bird.net/2014/11/26/egyptian-activists/

  • This article is an insult to Israel’s vast liberal and humanist population.

    Let me underline the main claim the author has offered us:
    He suggests that Israel deploys a “pinkwashing strategy, by which gay parades are held as a distraction from Israel’s questionable policy towards Palestinians.

    For this argument to stand, it must necessarily be true that the Israeli government is behind the gay parades. This is of course contrary to the truth. The Israeli government is right wing, nationalistic and largely religious. They have proven in recent years their impressive commitment to stifle any progress made by the LGBT community in Israel, and if they had any say in the matter, these parades would not be taking place.

    So why do have this open gay culture in Israel? why are so many LGBT tourists flocking to our sandy beaches? Well, Mr. Author – here’s the story explained, in the simplest of terms:

    Israel suffers from a split personality disorder. Approximately half of it’s citizens are conservative (many of them religious) and their vision of Israel is somewhere between a mild nationalist dictatorship and a full-blown theocracy. These are the xenophobic, homophobic types which support Israel’s everlasting presence in Palestinian territories, oppression of Arabs and condemnation of the LGBT community. These are also the people who elected our current government… you must believe me when I tell you, that these people are not throwing bare-skin, hormone driven gay parades in sunny Tel-Aviv, just to distract the world from our wrongdoings.

    So, who does deserve credit for the advancement of Israel’s LGBT movement? We do, the liberal left and center, who still stand for about 50% of the population. We fight for equality, for gay rights, for Arab rights… We throw gay parades, and we have turned Tel-Aviv into a liberal oasis of human compassion, in a country torn between western liberalism and harsh nationalism… The same people who organize these parades can be found the very next day protesting against the governments pro-occupation stance.

    And so, in the spirit of my rant, allow me to suggest an alternative tile:
    “Gay culture in Israel – a struggle between liberalism and conservatism”

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