Israel’s LGBTQ film festival has a queer problem. Heading the call of the grassroots Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinian equality, the South African queer filmmaker John Trengove – whose film, “The Wound,” opened the festival in Tel Aviv, on June 1 – announced his boycott days before the ceremony. Many quickly followed his example. As a recipient of state funds, TLVFest is complicit in the Israeli government’s anti-Palestinian equality agenda. Such complicity is all the more manifest given the political environment in Israel where its cultural ministry – the source of its funding – is helmed by the far-right Miri Regev. That TLVFest accepts state funding all but guarantees the festival won’t challenge reactionary politics. Such a compromised role has turned off many artists.
Responding to the BDS campaign, TLVFest director Yair Hochner argued that Trengove’s approach was misguided because, he said, “We work hard to promote messages that the [Israeli] government doesn’t promote.” Rather than an alternative vision, as characterized by Hochner, Israel’s mainstream gay rights movement has embraced what many queers have termed “homo-nationalism” – subsuming LGBTQ identity to the dominant nationalist and racialist identity – that, in Israel, translates into tacit if not avowed support for Israel’s military occupation over Palestine that blights the lives of Palestinian LGBTQs.
Many LGBTQ Israelis have enlisted their bodies in the state’s “pinkwashing” propaganda. The Israeli military has hired gay and trans soldier-spokespersons to instrumentalize Israel’s relatively progressive record on gay rights as a distraction from its deeply illiberal record toward Palestinians. Even the voices of Palestinian LGBTQs inside Israel have been pushed aside. At a 2009 LGBTQ solidarity rally in Tel Aviv, Palestinian speakers were banned from the podium for fear they’d draw parallels between anti-gay and anti-Palestinian discrimination. Whether out of conviction or opportunism, TLVFest takes no clear and persistent stand on Palestinian equality despite taking place just miles from the open air prison that is occupied Palestine.
Hochner sought to flip the script and portray BDS supporters as close-minded partisans who’ve “decided not to treat us like culture-loving people who are interested in dialogue.” Dialogue would only be productive when TLVFest is ready to publicly recognize the unequal treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli state. Until then, dialogue sessions would serve no purpose except delaying the promise of equality until the next dialogue, and the one after that. Moreover, TLVFest’s official statement to the BDS campaign disingenuously claimed that “it is impossible to hold a festival without government support.” In May, Tel Aviv staged the Human Rights Film Festival committed to confronting the occupation and providing a forum to Palestinian and Israeli dissident voices. And it did all this without accepting a shekel from the State of Israel.
TLVFest directors betrayed their obliviousness toward the real violence Palestinians confront daily when they charged that BDS activists acted “violently against a film festival.” When Palestinians take up arms, they’re condemned as “terrorists.” When they start a movement committed to peaceful solidarity, they’re condemned as violent all the same.
What BDS seeks to impress upon Israelis is that there can be no normalization of half a century of occupation: a film festival is not an innocuous cultural event when it receives funds from the left hand of the government while the right hand demolishes homes and steals land. Through direct pressure, BDS aims to induce Israelis to firmly demand their government end its oppression. Israelis, like TLVFest, who turn a blind eye to the occupation and then deride BDS, only add insult to injury.
As a queer individual who’s traveled to Israel, I felt a natural bond with many of our Israeli brothers and sisters who were shaped by their experiences as LGBTQs to stand up in defense of other oppressed people. But I also saw that there is nothing inherently redemptive about being LGBTQ. Gay people – like all people – are susceptible to nationalist intolerance. LGBTQ solidarity must be premised on shared values so that we work together to advance equality between Palestinians and Israelis. The Israeli queer group Black Laundry’s spirited slogan, “There’s no pride in the occupation,” shows the true path toward queer activism.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a junior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.