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Pinkwashing Lieberman, whitewashing fascism

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The Out in Israel Month website

It’s November in Boston. Leaves carpet the streets and a chill sharpens the air; we prepare to give thanks that smallpox killed the Indians and left us their land; and it’s Out in Israel Month.  This is a “campaign of education and celebration. We aim to educate about the status of civil rights for LGBT Israeli citizens, hard-fought for throughout the years, and celebrate the LGBT community and culture in Israel. Israel is a multi-faceted society with many faces and just as many narratives.” The Jerusalem Post tells me,

The program was an initiative of Israel’s consul-general to New England, Shai Bazak, and will feature performances by gay heartthrob Assi Azar. Azar, a popular TV host in Israel, will screen his made-for-television coming-out film Mom, Dad, I Have Something to Tell You to audiences around the Boston area, followed by panel discussions about life as an openly gay man in Tel Aviv.  The event makes Israel the only country in the world to run a campaign promoting its LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) population.

Bazak’s job as consul-general is obviously to promote Israel, and promoting its protection of LGBT rights is a task he embraces eagerly. At a campus speaking engagement recently, he made the de rigueur comparison to the rest of the region:

“It is clear from what we have seen that large masses of people in the Middle East want democracy, and civil rights, and liberty and freedom … Democracy is the right to speak up. Democracy supports the rights of women and gays and minorities in society who are oppressed.  However … this is a problem in the Middle East because even though many people want democracy, they don’t want it for everyone. This is a source of much conflict and much harm and is at the root of many of our problems.”

Now, Bazak knows exactly what it means to want democracy for some but not for others. In his past life — before serving as Binyamin Netanyahu’s press secretary during his first Prime Ministerial term — he was spokesman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the major settlers’ organization. As such, he defended the idea that settlers had rights and deserved political representation, while Palestinians who owned the land would get neither.

Bazak “lost Netanyahu’s affection over the years,” according to one press report, but gained another patron: Yisrael Beiteinu party chief and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman originally wanted to put Bazak in the prestige post of consul-general in New York. Netanyahu vetoed that, but approved Boston as a consolation prize.

Diplomatic sources deflected criticism that Bazak, with his strong Likud credentials, is not the right man to send to Boston, the site of numerous universities and one of America’s most liberal cities, saying that he has proven his ability to represent the country’s policies faithfully and well.

Clearly Bazak has hit on the gay angle as a way to sell Israel to “one of America’s most liberal cities.”   His official biography on the consular website, meanwhile, omits his service to the extremist settlers, saying only that “Mr. Bazak has held many positions in Israeli government and the private sector.”

This is “pinkwashing” to the max: using rights protections for one group to conceal rights abuses against another. But the intriguing thing  –suggested by Bazak’s own record — is the specific role of the Israeli right. After all, the two ministries most involved in marketing Israel’s gay record are both under the control of Yisrael Beiteinu: not only Lieberman’s Foreign Ministry, but the Ministry of Tourism under Stas Misezhnikov.

Yisrael Beiteinu has been widely called a fascist party. Its stab-in-the-back, racist rhetoric against Israeli Arabs fits part of that bill: “no loyalty, no citizenship” was its election slogan (think “even though many people want democracy, they don’t want it for everyone”).  And its promotion of a heroic leader cult and a macho-mythologized Israeli identity fits another. Here,  Haaretz describes its junior wing at a party conference:

The youths, ages 16-18, many of them good friends from school, had stood for a long time before the event began at the intersection near the hotel, waving Israeli flags and shouting “Death to the Arabs” and “No loyalty, no citizenship” at passing cars. …

On the bus back to the center of Upper Nazareth, one of the youths offers this explanation for his excitement about the party: “This country has needed a dictatorship for a long time already. But I’m not talking about an extreme dictatorship. We need someone who can put things in order. Lieberman is the only one who speaks the truth.” Adds Edan Ivanov, an 18 year old who describes himself as being “up on current events”:

“We’ve had enough here with the ‘leftist democracy’ – and I put that term in quotes, don’t get me wrong. People have put the dictator label on Lieberman because of the things he says. But the truth is that in Israel there can’t be a full democracy when there are Arabs here who oppose it.

“All Lieberman’s really saying is that anyone who isn’t prepared to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, because of his personal views, cannot receive equal rights; he can’t vote for the executive authority. People here are gradually coming to understand what needs to be done concerning a person who is not loyal.”

