Should LGBT people stand with Israel?

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(A small sample of Israelis’ response to LGBT rights, screenshot taken 15/02/15. By no means representative of all of Israeli society, but still troubling)

If by some Kafkaesque twist of fate you found yourself gay and trapped in the Middle East, in all probability the first place you’d want to head for is Israel. Although same-sex marriage is not legal,  same-sex marriages conducted abroad are recognized by the government as legitimate, same-sex couples can adopt a child, trans individuals can legally change their gender, LGBT citizens are given partial protection by anti-discrimination laws, and LGBT people can serve openly in the military. Aside from the law, some places in Israel are considered gay cultural hotspots, and Israel’s second most populous city, Tel Aviv, is often called the gay capital of the Middle East, hosting annual pride events that attract thousands. (A full breakdown of Israel’s LGBT rights record is available here)

Compare this to Israel’s neighbours, and the picture is bleak. Although same-sex activity is legal in Jordan, it offers no protection for gay people and popular sentiment is staunchly against equality for LGBT Jordanians. Lebanon offers no protection for its LGBT citizens either. In Syria, gay people can be imprisoned for up to three years, and in Egypt, the law is dangerously ambiguous and gay people are often subject to police brutality. Closer to home, the occupied Palestinian Territories are not under the jurisdiction of Israeli civil law, and offer no protection for LGBT citizens. Male homosexuality is illegal in the Gaza Strip, although this is apparently rarely enforced.

The rights and protections afforded to LGBT people by Israel not only outdoes all of its neighbours combined, but even outdoes the protections offered by some states in America. For many gay rights activists and liberal intellectuals, Israel is something of an oasis for LGBT people: A sanctuary and safe haven amidst hostility caused by ‘traditional’ values, Islamic extremism, and political turmoil.

So in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a summary of which I’ve written here), many look at Israel’s LGBT rights record and are befuddled by LGBT opposition to Israel and LGBT opposition to the occupation. Surely, they think, if a country consistently stands by who you are and affords you the rights you deserve, that nation deserves respect and admiration, not voices of dissent. Without Israel, where would Middle Eastern LGBT people be?

Indeed, many writers have made these exact arguments. In an article for Advocate, James Duke Mason argues the following:

Unless we want the Middle East to turn into an absolute free-for-all controlled by extremists who want to kill us and turn women into their slaves, then we need to do everything we can to protect Israel and stand in solidarity in any way we can. Not only is it in our interests, but Israel deserves it after all it has done for us.

Aside from classing every single non-Israeli Middle Eastern to be a potential terrorist slave-owner, the crux of Mason’s argument is that the progressive LGBT rights record in Israel is either a separate issue to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or absolves Israel of some criticism or blame where the occupation is concerned. Even if Israel does systematically target civilians (which is a war crime), that’s apparently a small price to pay to stop the entire Middle East from becoming an international slave market.

Also writing for Advocate, Lillian Faderman argues something similar:

Only insane logic or misinformation could justify withholding our sympathies from a country that grants our LGBT brothers and sisters not only the benefits that we [Americans] enjoy but even more. Why would we work against such a country [as Israel]?

Huffington Post writer Scott Piro goes even further, and suggests that being anti-Israel in the face of its progressive LGBT rights record is inherently anti-Semitic, and that it’s all a big grand conspiracy being brought about by Palestinian leaders and a biased media machine. For Piro, Israel is a crusading hero of LGBT rights and pinkwashing – that is, using LGBT rights to detract from Israeli human rights abuses – is a fictional term because LGBT rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are separate issues*. Mason and Faderman also think pinkwashing is a fiction.

These assessments view LGBT rights in a very peculiar way. While most of us would think LGBT rights cannot be divorced from wider political and social contexts, these three writers place LGBT rights on a separate pedestal, one that must be judged entirely separately from any other actions the nation undertakes. Presumably, LGBT citizens should always support pro-LGBT governments, regardless of their economic policy, foreign policy, or any other policy. A conversation about LGBT rights does not (and in the case of Piro, must not) cross over into a conversation about anything else.

To try and prize apart the issue of LGBT rights and the issue of the occupation of Palestinian land does a great disservice to our debates. You cannot put LGBT rights on such a high pedestal so that they are immune from wider critiques. As Ghailth Halil rightly points out in her article for Electronic Intifada:

Mainstream LGBT groups in the North would have us believe that queers live in a separate world, only connected to their societies as victims of homophobia. But you cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppressions exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces.

To think that gay people do not feel the effects of their wider political environment is to place them on an imaginary pedestal whereby the gay rights movement is somehow invulnerable to its immediate surroundings. No gay rights movement on Earth has managed this level of invincibility because gay people are not a species in themselves; they are members of families, religions, political parties, social clubs and are employees of all industries. If a government raises the minimum wage, LGBT people experience the benefits. If a government curtails access to higher education, LGBT people experience the consequences. LGBT people are people, after all.

We as a social group are connected and linked in innumerable ways to economic issues, political issues, religious issues and the like. Every conversation can have an LGBT rights aspect, because everything affects LGBT rights. Therefore Israel’s LGBT rights record should be judged within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for it surely affects LGBT Israelis and Palestinians.

