Yasmin Nair

Homophobia and Israel/Palestine or, What's political about "Queer?": Some thoughts

Filed By Yasmin Nair | July 05, 2010 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Berlin, Brand Israel, gay rights, Israel, Jasbir Puar, Judith Butler, Palestine, pinkwashing, queer

Jasbir Puar, who wrote Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, has been writing for The Guardian's "Comment is Free" column. Her latest piece, "Israel's gay propaganda war," offers some interesting political analysis of claims made by Israel and many in the gay community, of Israel being a bastion of gay rights in an otherwise homophobic Middle East.

As Puar writes, "One of the most remarkable features of the Brand Israel campaign is the marketing of a modern Israel as a gay-friendly Israel. Stand With US, a self-declared Zionist organisation, has been quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying: "We decided to improve Israel's image through the gay community in Israel." This "pinkwashing", as it is now commonly termed in activist circles, has currency beyond Israeli gay groups. Within global gay and lesbian organising circuits, to be gay friendly is to be modern, cosmopolitan, developed, first-world, global north, and, most significantly, democratic."

More excerpts and links to previous, related posts after the jump, along with some of my thoughts.

Puar continues: "Events such as WorldPride 2006 hosted in Jerusalem and "Out in Israel" recently held in San Francisco highlight Israel as a country committed to democratic ideals of freedom for all, including gays and lesbians. Yet pinkwashing obscures the much more foundational, intractable and, by the terms of the Israeli constitution, necessary lack of freedom that Palestinians have in regards to Israeli state oppression."

This bit is especially striking: "Pinkwashing harnesses global gays as a new source of affiliation, recruiting liberal gays into a dirty bargaining of their own safety against the continued oppression of Palestinians, now perforce rebranded as "gay unfriendly". This strategy then also works to elide the presence of numerous Palestinian gay and lesbian organisations, for example Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (PQBDS)."

You can find "Israel's gay propaganda war" in its entirety here.

Puar's piece is a great companion to Ryan Conrad's recent post on Pride Toronto's reversal of its policy of banning the term "Israeli apartheid." You can find the history of that controversy in Ryan's earlier piece, "Queers Against Israeli Apartheid turning up the heat on Pride Toronto." And Alex Blaze's post about Judith Butler turning down the Civil Courage Prize at Christopher Street Day in Berlin is also pertinent, because Butler's action speaks to the impossibility of separating matters of sexual orientation and identity from politics. For an added dimension on the controversies surrounding Israel, gay rights and Toronto Pride, see Jillian Weiss's "Canadian Politics, Not Queer Politics, At Issue In Toronto Pride Parade."

I don't usually write round-ups like this, but given the many conversations that have arisen here about Israel and gay rights in particular, and the connections between sexuality and politics in general, I thought it useful to point to Puar's piece because it's a reminder of the politics at stake. And contextualizing her work within conversations that have been going on here (and encouraging people to read them as a set of related pieces) will, hopefully, allow for some considered reflections on the place of politics within matters of gay identity.

The idea that queer events/"pride" can somehow be separated from the political lives of queers is an impossible one. We might have the luxury of imagining such a separation in the United States, where daily life is continuously de-politicized even as the geopolitical nightmare of neoliberalism grinds us down. But queers in the rest of the world live their sexual lives as part of their political lives and vice versa - either because reality demands that they do so, or because the intellectual, cultural, and political contexts surrounding them will not permit an easy separation. If we are to confront, challenge, and/or embrace a global world (inasmuch as we can put aside, temporarily, the problematics inherent in the concept of the global), we have to embrace the radical possibilities offered by other visions of sexuality, instead of being constrained by our own.

