Don’t Pinkwash Apartheid: A Tochecha for the National LGBTQ Task Force
Words by Jimmy Pasch, JVP West Regional Organizer
When I first moved to Seattle, four years ago, I went to an event that crystallized so much for me — I didn’t know many people, wasn’t yet part of the local organizing (or Jewish, or queer) community, and merely saw an event posting that intrigued me. It was for a report-back on a recent controversy involving pinkwashing, a new word to me, in relation to local organizing for justice in Palestine. I had already come to political consciousness around Palestine, having seen enough of Israel’s atrocities and learned enough about its settler-colonial underpinnings to know that the status quo was deeply oppressive to Palestinians, and that it was done in my name, as a Jew. Unsure what to do with that, I learned at that meeting how I was also the target audience for Israel’s latest public relations strategy: selling Israel’s brand to LGBTQ people.
What did it mean for queer identity to be instrumentalized this way — flattened, simplified, and packaged to assure us that Israel was “just like us,” with the disturbing, racist implication that Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims weren’t? This was my first encounter with pinkwashing, and as it mythologized Israeli culture to appeal to (mostly white) queers and liberals, buttressed by American anti-Arab racism, I thought too of the mythic Israel presented to me as a Jew — a promised land to escape our intergenerational trauma, rather than face and transform it. It was both painful and powerful to realize how my identity was embedded in overlapping layers of myth and propaganda that served to distract from, and even defend, the ongoing oppression of Palestinians — enough that it pushed me into action, and to find ways to use my queer, Jewish voice effectively in this movement.
It’s with particular interest, then, that I’ve closely followed the events of the last week, when the leadership of a major LGBTQ conference, Creating Change, cancelled but then reinstated a reception by Israel advocacy organization A Wider Bridge, bringing the issue of pinkwashing to national attention. Since the initial cancellation of the reception, those supporting A Wider Bridge have dominated the media coverage and attempted to bury the core issues under alarmist language, conflating Jews with the state of Israel while appealing to vague notions of dialogue and tolerance.
But what’s getting lost amidst the fray?
Not only a much-needed critical dialogue around pinkwashing and the complicity of LGBTQ institutions in structures that actively oppress members of their own communities, but particularly the lived experiences, urgent realities, and political expressions of Palestinians, including queer Palestinians.
A Wider Bridge has a long history of ignoring and covering up Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians by touting Israel’s ‘gay-friendly’ reputation. Upon learning of their participation at Creating Change, a diverse coalition of groups, with LGBTQ Palestinian organizations and leaders at the center, came together to oppose it. The coalition effectively made the case for how support of Israel’s “military occupation, ethnic cleansing, racism, and colonialism [is] incompatible with queer liberation and with fundamental human rights.” Their organizing led to the initial cancellation of the event, but the backlash from institutional players was swift, leading to a barrage of misleading op-eds and the uncertain National LGBT Task Force, which runs the conference, reversing their decision.
The statements from A Wider Bridge and allied groups certainly sound appealing at first — why not just come together for dialogue, include everyone, find the middle road? But, as is so often the case, this conceals the power dynamics at play, and attempts to distract from the real, ongoing violence Palestinians face at the hands of the Israeli state. Distraction and appealing to a simplistic, power-erasing notion of tolerance are key components of any pinkwashing effort. As the over 30 (and growing) organizations who have signed on to the coalition statement note:
Pinkwashing is an explicit strategy that the state of Israel and Israeli advocacy organizations engage in to try to improve Israel’s image which has been tarnished by its global reputation for ethnic cleansing and apartheid. By shifting the focus to a very narrow definition of LGBT rights (exclusive, of course, of queer Palestinians), these Pinkwashing efforts normalize the occupation of Palestinian land by distracting from the violent, inhumane actions of the Israeli settler state.
Pinkwashing is an integral part of Israel’s ‘Brand Israel’ public relations strategy, which appeals to racist and colonial notions of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims as backwards and intolerant in contrast to the supposedly enlightened Western liberalism of Israel. A simplified notion of ‘gay rights’ has become one of the most effective ways to mark that Western identity, and is used by organizations like A Wider Bridge to build support for the Israeli state, and replace an ongoing history of apartheid, occupation, and settler-colonialism with a feel-good story of liberal tolerance. But, as anti-pinkwashing activists have long observed, there’s no pink door in the apartheid wall — pinkwashing erases queer Palestinians, or uses them as props for a savior narrative, while intentionally distracting from the oppression, violence, and racism all Palestinians face.
The exclusion of A Wider Bridge from Creating Change is not about excluding Jews, as some have falsely charged, but rather to make clear that our struggles for liberation are all interconnected, and that support for occupation, colonialism, and discrimination has no place in our community. There is a wide range of opinion within the Jewish community when it comes to Israeli policy, and growing numbers of us are joining the movement for justice in Palestine. This evening, there will be an alternative Shabbat at Creating Change, led by queer Jews and in solidarity with Palestinians; I hope many conference attendees of all backgrounds come to strengthen and build a community rooted in justice, not a nation-state.
As queer people, we need to continue developing our thinking and approaches to avoid the traps of pinkwashing, to resist single-issue politics that help LGBTQ people in positions of relative social power while ignoring the realities that affect the most marginalized in our communities. Pinkwashing isn’t only about Israel: at the very same conference, the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was invited to lead a workshop on immigration, even as ICE actively conducts horrifying raids to deport Central American refugees (fleeing violence that’s rooted in U.S. imperialism). How else can we understand the workshop but as an attempt to pinkwash away their brutality in favor of a more positive, tolerant image? Migrant justice groups organized effectively to cancel that workshop, but rightly continue to demand answers from the National LGBTQ Task Force: Why was ICE invited in the first place?
We must continue to make these demands and hold institutions that claim to speak for us accountable, as we develop our analyses to understand and undermine oppressive power structures, rather than reinforce them. The National LGBTQ Task Force should learn from the amazing, profound work for justice that many of this year’s presenters, attendees, and speakers do, and from the grassroots, international movement for justice in Palestine, by cancelling pinkwashing at Creating Change.