Tag Archives: Israel

Queer liberation vs Pinkwashing

A couple of weeks ago I talked at Beyond as part of a panel titled Nationalism, Imperialism and Queer Liberation. This is adapted from that talk.

Note: for the purpose of this article I’m using ‘queer’ as a broad term to describe all of us who are marginalised because our gender or sexual identity isn’t normative. That includes trans, intersex, pansexual, lesbian and gay folks, among others. I know that ‘queer’ is a culturally specific label and that not all gender/sexually diverse people identify as such.

Let me start by explaining a few concepts that are useful for understanding the relationship between struggles for queer liberation and nationalism.

Homonormative: a normative way of being gay. The ‘proper’ gay person is someone who’s cisgendered, monogamous, White, middle-class, and definitely not disabled—because disabled people aren’t supposed to have a sexuality. The normative gay just wants to be allowed to serve in the military, to get a job, get married, have babies, and fit in to heteronormative society.

Homonationalism: means homonormative nationalism. This is about the way that the cause of GLBT rights—but more often than not just G and L rights—gets used to prop up nationalism and justify imperialism and militarism. One example is when people justify military attacks on Iran by arguing that it is a homophobic country. Another example is when people blame homophobia in New Zealand on Māori and Pacific Islander communities, who are portrayed as conservative and homophobic.

It’s worth thinking about the correlation between the social acceptance of some queers (normative ones) and racism, especially anti-Arab and Muslim racism. Identity is always formed in opposition to someone else, it’s ‘us’ and ‘them’. Normative gays are allowed entry into ‘proper society’ in order to emphasise the dichotomy between the White West (modern, progressive, liberal) and the Brown East: Arabs, Muslims, Southeast Asians and other populations who are constructed as conservative, patriarchal, homophobic, violent, backwards and terrorists.

Pinkwashing: a term used to describe the way that GLBT rights are used to whitewash over unethical behavior. We see this when corporations use gay-friendly marketing to distract from the terrible way they treat their workers. We see it when NZ Defence wins an award for being an equal opportunity employer, which is another way of saying that anyone, regardless of sexual or gender identity, can join in the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan.

For the purpose of this talk I’m going to focus on the state of Israel as an example of pinkwashing—partly because I’m an Israeli, or to put it more accurately, I’m a settler-colonist on Palestinian land. Israel is a state that consistently oppresses its Indigenous Palestinian population in order to maintain an ethnically-exclusive state. In other words, it’s an apartheid state. Maintaining an apartheid state requires a huge amount of PR work to convince the rest of the world that they should allow you to continue oppressing people. So the state of Israel has come up with a marketing campaign called ‘Brand Israel’.

Part of ‘Brand Israel’ is to promote Israel as a queer-friendly country. This is really a two-pronged approach: (1) situate Israel as a progressive, modern, pro-LGBT country and (2) construct Arabs and Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular as conservative, patriarchal, and violently homophobic.

Image shows two men being hanged on the left with the caption 'Palestine: when they find out you are gay they hang you'. On the right image shows two soldiers holding hands with the caption 'Israel: we love and admire gay men and women'.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First of all the image on the right is a bit misleading. The two soldiers in this photo aren’t lovers, and actually one of them is heterosexual. The photo was staged by the Israeli Defence Force Spokesperson’s Office and posted on its facebook page with the caption ‘It’s Pride Month. Did you know that the IDF treats all of its soldiers equally? Let’s see how many shares you can get for this photo.’

The image on the left is just plain incorrect. This photo isn’t from Palestine, it’s from Iran. The two boys in this photo were hanged—though their supposed crime is unclear. Originally Western media outlets were reporting they were hanged for having consensual sex with each other, but human rights NGOs haven’t found any evidence that corroborates this claim, it’s more likely that they had raped a younger boy. Either way, what happened to them is horrific and inexcusable—the death penalty is never ok, especially against children. But this is an example of how information about human rights abuses is manipulated to justify imperialist intentions, whether against Palestinians or against Iran.

Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau in Tel Aviv for their honeymoon.

Part of this ‘Brand Israel’ campaign has been to promote Israel as a gay tourism destination. These are Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau, the first gay French couple to get married after France legalised same-sex marriage. Hila Oren, the CEO of Tel Aviv Global & Tourism, came up with a great marketing idea. She invited this couple to come honeymoon in Tel Aviv during Tel Aviv pride week. According to Oren, ‘the meaning beneath is our mission, to broaden the conversation about Tel Aviv, for people to know that Tel Aviv is a place of tolerance, of business and tourism, a place beyond the conflict’. Vincent Autin told Israeli media that ‘for us it’s very important to be a bridge, especially here in the Middle East, so that what’s happened in France, and the way we are received and embraced here, can become an example for the rest of the Middle East.’ This is homonationalism—the idea that Westerners constitute ‘an example’ that the Middle East should follow.

