RAMALLAH: Organizations affiliated with Israel recently announced a new LGBT Jewish birthright program. The trip, designated specifically for LGBT individuals, is the product of cooperation between the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and JQ International.
The Taglit Birthright program, according to its website, has brought some 300,000 Jewish individuals between 18-26-years-old on fully-subsidized trips to Israel since its advent in 2000. Although LGBT-oriented variants of the trip have been taking place since 2008, the JQ International program is just the latest development in a broaderpublic relations campaign aimed at deflecting attention from Israel’s controversial human rights record.
Public relations efforts to cultivate an image of Israel as a liberal, democratic, and gay-friendly country have been underway for several years. The main thrust of this campaign has focused on re-sculpting Tel Aviv into a major gay tourism destination and trying to taut the city as an oasis amid a sea of its allegedly violent and homophobic Arab neighbors.
According to the Daily Beast, the office of Mayor Ron Huldai commissioned a study that “showed gay tourists were more inclined to go to cities like Barcelona or Berlin rather than Israel, a country they associated with religion and war. So the mayor had an idea: brand Tel Aviv as its own separate entity.”
Times of Israel recently wrote that Tel Aviv “emerged as a hot spot overnight” and “expects some 50,000 LGBT visitors in…2013 and twice that number in 2014.”
To be frank, this undertaking comes at the expense of accuracy and requires an astounding amount of misinformation, a great deal of moral back peddling, and a weighty process of historical forgetting.
In a widely-read 2011 NY Times op-ed that sparked a public debate on Israel’s “pink washing” strategy, a term employed by Palestinian and international solidarity activists who understand efforts to garner the support of the LGBT community as a means of deflecting criticism of the ongoing military occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands.
Gay rights in Israel?
As CUNY Professor Sarah Schulman pointed out, in May 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu painted broad strokes to boldly proclaim to the US Congress that, Israel withstanding, the Middle East is “a place where Christians are persecuted, gays are hanged, and women are stoned.”
The PM’s implied liberalism and sympathetic tolerance fall flat when contextualized. He is the leader of the far right, ultranationalist Likud Party, presently aligned with the most radical, theocratic elements of the country’s colonial settler front, such as the ultraorthodox Shas Party: none of which can be flaunted as defenders of LGBT rights.
Indeed, in 2008, Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev, during a Knesset panel to debate banning gay pride parades within Jerusalem’s city limits, said homosexuals were a plague “as toxic as bird flu.” He added that the LGBT community “is carrying out the self-destruction of Israeli society and the Jewish people.”
Much of the same can be said for Israel’s US Ambassador Michael Oren’s comments in a May 2012 interview with a Philadelphia newspaper: “Israel was fighting for gay rights before the 1967 war. Even when terrorists were blowing up our buses and cafes, there was equality for gays.” As Israeli journalist Yossi Gurvitz pointed out at 972 Magazine,
“Israeli law, much of which is based on Mandatory British law which was endorsed pretty much en bloc, considered homosexuality to be a felony since the country’s inception in 1948. The Knesset re-asserted the law in 1977, but after a long battle simply abolished it in 1988. Until the early 1990s, homosexuality was considered by the IDF to be grounds for denying security clearances and the IDF considered homosexuality to be a mental illness until the late 1980s.”
Others rightly argue that it’s absurd for Israel to co-opt struggles for equality towards its own tangential, if not entirely unrelated, political ends. “This is obviously the government’s attempt to take a ride on the back of the LGBT community for propaganda purposes, which I find appalling,” says Shay Bergman, an Israeli from Tel Aviv.
“Before marketing Israel as ‘gay-friendly’, they ought to realize that it doesn’t just mean permitting gay parties in Tel Aviv. Rather, it means letting us get married and the ability to adopt children. Every year there’s literally a war between the ultraorthodox Jewish community and the gay pride parade in Jerusalem…and what about Knesset Members who literally boast of their opposition to gay rights?”
Tellingly, he concluded, “And by the way, like the Birthright trip in general, I reject it. I don’t believe in birthrights.”
Defenders of LGBTQ Palestinians?
In any case, as a country founded on notions of ethnic privilege, Israel’s liberalism has always been reserved solely for its Jewish citizens, while the military goes on destroying Palestinian homes, handing over land to illegal settlers, and greeting all forms of Palestinian resistance, whether peaceful or not, with the same heavy-handed stripe of state-sanctioned violence.
Even if Israel did afford LGBT individuals complete equality, how would doing so excuse the forced dispossession of millions of Palestinians living under an asphyxiating military occupation or in exile? As Al-Qaws director Haneen Maikey noted, “When you go through a checkpoint, it does not matter of what sexuality the soldier is.”
At a 2011 public forum, Al-Qaws member Sami Shamali shot down the baseless claim that Israel also defends Palestinian LGBT individuals in spite of the oppressive social conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: “The apartheid wall was not created to keep Palestinian homophobes out of Gay Israel, and there is no magic door for gay Palestinians to pass through.”
In an interview with me for Bikyanews.com, a gay Palestinian journalist, going under the pseudonym of SK, echoed these sentiments: “Discrimination against Arabs in Israel does not exclude homosexual Arabs. Tel Aviv can be the gay heaven only for a Palestinian who has never been to a gay club before. There are very few cases where Israel granted asylum to homosexual Palestinians, and other cases where they were used as spies.”
Such was the case in May 2012, when Israeli secret services arrested an Israeli-Palestinian gay couple in Jerusalem upon finding that the Palestinian had an entry permit for medical purposes but was not at the hospital: According to Amira Haas, an Israeli Shin Bet agent, ‘Alon’,
Suggested that [the Palestinian man]might inform the Shin Bet when he “hears about a demonstration, about people, where they’re going, who’s got a mind to protest, who helps kids who throw stones, who’s religious, who throws stones at soldiers.” When [the Palestinian man]said he had hesitated before coming to the meeting because it was not an official Shin Bet summons, Alon said to him: “You want something official? I’ll give it to you. Then you’ll see what kind of problems I’ll make for you with the Palestinian Authority.”
Such freedom, indeed.
JQ International assures potential participants that “apart from lunch, snacks & spending money, there is no cost involved for the 10-day program. This gift is 100% subsidized through the generosity of major philanthropists, local Jewish Federations and the Government of Israel.”
Although all of Israel’s usual supporters will point to JQ International’s LGBT birthright program as an indicator of its democratic authenticity, neither its failure to commit to LGBT rights nor the ongoing colonization of Palestine can be undone by cheap marketing ploys and lip service.
** Patrick O. Strickland is the Israel-Palestine Editor for Bikyanews.com. His writing has appeared at Fair Observer, Al-Akhbar English, Middle East Monitor, CounterPunch.org, and elsewhere. He is presently working on his first book, a brief history of unarmed resistance in Palestine. Follow him on Twitter here: www.twitter.com/p_strickland_