Wrapping an LGBT Pride Flag around Palestine—but with care.

@courrier international

By Santosh Muralidaran.

Note: the acronym “LGBT” is used throughout this article to refer to any sexual minority who may fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, unless otherwise specified. 

Like a rooster’s resounding morning crow at sunrise that propels an entire village out of their night’s sleep, the loud chants from the voices of the 250,000 people gathered in the bustling city of Tel Aviv every June during LGBT Pride Week reverberate around the globe, echoing in the ears of those miles and miles away. The rest of the world listens and catches a glimpse at an illuminated gay-friendly Israel managing to thrive afloat in an ocean of Middle Eastern homophobic darkness—paving the way, if you will, for the Jewish nation to cry to the liberal democracies of Western Europe and North America: I am one of you

The entirety of the Holy Land’s soil used to be deep-rooted with anti-LGBT sentiments, planted by colonizers themselves. The thought of a highly populated port city  flying rainbow flags on flagpoles amidst a parade of gay men and lesbian women kissing their lovers would have nauseated British colonial powers. The British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance, No. 74 of 1936 criminalized “carnal knowledge” (sexual intercourse) which was “against the order of nature”—interpreted to mean that between two men. Violating the law ensued at least a minimum of 10 mandatory years in prison. (1)

For comparison’s sake, the consequence for “hav[ing] unlawful sexual intercourse with a female against her will” was 14 years, only four more mandatory years in prison. (2)

The law was modeled under the English Common Law and applied throughout the British Empire. Hebrew newspapers from the Mandatory Palestine reported various cases of (mostly male) Arabs and Jews from the Arab World residing in Mandatory Palestine who were punished and tormented under the law for committing “unnatural” sexual acts. (3)

The law was modeled under the English Common Law and applied throughout the British Empire. Hebrew newspapers from the Mandatory Palestine reported various cases of (mostly male) Arabs and Jews from the Arab World residing in Mandatory Palestine who were punished and tormented under the law for committing “unnatural” sexual acts.

In the present day, with the Holy Land having been transformed into the multi-party parliamentary democratic state of Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip which Israel militarily occupies and blockades (respectively), scrutinizing LGBT rights in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is tricky without succumbing to the commonly propagated “liberal Israel, conservative Palestine” depiction of the Holy Land that the Western world has largely accepted. Yet it is far more convoluted than such a generalized (and incomplete) depiction; it is a question of the calculated and strategic way in which Israel promoted its pro-LGBT laws, the presence of homophobia embedded in Palestinian political and social spheres, and ultimately, what “liberation” can entail for LGBT Palestinians.

“Real Liberals Love Israel”—Or, Israel’s Gay Propaganda War

Starting in the early 2000s, Israel began abusing their progressively sterling record in advancing and protecting the rights of their LGBT community by politicizing it and diminishing the complex stories of Israeli LGBT communities to that of pawns in a dehumanizing game of political chess. Yelling “checkmate” meant international political dialogue focused on Israel’s seemingly unconditional acceptance of their gay and lesbian communities and the community’s enjoyment of their enhanced civil and other rights rather than anything remotely related to the myriad of issues sprawling from the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and military blockade of the Gaza Strip. 

Israel had an unquenchable appetite for a more Western self-image that resembled more of the seemingly egalitarian and liberated countries of Western Europe and North America than what they often generalized as the war-torn and archaic Middle East. In 2006, then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni described it best: “let [the word ‘Israel’] invoke not fighting or soldiers, but a place that is desirable to visit and invest in, a place that preserves democratic ideals while struggling to exist”. Thus, the Israeli government themselves launched the “Brand Israel” campaign, of which one of the national projects was the, as the UCLA Queer Cats Journal of LGBTQ Studies refers to it, “Gayfication of Tel Aviv”. That same year, the Israeli Minister of Tourism launched a website to appeal to LGBT tourists, and in 2010, with the help of the Tel Aviv Tourism Board and the Aguda, a non-profit that works to engage Tel Aviv’s LGBT community in the economy, created the “Tel Aviv Gay Vibe”. This was a website that advertised Tel Aviv’s gay bars, nightlife, “biggest parties”, and even encouraged LGBT tourists to download and use “Atraf Dating”, the country’s equivalent of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual dating app Grindr. 

