Caught between a rock and hard place, between the 1967 occupation and the movement to boycott Israel, the complex lives of ordinary LGBT Israelis are completely covered over by the so-called argument about pinkwashing. You can revisit here the famous launch by Sara Schulman that appeared in that appeared in the NYT way back in 2011. It was one of the earliest and clearly stated arguments claiming that the Israeli government and Jewish establishment promote LGBT rights in Israel as a way to pinkwash the occupation. The questions raised by the argument are these. What is an “index” and what is an “incomplete index,” namely what do LGBT rights in Israel “represent” and what do they “justify”?
For most liberal Jewish supporters of Israel, it always seemed like there was a non sequitur here. You can identify it in Schulman’s piece. Apart from the lack of human interest, there is an imprecision and logical flaw to the argument that actually papers over what is common to both liberal supporters of the LGBT community in Israel and the critics of Israel.
Schulman argues that we “mistakenly judge how advanced a country is by how it responds to homosexuality.” To this, one might counter that this deliberately makes the argument by overstating it. Without wanting to sign on to the exact language, one could just as well and better say that how LGBT people are treated might indeed be one critical index as to how “advanced” a country is. But it’s not the only one.
If they have not already made this argument themselves, my guess is that those who support in good faith the LGBT community in Israel would be the first to agree with Schulman that the rights secured there “are incomplete indicators of human rights — just as in America, the expansion of gay rights in some states does not offset human rights violations like mass incarceration. The long-sought realization of some rights for some gays should not blind us to the struggles against racism in Europe and the United States, or to the Palestinians’ insistence on a land to call home.”
The pinkwash argument trades on an easy confusion. How the government of Israel promotes LGBT rights in Israel is indeed an open question, although it just might be in large part an effective way to promote the local tourist industry. While the LGBT community has been used to contribute to Brand Israel, the argument about pinkwashing when used to justify BDS rests on an entirely separate foundation. What does the LGBT community in Israel “represent” for liberal Jews and liberal and progressive Zionists in the United States if not what they see as fundamentally good about the country, its liberal and progressive face, a commitment to human values. What the LGBT community in Israel does not “justify” is the 1967 occupation, the roots of which are complex and tangled. To insist that liberal and progressive Jews or Zionists confuse the issue would be to miss this basic nuance about the correlation and non-correlation of culture and politics.
About justification– it’s hard to see how what are effectively common sense assumptions expressed by Schulman about  what constitutes an index and what does not constitute a complete index justify  the active elimination of Israeli LGBT and their supporters in the United States from the progressive tent, the silencing of voices that occurred at the Creating Change conference in Chicago, the more general nasty innuendo and hatefulness at work in anti-Zionist circles, the guilt by association, the moral and verbal bullying, the tarring of this struggle for LGBT rights in Israel with such a broad pink brush.
The last word I’ll give to Arthur Slepian, the founder and Executive Director of A Wider Bridge, described as a “U.S. organization working across North America to build LGBTQ connections to Israel.” A Wider Bridge was the organization who hosted the reception for Jerusalem Open House. It has come in for special criticism and condemnation in anti-Zionist circles as an emblem of liberal Jewish pinkwashing. Whatever and whomever one thinks A Wider Bridge is supposed to represent, justify, or even do, Slepian wrote a powerful rebuttal to his critics at the Creating Change Conference and to the pinkwash argument. You can read it here in Haaretz. It’s worth a serious look. I’ve reorganized some of the paragraphs in what appears below
“In the days before and after the conference, the protesters have tried to justify their authoritarian behavior by spreading lies and misinformation about A Wider Bridge. We were accused of being agents of the Israeli government, partners with a host of right-wing organizations, or part of the Israeli Tourism Board. Everything was said about us except for the truth: we are an organization dedicated to building connections between the LGBTQ communities of Israel and North America in ways that strengthen both. Our recent conference provided a platform for a diverse array of LGBTQ leaders, including those from Israel’s transgender community, its Ethiopian community, and its Orthodox Jewish community.
When we describe ourselves as a pro-Israel organization, we mean that we are not indifferent to its fate, that we care deeply about all the people who inhabit it, and we believe in its right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. And our Board, Staff and the vast majority of our leadership and supporters know that for that right to be sustained into the future, there must also be an independent Palestinian state.
Our statement of principles declares: “While our work is focused on building connections with, and support for, Israel’s LGBT communities, we are acutely aware that other human rights struggles exist, both within Israel and in the Palestinian territories. Our pride and celebration of Israel’s progress in LGBT rights does not mean that we endorse all the policies of its government. We hope for a time when Palestinians will live in dignity, free from occupation, and Israelis will no longer live with the daily threat of rocket fire or terrorist attack, or the fear of nuclear war.”
We believe our guests who came that evening came with a genuine curiosity and a desire to learn about and support the struggles of Israel’s LGBT community. They are intelligent enough to grasp that a conversation about LGBT life in Israel is not some subliminal message designed to muddy people’s minds about the conflict. Smart, thoughtful LGBT leaders come to our programs and on our trips to Israel. It is not our goal to make them stupid, nor could we if we tried. No one has ever been brain-damaged by being given more information or being helped to see the nuances of a complex situation.
What the BDS movement truly fears is that people will meet Israelis that they care about, people whose struggles they identify with, and whose successes they want to celebrate. Then, in this moment of empathy, they will perhaps see how inhumane and counter-productive the calls to isolate Israel really are. But will they come to like the occupation more, to care less about Palestinians? That question is so ridiculous that it answers itself. This is not a zero-sum game.”
The argument about promoting BDS only muddies the water. At issue here has not just to do with Israel and more to do with more general questions basic to liberal rights in terms of what they accomplish and what they don’t.