The co-chair of the 2014 WorldPride Human Rights Conference in Toronto says organizers of the global gathering are worried it could be "an orgy of pinkwashing."
Doug Kerr raised the issue at a discussion about pinkwashing — how Israel uses sex and marketing to distract from apartheid-like policies in the West Bank and Gaza — at the 519 Church Street Community Centre on June 24.
Kerr told speaker Ali Abunimah — one of the world’s leading voices in the anti-Israeli-apartheid movement — that conference organizers want to resist pinkwashing at WorldPride 2014. "But many of us involved in organizing see it as an opportunity for social justice education," he said.
Abunimah, the co-founder of the influential blog Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, said Toronto is a leader in the global resistance to Israeli pinkwashing.
That’s thanks mostly to the efforts of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA), which has been embroiled in a three-year fight against censorship at Pride Toronto (PT) and Toronto City Hall, Abunimah said.
QuAIA, which organized the event, has been raising awareness about this issue for approximately five years. Controversy erupted in 2010 when Pride Toronto made the unpopular decision to ban the group from participating in the Pride parade after a number of pro-Israel groups complained to the city, which threatened to withhold funding. PT eventually reversed its decision.
QuAIA marched peacefully in 2012, but a small number of city councillors have threatened to discontinue Pride funding every year just before Pride Week. The battle is now in its third year.
“You have such expertise in Toronto, in terms of these campaigns, and the work that QuAIA has done on this has been amazing,” he said. “QuAIA is not a large group of people, but they have really had a global impact. They have won amazing victories here in Toronto that have reverberated around the world.”
Author, journalist and activist Ali Abunimah speaks about pinkwashing at the 519 Church Street Community Centre June 24.(Andrea Houston)
Abunimah said pinkwashing is on the rise, noting several examples he's collected from the internet and promotional materials. He said pinkwashing is a deliberate attempt by the Israeli government to conceal its human rights record.
He said that for several years Israel’s tourism ministry has been telling the world that Tel Aviv is the new “gay hotspot” because it’s got “the great vibe of a modern city, lovely beaches and friendly locals.”
Critics like Abunimah and QuAIA say Israel cynically exploits its relatively good record on 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 face on a daily basis.
"So, pinkwashing is ‘Don't look at Gaza. Look over here at the gay pride parade,’” Abunimah said. “Pinkwashing is marketing Israel to a gay, almost exclusively male, audience for sex tourism.”
Abunimah played several videos showing Israeli soldiers being violent to Palestinian people, including children, for standing up against the occupation. “More than 200 children are in Israeli military prison,” he said. “Thousands have been subjected to torture by Israeli military . . . Trials for Israeli soldiers for violence against Palestinians is almost unheard of.”
Those are not the images shown to gay tourists, he said.
During the question and answer portion of the event, some audience members challenged Abunimah on his statements. One man argued that, when compared to other Middle Eastern countries, Israel is safe for gay and lesbian people. He said gay Palestinians take refuge in Israeli to flee persecution.
That is not true, Abunimah responded. “There’s this claim that Israel is a haven and Palestinians escape there to be saved,” he said. “That is one of the pinkwashing statements you hear repeatedly. It’s garbage. Palestinians cannot seek refuge in Israel.”
Abunimah says Canada’s government is one of the worst offenders in perpetuating pinkwashing, through its unwavering support of Israel. To challenge that and criticize Canada’s involvement is not “demonizing” or “singling out” Israel, he said.
“We are not singling out Israel,” he said. “Canada is singling out Israel. I would like to use this podium to express my deep concern at Canada’s persistent singling out of Israel and holding it to a much lower standard for human rights than other countries that claim to be democracies.”
He urged people to get involved with QuAIA and make the fight against pinkwashing a central issue in 2014.
“WorldPride will be an opportunity to bring more people into this work and to connect that work with other issues of social justice, such as the fight for indigenous rights,” he said.