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The cynical use of homophobia to attack the Joint List

The Pride Parade has become a litmus test of enlightenment for politicians. But clinging to that symbol is dangerous in that it disconnects the parade from its actual context — the LGBTQ community’s struggle for equal rights.

By Inna Michaeli

The Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, June 26, 2008. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

The Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, June 26, 2008. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

In a video question-and-answer segment produced by Haaretz this week, Arab actress and singer Mira Awad interviewed Balad party chairman Jamal Zahalka, and in her second question, asked him about the Gay Pride parade. It was no surprise that the program’s editors couldn’t help but lead the program with the pride question. A few moments later Awad asked about polygamy.

Polygamy is a real problem. As is violence and oppression of women and those with non-conforming gender identities. That is why I oppose the use of polygamy and homophobia as a weapon for attacking Arab society as a whole, and specifically the Joint List. Such attacks do not advance the feminist and queer struggles — quite the opposite.

Mentioning the Pride Parade has become a litmus test of enlightenment. So when Mira Awad asks Jamal Zahalka about Pride, she isn’t really asking him about the parade. In reality she is saying: make up your mind, Jamal. Are you part of the enlightened world or the primitive world? Make up your mind. Are you a progressive, enlightened man, or are you stuck in fundamentalism?

Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

It’s important and legitimate to ask the heads of political parties about their agendas and platforms on social issues. However, it would have been possible to ask a million more topical questions, more urgent and more important questions: What do you think can be done in order to reduce suicide attempts among youths with non-conforming gender identities? What is your position on homophobia in society? How will you vote on adoption for same-sex couples? How do you propose tackling employment discrimination against transgender individuals? How do you feel about women’s liberation in general? What is your opinion on the restrictions on abortion in Israel? How will you ensure financial independence and increased employment opportunities for women in outlying towns and villages? Regarding surrogacy, how do you balance the conflict between parents’ rights and the conditions of women in the third world?

Clinging to the Pride Parade is dangerous in that it disconnects the parade from its actual context — the LGBTQ community’s struggle for equal rights in society. Instead of focusing on that, it becomes a tool for proving one’s enlightenment and has become a symbol of belonging to the West. It is dangerous because no small number of societies and countries have jumped at the chance to exploit it — to disconnect homophobia and LGBTQ rights from LGBTQ individuals themselves, to turn it into a mark of Western identity. That is exactly what the regime in Russia is doing: when it wants to oppose the West, it acts against LGBTQ issues, individuals and communities. That is a dangerous trend for us.

It is an even more ridiculous question considering that in recent years the Pride Parade has become a consumerist festival, whose context and connection to the struggle for LGBTQ rights is a borderline secret for those in the know. In reality, Mira Awad is asking MK Zahalka: What is your opinion of corporate parade floats with near-naked boys dancing to the beat of annoying club music, accompanied by tens of thousands of sweaty revelers?

The Tel Aviv Pride Parade. (Photo by Nina Jean / CC 2.0)

The Tel Aviv Pride Parade. (Photo by Nina Jean / CC 2.0)

So yes, a lot of us continue to go to Pride out of nostalgia for more political times. It can be amazing to see so many LGBTQ people in the streets. To many LGBTQ individuals it is an emotional and liberating experience, certainly if it is their first time. Outsiders generally need historical explanations in order to understand the Pride Parade — even if they aren’t hopeless homophobes, but just ordinary people; especially if they grew up in cultures in which Pride is an established institution.

I’m not trying to be apologetic about sexism, homophobia or transphobia. It’s important to pose questions on those issues to Knesset members — Arabs and Jews, secular and religious. It’s a shame that nobody asks them. None of the questions I posed in this article have been asked seriously of politicians. It is clear that they are carefully formulated and asked in a way to push the interviewee into a corner. Suddenly, newspapers and media outlets that have never before dealt with sexism and homophobia are bringing up these topics at every opportunity. Make no mistake — our rights and our lives do not interest them for even one moment. They are using us in order to embarrass and delegitimize Arab Knesset members.

They present the Arab MKs with a Catch 22 in which they can either come off as homophobes, or run the risk of losing the support of the conservative and traditional publics they represent. One could argue that as elected officials they have a responsibility to introduce positions that might be challenging for their constituents, that they have the power to influence the discourse. That is a cynical argument considering Jewish society’s intransigent efforts to eliminate any public influence Arab MKs might have. It is enough to recall the witch-hunt against MK Haneen Zoabi, a feminist woman. Where were all those who are now worried about polygamy and Pride?