The party’s core appeal is to the xenophobia of Israel’s million-plus immigrants from the former Soviet Union. However, it’s not just nationalism that wins their loyalties.  Many, encouraged to make aliyah to Israel by a demographically desperate state, found that the Law of Return welcomed then but Jewish law didn’t.  Up to half a million Russian Jewish immigrants don’t qualify as halakhic Jews in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

In part this is because of the celebrated “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, which allows people with one Jewish grandparent to immigrate (on the argument that since this was the Nazi standard for extermination, it should be Israel’s standard for citizenship).   Orthodox parties have long campaigned to scrap this provision and bring the law into line with halakhic definitions – which would only deepen Israel’s demographic crisis. In the meantime, though, the incongruity between the state’s and the rabbinate’s definitions casts significant numbers of self-identified Russian Jews as outsiders in the land. Yisrael Beiteinu gives them psychological consolation by offering an Israeli-hood defined by loyalty and the exclusion (if not execution) of Arabs. It also promises material consolations: it’s a proudly secular party that presses to institute civil unions. This secularism in a state steadily more dominated by the Orthodox gives the party a peculiar appeal to gays as well.

So the semi-fascist party’s flirtation with gay rights has a logic to it. One self-described gay leftist writes:

It’s very tempting to just say “no” and resist any ties with Lieberman, whose MKs [members of the Knesset] are responsible for proposing a bunch of ugly new bills all meant to restrict freedom of expression.
But there’s more to it than that. I’m as Israeli as the next guy. I am a proud, left-wing patriot. As a gay activist, my first mission is to promote and normalize LGBT life in Israel.

The Russian immigrants who form the base of Lieberman’s constituency are in general the most homophobic part of Israeli society, even more than Shas’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

So having Lieberman’s followers embrace the gay community is a very positive development, even if their motivations aren’t pure.
The fact is, there’s no way back for them.

After Lieberman embraces the gay community, he will never be able to speak or vote against gay laws in the Knesset. Next year, when we try again to get equal rights in adoption and surrogacy, his party will have to support those measures.

Mazel tov.

There’s a lot to be argued about in this dilemma. I’m sure somebody will invoke the figure of the little gay kid growing up in a Russian Jewish family, who will take untold comfort from the fact that his father’s favorite political party is no longer homophobic. And wouldn’t it be nice if President Mitt Romney in the US launched a campaign to attract gay tourists, to a country which by that time will be so broke and devastated that any travelling French homo would be welcomed as a savior along with his Euros francs! Wouldn’t that strike a blow for internal acceptance too? And so on …  But there’s a larger cost to the whole political community when an authoritarian thug like Lieberman gets to paint himself as a defender of somebody’s, anybody’s, rights. “Pinkwashing” corrupts the idea and practice of human rights, by throwing out the promise of universality and turning them into instruments of division and exclusion. What this story suggests is that it’s not just deception for external consumption: it also corrupts the polity from within. Lieberman pinkwashes himself. By expropriating the language of diversity and tolerance, he makes himself look like a decent participant in politics, and burnishes his own racism and violence with a secular and progressive sheen.  The writer above isn’t going to vote for Lieberman, but he’s willing to accept Lieberman’s votes for his own causes. Isn’t that just about as bad?

In the way that absolute power corrupts, occupation — the exercise of absolute control over a population — has corrupted Israel’s politics. Lieberman’s ascent to respectability marks a further descent into corruption. That a foreign ministry under his leadership can talk with a straight face about “a multi-faceted society with many faces and just as many narratives” means the narrative has become a fantastic fairy tale. Among the many faces of tolerance, Lieberman’s is the portrait of Dorian Gray.

Scott Long

Scott Long, a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, served as founding director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. He has been a human rights activist campaigning for sexual rights for over twenty years, working in countries including Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Iraq, Jamaica, Romania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the United States. He blogs on human rights issues at

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20 Responses

  1. Chaos4700 on November 19, 2011, 11:04 am

    (on the argument that since this was the Nazi standard for extermination, it should be Israel’s standard for citizenship)

    Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of things in Israel adhere to the Nazi standard of looking at things.

    This really pisses me off, but then there’s no objectivity for me in this case. I don’t want gay rights tied to Zionism — because Zionism is a stone that would ultimately drag my rights to a watery grave.