Efforts to attract LGBT tourists complemented a general rise of fervor and enthusiasm within Israel’s LGBT community, many of whom—more than 250,000, to be exact (4) —vehemently marched every June in the Tel Aviv Pride Parade which, 26 years after the inaugural march in 2019, was promulgated as the largest LGBT pride parade in the Middle East and Asia.

But in and of itself this advancement of LGBT rights merits commendation and celebration merely on the basis that, at the very least, the legal protection of LGBT communities against discrimination and written law declaring the equality of LGBT and non-LGBT communities (both of which are enshrined in Israeli law) is not to be confined within national borders but is rather a global necessity, and Israel’s LGBT-friendly nature is along those lines an indication that, on the global scale, progress is being achieved. Even the branding of a city as “gay-friendly” to capitalize on the economic potential of an influx of LGBT tourists to the growth of a national economy is not unique to the Israeli case; notable other cities such as Berlin have marketed themselves in similar ways to attract more tourism.

What is unique to the Israeli case, however, is the role that of Israeli government and pro-Israel organizations using the seemingly increasing tolerance towards its LGBT communities plays in larger, propagandist and dehumanizing political ploy that aims to reflect Israel in the Western, liberal mirror to illustrate a dichotomy between them and a comparatively, as they describe, bigoted Middle East. An official of the Zionist American organization StandWithUs did not beat around the bush to the Jerusalem Post in 2009: “As far as a lot of people are concerned, Israel is Gaza and the West Bank and tanks, and they don’t see the beautiful culture and the liberal side.” (5) Caroline Glick, journalist of the American newspaper The Jewish Press, specifies what the “liberal side” entails: “[Israeli] Ministry officials view ‘gay culture’ as the entryway to the liberal culture because . . . gay culture is the culture that creates ‘a buzz.’” And the “buzz” was not only created, but thundered around the world, so clamorous in its volume that, on a global scale, it offered little to no room for the amplification of Palestinian voices in detailing the ongoing struggles and systematic oppression they face as a result of the illegal Israeli occupation.

Take, for example, StandWithUs distributing a flyer, which on the left side listed Egypt, Gaza and the Palestinian Territories, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, and Yemen and on the right side listed Israel, the latter whose name under which there was the caption: “The Most LGBTQ Progressive Nation in Africa and Asia”. 

The same company allows you to, with just 0.46€, purchase a 6×9 flyer titled “Real Liberals Love Israel” with the caption “The best army in the Middle East does not discriminate against gay men and women,” highlighting the fact that LGBT individuals can openly serve in the Israeli army but also intended to, as the product description says on the StandForUs website, prove that “Israel has record of being more open-minded about gay rights than most other countries in the world, including the U.S.”  (6)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to the U.S. Congress in 2011, employing disturbingly orientalist generalizations of the Middle East: “In a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, Christians are persecuted, Israel stands out. It is different.” (7)

In 2014, a full-page advertisement in the New York Times designed by StandWithUs titled “Hamas, ISIS and Iran kill gays like me” featured a brief story of a gay American—neither a Jew nor Israeli—who attended the Jerusalem Pride Parade and “felt at home” because Israel was the only country in the Middle East where he could live “without fear”. (8)

In another speech, Netanyahu told Palestinian peace activists to go to Tehran or Gaza where they “hang homosexuals” if they were not willing to accept that “anyone for whom human rights are truly important needs to support liberal democratic Israel.” (9)

Amir Ohana, right-wing Israeli Jewish member of the Knesset originally of Moroccan origin who identifies as gay himself, said “I don’t see how anyone who considers human rights important, not to mention LGBT rights, can say, ‘Yes, the establishment of the 22nd Arab state is the answer for the Palestinian LGBT community.’”, referring to all Muslims as “cultural[ly] murderous”. (10)

