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.
In a November 2012 interview with the British lesbian magazine Diva, Schulman said that “the more I work in this arena, the more aware I become of the involvement of the Israeli government in the US LGBT community.” She named Littman, among others, as “Israeli government operatives … who work for the Foreign Ministry, whose job it is to work our community along pinkwashing lines.” Among their tasks, she said, are to “plant stories in newspapers, co-opt our events … and flood websites with propaganda.”
Scary stuff—except Littman’s involvement in the nexus of things gay, Jewish, and Israel isn’t nearly so scandalous. A former student from Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in Washington Heights, Littman came out of the closet in his late 20s after spending five years in a Jewish “ex-gay” reparative therapy program. Soon thereafter, he began organizing small gatherings for gay Jewish men under the aegis of “He’bro” after finding a dearth of such events in New York City, eventually earning the moniker of “King of New York’s gay Jewish nightlife.”
Because Littman had developed a “very strong mailing list,” his friends encouraged him to publicize and promote the gay-themed Birthright trip to boost its attendance, eventually leading his own for the first time in 2011. “What’s so funny is that it was the gay community that requested the Birthright trip all along,” Littman told me, disputing the claim of Schulman and other anti-pinkwashing advocates that the impetus for involving gay people more visibly in the cause of Zionism was part of a conspiracy run out of Jerusalem. “Honestly, Birthright at the time had a conservative vibe to it, and it took time and convincing and education to tell them why this trip is important. Birthright didn’t come to us and say we want to show the world that Israel is gay friendly. It was actually the gay community that pushed Birthright.” Littman also helped organize a fundraiser that provided scholarships for gay students to attend the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, “a world-class teaching and research center in southern Israel that prepares Muslim, Christian, and Jewish students to cooperatively address the shared environmental challenges of the Middle East.”
Littman took issue with Schulman’s description of him as an “Israeli government operative,” telling me that, “the only contact I’ve had with the Israeli consulate here in New York was when they wanted to march in the New York City gay pride parade” and asked him for help in organizing people to participate. And even then, it was the “cultural department of the consulate,” and not the Foreign Ministry, that contacted him. “I’ve never met anyone from the Foreign Ministry,” he said. So, he wrote a letter to the editor of Diva, asking them to issue a correction regarding Schulman’s accusation.
When the editor of Diva forwarded Littman’s complaint to Schulman, she responded with an 8-point email attempting to prove her claim that Littman is indeed an “operative” who has been “trained, promoted and financially supported by the Israeli government.” One of the points cited an “anonymous source” who relayed to Schulman how Littman once introduced himself as “the person who coordinates AIPAC’s LGBT organizing efforts. He works for Birthright and for The Jewish National Fund.” As a matter of record, Littman’s involvement with AIPAC has been limited to organizing a wine-and-cheese reception in New York for members of the gay community; he has never received compensation from either Birthright or JNF.
In the same email, Schulman cited a “Benjamin Doughterty,” who told Schulman that he found an article Littman had written for the Jerusalem Post about an encounter with a homophobic Palestinian tour guide “particularly sketchy.” From this, Schulman concluded that Littman had written “a fake report” and “planted false pinkwashing information in the Jerusalem Post.” (Presumably Schulman is citing Benjamin Doherty, a blogger for electronicintifada.net.)
Needless to say, Schulman was unable to prove her contention that Littman is an “operative” of the Israeli government—because he isn’t one. A forthcoming issue of Diva will include the following correction issued by editor Jane Czyzselska: “In our November 2012 issue we mistakenly referred to Jayson Littman and Scott Piro as ‘Israeli government operatives.’ We understand that Mr. Littman and Mr Piro have never been Israeli government operatives and have never been employed either directly or indirectly by the Israeli foreign ministry. We apologise to Mr. Littman and Mr Piro for this incorrect statement.”
Schulman’s behavior—accusing someone (by all accounts falsely) of being a spy for a foreign government and then compiling a dossier full of inaccurate “evidence” when challenged on the veracity of her claim—is the work of an activist, or of a secret policeman in the old Soviet-bloc states, not a scholar. Indeed, despite having the title of “Distinguished Professor” at CUNY, Schulman has no degree higher than a Bachelor’s from Empire State College. And Schulman’s attempt to shut out any critical voices that might challenge her loony theories appears to have extended to a political screening of the audience, in a deliberate attempt to prevent anyone who might disagree with her from attending an event that was advertised as being open to the public. Hertz says that he checked the conference website daily for a period of six weeks in hopes of reserving a ticket, only to be told they were not yet on offer. Then, one day, the website announced that tickets had been sold out (this writer had the same experience). Hertz, who managed to get a ticket from a colleague after emailing Schulman personally and being told that none were available, was surprised to see that the opening and closing plenary sessions, held in a large auditorium, were only half full. This would contradict the claim on the conference website to have “sold out six months before its date.” (Schulman, in an email, wrote: “We sold out 400 tickets, and turned away over a hundred people who wanted to buy tickets—however, what we didn’t take into account is that many people only came for one day—since the conference was during the week. We could not sell more than 400 because that was the seating limit for the auditorium.”)
In her opening speech, Schulman dropped any pretense of being anything other than an ideologue. Noting that some critics of her conference had suggested she invite “a keynote speaker from the other side,” she responded, “Like there’s two sides!” By offering a veneer of academic respectability to Sarah Schulman and her acolytes, CUNY has provided legitimacy to agitprop posing as scholarship. What’s worse, it has also trampled on the lived experience of the countless gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people who, for whatever reasons—personal, or familial, or ideological, or simply because they like the food, the weather or the beaches—have chosen, of their own accord, to embrace the Jewish state.
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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.