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Apartheid Week event targets Israel’s gay-friendly branding

Campaign 'ignores the rampant homophobia,' says activist

Israel's gay-friendly marketing "ignores the rampant homophobia that goes on within the Israeli state," says activist Natalie Kouri-Towe. Credit: gayisrael.org.il

Ever thought of vacationing in sunny Israel? Well, the back-story on the state repression and human rights abuses happening there might change your mind, says a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).

As part of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) events at Carleton University, three students hosted a panel discussion called “Queer-friendly, Multicultural, Green: Debunking Israel’s Myths,” looking at the contradictions behind an international campaign launched by the state of Israel to appeal to the world’s progressively minded tourists.

“The rebranding campaign has been going on for a few years now. There have been considerable efforts by the Israeli state to, on the outside, give an impression of tolerance and [it being] a safe place for gay people, but internally there’s a much different story going on,” says Natalie Kouri-Towe, a PhD student in sociology and equity studies in education at the University of Toronto and a member of QuAIA.

“The execution of people in a gay and lesbian centre last fall was a huge shock internationally because people had imagined Israel as a haven of tolerance. [The rebranding campaign] ignores the rampant homophobia that goes on within the Israeli state… the kind of rampant homophobia that goes on in any kind of state where there’s lots of conservatism. There are contradictions around this.”

Take a tourism website like gayisrael.org.il for example. The site’s home page shows a couple of happy, shirtless gay guys on a beach, embracing each other and laughing. Everything is *ahem* hunky dory here, right?

Don’t be so sure, says Kouri-Towe.

“What’s erased from these images is the massive amount of militarization in the state. But coming into Israel to be free to be gay is a seductive narrative to tell the public. The World Pride events of 2006, which were held in Jerusalem, had the theme ‘Love Without Borders.’ This marks a significant moment in Israel’s campaign to reimagine itself through the lens of gay consumer culture,” says Kouri-Towe.

EXPLORING ISRAEL

For all its conflict, contradiction and bloodshed, the country remains a bastion of gay liberation in Asia. It has also raised the ire of human rights activists around the world.

Sa’ar Nathaniel is a Jerusalem gay activist, entrepreneur and politician. He sat on Jerusalem city council in 2006 and was instrumental in the fight for annual gay pride marches in Jerusalem, previously forbidden by ultra-Orthodox elements in the city’s government. He was simultaneously the proprietor of Sushan, a now-closed Jerusalem gay bar that hosted a tight community of gay Israelis and Palestinians.

“I am also a left-wing Israeli,” says Nathaniel. “I really think we need to compromise about a Palestinian state next to Israel, and I’m ready to negotiate that East Jerusalem will be the capital. But I think a lot of people in Europe and North America don’t see the conflict clearly. What happened in Gaza is terrible. But if Israel was simply open to all Palestinians the courts would not be able to defend me. Ask yourself about Hamas and its ideology about women, about gays and about Israel. For me Hamas and the ultra-Orthodox are more or less the same.”

“The reality is that… Israel is one of the most bordered states in the world, where crossing in is heavily regulated. Palestinian people in particular — but also people who are considered to be from enemy countries — don’t have access to flow in and out. ‘Love Without Borders’ for this pride event had this kind of ironic relationship to the fact that a lot of people were incapable of attending because the state won’t allow it.”

Shedding light on those contradictions is one of the main goals of annual IAW activities, which are happening in more than 40 cities around the world — including 16 cities in Canada. Ottawa’s fourth annual IAW takes place March 1–5, and events are planned in larger centres, including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

“Israeli Apartheid Week is meant to educate, inspire and grow the boycott, divestments and sanctions movement in Canada,” says Dax D’Orazio, an organizer of Ottawa’s IAW events and a member of Students Against Israeli Apartheid Carleton. “We had a tremendous turnout last year, and we’re hoping to snowball that.”

Last year’s Ottawa IAW events were given widespread media attention after the administration at both Carleton University and Ottawa U banned the IAW 2009 poster, which depicted a missile being dropped on a child in a keffiyeh, who is holding a teddy bear. The military helicopter is marked “Israel” and the land under the child’s feet is marked “Gaza Strip.”

This year, the Ontario legislature has unanimously denounced IAW events after a motion to that effect was put forward by Thornhill Progressive Conservative MP Peter Shurman, who added that he sees IAW as a “thinly veiled campaign by those whose real agenda is to eradicate Israel entirely.”

On Feb 24, an op-ed piece by Leonard Stern in the Ottawa Citizen stated that this annual event puts Israel in “the role of Jew among nations — singled-out, cursed and harassed.”

“A criticism that does come up is ‘Why are we singling out this state when there are atrocities happening all over the world?” says D’Orazio. “‘One of the cornerstones of what we’re doing is that we’re answering a call that Palestinian civil society has echoed throughout the world. When you actually do something, that’s when people get hostile.”

If that’s true, it’s interesting that IAW started at the international level in 2005, and the rebranding of Israel as the newest, hottest gay tourist destination started gathering steam the next year.

“Sexuality is being used by the Israeli state more and more in its attempt to rebrand itself and [move away from] its image as a violent state. Maxim has run pinup photos of women of the Israeli army… These are young people who are… being fetishized in the context of their role as soldiers to try to make it more palatable and appealing to the general public.”

Israeli Apartheid Week.
Apartheidweek.org.

In Toronto, a queer IAW event is planned for Thu, Mar 4, 7pm. “Coming Out Against Apartheid: Queer Solidarity Activism.” OISE Auditorium, 252 Bloor St West. Hosted by Students Against Israeli Apartheid, a working group of OPIRG-Toronto.