Men walk down the street hand in hand. Two women share a tender moment, kissing and caressing each other’s faces. Pride flags fill the air. Some include the Star of David, blending the symbols of the LGBT community and Israel into one.
It’s the annual gay pride parade and it’s the face of Tel Aviv that both the municipality and the state are actively marketing. The campaign aims to brand Israel as a gay-friendly destination, depicting the country as a liberal, open, democratic place where members of the LGBT community have freedoms that they don’t have in the broader Middle East.
Amnon Liberman, media advisor to the minister of tourism, adds that Tel Aviv is fast becoming a “gay hotspot” because it’s got “the great vibe of a modern city, a lovely beach and friendly locals.”
Critics call this “pinkwashing.” They say that Israel cynically exploits its relatively decent record of gay rights to divert attention from its military occupation and settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, its blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the widespread discrimination Palestinian citizens of the state face on a daily basis.
“It’s built on a very colonial logic in a sense that pinkwashing is not only saying that Israel is a progressive country, it’s saying, by definition, that Palestinian society is a barbaric, homophobic society,” says Haneen Maikey, the director and a co-founder of the non-governmental organization Al-Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. Al-Qaws does not participate in the annual Pride parade in Tel Aviv.
While Al Qaws stays away because it does not want to contribute to pinkwashing, elsewhere other gay groups have been pushed out of Pride events because they object to Israeli policies. In 2011, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) withdrew from the Toronto Pride parade after some city councillors threatened to withhold funds because they believe the words “Israeli apartheid” are hate speech.
This year, Toronto city councillors voted to continue funding Pride but decided to condemn the term “Israeli apartheid.”
But, internationally and within Israel, the use of the word apartheid to describe Israel’s policies toward Palestinians is gaining currency. And, as the debate in Toronto shows, it is becoming increasingly contentious.
Jeff Halper is the founder and director of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, an organization that fights Israel’s destruction of Palestinian houses in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. In East Jerusalem, Israel rejects a tremendous majority of Palestinian requests to build or expand, effectively forcing Palestinians to build “illegally.” The municipality then slaps the owners with steep fines and, if the owners cannot pay, demolishes the home or the addition.
In Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank, Israeli forces sometimes destroy structures that predate the occupation itself, claiming the owners built them without Israeli permits. Jewish settlements in the same areas, however, continue to grow.
Speaking to Xtra, Halper says, “Apartheid basically means two things: separation and domination.”
In Halper’s opinion, apartheid is taking place in both the Occupied Territories and inside Israel. “[It] is a system that influences the entire country,” he says.
But his criticism isn’t limited to the Israeli government. He points out that the Israeli LGBT community is complicit in the state’s use of gay rights to deflect attention from the occupation.
“[One] of the problems with the gay and lesbian movement here [in Israel] is that they don’t use the ‘a word.’ They contribute, themselves, to pinkwashing because they are very apolitical. They stay away from anything controversial . . . They’re not our allies in working against the occupation.”
“[Pinkwashing] is built on a logic of dualities,” Maikey says, adding that Israeli assertions that it is the “only democracy in the Middle East” work on the “same rhythm.”
Israel’s status as a democracy has come under debate in recent years. In the summer of 2011, for example, the Israeli Knesset passed a law prohibiting citizens from openly supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. And, under the Prawer Plan, Bedouin citizens of the state will be forcibly relocated from their homes and villages in the Negev desert to make way for 10 new Jewish towns.
“[Israel is] a Jewish state giving some privileges to some people,” Maikey says.
Similarly, while the LGBT community does enjoy relative freedom in Israel, those freedoms are extended to certain groups within the community and on certain terms.
Israel will recognize same-sex marriages performed overseas, and the state extends some benefits to same-sex partners. But there’s a limit to those rights — gay and lesbian couples cannot marry in Israel, even if both partners are Jewish.
Those who defend Israel’s policies regarding the LGBT community are quick to answer that heterosexual couples with one non-Jewish partner can’t marry in Israel either, pointing, unintentionally perhaps, to the fact that non-Jews face institutionalized discrimination in Israel.
Israelis call Tel Aviv habuah, the bubble. The nickname reflects a deep disconnect between the Mediterranean metropolis, where approximately 400,000 of the country’s eight million residents live, versus the rest of the state. Some liberals say that Israel is made up of two states — the state of Tel Aviv and the state of Israel.
This is where the state’s logic in promoting Tel Aviv and, thus, Israel as an open, liberal society falls apart. Let’s say Tel Aviv is a haven for homosexuals. That doesn’t say much about the rest of the country.
Israel’s largest city, Jerusalem, might be more indicative of the country’s attitudes. Israel considers Jerusalem its capital even though the international community doesn’t recognize it as such because Palestinian East Jerusalem is under Israeli occupation. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem pay taxes to the Israeli authorities, but their neighbourhoods suffer from neglect, with the municipality forgoing basic services, such as garbage collection. Jewish majority West Jerusalem, on the other hand, gets a disproportionate amount of services and funds.
Some Palestinian neighbourhoods that are within Jerusalem municipal boundaries are separated from the rest of the city by a massive concrete wall. Residents, including children, are forced to go through checkpoints every day to reach their schools, jobs and lives on the other side.
And while the state heavily promotes Tel Aviv’s Pride parade, Jerusalem’s LGBT community finds itself struggling in what Elinor Sidi, the executive director of the grassroots organization Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH), calls “a hostile environment.”