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Something that people are missing with regards to the QuAIA / Pride Toronto issue specifically is the surge of Christian Nationalist groups over the past decade in Canada and their adamant belief in Canada having a specific kind of role with Israel in the end times leading up to Armageddon. This has played into the way that the Harper Conservatives have built an uneasy tightrope alliance between Fundamental Protestants, Catholics and Jewish groups in order to maintain a minority government. Jillian was right that Canadian politics played a role in what happened, but missed in that it was not speech itself (other than the way that the panic of perceived speech restriction is used by right-wing groups and writers like Ezra Levant to whip up support), but rather the interplay of unofficial alliances happening behind the scenes.

As much as the Jewish community is divided between pro- and anti-LGBT elements, the QuAIA issue was designed to drive a wedge through Canada's queer community.

Prince Jei | July 5, 2010 4:38 PM

With the Berlin debate, it is disappointing how few commentators from the U.S. have begun to directly engage with local queer and trans activists of colour. While Butler's refusal, which was not the act of an isolated individual but the result of a sustained transnational dialogue which could not have happened without at least three decades of anti-racist feminist work and a decade of anti-racist queer and trans resistance in Berlin, is being turned into an event, queer and trans people of colour are left to face the backlash from the gay establishment. Visit nohomonationalism.blogspot.com and leave messages of solidarity and support.

Yasmin, thanks for this round-up/analysis -- but wait, this is chilling -- as I was reading this post, an ad came up to the right side, saying, "There's a little bit of Israel in all of us. Come find the Israel in you. " Oh, no -- now it's in the banner *inside* the post -- anyone have information as to when/how this ad was purchased?

mattilda, yeah those are through google ads or something similar and are generated based on the content of the article. since it is a robot just scanning for key words to generate the ad, ironic ones certainly come up.

ooooops... global marketing meltdown!

Thanks, Mercedes and Jei, for your comments. Sitting here in the U.S, it's very easy to see the events in Toronto or Berlin through somewhat restricted lenses, even if they're not particularly rosy. The more we know about about "unofficial alliances" behind the scenes and about the yes, long history of anti-racist, feminist and queer and trans work the better.

Mercedes, I'd be curious to know more about who might have the most interest in driving that wedge - it looked, to my untrained eyes in the US, like the natural progression of a split, but I'd like to know more.

Mattilda, you're welcome! And I don't see the Israel ad. Right now, I've got a Groupon ad for Chicago. The edteam might know more. I think these things are bought as packages, and are randomly generated as you visit the page, but I could be wrong on that...

That's a bit hard to sum up here, as there are plenty of snakes under that rock. It's not a "conspiracy" by any stretch, but a number of religious orgs, some being partly funded by FoF, Hagee et al, working collaboratively and getting compliance from some elements of the Harper government and the "god squad" whenever it can be slipped under the radar. The ruckus raised by the far right in 2009 when Toronto Pride (qualified for and) received a grant for tourist events was enough to put the pressure on the feds to refuse all funding this year, and QuAIA's actions in 2009 provided an opportunity for pressure to be put on the City also

There are some really interesting parallels between the this “pink washing” and the several governments use of women's rights as a justification for colonial activity.

Its doubly interesting considering that Israel doesn't have the best record on gblt rights particularly outside Tel Aviv. Thank you for bringing all this to my attention.

Andony Melathopoulos | July 6, 2010 8:50 AM

Yasmin, I have to say something here because nobody ever seems to say it.

It is absolutely curious to me that when QuAIA draws parallels and differentiations between South Africa and Isreal-Palestine (to which it largely resorts to quoting other authorities) it seems to never pause to consider the difference between the ANC and Hamas? While a Queer polemic against a pernicious Israeli Right is warranted (and supporting divestment is a good thing), isn't the absolute silence about the a Palestinian Right simply "pink washing" of another variety? The QuAIA website claims to have overcome the one-sided support of Israel of the neo-conservative variety, but don't they just fall neatly into the other side of this dualism by taking an uncritical stance of the other side?

The actions of political actors in conflicts should matters more than they do to QuAIA. The ANC steered clear of considerable pressure in the mid-1980s to wage a campaign of terror against white South Africans. As Moishe Postone points out this was not only tactical, but also on political principle: "It was argued that movements for emancipation do not choose the civilian population as their main target". One can scarcely say this about Hamas. Maybe QuAIA overlooks this fact because Hamas has desirable politics more broadly? It would good for them to specify these politics and explain why they are supportable.

