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‘Pinkwashing’: A failed attempt to demonize the Jewish State

It's an outrageous description for our hardwon equality in the only safe haven for LGBTQ+ people in the Middle East
Tel Aviv Pride March

The term pinkwashing is nothing more than a failed attempt by those who claim to champion LGBTQ+ rights in silencing or hiding the monumental successes the community has had in Israel.  This is an anti Israel politicized agenda whose sole purpose is to demonize the Jewish state, while claiming to champion Palestinian rights.

As an Israeli, and a gay man, I find propagating that fallacy offensive and perverse. After all, celebrating LGBTQ+ rights should be universal and celebrated in its own right. Then why is it that those same people who claim to support LGBTQ+ rights, organizations such as INN, JVP or the Women’s March leadership deny Israel the praise regarding its progress for LGBTQ+ people in a region that would sooner see those particular communities killed?

Three years ago, I was invited to speak on a panel in Toronto, Canada about my experience as an openly gay sergeant in the IDF. I jumped at the opportunity to showcase how, even in a vehemently anti LGBTQ+ part of the world, Israel once again, proved to be a light unto the nations.

When I received the artwork for the event invite, to review and approve, I was taken aback by the title, “Pinkwashing and Intersectionality”. I was taken aback because I had never heard the term “Pinkwashing” before.

“In the context of LGBT rights, it is used to describe a variety of marketing and political strategies aimed at promoting products, countries, people or entities through an appeal to gay friendliness, in order to be perceived as progressive, modern and tolerant” (Sited from Wikipedia)

I was aghast. Who had come up with such skewed definition to describe the outcome of the sweat and tears my generation had shed in order to create the only true safe haven for LGBTQ+ people in the Middle East, including Palestinians who found safety in Israel from being harmed or killed at the hands of their families or governments?

The 90s in Israel created the perfect backdrop for my coming of age story. A young LGBTQ+ man, reaching the age of majority which in Israel, means, enlisting in the IDF. As any new enlistee, no matter where in the world, my mind became preoccupied with concern for what the next three years of my life would look like.  But, unlike many of my brothers in arms, I had an additional worry weighing heavily on me. I was gay and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had still the order of the day.

My concern lay in the fact that I, like many patriotic Israelis, wanted to not only serve, but serve in a combat brigade, giving the most of myself to my country, that I could. As a gay man, what would that look like? What if I was outed? Would I be discharged or shunned by my unit or the IDF in general?

A near miss with death at the hands of Palestinian terror would set me on an expedited path to reveal who I truly was.

In 1996, while en route to my base, I would narrowly miss stepping aboard a bus in Jerusalem by seconds as I ran down the street to catch the line in time. As the doors closed, leaving me behind, the only memory I have of that day is watching that same bus explode, after a suicide bomber carried out his planned attack.

My life had just been spared and the thought of nobody ever knowing who I was, had I been on that bus, saddened me. It was time to stop hiding. It was time the world knew who I was and that began with my unit. I was ready to let the chips fall where they may. The next week upon my return to base, I walked into the barracks shaking. It was time.

As we did each Sunday upon returning from leave, we began to tell stories of our weekend away. Most stories included the outings my brigade had with their respective girlfriends or partners. And, as had become routine, when asked what I did over the weekend, my answers had always been evasive.

Not this time.

“Guys, I have something to tell you” I declared as we all unpacked our freshly laundered uniforms from home. Quiet fell over the room as my voice shook. I was about to come cleans about my sexuality to a testosterone filled room of young combat soldiers.

“I’m gay”.

That quiet lasted all of 3 seconds before my bunkmate looked at me and said, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner? I have the perfect guy to introduce you to.”

That was it.

The fear and uncertainty of being honest at a time in Israel when LGBTQ+ rights were not mainstream, was completely fabricated in my own mind having grown up in a Sephardi, traditional leaning home.

I was accepted for who I was by those who I trusted with my life and who trusted me with theirs.

That was then. So where does that leave LGBTQ+ life and rights in Israel today?

Israel is the only true safe and free country in the Middle East for LGBTQ+ people including Palestinian LGBTQ+ people, many of whom found safety and solace in Israel from being harmed, mutilated or murdered by their families for the crime of being homosexual or transgender.

The two main challenges we still face are the inability to perform a legally recognized same-sex marriage on Israeli soil, and equal access to surrogacy.

What surprises, many people however, is that the lack of access to same-sex marriages in Israel is not an attack on LGBTQ+ community specifically.

The institution of marriage within the borders of the state are religious and not civil, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim etc, as it is with most of the Middle East.
These religious bodies hold the monopoly of recognized marriage ceremonies, and, as it stands today, none support civil unions.

That said, same-sex marriages performed outside of Israel are in fact recognized within the State and registered as such with the Ministry of Interior, which affords same sex married couples all the same rights as heterosexual married couples, including benefits and survivor rights.

The second is access to surrogacy, on Israeli soil, by same sex couples.
Again, using surrogacy services outside of Israel, is permitted and children brought to Israel, as a result of surrogacy, receive Israeli citizenship and are recognized as legal children to their parents.

Ideal? Hardly. Must we work to change these laws? Absolutely.

But, with the challenges we still face and must work to change, Israel and Israelis have much to celebrate and be proud off when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.
While surrounding countries or entities continue to criminalize homosexuality based on strict religious law, seeing young men and women, hanged, stoned, shot, mutilated and murdered, Israel continues to pave the way for a more inclusive and equal society.

Our accomplishments as a country and as a community should be celebrated as successes in their own right. To infer that the accomplishments my community and LGBTQ+ allies have succeeded in is somehow a nefarious plot to deny the struggle of Palestinians is ludicrous and offensive. It attempts to erase what we’ve done in the name of progress and equality as a political smoke screen.

Do we have much to be proud of? Yes.

Do we still need to work towards a peaceful, sustainable solution between Israelis and Palestinians? Also yes. One does not negate the other nor does one cancel the other out.

I am proud of how far we’ve come in a short 71 years since the re-establishment of the modern State of Israel and am standing against those who attempt to silence and hide that pride. Today in Israel, the LGBTQ+ community are completely equal in the eyes of the law. It is illegal to discriminate against our community.

So dear readers, as the country prepares to host hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ people and our allies from around the world to celebrate love and equality we must remind ourselves, that the LGBTQ+ community in Israel has come a long way, while we still have some challenges ahead.

But, we must also stand up against those who attempt to politicize, minimize and weaponize LGBTQ+ successes in Israel as something other than simply celebrating pride. Pinkwashing, as it refers to Israel is nothing more than a failed attempt to demonize the Jewish state, while attempting to mask itself as social justice.

About the Author
Shai is an Israeli television and media personality living abroad in Toronto, Canada. Following the 2014 Israel / Gaza war, Shai understood that his North American platform, afforded him the rare opportunity to educate against the rise in Antisemitism and Anti-Israel vitriol. In addition to his success in television and media, Shai now travels internationally, speaking to various international organizations & communities on combating the fallacies presented on Israel and the Israeli - Arab conflict.
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