LGBTQ Israelis are fed up with the contempt hurled at a marginalized minority. Last week, Aguda — the nation’s premier LGBTQ organization — called for the nation’s very first queer general strike last Sunday.
A few days prior, Israel passed a basic law (the equivalent of a constitutional amendment) forsaking the old formula of a “Jewish and democratic” state with an ethno-nationalist definition of Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish People.” The new law declares national self-determination a right “unique to the Jewish people” and omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality.” Arabic, formally an official language, has been downgraded to a “special status.” Palestinian citizens of Israel, a fifth of the population, already face over 65 discriminatory laws from housing to marriage. Unlike other discriminatory laws, however, the nation-state law constitutionally enshrines their second-class status.
It wasn’t the only discriminatory law passed last week. The day prior to the “nation-state” vote, the Knesset voted to deny surrogacy rights to gay couples. A cacophony of Israeli LGBTQ protest erupted culminating in the strike. While some protesters expressed broad support for equality, others did not directly link the two bigoted acts passed by the legislature. The omission of any vocal solidarity with Arab citizens could not have been an oversight given the proximity of the votes and the religious-nationalist coalition behind both acts. Regrettably, it fits a pattern among LGBTQ leaders in Israel.
While some LGBTQ Israelis harbor racism toward Palestinians (indeed there is an openly gay member of the ruling, right-wing Likud party), much of the LGBTQ community refuses to express solidarity with Palestinians fearing it would set back the gay rights movement inside Israel if gay activists are perceived as “Arab lovers.” An LGBTQ movement that openly condemns the occupation would certainly encounter more pushback than a movement that toes the nationalist line, but the lack of solidarity is morally bankrupt and self-defeating.
The bet on a succession of right-wing governments (drifting further right every election), aligned with religious fundamentalist parties, will never pay off. Of the 17 pro-LGBTQ bills introduced in the Knesset since 2013, only one of them has passed. As recently as 2016, the Knesset voted down “proposals to recognize a bereaved widower in same sex couples … a bill banning conversion therapy … a bill to recognize a same-sex marriage contract and … a bill to train health professionals to deal with gender and sexual inclination issues.” The day before the bills were voted down, the Knesset approved a symbolic gesture recognizing LGBT Rights Day. That same year, the Ministry of Tourism announced a $2.9 million publicity campaign to promote gay tourism in Israel, meanwhile the government funded Israeli LGBT organizations at one tenth that amount. These two toothless acts demonstrate that when it comes to the gays, the Israeli government is less interested in our well-being at home and more concerned with how to market us in its Brand Israel propaganda, portraying the country as liberal in a cynical gambit to distract from its horrific occupation, a policy known as “pinkwashing.”
Complicity has served to alienate many LGBTQ Israelis from their peers around the world. The decision of Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ film festival to accept state funding, and thus avoid any films and panels critical of Israeli policies toward Palestinians, prompted a queer boycott. The excuse “but Palestine isn’t a gay issue” won’t do. Every human rights struggle should be of concern to LGBTQ individuals still fighting for our human rights; nevermind the obvious fact that gay Palestinians also suffer under occupation. The silence of most LGBTQ organizations is shameful.
Not all are so servile toward the Israeli government. A courageous minority — echoing the radical spirit of Stonewall and ACT UP — raise the banner “No pride in occupation” and stage their own Pride parade, in opposition to the de-politicizing of Pride. They understand that their liberation is interwoven with equal rights for the Palestinians and that full equality can only be secured once all forms of discrimination have been eliminated.
Instead of seeing their cause as distinct, Israel’s LGBTQ movement should embrace an intersectional struggle for queer and Palestinian liberation and support universal equality. They could start by forming a partnership with alQaws, the queer Palestinian activist group. It is no coincidence that a stronger American gay rights movement emerged after the successes of the Civil Rights Movement that amplified the values of fairness and equality, which post-Stonewall gay activists could reference with more resonance among the general public. If the right-wing is voting against them anyway, LGBTQ Israelis have little to lose and much to gain if they join the global BDS movement to support equality for all Israelis and Palestinians.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a junior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.