    I doubt this campaign is going to work anyway, the LGBT community has watched the Democratic Party treat our concerns the same way the Republican Party treats “pro-life” concerns (i.e. talk sweetly to get our vote, then turn their backs on us for the most part). And there is no place for us in the Republican Party, which seems to be the Zio-Lobbies new beau for next November’s harvest dance. I think maybe there’s an intersection of those who are born both Orthodox Jewish and gay who might be receptive to this, but that’s a pretty small segment of the target audience.

  2. seafoid on November 19, 2011, 11:55 am

    Better gay than Arab.
    However once the fascists take over Israel they’ll go after the gays.
    Fundamentalism everywhere hates women and it hates sexual difference.

    • eGuard on November 19, 2011, 1:56 pm

      Under the Occupation, Arab gays are worst off.

      • seafoid on November 20, 2011, 5:00 am

        It’s no fun being a poor Jew in Israel with no money either. Especially if you are female.

  3. Scott Long on November 19, 2011, 11:59 am

    I think it’s perfectly consistent on its own terms for Israel to use the Nazi standard of extermination to define citizenship, since the state of ’47-’48 was created on the presumption that it was a refuge for Holocaust survivors. The problem in terms of the state’s internal logic is that there’s a different definition of who’s a Jew that applies to certain rights–for instance, getting married; and since Israel doesn’t have civil, secular marriage this means that non-Halakhic Jews are left out of a whole range of things related to family law. So you have different levels of citizenship, as it were, EVEN among Israeli Jews: of course, setting aside for a moment the Arabs who are Israeli citizens (but have an anomalous position in a Jewish state) and the Arabs living under occupation, who don’t have any citizenship rights at all. This is an unacceptable situation, and also a very weird situation. And it seems to me it makes the non-Halakhic Jews easy prey for extremism and fascism: if you’re screwed even though you belong to the ostensible majority in the state, it’s especially easy to take consolation by exalting your superiority over the people who don’t belong, that is, the Arabs. Which partly explains Lieberman’s appeal. I also can see that LGBT Israeli Jews, who are still somewhat marginal people in the overall scheme of things (they can’t marry within Israel’s borders either, for instance!) could start to feel the same pull toward a party that promises a) it will regenerate a secular state, and b) it will treat them as superior to than the Arabs who will stay lower on the totem pole. So they get co=opted by the rightest of the right. It should be a textbook example of how denying formal legal equality and setting up a hierarchy of citizens corrupts the whole body politic and makes authoritarian or fascist solutions increasingly appealing. But it’s not going to be corrected by letting the gays or the Russian Jews marry. It’s not going to begin to be solved until the occupation ends, and the the dilemma of citizenship within the boundaries of historical Palestine gives way to some kind of provision for legal (and then real) equality for all.

    • seafoid on November 19, 2011, 12:57 pm

      The fascists are moving fast.

      “Rabbi Sadan’s influence on these soldiers is considerable; some say he has the impact and stature of a major general. In 1988, Sadan established the religious pre-army academy Bnei David in the settlement of Eli – today the country’s largest and most important such institution, many of whose graduates go on to command battalions.

      Sadan’s lecture on Rabin memorial day makes for troubling reading (the text appears in full on the academy’s website ). Rabin, Sadan claimed, was “the biggest leadership and political failure in Israel’s history.” He left no legacy, the rabbi added, and the whole personality cult that has sprung up around him is misbegotten. After the obligatory denunciation of the assassination, Sadan said he is “amazed by the dedication and courage” of Rabin’s assassin, Amir, and of “the extraordinary heroism” of Goldstein, who knew he would die after his shooting massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. ”

      “Despite the pressures on it, a committee appointed by Gantz and headed by Manpower Directorate commander Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, is expected to conclude that the army’s standing orders should remain in effect: Soldiers cannot leave official ceremonies even if women are singing there. With regard to other kinds of events, commanders are expected to use discretion. ”

      It would be such a tragedy for the IDF to tear itself apart over religious observance

      Jewish women+ Palestinians would be a great combo

      • Chaos4700 on November 19, 2011, 1:19 pm

        I have to really wonder how many Israelis share Sadan’s view on Rabin. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s a majority now. I see an awful lot of spin control by the Israeli right and center to denounce and denigrate what Rabin did accopmlish — rather like what’s been done to Jimmy Carter here in the US. And like in the US, I expect the center-left will slide right down that slippery slope too.

