OpinionIsrael News

Pinkwashing? Try ‘Progwashing’

The 2010 Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. Photo by Guy Yitzhaki.
The 2010 Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. Photo by Guy Yitzhaki.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Last November, The New York Times published an op-ed that took the demonization of Israel to another, more insidious level. The attack, authored by Sarah Schulman, a professor at the City University of New York and a lesbian and gay civil rights activist, introduced a new word into the anti-Israel lexicon: “pinkwashing.”

“Pinkwashing” is Schulman’s spin on a bald fact that has always made liberal pro-Palestinian advocates uncomfortable; namely, that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where lesbians and gay men can openly and safely engage with their sexuality. These rights are now standard in most democracies, but when they appear in the Israeli context, the Israel-bashers start searching for an ulterior motive. Hence, “pinkwashing” is the act of using gay politics and culture to disguise the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians.

It seems incredible that the one Middle Eastern country to rouse anger among a certain coterie of gay activists is Israel—but then the same could be said of church activists who round upon the Jewish homeland while ignoring the vicious subjugation of Christians in Muslim countries. Moreover, the impact of these toxic ideas leads this very same group of activists—who would understandably claim to be victims of discrimination—to practice discrimination themselves.

Last month, an organization called “A Wider Bridge,” which fosters connections between the gay communities of America and Israel, brought a delegation of lesbian and gay activists from Israel to the west coast. The Israelis weren’t here to discuss Middle Eastern politics, but to exchange ideas on how to best manage issues like teenage suicides and HIV prevention.

But thanks to the actions of a handful of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists, those conversations were not held in Seattle. The Israeli group was to have been hosted by the Seattle LGBT Commission—the acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered—an official body that advises the city’s mayor and council on the gay community’s concerns.

However, the commission caved in the face of protests led by Dean Spade, a local academic who participated in a recent delegation of American gay activists to the Palestinian territories. (A source familiar with this delegation’s agenda told me that they did not bill themselves as representing the gay community. They made this decision, they subsequently explained, to protect themselves not from the murderers of Hamas, but from the “Israeli authorities!”)

Arthur Slepian, the executive director of A Wider Bridge, was rightly outraged by the commission’s cowardly behavior. The Israeli lesbian and gay leaders brought by his group to this country were, he said, “silenced in Seattle by those who seek to demonize and delegitimize Israel. We were dismayed that the commission gave in to objections raised by a small number of activists.” Slepian went on to point out thatthe work of the Israeli group “deserves to be supported, and their stories deserve to be told. It is not ‘pinkwashing’ to tell the truth.”

Given that the entire BDS campaign is predicated on lies about Israel, one can safely assume that its supporters have no idea how to distinguish truth from falsehood. BDS campaigners are also disturbingly single-minded: their crusade against Israel blinds them to the positive social outcomes that working with Israelis can bring. Assisting gay teenagers fearful of declaring their sexual orientation, providing humanitarian aid and expertise in the world’s disaster zones, developing alternative energy technologies—none of these noble goals matter if Israelis are involved.

On March 20, four days after canceling its meeting with the Israeli delegation, the commission issued a simpering statement that was billed as an apology. There was no acknowledgement of the damage that had already been done, nor was there any recognition of the groupthink that leads many on the left to uncritically embrace boycotts of Israel in the name of the supposedly progressive cause of “Palestine.”

“The Seattle LGBT Commission sincerely apologizes for the pain, offense and embarrassment that we caused by canceling our scheduled event with leaders from Israel’s LGBT community who were visiting U.S. cities,” the statement waffled. “It is important for us to learn from this experience and to create a deeper conversation.”

That “deeper conversation” will only be of value if it confronts the true nature of the BDS movement. Whatever lip service it pays to “nonviolence,” the principal aim of BDS is the destruction of the state of Israel—an outcome that can only be achieved by slaughtering the vast majority of Jews currently living there. Most progressives would recoil from an association with a genocidal project, but that is precisely what drives the BDS campaign. Yet, its advocates have managed to present their barbaric, anti-Semitic agenda as being progressive. What we are dealing with, therefore, is not the smear of “pinkwashing,” but the ugly reality of what I call “progwashing.”

Happily, within the gay community, pro-Israel activists have launched a counter-offensive, arguing that “progwashing” draws a veil over the repression of gay communities in Arab and Muslim countries. Jayson Littman, founder of the gay pro-Israel organization “Out! for Israel,” has no doubts about the challenges this entails.

“Gay advocates of BDS are a small minority, but they have a pulpit because a lot of them have academic posts and they speak as Jews,” Littman told me.

Nonetheless, Littman believes that the vast majority of the gay community has no patience for the BDS campaign’s exhortations. In that regard, he points to a recent poll conducted by American Airlines in which 43 per cent of gay respondents named Tel Aviv as the one city where they feel welcome and safe.

Inside and outside the gay community, the real danger of BDS lies not in its material impact on Israel’s economy, which has so far been negligible, but in its promotion of a discourse that positions Israel as the only rogue state in the world. Eleven years after the UN-sponsored Durban conference legitimized the BDS movement, the time has come to bury its deceits once and for all.

Ben Cohen is a senior columnist for JointMedia News Service. The New York PostFox NewsPJ Media and other prominent media outlets have also published his commentaries on international politics. Cohen is president of The Ladder Group, a communications consultancy based in New York City.

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