Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How Pinkwashing Critics Go Wrong: Why I oppose the new move to boycott Israel

Advocates of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) have ratcheted up charges that Israel and American LGBT groups are attempting to “pinkwash,” or deflect attention from, Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians by mounting programs in the US about the country’s many gay rights achievements.  BDS forces in the anti-pinkwashing campaign call for boycotting events with visiting Israeli Jewish LGBT activists, even succeeding in shutting down several recent events in Seattle.  
Arthur Slepian is a gay American Jew who founded a group called A Wider Bridge, which seeks to build stronger ties between the LGBT communities of Israel and North America.  A Wider Bridge was the lead sponsor of the Israeli LGBT leaders’ two-week West Coast visit with their American counterparts.
Slepian has just published a landmark essay in Tikkun,An Inconvenient Truth: the Myths of Pinkwashing,” now the single most-read article in Tikkun online.   Read it here

His essay explodes the top five myths of pinkwashing, sparking a volley of critical responses from four prominent pinkwashing opponents.  
But the critics miss the mark, misrepresenting Slepian's arguments, attacking easy straw man versions instead.  And some continue to show a blatant disregard for the facts, making leaps of illogic that would astound the trapeze artists at Cirque du Soleil.  

A few examples of how Slepian's critics get it wrong:  
1.   Pinkwashing as the new straw man of the BDS movement.  Columbia University professor Katherine Franke declares that not only the Israeli government and American LGBT and Jewish groups, but the Obama administration too is guilty of pinkwashing.  How so?  Because it supposedly uses its “good gay rights record” to deflect attention from its other “objectionable policies… like using drones to execute civilians.”  This only seems to confirm Slepian’s observation that anti-pinkwashers are reminiscent of those who once saw “communists” under every bed.  They see pinkwashing everywhere, even where it isn’t.
2.    Israeli gay rights can’t be separated from Palestinian human rights?  Slepian never suggests, as his critics suppose, there weren’t some connections between the African-American civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam war.   Saying the two can be separated isn't the same as saying that they have no relationship at all.  The disproportionate fatality rate among black soldiers in Vietnam, rectified only in the later phases of the war, reflected discrimination against African-Americans versus whites in the draft and in combat roles.  

Slepian did maintain that we were right to celebrate civil rights advances pushed forward by the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, even as these same administrations were prosecuting a war in Indochina that many considered wrong (if not immoral).  By the same token, we should celebrate gay rights advances in Israel even though its government is maintaining what many view as an immoral occupation, and committing human rights abuses against Palestinians.  Boycotting civil rights programs supported by the US government over Vietnam would have been a mistake, much it is equally objectionable to boycott gay rights programs supported by the Israeli government because of the occupation.
3.  The Israeli government doesn't fund visits to the US of Israeli speakers or artists who oppose the occupation and its mistreatment of Palestinians?  Then there’s Wendy Elisheva Somerson’s claim that it’s “unlikely that any of the [Israeli Jewish LGBT activists visiting the US] would speak out against the Occupation on a tour being financed by the Israeli government,” despite much evidence to the contrary.
A case in point:  In late June, anti-pinkwashing protesters disrupted the introduction to a San Francisco screening of Israeli filmmaker Yariv Mozer’s documentary “The Invisible Men,” which cast a critical light on harsh Israeli government policies towards gay Palestinian men seeking asylum in Israel.                                                                                                                                                    “When [Mozer] tried to say something counter to the protest, someone in the audience spoke up and said, ‘That wasn’t aimed at you.’ He very forcefully replied ‘Yes it was. My film was partially funded by the Israeli government, my visit here was funded by the Israeli government. I am a leftist and I oppose many of the policies of my government, but I am proud to be an Israeli, and calls for boycott are wrong.’”

Somerson assures us that “Anti-pinkwashing activists [just] want to include the voices of queer Jewish Israelis and Palestinians critical of the Occupation.”    Why then don’t they, together with the Jewish and Palestinian groups they support, help sponsor more events that highlight the lives and struggles of LGBT Palestinians, instead of working to boycott and shut down programs with visiting Israeli Jewish LGBT activists?    Why not build instead of tearing down?  

4.  Truth, and going too far.   Still, neither side in this debate has a monopoly on truth.   Anti-pinkwashing advocates do have important things to say about the suffering of West Bank Palestinians living under Israeli rule.  They offer reasonable and valid critiques of real, as opposed to imagined, misuses of Israel’s gay rights record and the demonization of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims by the Israeli and American Jewish right. 
But all too often they foul their case by painting with far too broad a brush, smearing everything in their path, doling out guilt by association.  Some of the key players who were involved in the cancellation of Israeli LGBT events in Seattle, and now participants in the Tikkun debate, are lead endorsers of the “Open Letter to LGBTIQ Communities and Allies on the Israeli Occupation of Palestine,” a manifesto for anti-pinkwashing activism released earlier this year.
Their appeals are burdened by extremist rhetoric, like calls for queer solidarity with the most radical, anti-peace factions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the occupied territories.  These groups agitate for realizing refugee demands to return to Israel, and do not represent moderate Palestinian voices in the West Bank. 
American queer Palestine solidarity advocates defend BDS tactics that are at best symbolic and ineffectual, and at worst counterproductive, likely to drive a fearful Israeli public further to the right.  
They embrace a Palestinian radicalism that confuses “full self-determination for Palestinians” with boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, an end to all US security aid to Israel now, and fulfillment of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.  (See the “Open Letter” which links to The Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS - note especially the last three paragraphs.)  These are reckless steps which would undermine the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – two states for two peoples – and turn Israelis away from taking risks for the difficult compromises which will have to be made for any chance at peace.  
Much as progressive Jewish groups like J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund work to promote justice and peace for Israelis and Palestinians, while opposing calls to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel and those who do business with it, I believe that we can work for equality for Palestinians, Bedouin and Jews in Israel, for a just Israeli-Palestinian peace and an end to Israel’s occupation while resisting efforts to quash public dialogue with Israeli Jewish LGBT leaders visiting the US
Global BDS “tends to penalize collectively academics, artists and others who actually oppose the occupation, while leaving untouched those responsible for Israel’s most destructive decisions,” as the New Israel Fund so eloquently showed in A Leftist’s Critique of BDS.   Now add to that list the many Israeli Jewish LGBT heroes who are fighting for equal rights for gay Israelis and Palestinians.  
Anti-pinkwashers insist that they aren’t trying to silence Israeli Jewish LGBT leaders visiting the US or their American supporters.  They say they’re merely trying to broaden the conversation.   
But their actions are hard to distinguish from censorship, and the one-dimensional caricatures of Israel by many “Palestine solidarity” people, both straight and gay, are deeply troubling.   That’s why I can’t support so much of what the anti-pinkwashing Global BDS Movement says and does.    There are decent and effective ways to combat occupation and injustice.   This isn’t one of them.

I'm proud to stand with A Wider Bridge and its allies in the LGBT community in Israel in their struggle for equality and inclusion for LGBT Israelis.