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.
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.
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.
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.