Over the last two years I have met with many pro-Israel organizations in New York who have all asked me a variation of the question: “Why does the LGBTQ community criticize Israel so much when it’s a state that affords so many rights to LGBTQ people?”
The questions began in 2011 when the LGBT center in NYC approved an event for Israel Apartheid Week that caused some influential pro-Israel members of the LGBTQ community to raise their voice in protest, resulting in the cancellation of the event and a moratorium on the topic of Israel-Palestine at the LGBT center in NY. The moratorium has since been lifted, not as a result of anti-Zionist protests, but after a thoughtful review on a topic the Center leadership was unfamiliar with.
The truth is the mainstream LGBTQ community does indeed support Israel. The unique part of the LGBTQ community’s connection to Israel is that it is admired by Jewish and non-Jewish members of the community. The relationship stems from similar rights afforded to the LGBTQ community both in the USA and in Israel and Tel Aviv’s welcoming attitude towards gays.
To name a few of highlights which support my claim of a positive relationship with the LGBTQ community here in the States and in Israel:
- In a recent poll American Airlines/GayCities poll, Tel Aviv was named “world’s best gay city.”
- LGBTQ Birthright trips are full and plentiful with wait-lists for each trip.
- Delegations are organized by LGBTQ Jewish organizations and luxury travel companies offer LGBTQ specialized trips. In 2009, Tel Aviv hosted an LGBT tourism conference organized by the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.
- Lobbying groups such as AIPAC and JStreet have well-attended sessions at their conferences on LGBTQ topics relating to Israel.
- The LGBTQ synagogue in NY proudly waves the Israeli flag at its bimah, the synagogue has taken congregant-missions to Israel and Israeli government officials are invited to speak at services.
- The Israeli Consulate in NYC has marched with a contingent of LGBTQ people at the NYC Pride parade for the last four years and a group of LGBTQ individuals marched in the recent “Celebrate Israel” parade along 5th Avenue.
- Israeli LGBTQ films are regularly featured in LGBTQ film festivals across the country.
The critics of Israel in the LGBTQ community are a small fringe movement that is hardly the mainstream thought within our community. Ideally, they’d like their views to become the mainstream view of the LGBTQ community, but there is no evidence to show they have succeeded. Their claim of “pinkwashing” (the accusation of Israel using its positive record on LGBT rights to divert national and international attention away from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people) is purely speculative with no evidence to back it up and is not an accepted or even widely known concept in the LGBTQ community. Yes, Israel has a very positive record on LGBT rights and yes; there is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While queer anti-Zionist activists attempt to draw a correlation between the two and call it pinkwashing, they will not succeed. The two are unrelated occurrences that coincidentally take place in the same region. Israel markets itself to the LGBT community because it promotes tourism, not propaganda. There is no conspiracy by the Israeli government to invent a climate of not just tolerance, but acceptance for the sole sake of propaganda.
Are anti-pinkwashing activists really suggesting that the richness and diversity of pro-gay life in Israel is all a conspiracy by the government to distract the world from other issues within the region? It would be hard to make up the reality that is gay life in large swaths of Israel.
Now let’s be honest, these hard-won achievements were fought and won by Israeli LGBT activists and there is a lot more that needs to be done to advance equality in Israel. It’s also true that Bibi Netanyahu comes to the USA and talks about Israel’s positive record on LGBT rights, yet doesn’t push further rights for LGBT Israelis within his Likkud party.
The anti-Zionist movement within the LGBTQ community is confined to a small margin of the queer community, led by respected queer academics. It’s important to understand the differences in the mnemonic of the LGBTQ spectrum to understand why some of the Q (queer) in the LGBTQ community protests Israel. Queer politics encourages the dismantling of barriers and walls and views Israel as a direct paradox to queer theology. It is a theology that rejects ‘walls’ (such as the separation wall) and anything that separates people. Queer history views the LGBTQ community as victims of separation and inequality and empathizes with the Palestinian people as victims of separation and inequality. Queer activists don’t target many Middle Eastern countries where gays are truly oppressed because there is little satisfaction protesting countries where freedoms (sexuality, speech, assembly) are limited for everyone.
The fringe group of queer anti-Zionists can easily be compared to the Neturei Karta. It would be inaccurate to capture a photo of the Neturei Karta with the caption “Jews protest the existence of Israel” and assume all Jews protest its existence; similarly it is incorrect to surmise that the entire LGBTQ community protests Israel because a few members of the queer academic community do so. Ironically, both the Neturei Karta and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid were seen protesting at the “Celebrate Israel” day parade this past June. It’s probably the only time you’ll ever see these two groups agree on a topic. Of course, the NYPD kept each of these groups on opposite sides of the street.
The difference between the Neturei Karta and queer anti-Zionists is that members within the queer community who protest Israel are educated and respected academics and activists who have accomplished much in the progress of LGBTQ equality. Another difference between these two fringe groups is that members of the Neturei Karta are not penning 800-word Op-Eds in the NY Times on their views against Israel and are not leading academics in institutions across the country educating college students with their anti-Israel rhetoric. It would best serve the overall pro-Israel community to offer the same treatment to the anti-Zionist queers as they do to the Neturei Karta group: Simply ignore them.
Many Jewish and pro-Israel organizations struggle to speak out on criticism of Israel within the LGBTQ community because some of these very institutions themselves do not have a track record of supporting the LGBTQ community on issues such as marriage equality and inclusion in Jewish life. Additionally, the pro-Israel space can bring forward conservative minded individuals who may clash or even protest the advancement of equality for LGBTQ individuals. One example would be Reverend John Hagee, a Christian Zionist who founded Christians United for Israel and a staunch supporter of Israel, yet vehemently publicly anti-gay. Jewish and pro-Israel organizations must reflect on their own policies of inclusion and equality prior to requesting that our community look at Israel as inclusive and equal. Many are already there, but some can do better.
It is also incorrect to accuse label the queer anti-Zionists as “anti-Semitic”. While it is wrong for them to use their label of “being Jewish” to offer credibility to their foolish views, they are hardly anti-Semitic (though, there are some in the movement that are, but not many). They’re just misguided and wrong, very wrong.
The LGBTQ community’s views on Israel are similar to the views of Israel within the overall Jewish community: a diverse spectrum of ideas and opinions of how the Israeli state should act. We have our one-staters, our two-staters, our radical right-wingers, our moderates and our radical left-wingers. What we all have in common is our love and care for a country we so deeply feel connected to and all have our opinions on what the “right thing to do” might be. Of course, it’s easy for us to have our opinions, protests and agreements in the comfort of our American zip codes, but we wouldn’t be properly Jewish if we didn’t offer our opinions on all topics.