This kind of pinkwashing has found its way into the queer community in New Zealand too. At Queer the Night 2011 someone showed up with a pro-Israel placard. Queer the Night was supposed to be about standing up against transphobia, homophobia and oppression. But somebody managed to derail it and use it as an opportunity to incite prejudice against Arab and Muslim people.

Pro-Israel placard at Queer the Night 2011 reads: 'Long live Israel, the only gay-friendly mid-east state'.

Sometimes pinkwashing is a lot subtler than that. I was pretty shocked when I read this article in the June issue of Express. The author was clearly impressed with the Gay Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv, and on the surface this seems pretty innocuous. But celebrating Tel Aviv as a queer-friendly city without acknowledging that it is a city built on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is pinkwashing racism—as the Jewish American lesbian writer Sarah Schulman puts it ‘Tel Aviv is a theater set, behind it is the reality of profound oppression and violation of human rights.’

Pinkwashing arguments are built on a false logic. Transphobia and homophobia aren’t limited to Arab and Muslim societies. Israel is also a homophobic and transphobic society. New Zealand has its own problems with anti-queer oppression. More than that, struggles against racism and colonisation and struggles against transphobia and homophobia can’t be fought separately. Homophobia, transphobia, racism and occupation are all intertwined; they are part of the matrix of violence and oppression in Palestine. This isn’t just an abstract idea, it has real consequences for people’s safety. For example, there’s a history of the Shabak, Israel’s General Security Services, blackmailing Palestinian queers into becoming informants—because they know that outing them could endanger their lives. The lack of freedom of movement for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank means that queers living in transphobic or homophobic communities cannot easily leave.

This is why Palestinian queer groups like al-Qaws, Aswat and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions all work to fight both anti-queer oppression, and the racism and colonialism of the Israeli state.

Palestinian queer groups endorse the Palestinian call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel. Palestinian civil society groups launched the BDS campaign in 2005, and part of the campaign is ‘queer BDS’ which is specifically about challenging Israel’s pinkwashing. Joining the BDS campaign is one way that we can be solid with all Palestinians—queer and straight.

Here in Aotearoa we’ve recently established the Aotearoa BDS Network, and our first campaign is focusing on G4S, a private security company that provides prisons and checkpoints for Israel. We’re inviting queer organisations to endorse the campaign by signing the letter we’re writing to Super Fund asking them to divest their shares in G4S. If you want to learn more, you should come along to our campaign launch on November 2 at Thistle Hall.

Further reading

al-Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society

Aswat (lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning & queer Palestinian women)

Palestinian Queers for Boycott Divestment & Sanctions

Queers Against Israeli Apartheid

Israeli Laundry

Palestinian BDS National Committee

Palestinian Campaign for Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel

Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke University Press: 2007)

Sarah Schulman, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke University Press: 2012)

Ali Abunimah, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli–Palestinian Impasse (Picador: 2007)

Ben White, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press: 2009)

Omar Barghouti, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket Books: 2011)

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Remembering Sabra and Shatila on Erev Rosh Hashana

Today is Erev Rosh Hashanah—Jewish New Year’s Eve. Traditionally it’s a time to atone for the sins of the previous year. In a secular sense, it’s a time to think about things you’ve done wrong, people you’ve hurt, and to try to fix those wrongs.

Today is also the 30th anniversary of the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. At the time Israelis were shocked by the bloodbath. 300,000 people protested against it in Tel Aviv. I’m not old enough to remember it, but when my mother talks about it I can see the impact it had on her. I’m sure the massacre was a wake up call for so many Israeli Jews about the brutal nature of the Israeli military.

The thing about being in a position of privilege is: even after you receive a wake up call, it’s still pretty easy to get back to sleep. Thirty years later, it doesn’t seem like the majority of Israeli Jews have taken on the lessons of Sabra and Shatila. Every day I read another story of horrific violence committed by the IDF. I wonder how much worse things have to get before Israeli-Jews wake up and stay awake.

