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Israel's gay rights sleight of hand

in ISRAEL, 13/11/2011

Even if homophobia were completely eradicated in Israel, gay Israeli Arabs would still suffer discrimination on account of their race.

When the Greens-led Marrickville council campaigned to introduce the ill-fated Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) scheme against Israel in March, posters popped up all over Sydney's inner west asking, 'Do the Greens hate gays?'

The aim of these posters — ultimately traced, not to a gay rights group but to a member of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies — was to discredit the Greens' stance on human rights. After all, if the Greens really stood for gay rights then they wouldn't be boycotting the 'only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is not a capital offence or even a crime'.

This, it turns out, was not an isolated incident but rather part of a larger pattern of what many in the gay rights community have dubbed 'pink washing'. That is, a concerted, worldwide effort, often by the Israeli government itself, to use gay rights as a means of winning public support for Israel.

Shai Bazak, Israel's consul-general to New England, has deemed November 'Out In Israel' month in Boston, and organised gay celebrities to give panel discussions of their (positive) experiences of being openly gay in Israel. And earlier this year, the Israeli foreign ministry set up an exhibition of gay art in London and Manchester, where, again they invited prominent gay Israelis to attend.

One invitee, Gal Uchovsky, revealed that the brief sent by the ministry insisted speakers inform English audiences 'that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that respects gay rights ... where gay people can live openly and safe'. Uchovsky ultimately declined the invitation.

This is not the first time Israel has seized on global struggles in order to win the public relations war against Palestinians. In 2008, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech at Israel's Bar Ilan University, declared Israel was 'benefiting from one thing, and that is the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon', which had 'swung American public opinion in (Israel's) favour'.

Indeed, 9/11 marked the point at which Israel reframed its conflict with the Palestinians, as a fight against terrorism rather than anti-Semitism.

Israel is 'spinning' gay rights in a similar way. Gays do enjoy more rights in Israel than in the Palestinian territories, due primarily to their own tireless and often dangerous campaigning. But Israel is using gay rights to encourage the erroneous perception that it is locked in an existential battle with Palestinians, thus masking the true nature of the conflict: that of occupier and occupied.

Israel could withdraw from Palestinian territory and still support gay rights. The two are not mutually exclusive.

This hasn't stopped pressure being placed on gay groups the world over to publicly support Israel. Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) is a Toronto based group, which for many years has marched in Pride Toronto in support of Palestinian rights. But in the last two years, as the 'pink washing' trend gained momentum, the group began to meet opposition.

In 2010, it all came to a head when pro-Israel groups demanded QuAIA be banned from the parade. With sponsors threatening to withdraw support, organisers did just that.

While it may seem natural for gays to side with Israel, this support epitomises the major failings of so many human rights movements. Namely, that they tend to prioritise their own struggle without considering the ways in which all forms of discrimination are linked.

The concept of intersectionality, first coined by feminist sociologist Kimberlé Crenshaw, has recently been adopted by the UN, which explains: 'discrimination is not just one isolated category; it can be many categories all at the same time'.

It is not enough to simply eliminate one form of oppression. Even if homophobia were completely eradicated in Israel, gay Israeli Arabs would still suffer discrimination on account of their race. The question is, do gays deserve human rights because they are gay, or because they are human?

What intersectionality highlights is that these different forms of discrimination are co-dependent since they perpetuate the dominance of the strong over the weak. Israel is using the fact that gays suffer discrimination in order to actively discriminate against another group.

What supporters are overlooking is that some of those currently suffering under Israeli occupation are gay as well as Palestinian. Thus, they are unwittingly participating in the oppression of their own.

The greatest civil rights leaders in history understood intersectionality. Perhaps the greatest of them all, Martin Luther King Jr, famously warned that 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere'. Members of the gay community, tempted into supporting Israel unconditionally, would do well to heed these words.

By: Ruby Hamad, a freelance writer and graduate from Victorian College of the Arts, where she majored in screen writing and directing. She also holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Economy from the University of Sydney. Ruby lives in Sydney where she is developing several feature film scripts.

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