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Israel's deafening silence on Chechnya

Israel claims that its attitude towards the LGBT community within its borders is proof of its ‘light unto the nations’ status. So why is the government silent when LGBTs overseas are rounded up and tortured?

By Ilan Manor

People protest outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv calling to stop the persecution of the gay community in Chechnya, May 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

People protest outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv calling to stop the persecution of the gay community in Chechnya, May 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

One winter morning during his second tenure as British prime minister, Winston Churchill awoke to a scandal: two backbench MPs, it is said, had been caught in a homosexual act in one of London’s public parks. “Two men, in a park, in January?” Churchill wondered aloud, before adding: “Makes you proud to be British.”

Much has changed in the public perception of homosexuality since the 1950s. Nations around the world have enacted laws safeguarding the rights of LGBTs and ensured their treatment as equal members of society. In many Western countries, LGBT people can now marry, adopt children and inherit one another’s property. However, in other countries LGBT individuals still suffer from discrimination at best, and violent oppression at worst.

There is some ambiguity regarding the status of LGBTs in Israel. On the one hand, the country hosts one of the largest gay pride parades in the world which attracts thousands of tourists each year. In addition, Tel Aviv is annually ranked as one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the world thanks to its vibrant cultural life.

On the other hand, LGBT individuals cannot get married in Israel, with only the option of a civil union available to them — a right established not with LGBTs in mind, but for those who would rather avoid a religious ceremony or who could not be married in a religious wedding. In addition, senior Israeli politicians often publicly attack the LGBT community. The current deputy speaker of the Knesset, Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home Party, once organized a parade equating homosexuality with bestiality while another member of his party called on the IDF not to recruit gay soldiers. Leaders of Israeli religious parties have also expressed their disgust with LGBTs in the past.

Yet this ambiguity has never prevented Israel from using the LGBT community in its diplomatic activities. The Ministry of Tourism annually promotes the Tel Aviv pride parade while embassies the world over post photos online of LGBTs marching down the beachfront esplanade. Even the IDF publishes photos on Facebook of male soldiers walking hand in hand.

People protest outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv calling to stop the persecution of the gay community in Chechnya, May 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

People protest outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv calling to stop the persecution of the gay community in Chechnya, May 5, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Supporters of Israel say that its treatment of LGBT people embodies the maxim “a light unto the nations.” While homosexuality is illegal throughout the Middle East, Israeli LGBTs are not only accepted but even celebrated in television, film and the theater. And while gay Palestinians are murdered due to their sexual orientation, in Israel LGBTs openly serve in the Knesset.

Nonetheless, opponents of Israel and LGBT activists and academics have accused the government of “pinkwashing” — using the LGBT community to portray the country as a defender of human rights rather than an oppressor of Palestinian rights.

Recent events have provided a unique opportunity to examine Israel’s stance on LGBT rights. For nearly a month, journalists and activists have been reporting that Chechnya has launched an unprecedented assault on LGBTs, particularly gay men and trans women. According to these reports, Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has ordered the imprisonment of gay men in concentration camps where they are tortured. Earlier this month, it was also reported that Kadyrov boasted he would eradicate Chechnya’s gay community by the following Ramadan (which starts at the end of May).

The response from the Israeli government thus far has been uniform silence. There have been no calls for an international investigation of the allegations against Chechnya’s leader, no promises to call an urgent debate in the UN and no colorful tweets from the IDF. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Tourism, which annually banks on LGBT tourists, have all failed to comment on the alleged persecution of gay people.

It is the proximity of the reports from Chechnya to Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day that makes Israel’s silence especially morally abhorrent. Only a week ago, in remembrance ceremonies throughout the country, Israelis vowed never to forget the lessons of the Holocaust — yet the Israeli government cannot even comment on reports suggesting that a radical leader has assembled men in concentration camps with the aim of eliminating their community.

Had Israel truly been a champion of LGBT rights, it would have at least put this issue on the international agenda, if not led an international demand for an enquiry into the possible torture of men in Chechnya. Alas, its leaders were too busy boycotting meetings with the German foreign minister.

Israel’s silence on Chechnya is deafening. Perhaps it was pinkwashing all along.

Ilan Manor is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford.

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    1. i_like_ike52

      The Palestinian silence on what is going on in Syria is even more deafening. What’s going on there is even worse than Chechnya. The Arab Joint Knesset list even refused to condemn Assad for the poison gas attack on children. I guess the rule is “never criticize a fellow Arab no matter what he does”. For that matter, most of the rest of the Muslim world is silent. So much for “Muslim/Arab brotherhood”.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        What on earth does this have to do with the article, which is about Israel?

