‘Pinkwashing’ Conference Head Claims Dissenters are ‘Israeli Operatives’
Bizarre clash of ideals at CUNY, where Israel is accused of using its gay-rights record to conceal its oppression of Palestinians
In April, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York hosted a conference on “Homonationalism and Pinkwashing.” If neither term is familiar, consider yourself one of the lucky few who has avoided exposure to the bizarre new inversion of language that seeks to turn Israel’s history of generally respecting gay rights into the leading edge of a sinister new campaign to justify the oppression of Palestinians.
“Homonationalism,” according to a description on the conference website, is the apparently noxious new phenomenon that “occurs when sub-sectors of specific gay communities achieve legal parity with heterosexuals and then embrace racial and religious supremacy ideologies”—including being proud of Israel’s record of respecting and upholding the rights of gay citizens and visitors. “Pinkwashing,” meanwhile, describes a “deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” This latter term was first mentioned by Rutgers academic Jasbir Puar in a 2010 Guardian article but gained genuine notoriety thanks to a 2011 New York Times op-ed by CUNY professor and conference organizer Sarah Schulman.
In that op-ed, Schulman claimed that “Increasing gay rights have caused some people of good will to mistakenly judge how advanced a country is by how it responds to homosexuality.” A country’s record on gay rights, however, is nearly always a telling indicator of its “advancement” (a curious word choice for an otherwise reliable expositor of moral equivalence as Schulman). And not only is Schulman’s argument a non sequitur in that many of the most vocal gay-rights activists in Israel are also fervent opponents of the occupation, it is a critique that she peculiarly applies only to the Jewish state. For instance, there is no condemnation of France covering up its failure to integrate Arabs by promoting its wine industry, or China’s obscuring its appalling human-rights record by promoting the Great Wall.
The CUNY conference promised to be a “pioneering, historic event, uniting a uniquely diverse array of speakers from many countries, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, ages, communities, universities, and academic fields in discussion around a new arena of thought.” Noticeably absent from this list of diverse and welcome attributes, however, was any allowance for the thoughts and real-life experiences of gay Israelis, American Jews, and others who might diverge in any way from Schulman’s message—as a look at several papers rejected by the conference reveals. And Schulman’s interactions with the people who submitted these snubbed paper topics seem to confirm that any proposal that challenged the existence of “homonationalism” and “pinkwashing” as parts of an Israeli government plot, or that even offered some nuance in discussing gay rights in Israel, never had a chance of being aired. When asked why Schulman had rejected these critical proposals, she wrote that they were themselves examples of the problem she is trying to combat: “We rejected proposals that were pinkwashing. The conference was a critique of pinkwashing. So, for example, if the conference had been about dismantling homophobia in the family, we would not have welcomed papers from ‘family values’ religious groups who saw homosexuality as a sin.”
Frederick Hertz, the leading American legal expert on gay divorce, is a former board member of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the treasurer of an international organization that advocates on behalf of LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. The last of these is especially meaningful, as it indicates that Hertz has a great deal of experience dealing with sexual minorities from non-Western countries. With regard to the subject of supposed Israeli “pinkwashing,” Hertz (who last year taught at Israel’s Striks College of Law) is hardly an uncritical supporter of the Jewish state, telling me that, “Israel is not as gay-friendly as it likes to pretend it is, especially with its religious community.” Acknowledging that Israel still does have a relatively positive record on gay rights, certainly in comparison to its neighbors, he says that much work remains to be done. “What I like to say to those who celebrate gay Israel is you’re right, but let’s now accept civil marriage, let’s treat Palestinians better, lets invoke the gay-friendliness of these societies to ask the harder question of, ‘Well what are you going to do next as opposed to saying we’re gay-friendly and therefore don’t ask us about anything else?’ ”
For the CUNY conference, Hertz submitted a proposal on “positive homonationalism,” which he defines as “going to societies that claim to be good on gay rights and leverage their concern for gay rights with a challenge to be better for all human rights.” Schulman summarily rejected Hertz’s proposal, writing:
Our conference is a gathering of scholars and activists who are working on the increasingly pressing phenomena of nationalistic apparatus using the idea of “gay rights” to enforce racial supremacy, usually against Muslims.
Your proposal does not speak to this, and therefore this is not the conference for you.
I am attaching the program summary so you can see the global range of work addressing this particular concern, which is called “Homonationalism” and in Israel is called “Pinkwashing.”
Jonathan Miller, a former treasurer of the state of Kentucky and co-founder of the “No Labels” bipartisan political movement, sent a proposal partly conceding Schulman’s contention that Israel’s promotion of its gay-rights record is cynical. “Israel’s motives are obviously capitalistic—to encourage gays and lesbians all over the world to visit the Jewish State and bring their tourist dollars,” Miller told me. “Why otherwise would Israel choose to brag about its support of a cause that’s unfortunately highly controversial, and indeed deeply despised, in much of the world?” The crucial distinction between Miller’s and Schulman’s analysis of gay rights in Israel is that Miller offers a less sinister critique of Israel’s intense promotion of its happening gay social scene, not the existence itself of gay rights in Israel, which Schulman discounts as not very meaningful in the first place. Moreover, Miller portrays “pinkwashing,” such as it is, as nothing more than a savvy marketing campaign, not a deceptive propaganda effort aimed at whitewashing the oppression of Palestinians.
Schulman emailed him the following response:
You submitted a proposal to the conference that is contrary to the content of the conference. We will be talking about how a nationalistic apparatus uses “gay rights” to enforce racial dominance, globally.
Your proposal claims that this does not happen in Israel. Therefore this is not the right conference for you.
In other words, because Miller does not ascribe the most pernicious of motives to Israeli behavior (merely pecuniary ones), his was a voice not worth hearing.
Anat Maor, a former Knesset member from the far-left Meretz Party, submitted a more straightforward proposal, outlining the basic history of the gay-rights movement in Israel, while also pointing out how the situation for LGBT citizens is far from perfect. “Orthodox, Arab, and other politicians ignore, oppose, and resist respecting LGBT needs and rights,” she wrote in her proposal. In addition, “Homophobic statements by ministers, MKs, and others continue unabated.” One would think that a presentation from an actual Israeli sympathetic to the situation of gay people in her country, deeply knowledgeable about the legal processes there, and who finds herself on the left-wing of the political spectrum vis-a-vis the Palestinian question, would be suitable—even highly desirable—for a conference concerned about the question of homosexuality in the Jewish state. But Schulman rejected Maor’s proposal—when I asked her for the email, she said she could not find it—repeating her mantra of it not fitting the conference objectives.
But the most revealing of Schulman’s interactions was with Jayson Littman, a New York-based organizer of social events for gay Jewish men who has led gay-themed Birthright trips to Israel. Last spring, Littman sent a proposal titled “The Myth of Pinkwashing,” which, along the line of Jonathan Miller’s, explained that the Israeli government’s advertising its gay life is primarily about tourism dollars, not propaganda. Schulman sent him a similar response to the ones she fired off to the other three individuals described above. Littman’s dedication to connecting gay Jews with Zionism, however, appears to have made him a prominent target of Schulman’s florid campaign to portray any and all mention of gay life in Israel as part of a dark Israeli government-controlled conspiracy to oppress Palestinians.
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