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Controversy over Israeli envoy's address at gay rights forum

WASHINGTON – Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren delivered a keynote speech at the 20th Annual Equality Forum held over the weekend in the U.S. city of Philadelphia, but his selection as the featured guest angered some pro-Palestinian activists in the LGBT community.

The forum is intended to celebrate the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Transgender, Queers and other individuals, often referred to as LGBT.  This year, the Forum’s executive committee chose to honor Israel, with its culture capital Tel Aviv recently listed as the number one gay destination in the world.  The committee invited Israel’s Ambassador to Washington to address the crowd on Saturday night.

Participants dance on a float in Tel Aviv's 2011 Gay Pride parade, amid lots of pink, a color frequently used by the global LGBT community (photo: Atomisch/TomGiebel/flickrcc)

Participants dance on a float in Tel Aviv's 2011 Gay Pride parade, amid lots of pink, a color frequently used by the global LGBT community (photo: Atomisch/TomGiebel/flickrcc)

Israel effectively decriminalized homosexuality in 1988 when it removed from its British-inherited penal code a ban on sodomy. Oren highlighted what he felt were Israel’s strong commitments to gay rights. He noted that an Israeli diplomat serving in Europe has received full rights and benefits for his same-sex Israeli partner via the foreign ministry.  He highlighted the military response in disciplining a soldier who harassed a lesbian soldier.  He recalled the gay pride parade that was held in Jerusalem, despite opposition from religious groups.

Oren referenced Israel’s now world-famous delegate to the Eurovision Song Contest, Dana International, a transgender performer whose 1998 song “Viva La Diva” secured Israel its third victory in the competition. An American by birth, Oren also compared gay rights in the U.S. to those in Israel, reminding those attending that as the United Staties was invoking the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy (prohibiting LGBT individuals serving in the military from being open about their sexual identity) under former President Bill Clinton, Israel’s military banned all discrimination based on sexual orientation. Both at the event and in an interview before it, Oren argued that Israel provides asylum for Palestinian LGBTs from the West Bank, and that it houses two Palestinian groups fighting from LGBT equality for Palestinians in Israeli and the Palestinian territories.

+972′s Yossi Gurvitz argues that Oren got his facts wrong.

Oren’s speech was interrupted at one point by a man who stood up and accused Israel of denying rights to non-Israeli/Jewish LGBTs, particularly Palestinians.

The arguments he made echoed more clearly the sentiments conveyed by Katherine Franke.  Franke is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Director of Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at New York’s Columbia University.  In the days leading to the Forum, Franke posted on the department’s law blog a youtube video explaining her decision to boycott the Forum.

Franke notes:

While it may seem natural for gays to side with Israel, after all they have such good gay rights laws, this support reflects a major weakness of so many human rights movements that tend to prioritize their own struggles without considering the ways in which all forms of discrimination are linked. In Israel/Palestine gay rights and human rights more broadly are necessarily connected to one another, and treating one domestic minority well does not excuse or diminish the immorality of the state’s other rights-abridging policies. Had South Africa enacted good gay rights laws during the Apartheid era no one would have seen that as excusing their treatment of black and colored people. For this reason I have chosen to honor PQBDS’s request that we boycott the Equality Forum.

Franke’s action comes in response to what some have labelled Israel’s “pinkwashing,” a term that has come to embody an alleged policy by Israel to highlight its LGBT rights record in an effort to detract attention away from its treatment of Palestinians.  In particular, activists will say, Israel attempts to convey sympathy for Palestinian LGBTs to highlight its own moral superiority, while ignoring the dire consequences and human rights violations that are tied-up in the military (and civilian) occupation of Palestinian territories.

Rebecca Trachtenberg Alpert, a Reconstructionist Rabbi and Co-Director of the Women’s Studies Program and Assistant Professor of Religion and Women’s Studies at Temple University, also boycotted the event.

In his speech in Philadelphia, Oren respond to the accusations of pinkwashing:

There is a small but voluble group claiming that the freedom and equal rights that Israel grants to the LGBT community is merely an attempt to camouflage our alleged oppression of the Palestinians. But a simple historic fact is that the LGBT rights movement in Israel predated Israel’s capture of the West Bank in 1967. And then even when Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing up our restaurants and buses, and terrorist missiles were pummeling or neighborhoods, still Israel provided shelter for LGBT Palestinians.

Next year, CUNY – a university based in New York – will address the issue at a forum entitled “Homonationlism and Pinkwashing.”  An invitation to the event notes:

The co-opting of some LGBT people by anti-immigrant and in particular anti-Muslim political forces is widespread and growing. Rutgers Professor Jasbir Puar has coined the term “Homonationalism” to define collusion between LGBT people and identification with the nation state, re-enforcement of racial and national boundary, and systems of supremacy ideology no longer interrupted by homophobia. Homonationalism has spread far from its roots in European xenophobia and US militarism to become an increasingly potent tool in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Haneen Maikey, director of Israeli-based Palestinian LGBT group alQaws, is one of the scheduled speakers at the CUNY conference.  The group’s recurring “Palestinian queer party,” which draws in Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank, takes place every other month in Tel Aviv.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Michael W.