We don’t have a shortage of political parties that support the Pride Parade and even send representatives to take part in it — political parties that also support attacks on Gaza. Let’s do some simple math: over 2,000 people were killed in the last attack. Let’s assume that 10 percent of the population is LGBTQ. If so, it is safe to assume that more than 200 LGBTQ individuals were killed, with the full backing of those very same politicians who showed up with their dancing shoes on at recent pride parades. Hundreds more were wounded, lost their families, their loved ones. I don’t know their names or their life stories. But I do know that they exist, or that they existed. I think about them.

One of the most wonderful things about being a lesbian is having an identity that traverses national and ethnic boundaries. Everywhere in the world, I can find my community. It’s as if I’m part of a tribe that exists everywhere. That sense of belonging adds to the sense of borderless solidarity. Of course there are LGBTQ individuals who first and foremost identify with their nationality. Their solidarity begins and ends at national boundaries — it’s called homo-nationalism. Luckily, not all of us are like that. My identity and life experience as a feminist, lesbian woman are central to the formation of my world view and my commitment to the end of the occupation, civil equality, and social justice. As part of that world view I support the Joint List.

Inna Michaeli is a feminist activist and a PhD student of Sociology at the Humboldt University of Berlin. This article was first published on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Pedro X

      What a hypocrite Inna Michaeli is. Her policy is don’t ask, don’t tell and put the Arab politician back in the closet. Here she tells an Arab Israeli woman not to ask hard questions of a leading Arab Israeli politician in case he gives the wrong answers which show his racist attitudes and his anti-women beliefs. According to Ms. Michaeli women do not have a right to question Arab men who will represent Arab women in the Israel Knesset.

      She also seems to have some deep seated animosity towards homosexual men strutting their stuff in pride parades by calling them “near-naked boys dancing to the beat of annoying club music” on corporately sponsored floats in “a consumerist festival.”

      Then she goes off the deep end accusing Israel of killing over 200 LGBTQ individuals on the basis that 10% of Gaza’s population is Lesbian, gay, or transgender. No matter how many Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters dressed up like women in Gaza to disguise themselves as non-combatants, there is no way there are 170,000 gay people in Gaza. If this was true Hamas minders would be executing tens of thousands of Palestinian women. There is a reason there is no gay parade in Gaza or Ramallah and honor killings go on in Palestinian society unabated.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        “Here she tells an Arab Israeli woman not to ask hard questions of a leading Arab Israeli politician in case he gives the wrong answers which show his racist attitudes and his anti-women beliefs.”

        Quoting the author of this piece:

        “However, it would have been possible to ask a million more topical questions, more urgent and more important questions: What do you think can be done in order to reduce suicide attempts among youths with non-conforming gender identities? What is your position on homophobia in society? How will you vote on adoption for same-sex couples? How do you propose tackling employment discrimination against transgender individuals? How do you feel about women’s liberation in general? What is your opinion on the restrictions on abortion in Israel? How will you ensure financial independence and increased employment opportunities for women in outlying towns and villages? Regarding surrogacy, how do you balance the conflict between parents’ rights and the conditions of women in the third world?”

        I don’t see anywhere in this article where she says women don’t have the right to ask questions. What she is saying is that Zionists hypocritically use LBGTQ, they otherwise might not care at all about, just so they can undermine Arab politicians.

        I don’t see how her comments on the Gay Pride Parade show any “deep seated animosity” towards gay men. Her opinion that it is a “consumerist parade” is not indicative of homophobia so much as it is that she thinks it is inane and pro-establishment and solves none of the problems (questions) she listed above. Also she apparently doesn’t like club music; neither do I, so sue us.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          It is rather presumptive of anyone to tell women what questions they should ask. Mira Awad is able to formulate questions which she wants answered. It is condescending to tell Awad what questions she can or should ask.

          Is Mira Awad a Zionist using “her position to use LBGTQ, … just so [she] can undermine Arab politicians?” Are Zionists not allowed to ask questions?

          It is also condescending to call men “naked boys”. If she was talking about men of color, the slur would be all too clear.

          Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            “there is no way there are 170,000 gay people in Gaza…”

            Pedro X, I have to wonder about your reasoning skills in this instance. Every gay person is out and parading on a float in pink tights through the Gaza Strip or Jewish Hebron? Hamas and Shas have gay mind reading machines that have eluded western scientists?