      • seafoid on November 19, 2011, 2:24 pm

        Livni is supposed to be center left. White phosphorous.
        It is all one right wing sludge at this stage . The good guys are represented by Bibi and Livni and the bad guys are the Orthodox with the momentum.
        Do you want to die or be killed?

      • Krauss on November 19, 2011, 6:44 pm

        Seafoid, your replies are pretty chilling but often spot on.
        More and more these days I just look at Israel and think to myself ‘so this is what we’ve become’. Then I just sigh.

        I can’t even get worked up that much these days. I just hope that Zionism’s inevitable damage to International Jewry will be limited and that the unfounded anti-Semitism that will follow from outsiders who conflate the two(like many Zionists have pushed very hard for) will be relatively mild.
        As always, America will be the safest place for Jews – including Israel.

      • seafoid on November 20, 2011, 5:59 am

        Vietnam was a national trauma that the right blamed on the left. The left was weak and Vietnam resulted. Together with the collapse of the Bretton woods system the right used it as the basis for a reactionary revolution that gave rise to Reagan . They never wanted the US to find itself in a Vietnam situation again.
        In Israel the settlers will not tolerate another Rabin moment. They will do whatever it takes to avoid this.
        The failure of Israel’s diplomatic strategy is blamed on the left. Oslo is proof of left weakness. The left must be crushed. Most of it is at this stage.

        But the cost to the society is massive. Especially with the Russians and Mizrahi Orthodox.

  4. Scott Long on November 19, 2011, 12:03 pm

    p.s. just to be crystal clear: when I say “the people who don’t belong, that is, the Arabs,” I obviously mean people who don’t belong to the self-defined majority in the state: not people who don’t belong at all. (!)

  5. Dan Crowther on November 19, 2011, 12:58 pm

    The Log Cabin Israeli’s eh? This is where Identity politics takes us unfortunately….

    • seafoid on November 20, 2011, 5:03 am

      This was on the ha’aretz feedback

      • For years hilonim complained religious don’t serve. Now they complain they want to remain religious while serving
      o Boruch
      o 18.11.11
      o 20:32
      You can’t have it both ways- it you want religious serve, you need to create condition so they can serve without compromising their religious beliefs and Halacha. It’s not up to a commander what a soldier can observe and what he can’t. It is Halacha that determines this.

      This Halacha thing is deadly.

  6. DICKERSON3870 on November 19, 2011, 4:54 pm

    RE: “That a foreign ministry under his leadership can talk with a
    straight face about ‘a multi-faceted society with many faces and
    just as many narratives’ means the narrative has become a fantastic
    fairy tale. ~ by Scott Long

    SEE: Israel’s Treatment of Gay Palestinian Asylum Seekers ~ by Caroline Esser, The Washington Note, 6/06/11

    (excerpts)…The newest way to sell Israel to Americans: LGBT rights. Search gay rights on the Anti-Defamation League’s website and what do you find? A ready-to-print and available for order poster that reads, “Which of the Middle East nations protects the legal rights, safety & freedom of the LGBT communities? Only Israel.”…
    …In their 2008 study, “Nowhere to Run: Gay Palestinian Asylum-Seekers in Israel,” Michael Kagan and Anat Ben-Dor describe in detail Israel’s unsympathetic and unbending policy towards gay Palestinians…
    …In pursuit of protection and the ability to openly express their sexuality, there have been at least ten cases in which gay Palestinians have sought refuge in Israel. However, despite their desperation, Israel refuses to even review gay Palestinian applications for asylum (those who have successfully received asylum have had to submit their cases directly to the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva). Moreover, gay Palestinians who have illegally entered Israel have been arrested and promptly deported–returned to the very environments in which their lives were at risk and in which they will now face further danger as they are questioned not only for their sexuality but for their choice to spend time in Israel…