      Is this the same Franke that said that Palestinians hate gays because of the Israeli occupation?

      Reply to Comment
    2. caden

      So, basically hatred OF Jews, and that’s what this is. Trumps any sort of gay solidarity.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Rafael

      Compared to most Western countries, the rights available to gay couples are extremely limited. Marriage? Only in foreign countries. The orthodox rabbinate would never approve of it. I’ve never seen Argentina, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, etc. — countries that do allow complete insertion of gay couples in state institutions — using their truly liberal policies to advance their interests abroad. Quite the contrary — it is only Israel who has made this a brading issue. And you want us to believe this is not because of propaganda purposes?
      .
      Israel supporters keep trying to distract from the occupation with issues that have nothing to do with it. The fact that gay Israelis have a right to privacy doesn’t mean Palestinians don’t have a right to their properties. Just as the fact that the US is a “liberal democracy” in no way cleanses its military record in countries such as Iraq, Cambodia and Vietnam. Discuss the occupation on its own merits, trying to divert attention will only denounce what people in the West are starting to suspect: that there are skeletons in Israel’s occupation closet.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Rafael

      Compared to most Western countries, the rights available to gay couples are extremely limited. Marriage? Only in foreign countries. The orthodox rabbinate would never approve of it. Moreover, I’ve never seen Argentina, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, etc. — countries that do allow complete insertion of gay couples in state institutions — using their truly liberal policies to advance their interests abroad. Quite the contrary — it is only Israel who has made this a branding issue. And you want us to believe this is not for propaganda purposes?
      .
      Israel supporters keep trying to distract from the occupation with issues that have nothing to do with it. That gay Israelis have a right to privacy doesn’t mean Palestinians don’t have a right to their properties. Just as the fact that the US is a “liberal democracy” in no way cleanses its record of invasions against non-democracies such as Iraq, Cambodia and Vietnam. Discuss the occupation on its own merits. Trying to divert attention will only denounce what people in the West are starting to suspect: that there are skeletons in Israel’s occupation closet.

      Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      “Is this the same Franke that said that Palestinians hate gays because of the Israeli occupation?”
      .
      No idea, but what she says in the video is that Israel’s secret services routinely blackmail Palestinian gays which forces them to become informers. Doesn’t that boil down to the same thing?
      .
      While reading this piece, apart from being puzzled by the jargon (what’s homonationalism when it’s at home?), I was wondering what on earth gay rights have to do with Palestinian rights and why they were being meshed together. I’m relieved to see that Franke says the issues are not connected on that video, but still don’t know how they were twinned in the first place. Surely not only because of Oren and the hasbara minister. All that’s needed to stop the puerile boasting is to jog their memory about a masked assassin who walked into a TA gay youth center one evening, started shooting, apparently left on foot and melted without trace into the surrounding streets. Almost 3 years later he still hasn’t been apprehended.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Sinjim

      SH, of course, gay rights and Palestinian rights are connected because of what’s known as intersectionality, the concept that no one form of oppression exists in vacuum. Rather sexual, gender, ethnic, religious oppression are part of a single, overarching system whose aim is to privilege one group of people.
      .
      For example, with all the oppression that black women have faced and continue to face in America, where would you draw the line between what is sexist and what is racist? Is the woman working in a factory being harassed for being black or being a woman or both? Can you fight one form of oppression without addressing the other form?
      .
      Similarly, how do you tease out what is anti-Palestinian and what is homophobic about the Israeli intelligence orgs’ policy of blackmailing gay Palestinians into becoming spies for them?
      .
      All of these forms of bigotry and oppression are at their heart about creating a hierarchy of privileged and unprivileged people, the Normal and the Other, even if it’s not so explicit as that. There may be court rulings in Israel that guarantee a few rights to (Jewish) queer people, but no one can deny that outside of places like Tel Aviv, they don’t have anywhere near the acceptance or protection that Oren’s rhetoric would suggest.
      .
      That won’t ever change as long as the bigotry against other marginalized groups such as Palestinians and African refugees remains unaddressed or even considered acceptable.

      Reply to Comment
    7. caden

      Sinjim, Not often that you read such inspired crap. I’m actually kind of impressed

      Reply to Comment
    8. Rodrigo

      Oh, look.. Another example of the inability of the extreme left to celebrate anything about Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    9. sh

      I actually did understand that, Sinjim, but wonder (to put it mildly) at the wisdom of connecting all injustices together when hope for success on all fronts just distances success on a particular burning issue. Would doing that have vanquished apartheid in South Africa or colonial rule in India (to use the two examples that are used most frequently by the left in relation to Israel)?

