By Dorgham Abusalim
On Saturday, Nov. 7, Town Danceboutique, D.C.’s destination gay dance club, featured an event called Tel Aviv Vibe with Israeli DJ Erez Ben Ishay and drag performer Osher Sebbag.
When I first heard about the event through Facbeook, I was excited at the prospect of going to celebrate global equality and human rights. It isn’t often that D.C.’s gay nightlife features international faces.
Besides good tunes and the lively atmosphere Town has to offer, I noticed something unusual. Step-up posters and a table of giveaways that promoted EL AL, Israel’s airline, bearing the words: “It’s not just an airline, it’s Israel.” As the night went on, I began to wonder, why EL AL? How is it related to the event?
After some digging, I learned that two officials of the Israeli embassy in Washington were present and promoted the event on social media: Sophie Felder, director of regional affairs, and colleague Zafrir Nesher-Kazaz.
It wasn’t surprising then that a question kept nagging at me: Did I partake in pinkwashing?
Pinkwashing: a portmanteau compound word of the words pink and whitewashing. In the context of LGBT rights, it is used to describe a variety of marketing and political strategies aimed at promoting a product or an entity through an appeal to queer-friendliness, primarily by political or social activists.
In the context of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, pinkwashing highlights Israel’s branding efforts abroad at a time human rights violations it commits against Palestinians are increasingly visible. The Tel Aviv Vibe campaign dates back to 2010, when Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, the Tel Aviv Tourism Board, and Agudah, an Israeli LGBT organization, set out to brand the city as the world’s gay capital.
Controversy surrounding LGBT issues in this context persist. For instance, as Philip Weiss, founder and co-editor of Mondoweiss, highlights in a 2014 article, Israel has repeatedly used knowledge of sexual orientation of Palestinians, among other private information, to blackmail them into becoming informants — that is to forcefully make them to take part in a violent conflict contrary to their well-being and beliefs.
The issue here is not only the use of sexual orientation as a tool of extortion, but also the assumption that one can paint Palestinian society with a single brush as unfriendly and homophobic, standing in stark contrast to Israel’s promoted tolerance. As with every society around the world, including Israel’s own outside the confines of the Tel Aviv bubble, human sexuality is always a hot-button issue, spanning a wide range of complex and diverse opinions. Such was the case in Palestine when the SCOTUS marriage equality decision was delivered according to Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian artist whose “Through the Spectrum” rainbow mural on Israel’s illegally built wall in Palestine raised eyebrows.
Events like the Tel Aviv Vibe at Town suggest a lack of a much needed understanding of these dynamics, Palestinian LGBT issues and the role of Israeli branding efforts that maintain a false and misguided image of Palestinian society, especially at a time civil rights alliances are growing between Americans and Palestinians. Indeed, while Palestine is not free of homophobia, any effort to advance human rights and LGBT protections must begin with the recognition of Israel’s abuse of the difficult reality LGBT Palestinians face — being stuck between a rock (the occupation) and a hard place (a society that de-prioritizes sexual matters).
Dorgham Abusalim recently graduated with a master’s in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He is originally from Palestine and writes frequently on Israeli-Palestinian affairs in English and Arabic.