    • DICKERSON3870 on November 19, 2011, 5:01 pm


      (excerpts) The 2009 Tel Aviv gay centre shooting resulted in the deaths of two people and injuries to at least fifteen others at the Tel Aviv branch of the Israeli GLBT Association…
      As of October 2011, the crime remains unsolved
      …On the evening of August 1 [2009] at around 23:00, an unknown person with firearms entered the “Aguda” building in Tel Aviv, and opened fire on the crowd attending an Israeli Gay Youth (IGY) event, and immediately escaped thereafter. Two people were killed, and fifteen were wounded. The police had launched a search campaign to find the shooter, and in addition immediately closed most of the entertainment places for the gay community that operated during the same time of the shooting event, for fear of additional shooting.
      The gunman entered the building where a weekly event was being held (in the basement), shot in several directions and then fled on foot.[2][5][6] The building was frequented by gay teenagers who engage in social activities and listen to music.[6][11] The centre was small with one terrace; thus preventing anyone from escaping.[6] They instead hid under a bed and tables as shots were fired.[6][11] Israeli television said the crime scene was a “bloodbath”.[7]…
      …The shooter was masked, dressed in black and used a pistol to carry out his attack.[2][5][8][11][12] It is not believed his motive was related to nationalist terror but the exact motive is currently unclear.[2] The city’s gay community stated the killer had a homophobic motive while police have cautioned people that the attack may not have been a hate crime and that the motive remains unknown…

      SOURCE –

      • DICKERSON3870 on November 19, 2011, 5:08 pm

        P.P.S. ALSO SEE: West Bank rabbi: Jews can kill Gentiles who threaten Israel ~ By Haaretz Service, 11/09/09
        Book by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro of Yitzhar permits even the murder of babies and children who pose threat.

        (excerpts) Just weeks after the arrest of alleged Jewish terrorist, Yaakov Teitel, a West Bank rabbi on Monday released a book giving Jews permission to kill Gentiles who threaten Israel.
        Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who heads the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the Yitzhar settlement, wrote in his book “The King’s Torah” that even babies and children can be killed if they pose a threat to the nation…
        …Several prominent rabbis, including Rabbi Yithak Ginzburg and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, have recommended the book to their students and followers.

        SOURCE –

      • DICKERSON3870 on November 20, 2011, 2:04 am

        P.P.P.S. FURTHERMORE, SEE: Israeli earthquakes are gays’ fault, says MP ~ By Tom Chivers and agencies, The Telegraph (U.K.), 02/21/08

        (excerpts) An Israeli MP has blamed a spate of recent earthquakes in the Middle East on gays.
        Six earthquakes have struck Israel and neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan in recent months, with two coming last week alone. Shlomo Benizri, of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas party, suggested that the tremors could be stopped through the simple expedient of repealing various liberalising laws on homosexuality that have been passed by the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, in recent years…
        … “God says you shake your genitals where you are not supposed to and I will shake my world in order to wake you up,” he added…

        SOURCE –

  7. Inanna on November 19, 2011, 6:47 pm

    The Jerusalem Post is wrong that Israel is the only country that runs a program promoting its GLBT population. The Australian government, through its Tourism Australia website, has long promoted the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. It’s a huge event on the international GLBT calendar and attracts gay tourists from around the world.

    But it’s another example of how Israel like to pat itself on the back for being exceptional.

  8. guernica on November 20, 2011, 8:12 am

    “I’m as Israeli as the next guy. I am a proud, left-wing patriot”. ..this does not smell seems to be a kind of psy-ops

  9. piotr on November 21, 2011, 1:54 pm

    Israeli right wing has so many chores!

    a) promoting right extremism to American Christian Zionism

    b) promoting the “liberal” and “democratic” face to others

    c) collecting scalps of “Jewish traitors”

    On the latter front, after months and years of mostly empty talks there is much movement. A radio station was closed, a private TV channel probably will be closed (this is a complex case, so-called tycoons are implicated too), a journalist from public TV was fired, and foreign money to politically selected NGOs is about to be banned (as Daily Telegraph put it, “a law modeled on similar laws in Russia, Belorus, Venezuela and Uzbekistan”). In Knesset MKs discuss how desirable it would be to strip of citizenship those Arab citizens who do not condemn traitorous Arab MK (that was actually from “loyal opposition”, Kadima, and the actual proposal was to strip MK Zoabi of her passport, so it is more in “empty talk” category rather than “collecting scalps”).

    The government has another important task: Israeli laws and courts, however discriminatory, give some rights to Palestinians, undermining the principle of absolute supremacy of Jews. This sad state of affairs is about to be reformed, in part by defiance of courts (that is the easy part) and in part by packing the courts (that is actually rather hard, but plans are in motion).

    With all these preoccupation, at least Iran can breath easy. GoI badly needs a victorious little war, and “Radical Left” seems to be the target for now. By international standard, “Radical Left” includes everybody to the left of middle-of-the-road British Tories (including the latter), so it is a rather broad category, but in Israel this fight has the character of “mopping out”.

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