            You are no doubt factually correct that there are not 170,000 gay people in Gaza but not based on your assumptions, but because Inna Michaeli’s assumption of a 10% natural prevalence of gay people in human populations is way off, based on a long debunked overestimate:

            http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/07/15/what-percentage-of-the-u-s-population-is-gay-lesbian-or-bisexual/

            Has Mira Awad or her Jewish equivalent grilled Naftali Bennet on his party’s problems with gay people? Bennet is out there championing gay rights? How about Shas? Is Mira Awad or her Jewish equivalent going to drill down on Shas’ leaders on how they (who, I read, have called homosexuals “a plague as toxic as bird flu”) feel about homosexuality? And will the Jewish public change its votes based on these earth shattering revelations about Aryeh Deri and Naftali Bennet?

            The author’s main point seems to be about cynical exploitation directed specifically at Arab politicians and not others:

            “None of the questions I posed in this article have been asked seriously of politicians. It is clear that they are carefully formulated and asked in a way to push the interviewee into a corner. Suddenly, newspapers and media outlets that have never before dealt with sexism and homophobia are bringing up these topics at every opportunity. Make no mistake — our rights and our lives do not interest them for even one moment. They are using us in order to embarrass and delegitimize Arab Knesset members.

            They present the Arab MKs with a Catch 22 in which they can either come off as homophobes, or run the risk of losing the support of the conservative and traditional publics they represent. One could argue that as elected officials they have a responsibility to introduce positions that might be challenging for their constituents, that they have the power to influence the discourse. That is a cynical argument considering Jewish society’s intransigent efforts to eliminate any public influence Arab MKs might have. It is enough to recall the witch-hunt against MK Haneen Zoabi, a feminist woman. Where were all those who are now worried about polygamy and Pride?”

            Reply to Comment
          • gayisraeli

            i was excited to read this article about gay rights and the joint list, as I as a leftwing anti-occupation gay israeli man am still doubting if I should vote for meretz or the arab list. I was expecting some real information about this issue.
            But unfortunatley this article was absolutely useless. Nonesense, talking around the issue, not talking to us LGTBQI people, who this article should help understand what is happening underneath the whole media biais.
            I want to hear about how we LGBTQI people can vote for an arab list, even though they might be homophobic or chauvinistic, just for the sake of supporting our arab minority.
            Please, do publish an article woth real information, comparing statements and understanding the reality of what is happening.
            Dont publish such useless shit, it is counterproductive and not helpful at all.
            Do not talk negative about the gaypride parade, as much as I do not like it, it is our parade, people have been fighting for it for decades, dieing on the battleground. Who cares that it became a commercial demonstration. I am sure there are enough gay people in the 50ies who would have prefered their identity to become commercial than to live underground in fear.
            Honestly, shame on you.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Johanan

      So by virtue of being an Arab, MK Zahalka is allowed to be homophobic. Otherwise we’d be engaging in orientalism, no?

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        Homophobia has nothing to do with being Arab or non-Arab, or Moslem or non-Moslem, but is found in all countries, of course including Israel.

        “Aside from the tired “Orientalist” tropes portraying any Arab country as uncivilized, Israeli PR groups are also ignoring the homophobia rampant in Israel (as it is in all countries). A 2011 survey of LGBT soldiers reported that half of them suffer from homophobic violence and harassment. In August 2009, a gunman with an Uzi submachine-gun killed two people and injured fifteen at Tel Aviv’s community center for gay and lesbian teenagers. In a 2009 poll by the newspaper Haaretz, 46% of Israelis believed homosexuality to be a perversion. The lack of separation between religion and state means that official spokespeople for the Israeli government, such as Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai can claim that gays have a “normative defect” and are “sick.” In fact, the same year as the iPride conference, Yishai called for the cancellation of the pride parade in Tel Aviv, and called homosexuality an “abomination.”” See http://www.israelilaundry.org/2011/11/07/homophobia-in-israel/

        Please don’t miss an opportunity for a bit of Arab-bashing, but please note than many supporters of Israel are (or were) homophobes e.g. Ronald Reagan, Karl Rove, Michele Bachman, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, Rick Santorum, Michael Savage, Pat Robertson, Laura Schessinger. Why would that be? Well because religious fundamentalism, illiberalism, “family” values, homophobia, and islamophobia make blend together very nicely, especially within American politics and media.

        Reply to Comment