      Reply to Comment
    10. max

      So one is to link Israel’s abuse of Palestinian rights to its support of gay rights, but not link Palestinians’ abuse of gay rights to its struggle for own rights?
      One may need to be very intelligent to explain.

      Reply to Comment
    11. sh

      India’s been independent for about as long as Israel has?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_India

      South Africa got rid of apartheid in 1994 or thereabouts?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same-sex_marriage_in_South_Africa

      What Palestinians think about gay rights at this moment in time is their business, not Israel’s. Putting cart before horse is of great interest to those who wish to impede the progress of the cart, but, to mix metaphors like only idiots do, I don’t see why the intelligent would fiddle while Rome burns. Neither, it seems, does the Columbia professor in the clip. Enlighten me.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Shlomo Krol

      I don’t think that “pinkwashing” has ever been “official” Israeli PR policy (correct me if I’m wrong). It rather exists in talkbacks of the homegrown propagandists, who receive their inspiration, I think, from the European anti-immigration populists Pim Fortuyne style.
      The claim that human rights are one package and therefore it’s either all or nothing is simplistic one. There are imperfect things in this world.
      -
      Those who boycott Israeli gay community create a linckage between Israeli treatment of Palestinians and gay rights and this is the mirror image of those talkback propagandists who respond to the accusation of apartheid: “But we treat gays well”.
      -
      This is the same logic of “it’s either all or nothing”, based on very deeply ingrained in all cultures way of thinking by binary opposition of “good” and “bad”, “us” and “them” etc. If Israel treats gays well, this logic goes, it’s impossible that Israel would treat Palestinians wrongly, because it means that Israel is “good”. And if Israel still does this or that to Palestinians, they are to blame themselves, because they treat gays wrongly and it means that they are “bad”.
      -
      The logic of the boycotters is the mirror image of this logic, but it is based on the same pattern of thinking by binary oppositions. If Israel treats Palestinians wrongly, it cannot be that it treats gays well, because all human rights stem from one and the same respect for human dignity and freedom, and if Israel treats Palestnians the way it treats them, it is “bad” and it cannot be that it respects gays. And if the fact say that gays enjoy considerable rights in Israel – it is surely not genuine, but only for PR purposes.
      -
      All this is an obvious simplification. If we use this logic of binary oppositions, of all or nothing, of good guys vs. bad guys, we might say that because of poor record of Palestinians in the realm of gay rights we should not support Palestinian right for self determination and rights. This is in fact what the “pinkwashing” propagandists say.
      -
      The proper way of dealing with the issue is to break the linkage. Israel should be commended for its relative tolerance toward gays (and criticized when it fails to uphold their right). But this is by no way an excuse for the apartheid, occupation, colonization, inequality and discrimination within Israel and other ills of the Israeli society.
      -
      Palestinians should be supported in their struggle for self determination and rights, but should be criticized for human rights violations, such as the relative intolerance toward gays and for other ills of the Palestinian society.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Shlomo, you are wrong (you asked to be corrected). David Saranga, a high-up in the Foreign Ministry, is one of the architects of the strategy, and has bragged about it repeatedly, and even presents its successes as a case study in courses he guest lectures in.

      More information on this can be found here
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-schulman/israel-pinkwashing_b_1132369.html

      Reply to Comment
    14. Shlomo Krol

      Thank you, Tsipi, I stand corrected. It seems to be indeed government sponsored campaign. Of course it must be opposed. I think, that boycotting LGBT in Israel is wrong, because, as I wrote in the previous post, it’s just the mirror image of the “pinkwashing” demagoguery. The linkage between these issues must be broken: the gay rights and the relative liberalism of Israel (which is, some say, eroding now) do not justify its policies vis-a-vis Palestinians. These issues are not related.

      Reply to Comment
    15. max

      You seem easy to convince, Shlomo, by an article that can be summarized as confronting “the multi-dimensionality of Palestinian society” with Israel’s “conservative and especially religious politicians remain fiercely homophobic.”
      .
      Branding isn’t pinkwashing, when it underlines the truth. And the truth is that Israel’s laws haven’t changed since the branding ‘project’, and that gay parades have marched before.
      .
      Israel’s attitude towards the LGBT community places it with the ‘West’, while Palestinians’ attitude – as Palestinian correctly wrote in another post – is that of a taboo.
      .
      And all this is irrelevant to the Palestinian-Israeli problem.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Anonymous

      When the topic is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s supporters should not drag in LGBT rights.
      .
      But when the topic is LGBT rights, Israel’s detractors should not drag in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
      .
      Sound fair?

      Reply to Comment

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