And, albeit not the most widespread in terms of popularity but nonetheless perhaps the most indicting example was during Operation Cast Lead, a three-week armed conflict between the Gaza Strip and Israel. During the conflict, the questionable and deadly military tactics of both Israel and the Gaza Strip were vulnerable to and did receive international criticism. However, Israeli film actor Omer Gershon was hired to create a YouTube video (under the account “marc3pax”) titled “Who you get in bed with- human rights, gay rights” where he introduced himself as “Marc” and detailed his experience trying to participate on behalf of his LGBT network in one of the Free Gaza Flotilla (with flotillas coming from Europe, the United States, and Africa carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip with the intent to disrupt and end the Israeli and Egyptian military blockade of the Gaza Strip) but was denied when they responded saying it would “not be in the best interest of the flotilla”. He then outlined that the flotilla who he had contacted had an affiliation with Hamas and proceeded to underscore the hostility and brazen intolerance of Hamas towards the LGBT community in the Gaza Strip. While it would make sense that he would feel the need to condemn Hamas as he was specifically barred from aiding a flotilla that aimed to liberate the Gaza Strip due to his affiliation with the LGBT activism, Gershon is a zionist and a strong defender of the state of Israel, for whom the thought of offering support to the other side of the conflict would never have crossed his mind if not as part of a ploy to expose the anti-LGBT stance of Hamas to shift the spotlight from the military blockade to Hamas’ discrimination. He ended with: “Be careful who you go to bed with, if you hook up with the same group, you might wake up next to Hamas”.(7)

Evidently, it becomes impossible to stand in solidarity with the LGBT community of Israel as they exercise their well-deserved rights without being inundated with statements of how, in fact, these progressive laws are an anomaly in the Middle East and must be treated and remembered as such. Even cases that are not thoroughly intertwined with Israel or general LGBT rights are used to transcend their boundaries into unrelated areas of stretched analysis for the sake of solidifying Israel’s liberal and gay-friendly image in stark contrast to its neighbors. For instance, using an advertisement of a gay American who had not a drop of Israeli or Jewish blood in him but attended one Jerusalem LGBT pride parade and confirmed that he can live Israel freely as opposed to Iran or ISIS- or Hamas-controlled regions is as arbitrary of a comparison as him attending one Helsinki pride parade and subsequently investing time and energy into creating an advertisement expressing his love Finland because he can live in Finland freely as opposed to neighboring homophobic Russia. Both statements are indeed true, but as a man who never intended to live in Israel (and certainly not under Iran, Hamas, or ISIS—not to mention the fact that the representation of all three as inherently similar is inaccurate and absurd in itself) and merely visited as a foreigner, he was used, in a disturbingly clear way, to speak on a broader scope of an argument to further perpetuate a propagandist political agenda. Moreover, when addressing the Israeli army, only shedding light on the fact that LGBT individuals can openly serve in it is alarmingly misleading, for if one were to engage in a constructive discussion regarding Israel’s military it would by nature of the gravity of the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict have to, at the very least, center around how that the same military is being used to occupy the West Bank and militarily blockade the Gaza Strip. Yet StandForUs conveniently omitted the latter point, misrepresented the reality, and narrowed the lens through which the world should examine the Israeli army: as an egalitarian, inclusive, and progressive one that celebrates its gay and lesbian fighters and that any “real liberal” would love. 

Condemning this form of pinkwashing serves to neither discount the progress of the LGBT community in Israel in gaining their well-deserved rights nor deceive others into believing the countries of the Arab or Muslim world offer a safer society for the LGBT community (they do not, in any way, shape, or form), but rather to, as Katherine Franke, professor of Law, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Columbia University says, highlight that “[t]he status of gay people in Israel is beside the point insofar as fundamental human rights are understood to be universal and not subject to zero-sum calculations: Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine cannot be somehow justified or excused by its purportedly tolerant treatment of some sectors of its own population”. 

