Israel is the only safe place for homosexuals in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Gaza, homosexuality is illegal. In the West Bank, homosexuality is legal, but being outed would be a death sentence (Washington Post, “The State of Gay Rights Around the World”, 06.14.2016).
Israeli attitudes toward homosexuality are far less than perfect. Like every country, it has its fair share of bigots. However, Israel, unlike most countries in the world, recognizes same-sex marriages performed outside the country, welcomes LGBTQ+ people to serve in the military and allows same-sex couples to adopt children jointly. Tel Aviv is even considered one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world.
What if I told you that by giving you that series of objectively truthful information, I played my part in a global Zionist conspiracy to distract the world media from Israel’s human rights violations against the Palestinian people by co-opting the cause of LGBTQ+ rights?
You’d probably say that I’m an idiot, an antisemite and that I should go back to 4chan. That’s because you are at least a semi-rational person. However, that is the philosophical basis of pinkwashing, an idea that has gained popularity among supporters of the BDS movement, anti-Zionists and other fervent critics of Israel.
Pinkwashing Israel, an LGBTQ+ pro-Palestinian organization, describes pinkwashing on its website as “Israeli efforts to transform public perception of Israel from an Apartheid settler state to a harmless, liberal, gay-friendly playground” and as a “disingenuous invocation of LGBTQ+ rights by Israel and its supporters to divert attention away from its atrocities against the Palestinians.”
This definition has probably divided my readership. There are those of you who may immediately believe that this concept is extremely antisemitic and are outraged.
But I imagine the majority of you may feel that I’m overreacting. There’s no explicit claim of worldwide Zionist conspiracy, and perhaps their complaints are valid if you look into them. After all, how many times have you seen homophobes like Rick Santorum lecture Democrats about Iran’s treatment of homosexuals? Isn’t that a similar concept? Aren’t they invoking similar tropes?
This attitude ignores the legacy of antisemitism. Antisemitic rhetoric, especially in today’s age, is oftentimes centered around Zionist conspiracy theories and actions by the Israeli government.
And keep in mind that this definition does at least imply a concerted effort to co-opt another movement. No, the word conspiracy is not used, but there’s still an implied conspiratorial element to this accusation.
Implying the existence of a concerted effort among Zionists to control the LGBTQ+ movement for personal gains is insensitive at best and bigoted at worst. It shows a complete lack of awareness on behalf of those who promote this idea regarding how their language affects others.
Not everyone who uses the term pinkwashing is an antisemite, but, when looked at practically, this view of Israel is not conceivably different than believing in a worldwide Jewish Zionist conspiracy. Both beliefs promote a narrative of a concerted worldwide Zionist effort to control other influential forces in the world, be it the media or the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
That same website complains that this image promotes a “portrayal of Palestinian and Arab societies as backwards, repressive and intolerant.” I acknowledge there is some legitimacy to their concern. Muslims and Arabs are oftentimes stereotyped in Western culture as being “backwards, repressive and intolerant.” People oftentimes assume that all Muslims are misogynistic, that all Muslims are homophobic, that all Muslims are antisemitic. These tropes are vitriolic and deserve condemnation.
But that fear does not change the reality of the situation, that most Middle-Eastern governments are repressive and intolerant, and that is especially evident in their policies towards homosexuals.
And that does not change the fact that some of these countries have cultures that currently hold less than tolerant views towards homosexuality.
I do not believe that this is because Muslim culture is inherently intolerant, at least no more so than any other religious belief. There are some people who have attempted to argue this to be the case. I am not one of those people. That type of rhetoric is racist and Islamophobic.
Obviously, cultural conditions are not static. Historical context matters. American culture doesn’t currently view homosexuality the same way it did 50 years ago, and hopefully 50 years from most of the Middle East will hold more tolerant views towards homosexuality.
But doesn’t it set a troubling precedent to broaden the definitions of Islamophobia to include criticism of objectively repressive Middle-Eastern governments? Doesn’t that erase the victims of homophobia and bigotry in these nations?
Some of my readers will turn that back around on me. Isn’t it also true, then, that we ought not to broaden the definition of antisemitism to include any criticism of Israel? Absolutely. Criticizing Israeli policies is not inherently antisemitic, and just because Israel adopts an accepting attitude towards LGBTQ+ rights, that doesn’t mean the country gets free pass when it comes to everything else. There are many legitimate reasons to criticize the government of Israel, just like there are many legitimate reasons to criticize the government of the United States or Iran or any other country.
I don’t even believe that Israel is perfect. I believe that Benjamin Netanyahu exploits racism and fear to expand his political power. I believe that the Israeli government should be taking down the settlements. I imagine that 80-90 percent of you will probably agree with one or both of those sentiments. Israel isn’t perfect.
But the criticism of Israeli policy is uniquely different from that of other countries. Few people who criticize Saudi Arabia’s repressive regime would describe themselves as “anti-Saudi Arabia,” but people who criticize Israel’s policies oftentimes refer to themselves as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist. No one who criticizes the human rights record of the Egyptian government would suggest that country doesn’t have the have the right to exist. Many critics of Israel openly reject a two-state solution that would allow Israel to exist alongside a Palestinian state. Critics of Turkmenistan’s human rights violations don’t believe in a worldwide concerted effort by the Turkmen government and its allies to manipulate other civil rights movements to promote their own agenda. Critics of Israel frequently do.
And accusations of pinkwashing represent one of the worst aspects of this. It is no longer possible to celebrate an objectively positive element of Israel without being part of a worldwide Zionist conspiracy. It is no longer possible to point out LGBTQ+ rights as a reason to support Israel’s existence without being accused of attacking all critics of Israeli policy. I’m not attacking all critics of Israel. Share your beliefs, that’s fine. This argument does not invalidate an overwhelming majority of your criticism.
The only criticism I’m labeling invalid is that which implies conspiracy or encourages antisemitism. Most people who have problems with Israeli policy don’t do either, anti-pinkwashing advocates do both.
You have the right to criticize Israel. You have the right to question Israel’s existence. You even have the right to be antisemitic, if you so choose to be. But you don’t have the right to promote a form of advocacy that encourages bigotry and then be shocked when people call you out on it.