Northwest pinkwashing events cancelled, StandWithUs’s record of queer exploitation exposed

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PW Seattle LGBT

Last week, three pinkwashing events in Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia, Washington were cancelled, following actions by anti-pinkwashing activists.

The events had been scheduled as part of a Northwest tour of four queer and allied Israelis, sponsored by StandWithUs and the Israeli Consulate in the Pacific Northwest.

Both Tacoma and Olympia events, originally scheduled for March 15, were cancelled by their hosting venues following complaints and discussions. In Olympia, the event was moved to a nearby synagogue. Attendance at the synagogue event was low, and a counter-event on pinkwashing that occurred several blocks away was received by a larger and more diverse audience.

StandWithUs issued a strongly worded but factually incorrect press release in response to the Olympia cancellation, which I will address in a separate article tomorrow.

The most prominent cancellation, however, occurred in Seattle, where a March 16 event at City Hall, hosted by the Seattle LGBT Commission was called off.

According to an announcement posted by the Seattle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the cancellation had been made the previous night at a public meeting in which the Seattle LGBT commissioners “heard several hours of ground-breaking testimony—from queer Jews who cleared away the debris of anti-semitism accusations, and queer Palestinians who brilliantly detailed the racist and violent effects of Israeli policy in their own lives, and the way that Pinkwashing has furthered that violence by invisibilizing their lives, identities, and communities.”

One testimony came from Selma, a Palestinian-American queer rights activist:

My life and upbringing in Washington State isn’t a coincidence. My family settled here after my father’s ancestral home was ethnically cleansed in 1948 Palestine. He became a refugee as a young person, and it is by this very truth, and the trajectories that follow, that have led me to settling in Washington state and Seattle. My queer identity is steeped in and inextricably linked to the dispossession of my family and community by the state of Israel…Events like this have become part of a strategic campaign where LGBT culture is exploited and manipulated to promote the idea that Israel is a great place for all LGBT people. This strategy has come to be called pinkwashing by those who oppose it. It directly hurts queer people like me, and our entire community.

The commission voted to cancel the event and the following day released a statement, explaining the decision (see image above).

Since then, the LGBT Commission has been under intense attack. JVP is encouraging supporters to sign a petition and thank the commissioners for taking a stand against pinkwashing.

PW Spade
Trans activist Dean Spade, under attack for opposing pinkwashing

Beyond the LGBT Commission, one person singled out for attacks has been Dean Spade, trans activist, assistant professor at the Seattle University School of Law, and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

Spade had participated in an LGBTIQ delegation to Palestine last January.

A poorly written news report in the Seattle Times named only Spade as an instigator against the event, which led to the March 15 meeting in which the LGBT Commissioners supposedly “bowed to pressure” from “a small, vocal group [who] spoke out against the Jewish nation.” Rather than interviewing anyone from this group, the article inserted the reporter’s own commentary that

To be sure, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a complicated, decades-long political and religious struggle that can hardly be sorted out during a few hours of a commission meeting.

StandWithUs northwest director Rob Jacobs posted on the Seattle LGBT Commission Facebook page:

Incredible! As the regional director for StandWithUs, I’ve heard that we became a big part of the issue. The Seattle LGBTQ Commission embarrassed Seattle, insulted LGTBQ leaders who have done far more than they ever have—people who were plaintiffs in seminal cases that changed Israeli law and created LGBTQ rights that we still don’t have in the U.S.—all because they heard lies about StandWithUs…

Instead, LGBTQ Commissions, members of a minority group that has been fighting for years for equal civil right and against discrimination, decided to discriminate itself, denying these incredible visitors the chance to meet simply because they’re what? Israelis. So LGBTQ leaders in Seattle discriminate based on national origin.

Jacobs’s assertion that the event was cancelled due to “discriminat[ion] based on national origin” is false, as he clearly knows, since he began his post by acknowledging that StandWithUs’s involvement in the tour was “a big part of the issue.”

As the JVP press release explained, the objection to the event was specifically due to sponsorship by StandWithUs and the Israeli government:

[Seattle] Jewish Voice for Peace activist, Wendy Elisheva Somerson, pointed out that we are not against dialogue, and would be happy to hear stories from Israeli LGBT activists, were they not funded by the Israeli government and Stand With Us: “Any true dialogue on queer issues in the Middle East has to address the Occupation and include queer Palestinian voices.”

Ohad Salmon, pinkwashing organizer

PW Salmon
Ohad Salmon, second from the left, with other StandWithUs Israel Fellows, at the
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2009

The four Israeli speakers were accompanied in their northwest tour by Jacobs, who had previously been involved in the anti-BDS lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op, and Ohad Salmon, an employee of the Israeli Consulate for the Pacific Northwest.

Although Salmon officially works as the director of new media for the Israeli Consulate, he also serves as the consulate’s LGBT liaison, based on his previous experience organizing similar pinkwashing events.