So the questions we must ask ourselves go like this: Is the use of chemical weapons against Palestinian children, the destruction of over 100,000 homes in the Gaza Strip, the infliction of mass mental trauma on Gazan children, the use of Jewish-only roads and an apartheid separation wall all justifiable if Israel is welcoming to LGBTs? Are the anti-Arab discriminatory bills currently passing though the Knesset justifiable if Israel is LGBT-friendly?

If you can adopt a child with your same-sex partner, but there’s a chance the Israeli Armed Forces will murder you as you sign the adoption papers, what difference does it make? Does it matter that they didn’t kill you for being gay? Does Israel’s progressive LGBT rights record magically shield gay Palestinians when the bombs start to fall?

But even if one does connect LGBT rights to the wider oppression of the Palestinian people, it still assumes that Israel is ubiquitously welcoming to LGBT people. Which it isn’t.

For one thing, a recent Israeli High Court ruling now allows 434 small communities in the Negev and Galilee to discriminate against gay people, Israeli-Arabs, and the disabled who want to move into them. Hardly a safe haven for LGBT people in these parts of Israel.

That aside, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the IDF uses the sexuality of Palestinian civilians as a blackmailing tool which forces vulnerable Palestinians to inform on their fellow citizens or face being outed to their friends and family. Dissenting members of the secretive Unit 8200 of the IDF claim that there are no surveillance restrictions on Palestinians, and claim that unit members are encouraged to gather any information that may be used to blackmail Palestinians into informing, including their mental health status, financial status, and crucially, their sexual orientation. According to one dissenter,  If you’re homosexual and know someone who knows a wanted person – and we need to know about it – Israel will make your life miserable”.

Israeli forces even detain Palestinians in need of urgent medical assistance at border checkpoints, only allowing them passage to the nearest hospital if they agree to become informants. A gross abuse of human rights by any standards, but just one aspect of countless human rights abuses undertaken by the Israeli government**.

Of course, Mason and Faderman’s ilk may want to argue that this only proves their original point – that it’s only because the Palestinian territories are so hostile to LGBT rights that sexuality is a blackmail tool to begin with. If Palestinians were so LGBT-friendly, the IDF couldn’t turn people into informants in the first place, they might say. But it’s not clear how that excuses the practice of blackmailing vulnerable people into informing, and that argument is a quintessential example of pinkwashing.

But let’s tackle the rebuttal nonetheless – why hasn’t Palestine become a LGBT-friendly haven like Israel?

Imagine you have a territory and you’re trying to establish civil and criminal law. Now imagine that another country is constantly intervening in your affairs, both militarily and politically, disrupting the sovereignty of your government and committing endless human rights abuses against civilians and your armed forces alike. How easy do you think it’s going to be to promote tolerance of LGBT rights? Is it even possible, given that presumably your entire waking existence is going to be consumed by fighting the occupation and oppression that your people face from this foreign power?

As Sherry Wolf rightly points out in her Advocate reply to Lilian Faderman:

To ignore Israel’s dispossession, occupation and immiseration of 10.6 million Palestinians in the world and then expect sexually liberatory ideals to flourish under such a condition is absurd. No population anywhere on Earth has risen to such expectations.

Do not mistake my criticism of Israel’s pinkwashing as anti-Semitism, and do not mistake it as support of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, or any other political institution that does not protect gay rights. Contrary to Scott Piro’s criticism of queer activists, I am openly and frequently critical of all regimes, nations, and groups that do not respect gay rights to the fullest extent, including the United States, France, Iran, Russia and Uganda, to name but a handful.

If the PA and Hamas do not respect gay rights, as I strongly suspect they don’t, then I disassociate myself from them completely. The only people I am interested in are gay civilians living in the occupied territories who are stuck between a rock and a hard place because of the rampant social conservatism in Gaza and the West Bank on one side, and the sickening opportunism of the Israeli military machine on the other. I’m not suggesting Palestinian social conservatism is the fault of Israel, but LGBT are the invisible people in this conflict, and it is unacceptable to demand a sexual revolution in an unrecognised territory that is barely allowed to provide basic human needs to its population..

The idea that Israel’s gay rights record which only applies to Israeli citizens somehow makes Israel the good guy in all of this misses a huge deal. Not only is the issue of LGBT rights one aspect among many in this conflict, it is not a way to dismiss the other aspects, like the decades-old suppression of the Palestinian spirit.

Footnotes.

* – Bill Maher also dismissed pinkwashing in a facile quip on his show Real Time. The question of the occupation and the destruction of civilian homes didn’t actually come up during his usual anti-Islam tirade, and he instead asked Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal whether there was a gay bar in Gaza. Sure, people’s homes are being destroyed and their children are being shot by the Israeli army, but where’s the coolest place for gays to hang out?!

** – Sadly, there are reports that the Palestinian Authority uses similar blackmailing tools in the West Bank, which is equally deplorable and proves that the PA does not have the interests of Palestinian civilians at heart either.

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