Perhaps Yasmin one of the reasons why the US (and Canada) is a relatively depoliticized place is not so much because we do not suffer the bluntest blow of neo-liberalism, but because we, in some measure, continue to entertain a naive and uncritical political discourse?

"Rather than analyzing this reactionary form of resistance in ways that would help support more progressive forms of resistance, however, many on the Western Left have either ignored it or rationalized it as an unfortunate, if understandable, reaction to Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank. This basically uncritical political stance, I would argue, is related to a fetishized identifcation of the United States with global capital... This form of misrecognition is related to the tendency to grasp the abstract (the domination of capital) as concrete (American hegemony). This tendency, I would argue, is an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically".
- Moishe Postone, History and Helplessness, 2006

As a supporter of Israel, but as a critic of its policies that can lead only to endless war and deepening repression, I don't think that QuAIA's failure to comment on Hamas is "pinkwashing." They are using similar reasoning to those who out anti-gay politicians who are secretly gay. They don't out any closeted gay politicians, but only those who use the closet as a position of power from which to claim moral superiority over gays.

Hamas is not claiming moral superiority because of its embrace of gay rights, and while it deserves scrutiny and censure for its embrace of violence and force, its stance is not compounded by any moral pretensions of embracing equality.

Israel's proponents, however, to the extent they are engaging in this "pinkwashing," are claiming the moral high ground by asserting that Israel = gay equality and Palestine/Hamas = homophobia.

Thus, it is appropriate to scrutinize this Israeli equality stance. It would make no sense to scrutinize Palestine or Hamas from this point of view, because neither Palestine nor Hamas are making such claims.

Are the Palestinian Right guilty of invidious discrimination? Yes, and they should be criticized for it. But the critique of their homophobia is based on different grounds from the Israeli "pinkwashing" issue.

I would add to Jillian's comment that while most of QuAIA's supporters are quite aware that there's not a whole lot of innocence to go around among the political factions in the debate, there is still a one-sidedness about who's sporting the jackboots and armaments, and applying policy (there are better words for it, I know) to entire populations.

The uglier aspects of the ANC have been somewhat forgotten, as with all successful groups, but they most certainly did target civilians.

vagabondage | July 6, 2010 5:48 PM

Dear Yasmin,
Great article! Thanks for your thoughts on the topic.

I went to pride in Tel Aviv this year. While it was a welcome public queer celebration in contrast to the secrecy queers in Jordan (where I live) feel pressured to live in every day, I felt guilty the whole time I was there. I couldn't forget that the beach party I was enjoying was on a stolen beach managed by a violent, racist apartheid regime. The rainbow flags with the star of David in the middle disgusted me -- Israelis were triumphing their homonationalism over the bonds of queer solidarity. What about the Family members on the other side of the walls that couldn't make it to the beach? The party goers didn't seem to care. I felt most wretched when I saw a man holding a sign "I love IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] boys!": his fetishization of the military and nationalism to me should be most unwelcome at a pride event, but for Israelis at this event, the national-political was inseparable from the Pride.

In an interesting contrast, I have some Palestinian friends with the right to travel in Israel (they are not Arab-Israeli, they are denied nationality and all its rights and privileges by Israel. They are worried they will be kicked out of their nice homes in Jerusalem soon) who accompanied me to pride in Tel Aviv. They were willing to forget the occupation, to ignore the homonationalism of the Israeli celebration, speak English or Hebrew to hide their Palestinian identity, and just let loose and enjoy themselves. For those from the occupied camp, it seemed to me that their ability to publicly celebrate their queer pride in Israel trumped any national-idealist battles. I asked them about the topic, but they suggested i 'just dance'. This was a holiday for them.

Anyway, just a few thoughts on the topic. Keep your great work coming.


