Selectivity and Human Rights - ‘Liberal’ despite occupation and apartheid

In September of 2014, 43 Israeli Soldiers and officers of the Israeli Defense Force’s unit 8200 denounced the IDF’s intelligence services and announced their refusal “to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as tools in deepening the military control over the Occupied Territories.” Considered one of the army's ‘most gay-friendly units’ they dissented primarily to the army’s cruel ‘political persecution’ of LGBTQ+ Palestinians. In short, the soldiers were required to spy on queer Palestinians and use the intelligence to blackmail them or their relatives and friends. Through brutal exploitation of their ‘weak-spot’ -- their sexual orientation -- blackmailed individuals would often be coerced into joining Shin Bet -- an Israeli security agency. As the Israeli soldiers themselves saw, Israel is hypocritical in its ‘liberalism’ and the fight for human rights. “You don't get to boast about being a democratic country if the premises of that aren't applied universally - and upheld in full spectrum. Of course it's good to be proud of the rights you do have. But these can't be used to absolve for the ones you don't,” explains Rachel Shabi, an Israeli journalist. Selectivity and the fight for human rights are incompatible.

In 2005, the Israeli government launched their marketing campaign aimed at the gay community of Israel, titled “Brand Israel,” and depicting Israel as “relevant and modern.”  “Brand Israel” specifically sought to portray Israel as a safe-haven for LGBTQ+ individuals. Yet the actual implementation of its policies towards gays reveals that the Israeli government exploits the struggles of LGBTQ+ individuals to improve its international recognition and not to recognize anyone’s inherent rights. This is “pinkwashing”: Brushing immense human rights violations under the rug by advocating for one, socially more convenient, right. Pinkwashing is not an exclusive phenomenon to Israel, for instance in Britain, Coburn, UKIP’s MEP, has been accused of deploying pinkwashing through an orientalist rhetoric as a justification for his anti-immigration and islamophobic stance. Chris Godfrey, one of his critics, has accused Coburn of “using LGBT issues as a promotional for promoting a fascist mentality [that] bastardises the movement.” Adding that it “debases the very essence of the liberal values the movement was conceived under: freedom from oppression and freedom of expression, inclusion, and equality.” Essentially, pinkwashing makes the Israeli integration efforts look progressive for how they treat queers, but also suggests that other standards of progress, from the Geneva Conventions and forward, should be forgotten. The rhetoric of this ‘rebranding’ is especially troubling; using an orientalist logic it locates Israeli ‘modernity’ in direct opposition to the ‘backward, regressive, and tyrannical’ Arab countries surrounding the country. I’ll discuss pinkwashing first and then explore its Orientalist deployment by Israel.

All systems of power and oppression are intrinsically linked. You cannot to be a feminist and seek to liberate a people from institutionalized oppression and power, without also supporting Black Lives Matter -- a movement that seeks to also liberate a people from institutionalized oppression and power. Therefore, one must be extremely skeptical of the Israeli government’s pinkwashing. Sami Shamali, a Palestinian queer activist, sums up the importance of intersectionality to non-hypocritical, truly effective activism: “Oppressive powers do not differentiate between gay or straight people. You cannot work against the [Israeli] occupation and forget patriarchy or capitalism, as they are interlinked as part of the bigger oppressive system.” 

To make this clearer, imagine a bus pulling up to a checkpoint, the driver -- a queer Palestinian -- is asked to pull over by the checkpoint soldier -- a queer Israeli. Queer solidarity won’t get the driver and his passengers through. As Haneen Maikey, the director of Al Qaws -- a queer Palestinian organization --, has said, “When you go through a checkpoint it does not matter what the sexuality of the soldier is.” The oppressions of Palestinians crosses the boundary of sexuality; because “Brand Israel” cannot help queer Palestinians but only pinkwashes, and exacerbates, their oppression Al-Qaws runs a hotline for queer Palestinians. They recognize that queers do face discrimination by the Israeli occupiers, but they also face Zionist racism and dispossession. In fact, while the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights is a very crucial and important cause, the campaign only makes sense as part of a larger human rights struggle for a just society that is void of racism and sexism.

Israeli state Pinkwashing is not only hypocritical, it is also Orientalist: it plays on the racist stereotype that Muslims and Arabs are violently homophobic and transphobic, while Israelis are tolerant and “civilised.” It defines the “good” self by crafting the image of a damned other. Listen to the recent speech of Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the US congress: “Israel has always embraced this path [of liberty] in a Middle East that has long rejected it. In a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, Christians are persecuted, Israel stands out. It is different.” Sure, instead of hanging people for being gay, Israel hangs them for being Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian. Nor does the hanged Arab body take much comfort that it is being hung by an openly gay Israeli soldier. It is still a body hanging.

Linda Sarsour, has controversially said, “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it." She was echoing Nelson Mandela who said of newly post-Apartheid South Africa, “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Both Sarsour and Mandela recognize the importance of intersectionality to reach true and genuine human rights; otherwise, it is merely a facade. Israel LGBTQ+ campaign does not work because it is exclusive to one identity. Humans aren’t. Humans are inherently intersectional, so to protect them requires protecting all their identities.

In November 2011 the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, an international body of lawyers and activists, found that “Israel subjects the Palestinian people to an institutionalized regime of domination amounting to apartheid as defined under international law.” More recently, in December 2016, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2334 by 14 votes, a resolution that strictly condemns Israel's settlements stating that they have “no legal validity, [and] constitute flagrant violation of international law.” With Israel’s continued aggressive settler-colonial, racist, apartheid regime and occupation, no one can truly claim to be liberated.

Here, on Columbia’s campus, the board of Columbia Queer Alliance has recognized the significance of intersectionality and signaled its solidarity, stating that “As an organization that has fought for the human rights of queer and trans students for almost 50 years, we align ourselves with the goals of the campaign as it is embedded in the larger BDS movement to fight for and protect the human rights of the Palestinian people.” Pinkwashing is hypocritical, misleading, and othering. It is clear, that there is no point in claiming the high ground for protecting people under one category if you will persecute them under another. To liberate one, you must liberate all.