        Reply to Comment
      • john

        just because yr not listening doesn’t mean they’re silent

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          John- I have not seen any large demonstrations of Muslims in the West (London, Paris, New York, etc) where there is freedom to demonstrate, protesting what is going on in Syria. There have been demonstrations about Trump’s attempt to control Muslim refugees coming in to the US. What I would expect is that there would be big demonstrations directed at the Russian or Syrian embassies, or calls on all parties who are feeding the killing machine to stop doing so (e.g. the Gulf States, in addition to the Russians). This is not happening, just as there weren’t Muslims demonstrating against Saddam Husseins war crimes (e.g. use of poison gas against Iranian soldiers or his own Kurdish civilians). Why? Because apparently Arabs view it as being forbidden to ever criticize a fellow Arab publicly no matter what he does. That is why the Israeli Joint Arab Knesset list refused to condemn Assad’s use of poison gas. That is why they haven’t protests the atrocities directed at the PALESTINIANS in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. These things are simply no body’s business.

          Bruce-This site says it is devoted to human rights. The most acute human rights problem in the world today is Syria. Hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees and massive war crimes. This piece is merely written to bash Israel, not to further human rights. Why didn’t the writer complain that the Palestinians or Iranians or other Muslims countries aren’t protesting?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            This is dumbed down, dishonest propaganda. The behavior of some parties in the broad Joint List coalition especially Hadash in regards to Assad’s use of poison gas is shameful. But the causes of the divides within the Israeli Arab world and among ideologically extremely divergent parties over Syria are much more complex than contained in this stupid statement: “Because apparently Arabs view it as being forbidden to ever criticize a fellow Arab publicly no matter what he does.” The idea that there has been no public criticism or fierce arguments or fierce criticism among the Israeli Arab public is just nonsense. Tibi (Ta’al) condemned the Idlib attack and Assad’s regime from the Knesset podium; Zahalka (Balad) issued a public condemnation of the Idlib attack but did not mention Assad. Odeh made less forceful statements than either and it was not his finest hour at all. There has been strong criticism of all this published, for example by journalist Rami Mansour on the Balad website. And strong criticism within Hadash itself.
            read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.782405
            But since when did Israeli Jewish politicians behave with more honor and unity in a broad coalition? Netanyahu? Bennett? Livni? Herzog? Yachimovich? Are you kidding? You might as well say that the reason a broad and ideologically divergent coalition of Jewish parties (which could not even be formed) in Israel and the United States could not all come together and publish a joint statement forcefully condemning the Israeli massacres in Gaza or the Elor Azaria incident is because apparently Jews view it as being forbidden to ever criticize a fellow Jew publicly no matter what he does. That would be an equally stupid statement.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Bernie X

      Wait. You’re shaming Israel for Chechen crimes?

      Aren’t you lazy!

      Reply to Comment
      • sarah

        it’s because history is repeating itself and no one is doing anything about it whereas the jewish people have dealt with the same harsh treatment like in chechnya years ago but doesn’t talk about it. the reason could be because of their stupid religious beliefs on discriminating against people different from them thus wanting them to suffer the same fate. however if so it’s inhumane this generation of leaders are repeating history again acting like the tyrant world leaders from the past, bad blood and influences run through peoples veins so long as we keep having people roaming around the world we’ll never get any peace.

        Reply to Comment
      • BOAZ

        Exactly my thoughts.

        While we are at it, I should mention that the mayor of my local community has increased 4 fold the fines for illegal car parking -this is happening in a small town 20 kms away from Paris-and Israel does not raise a protest !

        What a shame !

        Reply to Comment
    3. Willem Sassen

      obviously pinkwashing

      Reply to Comment
    4. Jayson

      Well, it’s a catch-22: When Israel says they “have LGBT rights and their Muslims neighbors don’t”, they’re accused of pinkwashing. And here, you have Chechnya, where the predominant religion is Islam…youre asking “why doesnt Israel condemn Chechnya for what its doing to gays?”. So, if Israel condemns Chechnya for the persecution of the gays, you accuse Israel of “pinkwashing”, but if they dont speak out you call it a “deafening silence”. So, pretty much, Israel can do no right. They’re damned if they do and damned if they dont.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        ‘So, if Israel condemns Chechnya for the persecution of the gays, you accuse Israel of “pinkwashing”, but if they dont speak out you call it a “deafening silence”.’

        You have this really oddly twisted around. Are you really this dense? Ilan Manor is not ACCUSING Israel of pinkwashing. That Israel pinkwashes is the PREMISE of Ilan Manor’s accusation that Israel is being HYPOCRITICAL in not condemning Chechnya for savagely persecuting gay people.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Mark

      Are the two photos of Israelis demonstrating outside the Russian embassy fakes?

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        hopefully some gov’t response will follow.

        Reply to Comment