As a student at Tel Aviv University in 2009, Salmon received a StandWithUs Israel Fellowship. The year-long fellowship program, which is coordinated with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, trains students in marketing Brand Israel.

Salmon is mentioned in a 2009 Haaretz article, reproduced on the StandWithUs website, entitled “Israel Advocates Play Gay Card.” In referencing StandWithUs’s “iPride” program, the article explains that

Tel Aviv’s burgeoning gay scene may be the single most effective Israel-advocacy instrument in the Zionist toolbox, according to participants of a new program which uses Israel’s vibrant gay culture to improve the country’s image abroad…

“Israel advocacy needs to come from the gay community and it needs to come from the most liberal, leftist parts of society,” said Yoav Sivan, a veteran gay rights campaigner who helped StandWithUs activist Ohad Salmon from Tel Aviv University put together the event. “It receives much more credibility that way,” said Sivan, a former Meretz activist.

Iris Sass-Kochavi, gay-rights activist and settler

PW Sass Kochavi

Among the four Israeli speakers was Iris Sass-Kochavi, a member of Tehila, the Israeli equivalent of PFLAG. Her biography explains that she has a lesbian daughter.

What the biography fails to explain is that Sass-Kochavi is also a settler living in the illegal settlement of Mitzpe Shalem. In fact, she serves in the Megilot Dead Sea Regional Council, which pursues the interests of the bloc of illegal settlements situated near the Dead Sea.

The residents of Mitzpe Shalem are major shareholders of Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, which has a factory located in the settlement, and which produces cosmetics from stolen Palestinian natural resources in the area. Sass-Kochavi herself is a former board director of Ahava.

StandWithUs: The “war for hearts and minds”

Those concerned about queer rights are justifiably concerned when the issue is promoted by StandWithUs. The hawkish pro-Israel organization has a record of exploiting the oppressions of various marginalized groups simply to cover up Israeli crimes.

StandWithUs stated in its 2010 tax filing that it “has become ever increasingly engaged with the war for hearts and minds of people of all ages, within churches, synagogues, libraries, markets, etc.”

As Brett Cohen, the StandWithUs national campus program director boasts, the organization is a “one-stop shop for Israel advocacy.” What that means in reality is that anything and everything that can be made as a case for Israel will be exploited. Its array of educational materials contain contradictory messages designed to appeal to whatever demographic it is targeting at the moment, reminiscent of the old Jack Chick tracts.

Although StandWithUs claims that its advocacy for queer rights is based solely on principle, a closer examination reveals that StandWithUs’s embrace of queer rights extends only as far as it can be used to serve “the war for hearts and minds” for Israel.

StandWithUs and the exploitation and silencing of Middle Eastern queers

PW Cohen
Brett Cohen doesn’t need to hear from Middle Eastern queers. He’s already an “expert” on them.

In 2010, StandWithUs registered to hold a workshop at the US Social Forum in Detroit. The workshop, entitled “LGBTQI Liberation in the Middle East,” was to be led by StandWithUs national campus program director Brett Cohen.

In personal email correspondence with Cohen prior to the workshop, Cohen told me that he would be the only person presenting, and he expressed no interest in having actual queers from the Middle East speak. He also stated

I will most definitely be highlighting the amazing work that is going on with Middle Eastern LGBT organizations in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, and in exile for obvious reasons like IraqiLGBT in London who are no longer safe in their countries of origin.

However, queer advocacy groups in Palestine/Israel and Lebanon issued an open letter stating that

StandWithUs is cynically manipulating the struggle of queer people in the Middle East through its workshop…

StandWithUs has no connection with the LGBT movement in the Middle East apart from ties to Zionist Israeli LGBT organizations, yet it claims to speak for and about our movements. It has no credibility in our region, and as organizations working in and from the Middle East, we condemn its attempt to use us, our struggles, our lives, and our experiences as a platform for pro-Israeli propaganda…

If you want to learn about our movements and struggles, engage with us, rather than with those who will use us as pawns in Israel’s campaign to pinkwash its crimes.

In a subsequent email to me, Cohen again mentioned the UK organization Iraqi LGBT, whose accomplishments he would highlight in the workshop. However, an email from Iraqi LGBT also expressed concern that it was being exploited by StandWithUs.

The workshop was eventually cancelled by the US Social Forum organizers, who stated that StandWithUs had misrepresented themselves. Immediately upon cancellation, StandWithUs issued a press release entitled “US Social Forum Bans Advocate for Middle East Gay Community.” The press release quoted Cohen, whom it called “an expert on gay issues in the Middle East”:

The real tragedy is that once again, the voice of the persecuted Middle Eastern LGBTQI community is being silenced…I thought building these coalitions was the purpose of this conference.

The press release made no mention that Cohen had refused to allow Middle Eastern queers to speak for themselves, and it made no mention of the open letter from Middle Eastern queer groups about being “cynically manipulat[ed]” by StandWithUs.