Bradley: I understand your feelings about the Israeli government, and you have a right to feel anger at the injustices perpetrated by that Government and its military. But the Government of Jordan and of every Arab neighbor of Israeli has also participated in injustices. The violent, racist apartheid regime in Jerusalem is faced with other violent, racist apartheid regimes in Damascus and Amman and others. That doesn't justify Israeli policies, but it does mean that blaming Israel for being a militarized, mechanized armed camp that you want to hate is more of the same that has the Middle East and other places trapped in ancient cycles of hatred and blood feud. We must move beyond hatred and blood feud.

The rainbow flags with the star of David in the middle aren't Israelis triumphing their homonationalism over the bonds of queer solidarity -- they're flags proclaiming Israeli queerness. And fetishization of the military and nationalism isn't exclusive to Israel. We have plenty of that in the US, and I've seen it in other countries as well. These aren't indictments of Israel -- they're indictments of the human race. We must move beyond nationalism and militarism if we want peace.

I don't say this to justify Israel or its policies -- they are unjustifiable. But I say this to point up that focusing on Israel as the "bad guy" is more of the same nationalism that has put you into the situation you are in. We must move beyond that.

Your judgment of your Arab friends also raised questions for me. Like most people, they seem to want to live their lives without being turned upside down by politics. What's wrong with what they did?

At the same time, my questions are not intended to say that your feelings are unjustified. There is good reason for the way you feel. But I wonder whether anything would change if the Israelis were tomorrow driven into the sea.

theflyingarab | July 16, 2010 12:40 PM

Hmmm. I smell an Arab Trader Argument, fresh out of the oven! Here's a novel idea: let's try to derail and de-legitimize a queer Arab's experience with racism in the violently oppressive, racist, colonialist, hegemonic, and arguably genocidal state of Israel by reminding them that Arabs are like, really bad and stuff, too, and that he won't Change Anything unless he does what you tell him to do, since obviously You Know Best. THEN we can throw in a straw man argument by implying that Bradley said that Israelis could all drown themselves in the ocean (which he did not, by the way), in order to make yourself look compassionate by comparison. And to top it off with a cherry, let's pretend that he then made some disparaging judgment about his Palestinian friends' own racism fatigue when they were celebrating at the LGBTQ event, and chastise him for that, too. But lightly! Patronization is best as a seasoning, remember.

Mmmm, yummy! Can I get the recipe?

Jillian, I think such hair-splitting puts the Talmud to shame. So the Palestinian Authority and Hamas get a pass on this issue because the brutal savagery they visit upon their GLBT population is honest and forthright rather than hypocritical? That's an astonishing point, truly requiring some major ethical and intellectual contortions.

And there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around on the Palestinian side regarding GLBT people. Following the link helpfully supplied by Ms. Nair above, I went to Jasbir Puar's article and discovered that the dominant vision among pro-Palestinian activists is for the current Israel/Palestine to be supplanted by a single, unitary "secular democratic Palestinian State. And how exactly is that supposed to happen when there isn't a single state even remotely matching that description in the entire Arab world, least of all in Palestine? That question is never dealt with in nuts-and-bolts terms by Ms. Puar and like-minded activists. It will apparently occur because they wish it to be so. No need to tackle the Palestinian Authority and Hamas regarding their intolerance and brutality toward GLBT people. It will all just magically work itself out. If that isn't hypocrisy, what is?

I would add here, Marlene, that the Palestinian side boasts plenty of jackboots and armaments, presently turned mostly against its own people. Marlene's point exemplifies for me one of the most bothersome aspects of what I read on this site on this subject. Israel is guilty of original sin. Her state is built on the land of others. In addition, she's a military occupier.
Nothing Israelis do can be good because she's tainted by this sin. Conversely, nothing the Palestinians do can be condemned because they're the occupied party. Israel has gay marriage, gay adoption, and gays serving openly in the military? Well, so what. She's still a brutal occupier. Israel extends massive relief to Haiti? She's just trying to improve her image. Palestinian governments brutalize their GLBT population? Well, at least they're honest about it. Plus, Palestinian values have been corrupted by the occupation, so it's actually Israel's fault anyway. This latter point was in fact made by Ms. Puar in one of her books.