Writing in +972 magazine, Sidi explains that Knesset members and government ministers have articulated “horrible homophobia.” She points to the 2008 remarks of MK Nissim Ze’ev as a particularly dramatic example.
During a Knesset discussion about putting a blanket ban on gay pride parades in Jerusalem, Ze’ev blamed homosexuals for the “self-destruction of Israeli society and the Jewish people.” He also likened homosexuality to a disease as “toxic as bird flu.”
Sidi points out that JOH provides much of its own security for Jerusalem’s Pride parade. The police officers who protected the parade did so only after JOH submitted a number of petitions to the Supreme Court.
“No less than 10 petitions were submitted in the last decade,” Sidi writes. “Petitions were not only submitted against the unwilling Jerusalem municipality, but also against the Israeli police and Minister of Interior. It was neither the Israeli government nor the Knesset who stood to our protection, but our determination and successful work in the Supreme Court. To this very day JOH is forced to provide ushers for Pride . . . in order to prevent Pride from being canceled.”
Homophobia is not confined to Jerusalem. Scratch the surface and you’ll find discrimination in Tel Aviv, as well. Renen Raz, a 23-year-old Jewish Israeli who defines himself as neither gay nor straight but queer — explaining that he strongly prefers men but is attracted, every once in a while, to women — tells Xtra that he has had difficulties finding an apartment in Tel Aviv because of his sexual orientation.
One landlord asked Raz outright if he had a girlfriend. When Raz asked the man why he wanted to know, the landlord admitted that he was only willing to rent the place out to Jewish heterosexuals who had done their mandatory army duty.
In recent months, the Hebrew media has reported on a number of landlords who refuse to rent or sell properties to homosexuals. While it is unclear just how widespread the phenomenon is, these incidents call into question the open, liberal image the Israeli government is attempting to project to the world.
Ahmed, a 29-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel who spoke with Xtra on the condition of anonymity, as his family does not know about his sexual orientation, says, “There are ways that I feel free [in Tel Aviv], and there are ways that I don’t feel free.
“[In Tel Aviv], it’s no problem to say I’m gay. On the other hand, I’m an Arab who lives in Israel,” he says.
Palestinian citizens of the state face a wide variety of discrimination. Their schools get far less funding than those of their Jewish counterparts. Certain state benefits are extended only to those who serve in the army, and most Arabs do not serve. Some university programs require applicants to be in their early 20s. And, as Jewish Israelis go to the military after high school, human rights organizations say that these age requirements are intended to give preference to Jews and to push Arabs to study elsewhere.
Ahmed has faced humiliating interrogations at the airport, despite the fact that he holds an Israeli passport. He also says that it was “very hard” to find an apartment in Tel Aviv.
“There are people who won’t rent to Arabs,” he says, adding that because the city has a reputation for being open and liberal, the racism he has experienced here has hit him that much harder.
Pinkwashing is just one strategy in a broader marketing campaign intended to influence public opinion about Israel.
In 2005, The Jewish Daily Forward reported that officials from a number of ministries, including the prime minister’s office, were working on “a new plan to improve the country’s image abroad — by downplaying religion and avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians.”
Brand Israel, which emphasizes trade and tourism, was launched in 2006. And tourism is big business here. In 2011, approximately 3.4 million foreigners visited Israel, bringing $7 billion (US) to the country. While tourism comprises just four percent of the Israeli gross domestic product, the industry grew seven percent from 2010 to 2011. So it’s an important sector that, through the ripple effect, makes a strong impact on the economy.
Although gay tourists are a relatively small group, they are known to spend more money than their heterosexual counterparts.
Word of mouth plays a big role in all of this. Not only does it influence public opinion about Israel, it also brings more tourists — essentially turning visitors into foot soldiers in Israel’s image war.
Both the Israeli government and the Tel Aviv municipality have invested millions of dollars in marketing the city as a gay hotspot. And those efforts appear to have paid off. Earlier this year, gaycities.com and American Airlines named Tel Aviv the world’s top gay travel destination. According to Liberman, the 2011 Pride parade brought some 5,000 foreigners to Tel Aviv; this year’s event drew about 20,000 non-Israeli tourists.
“The Tel Aviv municipality did a very good job of creating a welcoming atmosphere for gay people — pride flags were up [around the city] for two to three weeks,” Liberman says.
So while gay foreigners are welcome to visit Tel Aviv and lend a hand in Israel’s public-image campaign — that is, if they don’t want to rent an apartment — there is one group of queer tourists conspicuously absent: Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Due to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has been decried by human rights groups as collective punishment and a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Gazans often lack access to medical care and educational opportunities — never mind the annual Pride parade. On the other side of the separation barrier, West Bankers live inside a labyrinth of Israeli military checkpoints and Israeli-issued permits that make a trip to Tel Aviv impossible for most.
West Bankers with contacts in the Palestinian Authority, which works closely with Israel, can get in, as can some Palestinians who are employed by international organizations. Mohamed is a gay man who lives in Ramallah. He is one of the privileged few to receive the occasional permit to travel to Tel Aviv.
“It’s an oasis. Of course it’s an oasis,” he says.
But he resents “the way [Tel Aviv] is used [to say], ‘Look at the gay people — we enforce laws and regulations that protect gay people and you can be out in the military.’ At the same time, there is a wall, and behind that wall, there is a different world and people are suffering.”
Mya Guarnieri is a Jerusalem-based Israeli journalist whose work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and The Guardian.