“Why did you immigrate to Canada, then?” a stranger asked me at a cafe one night. We had started discussing the Israeli occupation of Palestine, when the conversation took a left turn and he asked me why I would support a state that actively persecutes and “stones” its gay population. “As a queer Arab,” I retaliated, “you are speaking over our lived experiences, and the experiences of queer Palestinians living under the occupation.” I was mad. I was mad that a stranger would make assumptions about my own life and my queerness in order to justify the goals of their strawman argument. “Why did you immigrate to Canada, then? Isn’t it because you were being persecuted in Lebanon for being queer?”
This conversation was nothing new to me. As a queer Arab male (not to speak on behalf of all queer Arab males), I constantly have to explain myself, since being Arab and queer seem to be contradictory to many people living outside of that sphere. I have to explain that, ‘No, I am not actively being persecuted, and queer people aren’t stoned where I’m from,’ and that I didn’t have a horrible time growing up because I’m queer. That is not to say the latter isn’t due to my class privilege. That is also not to say I am an apologist for oppressive government policies toward queer groups in the Middle East, which still negatively impact a lot of queer people. But while it is important to condemn violations of rights, and to support initiatives that fight them, vilifying a whole people because of this is unreasonable. Homophobia exists almost everywhere. The maltreatment of queer groups is not restricted to the so-called developing nations. Trans people still face despicable treatment in Canada and the U.S., and bisexual erasure is still very rampant in mainstream media, along with the trivialization of sexualities that might not fit the straight-performing, white, or white-performing gay/lesbian binary.
Pinkwashing is a strategy that utilizes the myth that so-called developed nations are safe havens for queer people. Many countries use this strategy in order to promote themselves as ‘progressive,’ or more ‘progressive,’ than others. In the U.S., for example, Hillary Clinton declared that it is the duty of the U.S. to protect the rights of gay people abroad. In response, Maya Mikdashi, a postdoctoral associate in the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, critiqued Clinton in an article for Jadaliyya, asking “How and why, exactly, [would] the United States monitor and regulate LGBTQ rights internationally. Would the American army, for example, start ‘enforcing’ the rights of gay Iraqis or gay Afghanis? Would the United States impose sanctions on governments that were non-homo friendly?”
In an email to The Daily, Toronto-based academic and activist Natalie Kouri-Towe explained that “pinkwashing is a practice used by governments, state institutions, PR firms, corporations, lobby groups, et cetera to draw public attention away from [their] unjust practices by highlighting some token feature that appears to be equitable or just.” Israel, similarly to the U.S. (which uses the queer and feminist issues as an excuse in order to invade countries and wage wars, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq), also uses this strategy in order to build up its image as the so-called bastion of human rights in a ‘dark and savage’ Middle East. This strategy (one of many) aims to maintain a deadly and costly occupation, and to distract away from Israel’s human rights abuses in the territories it illegally occupies, all of which are now evident to anyone with a working internet connection and a critical mind.
For Israel, not unlike many other countries, the queer issue is not just seen as one of the foremost civil rights issues of our century, but it is also seen as a marketing tool. The state effectively speaks on behalf of, and over, many queer people and markets itself as a safe haven for queers from both Israel and Palestine. This is all part of an elaborate PR campaign called “Brand Israel,” which was the fruit of three years of negotiations between the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s office, and the Finance Ministry in consultation with American marketing executives, with the goal of marketing Israel in a way that would be friendly and relatable to Western* audiences. “Celebrating the out and vibrant gay night life of Tel Aviv, Westerners were supposed to identify with Israel. This aimed to normalize the apartheid system, making the military occupation, illegal wall, and other violations of international law and human rights seem necessary to uphold and protect the Israeli state,” explained Kouri-Towe.
An integral part of this plan is its comparative aspect. In a ‘clash of civilizations’-like effort, Israel actively compares itself to Palestinian society, thereby placing itself in a superior position – a vacuum for criticism. How could people criticize a state, after all, with an allegedly stellar human rights record that upholds the same values and morals as the ‘West?’ For example, Israeli officials exploit the few cases of queer Palestinians asking for permits to join their Israeli or Palestinian partners in Israel, in order to claim that Palestinian society is homophobic and ostracizes its queer community, and that Israel, on the contrary, advocates for the rights of queers. This reasoning follows with the assumption that we should “therefore […] not pressure Israel, because if we pressure Israel we are going against the rights of women, queers, [and] all marginalized groups in society,” points out Samia al-Botmeh, professor of Economics at Birzeit University in the West Bank, visiting professor at the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies, and a steering committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).
“Coming out is not a precondition for a vivid movement, we proved we can build a community without everybody needing to be ‘out’ on all different levels.”
Haneen Makey, Co-founder of alQaws
The role of Orientalism
Israeli officials and their proponents further perpetuate this discourse by making sensationalist statements such as: “In a dark, and savage, and desperate Middle East, Israel is a beacon of huamanity, of light, and of hope,” as declared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who is currently running for re-election) in a speech at the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy (AIPAC) conference. Statements like these are not only offensive, but also erase any cultural differences within the Middle East, with their treatment of social issues and the asymmetric and differential nature between Western and non-Western cultures.