This sort of thinking makes one despair of ever reading anything genuinely thought-provoking about this issue on this site. Every post is concocted from the same recipe. Nothing is dealt with on its own merits. What is Israel's actual crime concerning the issue dealt with here? That her "gay propaganda war", as Ms. Puar so alarmingly identifies it, is somewhat self-serving, a description that probably applies to the PR efforts of every nation on earth, not least of all the Palestinians. But Israel is guilty of original sin, so its self-serving is so much more appalling.

Conservative expression is rightfully criticized for its lockstep orthodoxies: anti-Obama, anti-choice, anti-immigration, ani-GLBT rights, etc. It's therefore disturbing that progressive thought, especially GLBT progressive thought, is often guilty of maintaining an equally rigid set of intellectual orthodoxies. If you read Bilerico every day, as I do, and you scan the headlines for the word "Israel", you can be sure that, if it appears, nothing good is about to follow. We appear to be mimicking the worst qualities of our opponents.

Eli, I did not say that Hamas gets a pass. In fact, I said they are to be criticized. My point was that the term "pinkwashing" does not apply.

Quite true, Jillian. Your point is fair. I maintain my stance concerning the core posts on Bilerico as well as on numerous other progressive GLBT and non-GLBT sites.

Andony Melathopoulos | July 10, 2010 4:38 PM

I am remiss for not adding that I do appreciate Yasmin's firm commitment to place sexuality on a political footing. She has always insisted on this point and I hold her in regard for this.

This is why I insist that politics matter and why tactics, principle and ideology should all be examined.

Jillian you responded by narrowing down to the specific particular issue in question, how Puar's criticism of 'Brand Israel' is qualitatively different from QuAIAs lack of critique of key Palestinian actors. I want to take this up.

I think you sidestep the direct issue. Does not QuAIA respond to 'Brand Isreal' by making the case that present day forces of Palestinian liberation are not so bad on LGBT? To me both positions functions to simplify and rehabilitate an increasing Rightward shift in politics on both sides of the conflict. Neither side is critical.

Why does it matter? Presumably the decision to out a closeted gay politician is made on the basis of where it would move things politically, not merely as an ethical imperative. In the same way someone ought to judge QuAIA on the basis of the efficacy of their politics or how it would aim to undermine the increasing intractability of the problems which face Palestinian-Israeli, of which LGBT are caught.

This is what is lost in Mercedes comments of making political choices based on power asymmetries; does it not essentially mean that groups like QuAIA (or Hamas) become exempt from vigorous critique? If I was a Palestinian Leftist the lack of commentary on Hamas would be dispiriting (I can not find a word or comment about Hamas anywhere on the QuAIA website) and, not only would I feel isolated, but I certainly would not be looking to solidarity from QuAIA.

A question I never hear asked is whether QuAIAs tactics are working and helping to facilitate the growth of an Israeli and Palestinian Left who could concretely improve conditions? Clearly there are some success stories with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)campaign, notably when they focus on specific aspects of the occupation (eg the company that produces sensors for the wall), but I understand that in many of the supposed major success stories the entities who supposedly divested deny it.

Returning to closeted gay politician, if all QuAIA achieves is to objectively take the focus off the Palestinian Right and fan the flames of the Israeli Right, how is this desirable? Perhaps instead of substantive victories (that lead somewhere) they can only ever offer an idealized analysis of the conflict (the simple product of Zionism), an unrealistic one-state demand (where is the political will for this going to come from, thin air?) and an inflammatory (to the Israeli Right; the auger of their actual politics) position over the right or return. This may well help them sleep well at night, but this should not take them off the hook from questions about whether their activity comes at the expense of worsening conditions for LGBT and the continued weakening of Left wing forces on both sides of the wall.