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.