In 2007 the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiated a nation-branding campaign informally known as "Beyond the Conflict." The goal was to change people's perception of Israel from a war zone populated by the ultrareligious to a more normal place -- rich with culture, dominated by high-tech and scientific achievement, and grounded in identifiable, Western values.
American nonprofit organizations joined the effort by making sure non-conflict stories saw the light of day -- everything from Israeli companies being listed on the NASDAQ and Israeli-made computer chips powering everyday products to stories about Tel Aviv's nightlife and Israeli model Bar Rafaeli gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit Issue.
Nation-branding is practiced by many states, from established democracies like the U.S., Canada, France, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, and New Zealand to developing countries like Tanzania, Colombia, and Guatemala. It's not unique to Israel. In fact, earlier this year the Palestinians hired a number of PR firms in the U.S. for this same purpose.
In addition to the cultural and technology stories, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs sought ways to emphasize Israeli values. Israel's record on LGBT rights was smartly identified as a way to highlight its societal tolerance and diversity and draw contrast with more repressive regimes in the region and around the world. In reality, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where people are not persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Here are the facts for LGBTs in Israel:
LGBTs enjoy these rights nowhere else in the Middle East. In fact, in every other Middle Eastern country, either homosexuality is a crime punishable by death (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen) or jail time (Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Algeria), or LGBTs face risks of violence, torture, and "honor killings" by militias or their own families (the West Bank, Iraq, Turkey) or harassment and crackdowns from the government and non-state actors (Bahrain, Jordan). In fact, when compared to states outside the region -- including most Western democracies -- Israel has one of the strongest records for LGBT rights in the world.
Israel's enemies recognized how favorable this record was for Israel, and that it threatened their efforts to demonize the Jewish state, so they shrewdly maneuvered to use it against her, linking promotion of Israel's LGBT record to the conflict in the West Bank and Gaza -- even though there is no connection. The idea that the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs' campaign is part of a diabolical scheme to cover up abuses of the "occupation" is completely the invention of anti-Israel queer activists; it is their great lie.
Beginning in Toronto in 2008, and later in San Francisco and New York, LGBT anti-Israel groups formed and sought to make being anti-Israel a queer value. Some of these activists are anti-Semitic -- whether or not they admit it, even to themselves. The frustrating thing is that many more of them work to brand Israel an "apartheid state" for all the right reasons. They are being manipulated by the combination of deceptive Palestinian leadership, biased Western media, and anti-Semites into believing a counterfeit narrative where Israelis are the aggressors and Palestinians are her ultimate victims. It exploits LGBTs' natural empathy for the oppressed.
Activists who claim not to hate Israel and say they support her right to exist yet still accuse her of brutal oppression and apartheid are complicit in preventing a peace deal, propagating terror, and endangering Jews and the state of Israel.
The sad reality is that LGBT anti-Israel groups are throwing our queer Palestinian brothers and sisters under the bus. LGBT persecution in the disputed territories is horrendous -- it comes from Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, militias, and even the victims' own families. In the academic report "Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum Seekers in Israel," there is testimony from Palestinian LGBTs who escaped to Israel to seek asylum status. The torture they received in the West Bank is shocking (pp. 13-17). For example, one man recounts a horror story of being dragged from his home by Palestinian Authority officers because he was gay, then submerged in sewage water up to his neck for five hours at a time, every day for three weeks (p. 15). The report comes from Tel Aviv University's Public Interest Law Program, but it shouldn't be dismissed for that reason; it's critical of Israel for not accepting more LGBT Palestinian refugees.
Once peace comes and the IDF pulls out of the West Bank, queer Palestinians will be much worse off. Palestinian LGBT testimony confirms that this is what happened when the Palestinian Authority took over Gaza in 2005 (p. 10). Eighty-two percent of Palestinians support making homosexuality illegal. Many more queer people will die in Palestine once a state is achieved. I am not advocating for the status quo, but I do believe energy from queer anti-Israel activists would be better spent educating straight Palestinians not to kill their LGBT brothers and sisters once Israelis leave, instead of vilifying Israel.
Elsewhere in the region, Iran executed three men in September 2011 for being gay (and two in 2005). The Assad regime in Syria has now murdered over 5,000 of its own people. And Palestinians in Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian refugee camps face conditions much more akin to apartheid than anything experienced within Israel (where they are citizens with the same rights as Jewish Israelis) or the disputed territories (where they are governed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas). Yet where are the Queers Against Iranian Persecution, Queers Against Syrian Torture, and Queers Against Lebanese Apartheid groups?
"Palestine is a queer issue," Israel's LGBT critics insist. But Iranian torture and execution of LGBT people is not a queer issue? Syrian brutality against its own people is not a queer issue? Lebanese apartheid against Palestinians is not also a queer issue? Why not?
The fact that no LGBT groups protest any of these human rights abuses but we see a proliferation of queer groups against Israel meets one of the key criteria in Alan Dershowitz's list of "factors that tend to indicate anti-Semitism": "Singling out only Israel for sanctions for policies that are widespread among other nations, or demanding that Jews be better or more moral than others because of their history as victims." The rest of Dershowitz's list is worth reading, and he contrasts it to "factors that tend to indicate legitimate criticism of Israel."
Also worth reading is this letter from Dr. Denis MacEoin, senior editor of Middle East Quarterly, former professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Edinburgh University, and a non-Jew:
It seems bizarre to me that LGBT groups call for a boycott of Israel and say nothing about countries like Iran, where gay men are hanged or stoned to death... [t]hinking it's better to be silent about regimes that kill gay people, but good to condemn the only country in the Middle East that rescues and protects gay people. Is that supposed to be a sick joke?
Ironically, some of Israel's loudest queer critics are Palestinian LGBT organizations. How can this be true, given the documented atrocities LGBT people face from their own government and families inside the Palestinian territories? Perhaps they are looking to gain respect from homophobic, straight Palestinian organizations by bashing Israel, so that conditions for LGBT people inside the future Palestinian state will not meet the worst-case scenario. How's this for hypocrisy: do you know where the Palestinian queer group al-Qaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society has held their bimonthly "Palestinian Queer Party" for the past year? At a Tel Aviv club! Is the reason because it's not safe for LGBT people to congregate inside a public place in the West Bank at a pre-announced time and place? (That was rhetorical.) In fact, two of the three main Palestinian queer organizations, al-Qaws and ASWAT Palestinian Gay Women, are based in Israel. Al-Qaws has its headquarters in Jewish West Jerusalem, and ASWAT operates from the Israeli city of Haifa. A third organization, Palestinian Queers for BDS, conspicuously avoids stating its location.
Israel's queer enemies can hurl "pinkwashing" claims at her all they want. I, for one, celebrate the fact that Israel's government is proud enough of its LGBT rights record to use it for nation-banding. What would happen if the governments of Palestine, Iran, Uganda, and Russia bragged about their LGBT rights records, too? It would mean more LGBT people around the world would be protected and safe.
Israel's queer foes are the real "pinkwashers," because they conveniently ignore the horrors committed against LGBT people throughout the Middle East in order to focus only on the Jewish state. If the term "pinkwashing" is about covering up facts to push one's agenda, then anti-Israel queer activists are choking on their own hypocrisy and self-righteousness.