I don’t have anything else to say about it. There’s not a lot to be said about a massacre of several thousand people. But I wanted to share this poem by Israeli poet Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana and Ariel Bloch.

You Can’t Kill a Baby Twice

By the sewage puddles of Sabra and Shatila,
there you transported human beings
in impressive quantities
From the world of the living to the world
of eternal light.

Night after night.
First they shot,
they hanged,
then they slaughtered with their knives.
Terrified women climbed up
on a ramp of earth, frantic:
‘They’re slaughtering us there,
in Shatila.’

A thin crust of moon
over the camps.
Our soldiers lit up the place with searchlights
till it was bright as day.
‘Back to the camp,
beat it!’ a soldier yelled at
the screaming women from Sabra and Shatila.
He was following orders.
And the children already lying in puddles of filth,
their mouths gaping,
at peace.
No one will harm them.
You can’t kill a baby twice.

And the moon grew fuller and fuller
till it became a round loaf of gold.

Our sweet soldiers
wanted nothing for themselves.
All they ever asked
was to come home
safe.

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In any war between the coloniser and the colonised, support the oppressed

San Francisco buses have recently started displaying these ads:

Ad on bus reads 'In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad'.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At first I thought this was (brilliant) satire. I mean, American Freedom Defense Initiative sounds like something George Orwell would make up. Alas, it is a real thing.

I can’t help thinking these ads have a lot to teach us about Western White people’s support for Israel. The alternate text for them could have been ‘Indigenous sovereignty anywhere is a threat to colonisers everywhere’.

It seems that the aim of these ads is to get White American people to identify with Jewish-Israelis by equating Palestinians with Indigenous American people. Inadvertently these ads illustrate the connection between Western settler-colonialism (for instance in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), and Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine. In all these countries, Indigenous struggles for sovereignty threaten existing power structures. In all these countries there’s an ethnically privileged group who are terrified of having to stop their exploitation of Indigenous resources, and having to give back what was stolen.

One of the most frustrating ideas I’ve encountered while working with Western pro-Palestine activists is that Israel is somehow an exceptional state, that it is different from other colonial states. Once, at a Palestine teach-in, a Pākehā man spent half an hour explaining to me why I shouldn’t compare New Zealand colonialism to Israeli colonialism. (According to him, Māori were lucky that Europeans introduced them to universal human rights values.)

The idea that Israel is somehow special is a Zionist idea. Zionists argue that the Israeli state doesn’t have to meet basic minimum human rights standards, like legal equality for all its citizens, because it is special. That’s not an idea Palestine solidarity activists should be reinforcing.

I realise I’m not making any profound statement by pointing out that Israel is a colonial state. Many people have pointed this out in the past. For many Palestine solidarity activists in Western countries (both Indigenous people and those who are part of colonising groups), this activism is part of a wider struggle against colonialism and imperialism.

But I’ve also encountered people who use an inverted form of the rhetoric employed by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (I still can’t type that with a straight face). Where Zionists initiatives try to get White Western people to identify with Jewish-Israelis, pro-Palestine activists try to get White Western people to dis-identify with Jewish-Israelis by situating Israel as inherently incompatible with the principles for which the West stands—democracy, equality and freedom. I agree that Israel is not compatible with these principles. But I don’t think Western governments are either.

I’ve often heard Americans complain that support for Israel is inconsistent with the ethics on which the USA was founded. The USA was founded on the genocide of its Indigenous people and the slavery of African people. Those aren’t just historical atrocities that are disconnected from today’s American society—the USA continues to be a racist and colonial country. Support for Israel is utterly consistent with that.

Denying the colonial nature of Western states does real harm to Indigenous people who are suffering under colonisation. It also does harm to the struggle for Palestinian liberation. This is something that Mike Krebs articulates really well in this article:

If Israel is held accountable for its crimes against Indigenous people on the world stage, Canada has a greater risk of meeting the same fate. It can’t allow these precedents to be set, and thus it benefits from ensuring that the UN and its various bodies are kept weak and unable to uphold international law.

He’s talking specifically about Canada, the country that colonised his people’s lands, but what he says is equally relevant to other settler-colonial states. I recommend reading the entire article.

The San Francisco bus ads were quickly corrected:

Modified bus ad reads 'In any war between the colonizer and the colonized, support the oppressed. Support the Palestinian right of return. Defeat racism.'

 

 

 

 

This picture sums it up pretty succinctly.

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Is art a universal language?