Edward Said touched upon this kind of rhetoric in his seminal work Orientalism, where he states, “the Orientalist was considered to be a generalist (with a great deal of specific knowledge of course) who had highly developed skills for making summational statements. By summational statements […] the Orientalist would be understood (and would understand himself) as also making a statement about the Orient as a whole.” Following that logic, Israeli officials are operating in pure Orientalist fashion when they make essentialist statements such as Netanyahu’s about Palestinian society. Therefore, one cannot simply say ‘our treatment of queer groups is better than yours,’ especially if there is an asymmetry of power between the nations being compared, such as in the relationship between occupier and occupied, and when these nations do not operate on an equal platform, such as in the relationship between colonizer and colonized.
In this way, if non-Western society, specifically in Palestine, understands and goes about queer issues differently than the West, then this culture is seen as intolerant of queers specifically, says al-Botmeh. She asserts that this stems from classic Orientalist practices. For example, when a crime is committed in ‘non-Western’ countries, a cultural cause is searched for, while if the same crime is committed in Western countries, the cause looked to is distinctly non-cultural – the difference between domestic violence in the ‘West’ versus honour killings in the ‘non-West,’ for instance.
“The manner in which we conduct our society is different from Israel, we are not a Western society, and Israel is a Western [one]. The way we go about our lives in general is different, and that applies to everybody: that applies to men, women, to how social relations are conducted, how society is organized. […] And therefore we do have a difference of approach with regard to queer issues, [one that] is not a Western approach,” al-Botmeh continues. “Of course Israel plays on that, [in the same way that it plays] on the issue of women for example, [claiming that Palestinian society] is uncivilized, backward, that it violates the rights of women, et cetera.”
What critics of Palestine also miss is the fact that homosexuality has been decriminalized in the West Bank since the 1950s, “when anti-sodomy laws imposed under British colonial influence were removed from the Jordanian penal code, which Palestinians follow,” according to an article in the New York Times (the situation remains different in Gaza following the Hamas/Palestinian Authority rift).
“I am an Arab, I am a Palestinian, I am gay. My gay haven is not a glittered parade in Tel Aviv. It is a liberated Palestine.”
Fahad Ali, op-ed writer for Honi Soit
It is worth explaining that Palestinian society does have its particularities, just like any other society does, and hence has its own way of dealing with issues. AlQaws, “a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and queer (LGBTQ) Palestinian activists and allies collaboratively working to transform Palestinian society’s perspectives on gender and sexual diversity and struggling for broader social justice,” is an example of one of a few Palestinian civil society organizations advocating for sexual and gender equality, and social justice.
“I often hear the objection: ‘so what if Israel wants to promote its gay-rights policies?’ But it’s not about gay rights, Israel commits human rights violations and occupies another people and then abuses my difficulties and my name by saying my society is backward and homophobic. My struggle is dismissed and my people are demonized. This has a direct impact on our image internationally, but more importantly on Palestinian gay youth who internalize these ideas and dream about running away to Israel, the supposed bastion of gay rights,” says Haneen Maikey, co-founder of alQaws, in an interview with International Viewpoint.
Al-Botmeh explains that the ‘West’ aims to impose its own model on the rest of the world in order to fight differences that might not conform to Western standards “We know from the struggle of feminism [that] that is counterproductive. In the sixties and the seventies many Western feminists tried to impose their values on the [‘non-West’] and the results were catastrophic.” (For more information, see the article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? by Lila abu-Lughod). In this way, alQaws responds to the needs of Palestinian society and responds to this society’s particularities, without borrowing from already existing Euro-American approaches to queer rights.
Maikey affirms that Palestinian society is much more communal and community-based than individualistic societies in most of the West (certainly communities of colour in the West could be considered communal). “We all have friends who know and some family members that know, but others don’t. In different places, we can be different people. We can have this flexibility in our identity without having the ‘ceremony’ of coming out. We are not a Christian culture, we don’t have this tradition of confessing. In the Western context, ‘coming out’ grew organically from its social context. It’s a very individual approach, from an individualist society,” states Maikey.
In Palestine, many individuals value their ties with their communities more than coming out. Maikey continues, “my parents are more angry about me moving away than being a lesbian. Many people are very connected to their families and are not willing [to] break with them by coming out in the Western sense […] Coming out is not a precondition for a vivid movement, we proved we can build a community without everybody needing to be ‘out’ on all different levels.”
Pinkwashing, then, not only distracts from Israel’s blatant human rights abuses, but also ignores the existence of an active queer movement within Palestine and Palestinian civil society.
“I often hear the objection; ‘so what if Israel wants to promote its gay-rights policies?’ But it’s not about gay rights, Israel commits human rights violations and occupies another people and then abuses my difficulties and my name by saying my society is backward and homophobic.”
