*The following article uses the terms LGBTQIA+, queer, and gay interchangeably to understand that each person has their own preference. My sincerest apologies in advance to those who don’t feel represented by the aforementioned labels, but please know you are included in my intentions.
Pinkwashing is defined by Pinkwatching Israel, an online resource hub for LGBTQIA+ activists working on the Israel/Palestine conflict, as “The cynical use of gay rights to distract from and normalize Israeli occupation, settler colonialism, and apartheid.” They claim that Israel paints itself as a liberal and gay-friendly country by deliberately highlighting its support for gay rights and comparing this “gay utopia” with the many surrounding Arab and Palestinian jurisdictions that are intolerant towards LGBTQIA+ people. On the other hand, pro-Israel groups claim that Israel is merely touting an exemplary record on queer rights in a region that predominately offers no protection to its queer citizens, with some nations even making use of the death penalty for same-sex sexual acts. Whether or not this is an attempt to draw attention away from the Israel Palestine conflict, Israel’s litmus test of “us vs. other countries” is a correlation that seeks to use its queer citizens as a political playing card in an attempt to buy favor in the eyes of queer people around the world. But is Israel truly as “queer-friendly” as its advertisements would like you to believe?
Israel’s efforts to tout this “gay Israel” agenda can be seen most prominently in the Tourism Ministry, which as in most countries, is a branch of government responsible for increased economic activity. They have increased spending year after year, and 2016 saw the budget on gay tourism go from 1 to 11 million NIS (New Israel Shekel). This also comes with the understanding that gay tourists to Israel stay longer and spend about 140% more than the average tourist. Gay tourism to Israel is constantly on the rise, from about 6,000 tourists in 2006 to 60,000 in 2016, and this is not unplanned; Israeli officials speak openly about their systematic plan to turn gay visitors into ambassadors for Israel.
Israel knows that gay tourism is good for its pocket and appearance. Eytan Schwartz, an Israeli communications and public relations expert, said in 2016, “The gay pride parade is not only a hasbara (Israeli public diplomacy) asset but an economic one, as well.” It also uses Tel Aviv as the star of the campaign, knowing that the “gay capital of the Middle East” only furthers the attractiveness of their message. Tel Aviv is a self-proclaimed safe haven for queer Israelis and Palestinians alike. Yet even that claim is far from the whole truth; queer Palestinians face discrimination on two fronts, more than the average queer Israeli, even in a “liberal” city like Tel Aviv. And while Tel Aviv is perhaps this so-called “gay capitol,” the periphery of Israel is still far from accepting its queer citizens. This is evident in peripheral cities all around Israel. The first planned pride parade in Beer Sheva in 2016 was canceled in protest of a police decision to reroute the parade after receiving queerphobic threats. The Jerusalem Pride Parade is constantly barraged with queerphobic counter-protesters, and just 5 years ago, an ultra-orthodox terrorist stabbed 16-year-old Shira Banki to death. Tel Aviv is colloquially known as “The State of Tel Aviv,” for its culture and lifestyle are not representative of the rest of the country, and so this usage of Tel Aviv’s gay scene falsely depicts Israel as something that it is not.
Israel’s Pinkwashing was made evidently clear in 2016, when the Tourism Ministry planned to paint a passenger plane in the rainbow colors as part of their multi-million shekel plan for Tel Aviv Pride. Queer activists protested this move and called for the cancellation of the Pride Parade, pointing out the major gap between spending on promotion for queer tourism and the level of financial support being given to Israel’s LGBTQIA+ community. According to Agudah – Israel’s LGBT Task Force, the money allocated for promotional purposes is ten times that of the government’s funding of Israeli queer groups. Israel dropped the plan, but this only highlighted the dichotomy between wanting to look gay-friendly and actually being the “gay utopia” Israel claims to be.
Yair Qedar, a gay Israeli filmmaker and civil rights activist, criticized Israeli LGBTQIA+ groups for failing to oppose pinkwashing charges, saying in a 2011 Time article,
“Rather than openly opposing international anti-Israel LGBTQIA+ groups, the gay community in Israel has essentially ignored the pinkwashing issue.” Though perhaps Israeli LGBTQIA+ groups agree with the pinkwashing sentiment. While Israel most definitely stands out in the region with its relatively positive record on LGBTQIA+ rights, it is still very much a work in progress. Gay marriage is still illegal, with marriage run by religious authorities. Adoption is close to impossible for same-sex couples, and surrogacy is still essentially illegal. Israel even recently signed onto a pact with Russia, barring same-sex couples from adopting Russian children. Parliamentary members and prominent spiritual leaders still spew queerphobic rhetoric; just last year, the Education Minister was quoted as supporting gay conversion therapy and suggesting that gay marriage is not natural. And the recent ban on conversion therapy does not apply to Rabbis, an exception granted to appease the religious, political parties. And the politicians who attend pride parades in supposed support are the same politicians working to block legislation that would help advance equal rights for LGBTQIA+ citizens. Israel’s depiction of itself as a super gay-friendly country does not live up to the facts on the ground, and full equal rights along with social and cultural acceptance are still a distant dream.
Whether or not Israel deliberately highlights its gay rights record to distract from its treatment of the Palestinian people is in constant debate. Queer Palestinian activists will say it’s the main agenda of Israel and that it is a perfect illusion. Pro-Israel activists simply ignore this claim, citing it as irrelevant and that Israel has a stellar record on queer rights. But what can be said for sure is that it most definitely distracts from Israel’s treatment of its own LGBTQIA+ citizens. As one sign read at a Pride Parade, “We want rights, not parties.”