The first time I saw the Roundabout exhibition was at the City Gallery in Wellington last year. I had mixed feelings about it then. The exhibition brings together work by a range of artists from different nationalities, ethnicities and religious, ideological and political stances, with an emphasis on artists from New Zealand, Australia and Asia. The premise is to create some kind of cross-cultural dialogue:

This exhibition celebrates common threads of human experience – belief, faith, challenge and hope. City Gallery Director Paula Savage says, “This exhibition provides rich and timely considerations of the current state of our world. roundabout acknowledges that the world rotates on a common axis, and many experiences are shared irrespective of geographical separation or differing traditions and languages. The exhibition provides an important platform for conversations to arise between Western and non-Western visual cultures, contemporary and customary practices.”

Promoting tolerance and understanding through the universal language of art?
I think it’s a really appealing concept on one level, but also contains all the usual problems of liberal discourse on multiculturalism and coexistence. It’s based on an assumption that the only difference between conflicting groups (the Western and the non-Western) is, well, difference. That they are two equal groups who just need to learn how to understand each other better.

But the kind of cross-cultural dialogue that is presented here, Western vs Eastern and Indigenous dialogue, isn’t just about separate groups that need to understand each others’ culture better. It’s a cultural confict that is a result of inequality, of Western colonisation and imperialism. One group holds power over the others and controls resources the others can’t access. Fluffy rhetoric about dialogue and understanding, if it doesn’t acknowlege inequality of power, is counter productive. It renders invisible that power inequality and therefore allows it to continue.

So even though I loved many of the individual pieces in Roundabout, I found the premise behind the exhibition frustrating.

Yesterday I went to see Roundabout again, this time at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

I think the piece that moved me the most was this installation by Tony Albert: a wall covered in kitchy Australian memorabilia items featuring stereotypical colonial representations of Aboriginal people. It’s a horrific display.

There were s a lot of artworks by other New Zealand and Australian artists too, like Vernon Ah Kee, Shane Cotton, Lyonel Grant, Rangi Kipa, Kelcy Taratoa and Roi Toia. Artworks which deal with issues of colonisation, racism and cultural appropriation. Neither Albert’s installation or any of the other artworks were given any context aside from the artist’s name and nationality. The audience wasn’t even told whether the artist is indigenous or not.

It made me wonder how these artworks are interpreted by an Israeli audience that isn’t familiar with New Zealand and Australian history, culture and politics.

My cousin Phoebe said that Lyonel Grant’s carving reminded her of the wooden masks my uncle has in his house. I don’t know where those masks are from — at a guess I’d say Africa or the Pacific Islands. But I don’t know enough about traditional artworks from either of those very general areas to be able to say. I don’t know anything about the people who created those masks, or why they made them, or what kind of meaning or purpose the masks have in their culture.

Probably my uncle doesn’t know either. I think he hung those masks on the wall in the way that Western people often hang objects from non-Western cultures on the wall — because they are exotic and interesting and pretty to look at and in a way they symbolise Western domination over the rest of the world, because we can take their stuff and look at it and not have to understand it or the culture that created it. Whereas people from colonised and marginalised cultures are forced to understand the dominant culture in order to survive.

Of course, the Tel Aviv museum isn’t displaying ‘traditional artefacts’ from non-Western cultures. It’s displaying contemporary art by contemporary non-Western artists who address these questions of colonisation and the Western gaze. At least, i think that’s what they’re trying to address. I can’t know for sure what each of the artists was thinking when they created each specific artwork.

But I do wonder — when these pieces are presented divorced of context – other than the ‘inter-cultural dialogue’ message of the exhibition – does the audience understand them as a political commentary on the impact of colonisation? I feel like there’s a good chance that the art ends up being interpreted the same way as my uncle’s mask collection. That it becomes an exotic artefact from an exotic far away people, Indigenous art to be collected and consumed by Western people. So that instead of challenging the colonial gaze it becomes its object.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not convinced that art is a universal language. I think sometimes it needs translating. Otherwise people will view it through the lense of their existing prejudices.

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Of course there’s also the question of whether international artists should be working with Israeli institutions, when Palestinian organisations have called for a cultural boycott of Israel. I imagine the folks behind Roundabout would argue that boycotting art institutions means missing a chance to create dialogue.

Supporters of the boycott would probably respond that engaging with Israeli cultural institutions helps maintain Israel’s image as a tolerant, open minded cultured society, and whitewashes over the occupation.

I’m not sure where I sit on this question, but I do think it’s an important question that should be acknowleged and engaged with.

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