Tel Aviv is known as a “top gay destination.” This year’s Tel Aviv Pride, taking place on June 3rd, will attract tens of thousands of international gay tourists to Tel Aviv, whose tourist dollars and cultural capital are used by the Israeli state to promote the country in a positive light. With the launch of the Brand Israel Campaign in 2005 – a campaign designed to change Israel’s image abroad from that of a country in a state of war to a liberal and modern tourist destination – the LGBT community has been one of its primary targets. Israeli branding experts, such as the founding head of Brand Israel Ido Aharoni, cynically assume that LGBT people, rather than interested in politics, are a-political people looking for an environment branded as “gay-friendly,” in which they can consume and relax. Palestinian queer and BDS activists are challenging this problematic trend with a new campaign. Boycott Tel Aviv Pride (#boycottTLVpride) aims to expose Israel’s cynical use of gay rights as cover for its policies of occupation, segregation, and violence, referred to as Pinkwashing.
From the onset of the Brand Israel Campaign the government has succeeded in appealing to gay men worldwide: gay tourist numbers have grown from a couple of thousand in 2006 to over 50,000 in 2015. This year, the Israeli Ministry for Tourism is sponsoring Tel Aviv Pride with over 4 million dollars. Arguably homophobic ad campaigns were launched across Europe, and the government had plans to fly-in gay tourists in a Pride Plane. It aims to promote Israel as a prime gay tourist destination, on the premise that gay tourists will not be defused by human rights violations taking place in the country. Gay tourists are invited to be outraged by the alleged homophobia in the Palestinian society, but not by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the Israeli bombs falling on Gaza.
The Boycott Tel Aviv Pride campaign, in line with Boycott Divestment and Sanctions guidelines, argues that any cultural event organized with money from the Israeli state should be boycotted. It asks gay tourists not to take part in an event that will boost the economy of a state that occupies and kills Palestinians on a daily basis. Gay tourism financial revenues do not only stimulate Israel’s economy, they are considered a direct investment in Israel’s war machine. So, why are we invited to be proud of Tel Aviv? Perhaps Tel Aviv has a vibrant nightlife, out gay men, and beautiful beaches, but Israel also has an illegal occupation; restricts the mobility of Palestinians just because they are Palestinian; and executes deadly invasions of Gaza and home demolitions in East Jerusalem, after which it celebrates itself for having liberal gay rights! Underneath the beautiful beaches lies a different truth: Israel does not respect human rights.
None of the gay tourist itineraries presented provide information about Palestine or Palestinians and the larger socio-political context of the country, even though Israeli tour operators use imagery that romanticizes and orientalizes Bedouin culture for example. Gay tourists can visit Bedouin communities to have a taste of their “delicious Israeli hummus” and spend a night in the desert. What the tourists remain uninformed of is that Palestinian Bedouin communities face daily threats of violence, displacement and home demolitions. After a day of pride, some tour operators will take tourists to Bethlehem or the Dead Sea, without telling them that they will travel through the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories, or that the wine they are drinking in the (Occupied) Golan Heights, or the Ahava Dead Sea Products they are encouraged to buy come from businesses that have been declared illegal under International Law.
Israel’s gay tourism campaign is central to new nation branding efforts that seek to disconnect Tel Aviv – as a cultural hotspot – from the dire political situation of the rest of the country (that includes Tel Aviv). Tel Aviv gay tourists and pride visitors are invited to explore the rest of the country’s ancient Judaic culture, which erases Palestinian presence and history. It would be naive to put our political hope in tourism, but with the Boycott Tel Aviv Pride campaign, activists point out that gay tourism contributes to Israeli pinkwashing by carefully glossing over the socio-political context of war and occupation. The campaign shows the ways in which gay tourism and gay pride erase Palestinian lives and culture and present the Israeli narrative with a gay flavor.
Gay Tourism does not only have an economic and cultural function; its primary motivation is political and ideological. Tel Aviv Council Member and LGBT issues specialist Yaniv Weizman states in an interview that he wants to turn “every foreign tourist into an ambassador” for Israel. The gay tourism agenda corresponds to the larger Brand Israel agenda, because it seeks to appeal to people via a branding of culture and leisure, while erasing the background of war and occupation on which these activities can take place. The celebration of gay rights attempts to make the tourists forget that they are actually in a warzone, where freedom is a principle limited to Israelis and international gay tourists. Not only does Israel want to bring more money to Tel Aviv, it also wants political support for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian Territories and its violation of Palestinian human rights. And if it cannot get explicit political support, it can and will use the gay tourist’s presence as a cover up for its war crimes. Israel does not sponsor Tel Aviv Pride because it is such a pioneer in respecting LGBT rights, but because it knows it will serve its International Relations. Although gay rights in Israel are celebrated by the state when it is in the state’s interest, Israel has a very limited definition of human rights when it concerns Palestinians. Palestinians, gay or straight, are denied human rights and dignity on a daily basis.
The launched “Boycott Tel Aviv Pride” campaign draws attention to the ways in which gay tourism is complicit with occupation through economic, cultural and political aspects. Its goal is to create a boycott constituency among the gay community in solidarity with Palestinian rights as part of the broader Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Israel sees as a “strategic threat” to their regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid. As queer Palestinian, BDS, and transnational solidarity activists we aim to resituate Israel’s gay pride and gay tourism campaign within a political context of the reality of war and occupation. The campaign challenges Israel’s gay tourism narrative that Israel values pride and freedom while aspiring to make Palestinians invisible and immobile. The campaign appeals to the ethical responsibility of gay tourists. Although it understands the desire of LGBTs to travel without facing homophobia and transphobia; it points out the cynicism of the ways in which a violent and racist government seizes this opportunity to manipulate this need. Choosing to be a tourist, gay or straight, in a country that sustains an illegal occupation next to its annual pride parade is not a cause for a gay celebration.