By Alon Harel, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Faculty of Law
May 12, 2012
The term ‘pinkwashing’ has been used by gay and lesbian activists to condemn the use of Israeli liberal policies towards the gay and lesbian community to improve Israel’s public image. In an influential article in the New York Times Sarah Schulman -- an American novelist and a political activist-- described pinkwashing as a “deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violation of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” Professor Aeyal Gross – a law professor at Tel Aviv University -- argued that “gay rights have essentially become a public-relations tool” and Professor Katherine Franke who is an American law professor specializing in sexuality and gender concurred in a video in which she explains why she does not join the Equality Forum in its celebration of Israel as a “feature nation.”
I do not share the sentiments underlying the criticisms of “pinkwashing” even though I share the condemnation of the Israeli occupation and the opposition to the crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians. As a matter of fact I believe that the use of Israeli liberal gay policies by the Israeli foreign ministry is something that ought to praised and endorsed rather than criticized and, I would urge any person who is approached by the foreign ministry to join this campaign.
Some of those who condemn “pinkwashing” are not sufficiently familiar with the gay life in Israel. For some reason in a widely distributed video Professor Franke attributed to the Israeli education minister the statement that “gays are not people.” Minister Gideon Sa’ar (who deserves much criticisms for various reasons) is probably the most gay-friendly member of this right-wing government and I have no clue why Professor Franke attributed to him this statement which he could not have made.
But the very many factual mistakes of Professor Franke are less important than her fallacious overall dismissive view of the Israeli gay achievements. Professor Franke believes that while Tel Aviv is a gay haven (primarily because of its gay bar scene) the rest of the country is homophobic. I think most Israeli gays and lesbians living outside the bar scene and even outside of Tel Aviv would be surprised to learn that only Tel Aviv is a gay-friendly city and even this only because of its lively nightlife and hedonistic atmosphere. Many of those who work hard in the numerous local organizations in various areas of the country such as the Jerusalem Open House, the students’ organization in Jerusalem (the “Other Ten Percent”), the Haifa Forum of LGBT, Ben Gurion University LGBT students group and many others may be disappointed by the fact that their hard work to facilitate and reinforce equality is less known to foreign experts in gender and sexuality studies than the parties in Evita or the brief passionate sexual encounters taking place underneath the crowded dance-floor of Apolo. Unlike the depiction of Professor Franke the life of gays and lesbians in Israel (including Tel Aviv) does not consist only in hanging out in bars and, further, it even extends beyond the municipal boundaries of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. 
An additional regrettable omission on the part of the foreign critics of “pinkwashing” (including Ms. Schulman and Professor Franke) is their failure to realize the relationships between the Israeli and the Palestinian LGBT community. Both Ms. Schulman and Professor Franke praised the Palestinian organizations including in particular alQaws (a Palestinian LGBTQ organization) and Aswat (a Palestinian lesbian organization). What was lacking however from their enthusiastic descriptions was the fact that (to the best of my knowledge) the first organized activity of Palestinians gays and lesbians started in 2002 in the Open House in Jerusalem (run by Israelis) and, although later, the Palestinian group separated from the Open House (and raised accusations of racism against some members of the Open House), the Open House (as well as other organizations) has an Arabic website and many Palestinians benefit greatly from its activities.
But not all opponents of “pinkwashing” are ignorant about Israeli LGBT life. Professor Aeyal Gross is an expert on Israeli gay rights law and is also very familiar with Israeli LGBT politics and its legal achievements and failures. Professor Gross also raised his voice against “pinkwashing” and was among the first to condemn it. Gross argued fervently that the Israeli gay and lesbian community ought not be used as a tool in the campaign of the Israeli foreign Ministry as this campaign is designed to deflect criticisms of the Israeli policy towards the Occupation.
I think this view is politically mistaken. Israel should be condemned for its treatment of Palestinians and, at the same time, praised for its (relatively speaking) liberal policies towards gays and lesbians. The fact that the Israeli foreign ministry uses the liberal policies towards sexual minorities strengthens the status of the gay and lesbian community in Israel and, in my view, has little if any negative effects on the Palestinian plight.
The use by the foreign ministry of the liberal policies towards sexual minorities strengthens Israeli gay and lesbian community, as it implies that any attempt to reverse some of the relevant liberal achievements could be depicted as anti-patriotic and as an affront to Israeli image abroad. The interests of Israel and, in particular, its public image and the interests of the Israeli gay and lesbian community converge. Consequently gay and lesbian concerns are not perceived anymore as particularly lefty or liberal; they are equated with the interests of the state of Israel as such. Perhaps an indication to the broader appeal of gay and lesbian rights in Israeli conservative circles is the fact that gay and lesbian groups have recently been established in the Likud (right-wing party) and in Kadima (centrist party). Further, those who join the campaign of “pinkwashing” could use their positions to further new reforms including reforms benefitting Palestinians. They could for instance point out that a more liberal treatment of gay and lesbian Palestinians in particular those who seek asylum in Israel is essential for the success of the campaign. The more “pinkwashing” there is the stronger the Israeli gay and lesbian community becomes and the louder its voice can be heard.
I also fail to understand why it is argued that the campaign by the foreign ministry deflects attention from the appalling treatment of Palestinians. This accusation does not differ from the accusation that a campaign by the Israeli tourism ministry (pointing out that Israel is a sunny country) is an attempt to disguise the violation of human rights in Israel. No person I know thinks that if a state is a sunny country, it is necessarily liberal or that, if a state endorses liberal policies towards women it follows that it necessarily also endorses liberal policies towards its ethnic minorities. To argue that praising the Israeli treatment of sexual minorities “deflects” attention from its policies towards Palestinians is a speculative claim that has no empirical support and, also seems on its face, to be implausible. It does not give much credence to the intelligence of any audience to attribute to them the inference that if Israel is liberal on gay and lesbian issues it follows that it is also liberal in its treatment of Palestinians. If “pinkwashing is, as Professor Schulman argues, a “deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violation of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life,” it is a policy that is bound to fail. “Pinkwashing” is based on fallacious premises and the gay and lesbian activists ought to invest their energies elsewhere.
 I do not of course want to blame Professor Franke and others for their distorted depiction of Israeli gay life. Political and educational organizations and, in particular, peripheral organizations, being less visible and less wealthy lack the resources to cover the costs of the flights of American academics to Israel and, perhaps even the resources to establish fleshy websites in English. It is understandable therefore that their efforts are less visible to foreign observers. But, as gays and lesbians are not oblivious to concerns about exclusion, it ought to be expected that activists would be particularly sensitive and search for the less visible and powerful voices in the Israeli society.