Haneen Makey, Co-founder of alQaws
The politics of queer
In 2009, two gay youth were shot in the centre of Tel Aviv. AlQaws expressed solidarity against this hate crime, and attended the demonstration to denounce this crime. Maikey recounts, “[The demonstration] was dominated by white men and right-wing politicians. Shimon Peres [the former president of Israel] was on the stage, saying ‘don’t kill’ while two months earlier he was part of killing hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, and the Israeli national anthem was played. So, as Palestinians we were excluded from this demonstration. We asked to speak from the platform but this was refused with the argument this was not the place to talk about politics – as if the whole issue is not political!”
Of course, a conversation about pinkwashing cannot take place without grounding the argument within the theory of homonationalism, as articulated by Jasbir Puar, an associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Puar explains that homonationalism is not just a state practice. It is the historical intersection of state practices, the flow of queer commodity culture (marketing things to the queer community), and the Euro-American human rights industrial complex (or the imposition of a Euro-American notion of human rights on the non-Euro-American world), first with each other, and then with broader global phenomena like Islamophobia. The latter now dictates that modern states be judged on the basis of how they treat their queer population (primarily gay men), but from a Euro-American-centric and Islamophobic perspective. Pinkwashing falls under the umbrella of homonationalism as one of its many visible outcomes. Furthermore, pinkwashing intersects with Islamophobic discourse post-9/11, which is characterized by the Western crusade against ‘radical Islam.’ Pinkwashing in Israel, therefore, would not exist in its current form without anti-Arab and anti-Islamic discourse.
Puar further writes that pinkwashing cannot be dissociated from the neoliberal capitalist context of the Western world, as it produces what she calls the “human rights industrial complex” which, when it comes to queer rights, still articulates a Euro-American-centric discourse and tries to impose this on the entire world. Therefore, Puar states that Israel is at the forefront of homonationalist discourse. “[The] homonationalist history of Israel, or the rise of LGBT rights in Israel, parallels the concomitant increasing segregation of Palestinian populations, especially post-Oslo.”
The U.S., Israel’s greatest financial supporter, is complicit in Israel’s homonationalist practices, as Israeli pinkwashing targets the U.S. lobbies first, and more and more in Canada as well – most notably AIPAC and its Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC), who use the queer discourse Israel co-opts in order to serve Israel’s purposes within the U.S. and Canada. “U.S. settler colonialism is inextricably intertwined with Israeli settler colonialism. Through their financial, military, affective, and ideological entwinement, it seems to me that the United States and Israel are the largest benefactors of homonationalism.”
Civil rights and self-determination
More importantly, and what may also seem contradictory to many, is that the queer struggle in Palestine does in fact have everything to do with the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and the struggle against Israeli occupation. A prominent example of this is Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (PQBDS). The BDS movement itself aims to put pressure through various forms of boycott and the implementation of divestment initiatives, “and to demand sanctions against Israel, until Palestinian rights are recognized in full compliance with international law,” according to the BDS website.
PQBDS aims to counter Israeli pinkwashing and to promote BDS, since BDS is a grassroots call-to-action from Palestinian civil society. “We consider ourselves an integral part of Palestinian society: we do not mean this is in a nationalist way but in the sense that we suffer from the same hardships as other Palestinians. The occupation also affects queers; racism doesn’t distinguish between queers and straights. So we were already part of campaigns against the occupation, discrimination, and the separation wall. We feel we can contribute a special perspective to this struggle and this is why we wanted to create a separate, independent group that can work to support the BDS campaign from a queer perspective,” argues Maikey.
Kouri-Towe also notes the contributions of queer activism to the Palestinian struggle. “The way that queer activists have revealed the diversion tactics of pinkwashing has gone a long way to expose how the Israeli state is using public relations as its new strategy in denying Palestinian human rights […] I think queer activism has really shown how important it is to have diverse organizing strategies in social movements. In the Palestinian liberation movement, the organizing work of queer activists can help contribute to critiques of state practices and normalization discourses, which can [then] easily be replicated in mainstream organizations and groups.”
As a member of PACBI, al-Botmeh states that PQBDS is an integral part of the BDS movement and the fight against the occupation. Queer activists are very well-connected within Canada and the U.S., for example. For al-Botmeh, it is not about bringing the queer movement into civil society and BDS per se, rather it is only natural to work with queer activists on grassroots initiatives such as BDS. “Within Palestine, the queer movement is comfortable, it has more of its rightful place within civil society. No one would attack alQaws within civil society for example. It is as highly respectable, accepted, as any other organization within civil society. I think that is a very healthy indication of society in general, because civil society does represent the very base of society.”
The issue for Palestine is that the actualization of queer or feminist rights cannot be fully obtained without an end to the occupation. Moreover, queer and feminist activism is an integral part of the anti-occupation movement in Palestine – it is very much within. A Western model of Euro-American queer rights cannot be imposed onto Palestinian society; the queer movement and its politics and demands have to be indigenous to Palestine, of the people, and a response to the specific demands of Palestinian society. In the words of Fahad Ali, an op-ed writer for Honi Soit: “I am an Arab, I am a Palestinian, I am gay. My gay haven is not a glittered parade in Tel Aviv. It is a liberated Palestine.”
*By Western, I mean privileged, predominantly white, cis, heteronormative, and Euro-American.