“Traditional”—anti-LGBT—“Palestinian Values”

However, digesting this conclusory statement regarding Israel’s pinkwashing only partially encompasses the intersections of LGBT political issues within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From an objectively comparative standpoint, the facts remain clear: Israel does guarantee by law equality of LGBT and non-LGBT communities, does permit the participation of LGBT Israelis in the military, does recognize same-sex marriages (though only those performed abroad), and does grant the right to adopt to lesbian and gay couples. On the other hand, the contrary anti-“unnatural acts” laws from the British Mandate did not lose its roots in the Palestinian Territories. In the Gaza Strip, from which the Israeli government withdrew all settlements in 2005 but still maintains a military blockade, No. 74 of 1936 of the British Mandate Criminal Ordinance punishing homosexuality with at least 10 years of prison still functions as the law of the 365 km² land. The Human Rights Watch reported that in 2006 the armed wing of Hamas persecuted and killed one of its fighters for engaging in same-sex relations (11). In the West Bank, homosexual acts are not explicitly made illegal but are considered a taboo in much of society and just one year ago the West Bank formally banned Al-Qaws, a pro-Palestinian organization advocating for “Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society” and who has offices in both Israel (Haifa and Jaffa) and the West Bank (Ramallah) as well as the disputed Jerusalem from hosting any events in the West Bank. Palestinian police declared their organization contradictory to “traditional Palestinian values” (12). The organization, instigated in 2001 and formalized in 2007, manages hotlines for LGBT Palestinians and regularly hosted events in the West Bank and vocally denounces homophobic attacks on LGBT people that occur both in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Evidently, Israel is undoubtedly not only a safe nation for its own LGBT citizens (save opposition from ultra-Orthodox Jews and right-wing politicians which is no different than, for example, religious Christians and right-wing politicians opposing the advancements of LGBT rights in the United States), but also in comparison to neighboring Palestine.

Anti-Zionism with a Queer Twist—But Not Really

Yet the rights of LGBT communities in Palestine (or the rest of the Middle East) are only ever addressed by Israel to contrast it with the underwear-clad men unashamedly kissing in a Tel Aviv or Jerusalem pride parade. LGBT Palestinians cannot exist freely within their own territories because it seeks to erase them (sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally), but to Israel, as C. Heike Schotten, professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Boston, beautifully describes, LGBT Palestinians can only exist as “the asylum-seeking victim of homophobic Palestinian culture, the infiltrator blackmailed by Israeli security forces, the ‘terrorist’ who lures the unsuspecting gay Israeli lover, and so forth.” If not to be contrasted with Israel’s progressiveness and to depict the “backwardness” of Palestinian society and culture, the Israeli government’s concern for the rights of LGBT Palestinians is a dry, ingenuine one that never even remotely sought justice for the LGBT Palestinians facing systematic discrimination, much less the ones brutally executed in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Israel has never in its 72 years of existence offered the right of LGBT Palestinians to seek asylum within their territory, and their LGBT-friendly policies do not ease Zionist ambitions. Amir Ohana used the words to refer to his sexuality and its relation to his political ideology by saying: “Being attracted to men doesn’t mean you have to believe in creating a Palestinian state.” Yet he was the same Knesset member who denounced Palestine saying a Palestinian state would never provide basic rights for its LGBT community (as previously quoted in this article)—and just to add salt to the wound, Ohana identifies as a strong Zionist and supporter of preserving the Jewish majority demographics of Israel meaning even if the most radical neo-zionist dream of annexing every part of the West Bank as Israeli territory came to reflect a reality on the world map, the first concern would be to ensure Jews still constitute the majority of the population and it would be a miracle if even a word about specifically LGBT Palestinians were uttered by the officials carrying out the neo-zionist project.

Then again, while LGBT Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are barred from the hot gay nightlife of Tel Aviv, to assume all LGBT Palestinians’ dreams involve gaining access to the said gay clubs in lieu of continuing to potently resist against the Israeli settler-colonialism that has inhibited many facets of their daily lives is to fundamentally misunderstand the Palestinian struggle and the long history behind it. As Joseph Massad, professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University exclaims that Euro-American LGBT activism inflicts narratives of a Western definition of gay identity and liberation that cannot be neatly implanted in many Arab and Muslim countries and societies. Schotten discusses how Western LGBT movements directed at marriage equality, equality in military service, and inclusion in hate crime statutes resembles a “solidarity with the state” that is unattainable for the occupied, segregated, displaced, and refugees. The right to marry for same-sex couples in Palestine establishes and upholds a standard of equal marriage for all but what benefit does it offer to a Palestinian gay or lesbian couple whose primary concern is their home demolished used for the construction of an Israeli settlement? The right to openly serve in the military would have saved the Gaza man who fought against Israeli forces from being murdered by Hamas for having same-sex relations but would it have terminated the military blockade around the Gaza Strip that is contributing to the “open-air prison” that currently characterizes Gazan society? An inclusion of hate crimes would theoretically protect the Palestinian LGBT community from the worst forms of discrimination on the basis of their sexuality but would it erase the history of trauma of the Nakba and Palestinian intifadas or provoke a change of heart in the Israeli army, who never in the first place discriminated between LGBT or straight Palestinians when targeting them?

