PennBDS: Pinkwashing

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

BDS advocates, including nearly everyone who will be on stage and in the audience at the upcoming PennBDS conference, share a problem.

For the overwhelming audience (and target list) for the BDS project are progressive institutions (such as colleges and universities, Mainline Protestant churches, municipalities and unions with a history of speaking up for human rights), which is why the BDS argument is cast entirely in the vocabulary of progressive politics.

But these same institutions have evolved over the years to place issues regarding gay rights high on their agendas.  Yes, churches are still hotly debating issues such as gay marriage and gay clergy, and you’ll occasionally hear about some nasty bit of gay bashing at some school out there.  But on the whole, the right of homosexuals to feel welcomed, thrive and live free from ridicule and harm takes high priority within the very institutions anti-Israel boycotters are trying to reach.

The problem arises (for BDSers, anyway) when you take a look at the target of their attacks (Israel) which by any standard is the most open society in the Middle East (if not the world) with regard to gay rights (with gay marriage legal, gays welcomes into the military, and a thriving gay culture).  In contrast, the societies that are allied with the BDS project (including the Palestinians and the Arab states that support them) are the last remaining bastion of state-sponsored anti-gay repression and violence, places where the existence of homosexuality is denied, and its practitioners punished by imprisonment and violent death.

Whenever a comparison like this rears its head, the first instinct of the boycotters is to ignore it and, if that fails, to befog the air by leveraging ambiguity.  For example, the contrast between Israeli’s thriving democracy and the anti-democratic nature of Israel’s foes can be dealt with by defining “democracy” solely in terms of public votes in the case of the Palestinians (which allows them to claim Hamas is a “democratically elected” government, ignoring the coups, repression and end to voting since Hamas won one election years ago).  In contrast, their analysis of Israel democracy consists solely of finding and harping on flaws or partisan excesses which they use to question the democractic credentials of the Jewish state as a whole.

But the gap between Israel’s tolerance for gay rights and its foes’ repression and hatred of homosexuality and its practitioners is just too great for these techniques to work.  Or, as a fellow blogger once put it, Israel’s progressive credentials with this regard this issue is “so true they [the BDSers] can’t stand it.”  And so, to avoid the subject, they have done something rather clever (rhetorically speaking, anyway) by inventing a fake phenomena called “Pinkwashing” and insisting that any debate of gay rights in the Middle East be about that.

I say “invent,” but in fact the BDS cru swiped this term from political advocates dealing with breast cancer, advocates who claim that certain companies “pinkwash” negative practices by investing in breast-cancer related research and education projects and using those investments to market themselves as virtuous.

In the case of BDS, the “Pinkwashing” accusation claims that any mention of the yawning chasm between Israel’s positive record on gay rights and the appalling condition of gays elsewhere in the Middle East is not really about concern over gay individuals, but is actually part of a nefarious propaganda plot by Israel supporters who just want to score points and don’t really give a fig about actual gays people or genuine gay issues.

Ignored in this faux controversy over a manufactured term is that regardless of whether or not the gay issue might be manipulated cynically by some of Israel’s defenders (a dubious proposition, at least when applied universally), there is no question regarding the truth of Israel’s superior record on this issue of importance to progressively minded audiences.

Now if BDS was a “normal” political movement, it would simply accept Israel’s obvious superiority on this one matter but argue that the Jewish state’s tolerance for gays and lesbians shouldn’t give the country a free pass on every other matter (a very reasonable point).

But when you are pushing the message that Israel is an “Apartheid state,” with the implication that it is the worst human rights abuser on the planet (or at least the only one worthy of getting the BDS treatment), then any acknowledgement of the country’s progressive credentials can never be uttered.    And thus the debate must be about “Pinkwashing” and nothing else.

8 thoughts on “PennBDS: Pinkwashing”

  1. Out of all the Anti Israel arguments I've heard, Pinkwashing is by far the most ridiculous one. It's somewhat ironic because it pretends to offer a complex, academic style reasoning to support an idea that is anything but complex or nuanced (that Israel is a cartoon style villain incapable of goodness).

    If I was a BDS higher up I would try to minimize pinkwashing debates because it makes all BDS and other pro Palestinian groups seem like deluded fools grasping at straws. It's not proving to be a good tool in recruiting the LGBT community, either- check the comments for the Queerty article “Is Israel Using LGBT Rights As An Anti-Palestinian Marketing Tool?”

  2. Excellent post. The hypocrisy and double-think in the pink washing allegation are obvious, and make the BDS movement look daft.

  3. What's even more bizarre is that while some Israel supporters may bring up the notion of gay rights in the Middle East, we're not creating political groups of gays with the mission of attacking our political enemies.

    In fact, it is the BDSers who create ludicrous organizations like “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid” and demand that these groups be given unlimited rights to parade their agenda at events like Gay Rights Day marches, all in an effort to create the illusion that the gay rights issue lends credence to their arguments vs. those of their adversaries.

  4. Jon, you're on a serious roll here; keep it up!
    As one of my fellow activists here stated, “Queers for Palestine” is akin to “Turkeys for Thanksgiving”.

    We've also suggested to members of such groups that we are happy to take up a collection to finance a trip to Gaza if they would hold a Pride Parade there. We figure that we'd only have to pay for a one way trip. No takers yet.

  5. Then there's that Columbia U proessor (name escapes me right now) who is a darling of the anti-Israel “left” who insists that homosexuality didn't exist in the Middle East until Western colonialism! I was called a racist for just quoting his remarks on the subject.

    This is all actually part of a much larger meta-phenomenon where the Western Left (of which I am a part) has had to make a choice between two of its core values – universal human rights and something that I will put under the umbrella of 'multiculturalism'.

    Those two value sets are, unfortunately, often in conflict, such as in the case of the I/P issue. Israel is clearly the side which respects gay rights, gender equality, sexual liberty, strives to reduce the importance of social castes, and practices a modicum of environmentalism. In contrast the Palestinians and Arabs more generally are terrible – pretty much the worse in the world – on gay rights, womens' equality, and sexual liberty. Plus they clearly maintain a tribal or family-based social heirarchy – so much so that it is no accident that the Druze and many of the Bedouins have chosen Israel over their ethnic brethren.

    While Israel is the hands down choice for the values of human rights, multiculturalism dictates that one should defer to the less western, less white, and less capitalist of any two options – which in a simplified reading of the situation would be the Palestinian / Arab side.

    People like me believe that human rights are more important, but others have chosen multiculturalism.

  6. The pro-Israel community at UPenn should plan programing on the subject of just how bad the Israel's enemies/Palestinian Arabs are on the issues of human rights and civil liberties rather than just continuing talking about how great Israel is. Putting Israel under a bigger and bigger microscope is to play into the BDS strategy. If Israel was not on the forefront of technology, medicine and energy, would it has any less rights to exist? It is much more effective and educational to hold a seminar titled 'Antisemitism and Racism of the BDS and its sponsors' than a strategy of yet another lecture on Israel.

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