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Once again, Seattle LGBTQ Commission falls for Israel ‘pinkwashing’ campaign

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Once again, StandWithUs, an Israel-advocacy group, is sponsoring a pinkwashing event in Seattle, this time with a trans soldier who “advises youth, soldiers, and professionals on how to better integrate trans* people in to the armed forces.”  Pinkwashing is cultural propaganda that seeks to present Israel as a haven of gay rights, in order to detract from its violations of the human rights of the Palestinians.     The event promotes Israel as a land of “Diversity. Equality. Inclusion.”  The Seattle LGBTQ Commission has invited its own commissioners, as well as a handful of local queer activists, to a roundtable discussion with the Israeli military officer.

“Come hear Lt. Shachar, the first transgender officer to transition from female to male during active service in the Israel Defense Force,” the StandWithUs announcement states.  “Now a military affairs coordinator, Lt. Shachar advises the IDF on how to integrate transgender people into the armed forces. He will share personal experiences and will discuss the IDF policy he helped to form.”

Sachar has been speaking about the wonders of the gay and trans-friendly Israeli Occupation Forces for a couple of years now.  And it is a fact that the Israeli military canceled its equivalent of the US’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the 1990s.  Still, one cannot help but wonder, considering the overall homophobia in Israel, where Tel Aviv is a bubble, the exception rather than the norm, if this is not partly motivated by a desire not to offer a way out of mandatory service for young Israelis.  A recent Advocate survey found that one-third of Israelis identity as bisexual, and their exclusion from the army would make a significant dent in the ranks of soldiers.

And once again, it seems, the Seattle LGBTQ Commission seems to have fallen for the shameless propaganda of a country that has recently been found guilty of practicing apartheid against the indigenous people whose land it occupied.  The UN tried to bury the scathing report, while Zionist shrills tried to discredit the co-authors, Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, but as one commentator put it, “you can kill the messenger, the message is out there.”  The report has been cached, and is widely available.

Naïve LGBTQ-friendly people would likely support efforts to integrate the military, which is often viewed as a social equalizer.  Justice-minded activists and organizers, however, must be more critical.   The Israeli military is a military whose primary goal is the defense of a brutal, illegal occupation and siege, and pointing to how “gay friendly” that juggernaut is distracts from its ultimate goal.  It has been accused of egregious human rights violations and war crimes.  Surely, the integration of trans people in the ranks of war criminals neither constitutes a step forward for queer and trans liberation, nor makes for a “kinder, more compassionate” military. Additionally, rather than support all gays, Israel exploits homophobia by blackmailing gay Palestinians into becoming informants.  And certainly, from the 1948 Nakba onto the present, the Israeli Army has never stopped to ask Palestinians about their sexuality before it dispossessed and displaced them, demolished their homes, uprooted their trees, detained, tortured, and otherwise denied them their basic human rights.  Instead, it is only “gay-friendly” when that serves its own purposes:  increasing the size of its military, so as to better maintain its apartheid.

There is absolutely no excuse for the Seattle LGBTQ Commission to endorse this event.  In 2012, StandWithUs had brought a pinkwashing tour to Seattle and the neighboring cities of Olympia and Tacoma.  Queer and trans Seattleites, including queer and trans Jews and Palestinians, met with the Commission to explain that the event, which was marketed as an opportunity for international exchange, was actually a propaganda tour designed to foster a misleading image of Israel as a progressive “modern” haven, rather than a brutally colonizing country engaged in outrageous human rights violations.  The Commissioners heard and understood their constituents, and cancelled the event.  The Commission’s members have all changed since, but the institutional memory should be there.

A documentary, “Pinkwashing Exposed:  Seattle Fights Back,” was made about the 2012 events, which has been touring the country, and is being taught in Gender Studies courses on multiple campuses.  The documentary’s director, Professor Dean Spade of Seattle University Law School, offered to host a screening and discussion of the movie with the Commission, but the offer was turned down.  Upon receiving the invitation to this year’s event, Spade and numerous other Seattleites (including at least one other member of the LGBTQ commission), sent the commissioners letters explaining pinkwashing again, and including a link to the documentary.

The Commission’s response to Spade was that they are not “sponsoring” the event, simply attending it—a surprising claim since they, not StandWithUs nor the Seattle- Be’er Sheva Sister City Association, are the ones who had invited Spade to the talk.  The invitation letter he received, which he has shared with me, specifically states “Please join the Seattle – Be’er Sheva Sister City Association and the Seattle LGBTQ Commission for a roundtable discussion with the first openly transgender officer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Shachar Erez.”

Having heard once again from many queer Seattleites and their allies who oppose pinkwashing, the Commission is obviously trying to distance itself from the talk.  But such half-measures are sadly unconvincing, especially when ignorance cannot be used as an excuse.  Moreover, the fact that they had declined to attend a screening of “Pinkwashing Exposed,” when their own constituents proposed it, shows that they do have the leeway to reject events proposed to them.  They could easily have said no to Israeli propaganda too.    By agreeing to attending this presentation on Israel’s policy of “acceptance,” after turning down a screening of “Pinkwashing Exposed,” the Seattle LGBTQ Commission is spiting its own community, in order to satisfy a Zionist organization.

Even before the 2012 tour in Seattle, StandWithUs had tried to run a workshop at the 2010 United States Social Forum, which queer Arab and Arab-Americans and allies successfully shut down.  PQBDS (Palestinian Queers for BDS) issued a statement at the time, explaining pinkwashing thus:  “This Israeli ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people does not differentiate between Palestinian Queers, and non-Queers. Not only do Palestinian queers face these injustices on a daily basis and undergo the Israeli oppression like any other Palestinian, but also our name and struggle is often wrongly used and abused to “Pinkwash” Israel’s continuous crimes against the whole Palestinian population. In the last years Israel has been leading an international campaign that tries to present Israel as the “only democracy” and the “gay haven” in the Middle East, while ironically portraying Palestinians, who suffer every single day from Israel’s state racism and terrorism, as barbaric and homophobic.”

StandWithUs has ties to known homophobes John Hagee, Rick Santorum, and Gary Bauer.  Their promotion of the “gay-friendly” IDF is not a promotion of gay rights, but a promotion of a murderous occupation army.  Indeed, StandWithUs is more concerned with promoting propaganda that distracts from the reality of Israel’s brutal and illegal apartheid, than with the concerns of queer people.

An “integrated” military is no less criminal, when it engages in human rights violations.   And genocide is never OK, even if the perpetrator is gay.  Will the Seattle LGBTQ commission do the right thing, and completely dissociate itself from the event, by refusing to participate in the roundtable discussion, or will it knowingly acquiesce to being a tool of propaganda for a foreign regime widely denounced as engaging in the worst forms of brutal settler-colonialism and apartheid?

About Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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