The press release also quoted StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein:

The USSF response highlights once again how anti-Israel prejudice and ignorance hijacks and perverts human rights values…They refuse to acknowledge Israel’s many efforts to find a path to peaceful co-existence…The leaders of the USSF have shamefully silenced the suffering of Middle East gays because of their own hateful intolerance.

Jeffrey Gerson of The Advocate then reported on the cancellation by relying primarily on the StandWithUs press release, and falsely adding:

The Stand With Us workshop was the only LGBT-focused event planned for the conference.

In fact, the 2010 US Social Forum program featured at least a dozen workshops specifically on LGBT/queer issues and also had a “Queer People’s Movement Assembly” and a “Queer Liberation” national working group—none of which received contribution or participation from StandWithUs.

StandWithUs and homophobia

PW Brumer
David Brumer, who probably didn’t get the StandWithUs memo to be nice to gays.

In 2009, StandWithUs Northwest Executive Committee member David Brumer attempted to smear critic Richard Silverstein (of the Tikkun Olam blog) in a homophobic rant in which he wrote:

Btw, the gay porn hasbara shtick is very creative. Only a deranged mind like yours could come up with that one. Perhaps some subconscious fascination with the subject?

StandWithUs neither apologized nor acknowledged Brumer’s homophobic attack.

In 2010, the San Francisco chapter of StandWithUs, SF Voices for Israel, staged a counter-demonstration against a vigil organized by Women in Black and Jewish Voice for Peace. The counter-demonstrators hurled slurs and threats. According to witnesses:

They were also lesbian-baiting, even though they were chanting “Anti-women, anti-gay, why support Hamas today?” One guy yelled “lesbian” at me and my friend (correctly assessing our sexual identity) and maybe the same guy yelled at someone else, “When’s the last time you dated a man?”

In response, StandWithUs simply denied that the hecklers had any association with their organization.

StandWithUs and the homophobic Christian Right

PW Hagee Bachmann
Michele Bachmann and John Hagee, at the 2010 Christians United for Israel summit, no doubt discussing the advances of LGBT rights in Israel.

StandWithUs founder and executive director Roz Rothstein has represented the group in several events organized by homophobic pastor John Hagee’s Christian United for Israel (CUFI), even appearing as keynote speaker in past CUFI events.

Rothstein has appeared in the annual CUFI summits in Washington DC, in panels moderated by evangelical leader Gary Bauer, and along with other notoriously homophobic speakers such as Rick Santorum and John Hagee himself.

The StandWithUs website reprints a glowing article about how StandWithUs and CUFI were able to “come together” in order to censor bus ads for the Seattle Metro system that called for an end to US funding of Israeli war crimes:

Hours after the Seattle anti-Israel campaign was announced, Christian and Jewish groups, led by Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel(CUFI) and StandWithUs began alerting their supporters worldwide, asking them to send email messages to King County Council members and to the Metro bus company protesting the schedule ad campaign…

In several hours, more than 1,800 email messages from StandWithUs supporters alone were received by King County Council members and bus company officials.

StandWithUs spokesmen said that number represented only the people who had copied them on their emails…

Just as quickly, CUFI’s supporters weighed in. Within hours, more than 6,000 Christian supporters copied CUFI on emails sent to King County, leading Pastor Hagee to suspect that the real number might have been double or even triple that amount.

Last year, Rothstein co-authored an op-ed for The Advocate in which she opposed Palestinian statehood on the basis that it would create a state in which gays would be oppressed. One can safely assume that this was not the same argument against a Palestinian state that Rothstein used with her CUFI friends.

PW Rothstein
Roz Rothstein: Would you like the queer-friendly edition or the homophobic edition?

At a training program for pro-Israel students, Rothstein explained that “Everything is about sales…Even Israel needs to be marketed.” And for Brand Israel, that marketing is flexible enough to cater to different audiences.

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RE: “Tel Aviv’s burgeoning gay scene may be the single most effective Israel-advocacy instrument in the Zionist toolbox…” ~ Haaretz article TEL AVIV’S “BURGEONING GAY SCENE” (FROM WIKIPEDIA): (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, at the “Bar-Noar” (Hebrew: בר-נוער‎, “Youth Bar”), on Nahmani Street in Tel Aviv, Israel, on… Read more »

RE: “Last year, Rothstein [executive director of Stand With Us] co-authored an op-ed for The Advocate in which she opposed Palestinian statehood on the basis that it would create a state in which gays would be oppressed.” ~ Phan Nguyen NOT “Israel 101”: 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… Read more »

killer article Phan, you nailed it. i have been following this somewhat from a distance and heard about the canceled events but this article covers every base. thank you so much. love the ‘complicated’ reference. when will they ever learn it really isn’t.

Hey, Phan! When did you move to the Big Apple???

No matter, it hasn’t affected your excellent skills in reportage. Thank you for this incisive and useful article. Looking forward to the follow-up.

Best wishes from a former colleague in regional anti-war/anti-imperial antics.

Phan’s the man!

Love the Roz Rothstein paraphrase/caption: “Would you like the queer-friendly edition or the homophobic edition?”