Still, some LGBT Palestinians do flee to Israel or do long to flee Palestine and their stories ought to not be discredited. The Canadian charity organization Rainbow Railroad, for example, was founded in 2006 to aid sexual minorities in homophobic countries in escaping to the United States, Canada, or Western Europe, and was, after all, inspired by, as CTV News reported, the World Pride Event in Israel where the organization’s founders met a young gay Palestinian who had illegally escaped to Israel after being tied up in his basement and stabbed by his parents who objected to his sexuality (13). Tel Aviv university published a report in 2008 titled “Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum Seekers in Israel”, a 47-page report detailing the different cases of LGBT Palestinian asylum seekers in Israel and the process by which they seek (usually eventually denied) asylum (14)

But to understand, on the other hand, why U.S. congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, for example, known for their anti-Zionist political ideologies, champion both the rights of Palestinians as well as LGBT people, and to contextualize the emergence and persistence of LGBT Pro-Palestinian organizations such as Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT!), the aforementioned Al-Qaws (who continues to function despite being banned from organizing activities in the West Bank), Aswat – Palestinian Feminist Center for Gender and Sexual Freedoms, among others, one can look at the words of Schotten, who quoted Edward Said: “Palestine is a question not only for the Zionists who would have it disappear, but for Zionism itself insofar as Palestine’s existence troubles, disrupts, and disturbs the violent and hegemonic workings of colonial and imperialist power.” In a similar vein, queerness is a question not only for traditional (typically religious) conservatives (who are present to varying degrees in all societies and countries, no matter how LGBT accepting the area’s laws may be) who would erase it from the world, but also for the idea of “tradition” in itself to the extent that nearly everything LGBT-related disturbs and challenges the fixed, traditional definition of what love, marriage, sex and other related concepts should look like. And from the viewpoint of the oppressed, to merely exist as a living manifestation of the oppressors’ worst nightmare is the very embodiment of resistance.  

Thus, as Schotten concludes, “radical queer commitment to [Palestine’s] decolonization may” naturally “be the very meaning of liberation.”

Like a rooster’s resounding morning crow at sunrise that propels an entire village out of their night’s sleep, let the voices of the courageous anti-zionist LGBT Palestinians reverberate around the world just as loudly too, echoing in the ears of the West, the East and, for that matter, everywhere in between.

(1) “Human Rights Watch, Women’s Centre for Legal Aid…” Human Rights Watch, 2018
(2)  Official Mandate Document
(3)  “Judaism and Homosexuality: A Brief History” Haaretz, 2016
(4)  “250,000 March in Largest-ever Tel Aviv Pride Parade” Haaretz, 2019
(5)  “Gay Pride Being Used to Promote Israel Abroad” Jerusalem Post, 2009
(6)  “Real Liberals Love Israel Card Flyer $0.50” StandWithUs
(7) “Dating the State: The Moral Hazards of Winning Gay Rights” Columbia Law School, 2012
(8)  “Ad promotes Israel’s LGBTQ rights record, condemns neighbours” Al Jazeera, 2014
(9) “Pinkwashing Debate / Gay Rights in Israel Are Being Appropriated…” Haaretz, 2015
(10)  “Muslims Are Prone to ‘Cultural Murderousness’ and…Says Lawmaker Amir Ohana” Haaretz, 2017
(11)  “Human Rights Watch Country Profiles: Sexual Orientation and…” Human Rights Watch, 2017
(12)  “Palestinian police vow crackdown on LGBTQ events in West Bank” NBC News, 2019
(13)  “’Rainbow Railroad’: Toronto charity helping LGBT people escape violence” CTV News, 2015
(14)  “Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum-Seekers in Israel” Tel Aviv University, 2008

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