Israeli GLBT Politics between Queerness and Homonationalism

By Aeyal Gross

Aeyal Gross is Associate Professor of Law in Tel-Aviv University, and Visiting Reader at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Debates about homonationalism seemed to be at the focal point of Pride 2010. International attention was lavished on two events in particular. In Germany, Judith Butler refused to accept the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award, in protest of growing commercialism, complacency towards racism, and the exploitation of GLBT and queer people by war mongers. Across the ocean at Toronto Pride, activists tried and failed to censor the words “Israeli Apartheid” (and hence the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid). At the same time, with less international attention, related questions were also at the heart of heated debates about the nature of the annual pride parade in Tel Aviv.

In 2001, after the beginning of the second Intifada, a group of friends – myself included – decided that given the egregious human rights violations in the occupied territories, they could not take part in the pride parade as usual. Instead, they would march as a group, dressed in black and carrying a banner declaring “There is no pride in the occupation.” The group attracted a great deal of attention, both at the parade itself and later in the local and international press. This led to the founding of the queer-radical activist group Black Laundry. In subsequent years, even after Black Laundry was disbanded, informal groups carried banners with similar slogans in the Tel Aviv parade, as well as in other parades held in Israel, and were sometimes dubbed the “black-pink coalition.”

Those years also saw advances in the protection of gay and lesbian rights in Israel, primarily through litigation, combined with some legislation, continuing a process that started in the late 1980’s. At the same time with Israel continuing its policies of violence and occupation directed at the Palestinians, the government and its advocates began to use gay rights as a fig leaf for Israeli democracy. What was originally a piecemeal effort has in recent years become a well-documented, orchestrated campaign, in which gay rights in Israel and the relative liberalism of Israeli society in this area are flaunted and used to paint a picture of Israel as a progressive liberal democracy.

LGBT activists in Israel now find themselves in a double bind. Victories for civil rights, which are gained with hard labor, and often with the government’s representatives explicitly objecting to them in the courts, are quickly co-opted by the government in its efforts to present Israel’s liberal credentials. Gay rights have essentially become a public-relations tool. In this campaign Israel is portrayed as a progressive “western” country, as opposed to “backwards”, homophobic Islamic countries.  This is then used to justify Israel’s own version of the “war on terror,” including the occupation and attacks on the Palestinian population. Consider, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s introduction of the issue of gay rights in Iran in his speech to the United Nations in 2009, or his recent suggestion that  human rights groups sail to Iran and Gaza, “places where homosexuals are hanged,” rather than criticize Israel. A further dimension of this process is the co-optation of the plight of gay Palestinians, often through the creation of a false narrative according to which Israel supposedly gives them safe haven. . The recent campaign promoting Tel Aviv as a mecca for gay tourism is but one example of how gay rights are used to re-brand Israel as a land of freedom: while Tel-Aviv is a friendly and integrated city when it comes to the gay community, the freedoms it offers are denied to Palestinians as well as other marginalized groups such as migrant workers.

The recent use of the term “pinkwashing” to describe Israel’s use of gay rights for propaganda, patterned on “greenwashing,” may be somewhat misleading. Whereas greenwashers only pretend to “go green,” Israel and its advocates often co-opt advances in gay rights that actually took place, to push forward a nationalist agenda. While Israel’s record on gay and more generally LGBT rights is far from perfect, there is no denying that considerable progress has been made. As a matter of fact if we want to fully understand the role of LGBT rights in Israeli homonationalism, we must not deny the progress that actually took place, but rather engage in further comprehension and analysis of this process. We should also not erase the hard work of activists and the hardly won achievements.

Although this is not the forum for an exhaustive analysis of how and why did LGBT rights develop as they did in Israel, we must note that the movement for LGBT rights became increasingly powerful and visible in the 1990’s, a decade when Israel in general underwent a process of liberalization, elected a progressive government, and entered into a (now failed) peace process. In the past, it was widely assumed that LGBT rights would correlate with advances in civil rights and the peace process. Today the opposite may be true: LGBT rights are used as a fig leaf, and the larger the area that needs to be hidden, the larger the fig leaf must be. Although conservative and especially religious politicians remain fiercely homophobic, this is partially counterbalanced – even in years when a conservative government has been in power – by the new homonationalism and the important role gay rights plays in burnishing Israel’s liberal image.

At the time the Israeli version of homonationalism was coming into its own, the Israeli LGBT community received political support almost exclusively from the left. Only those progressively minded politicians actively concerned with civil rights generally came out in support of LGBT rights. While this did not prevent the development of homonationalism, it did preclude a full scale “deal”  between Israeli nationalism and the LGBT community.

The presence of former Foreign Minister Zippi Livni, a member of the centrist Kadima party, at the opening of the June 2009 Pride events was evidence of a shift in the relationship between LGBT and general politics. The sea change occurred two months later. On August 1, 2009, At 22:40, a masked gunman entered the basement apartment that is home to Aguda, Israel’s oldest LGBT group, and shot indiscriminately at the people who had come to the weekly meeting of Bar Noar,  a LGBT youth group. Nir Katz, 24, a counselor in the group,  and Liz Trubishi, 17, were killed. Twelve others were injured, some seriously. It is likely that two of the victims will be wheelchair bound for the rest of their lives. This horrific event traumatized the Israeli LGBT community, and the aftershocks will undoubtedly be felt for years to come.

For the purpose of this discussion, my argument is that  one of the effects of the murder was that it allowed Israeli right wing politicians who are gay friendly to come out of the closet as such: if before the fear of hostile reaction by their conservative constituency prevented them from speaking openly for gay rights, and their support was always minimal and closeted, than the universal condemnation of the murder allowed them to “come out” with their support and speak out for gay rights. This change allowed the cementing of an unwritten deal that had long been in the works, between Israeli established homonormative politics and the new Israeli homonationalism. The mass rally in Tel Aviv a week after the murder, at which two senior right-wing cabinet ministers spoke, was a significant moment in this process. Although it did include critical and dissident voices, it also brought the homonormative and homonationalist politics together as has never happened before and was thus crucial for the “deal”. Its terms are that “we” will be good, normative and Zionist gays, who are willing to partake in the discourse of Israel as a liberal democracy and collaborate, directly and indirectly, in the state’s use of gay rights as a fig leaf for Israeli democracy, and in return we will get sympathy and some support from the state.

It seems that each party seized the day to advance its own agenda. Now, not only Israel as a state, but also right wing politicians, could utilize gay rights to consider themselves as liberal and democratic, while continuing to support oppressive policies towards the Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. The question that remains is who benefits from this deal and who does not, and by extension, who pays the price, and what the price actually is. One cost of the deal is the requirement that LGBT  people who do not fulfill the gay side of the deal – by maintaining sexual, gender, and especially political normativity – keep a low profile. LGBT activists are supposed to stay silent about the crimes committed by the government, particularly in the context of the occupation, and if they do not, someone will try to silence them.

The deal deepened the rift between the different groups, with one side composed of  the leaders of the majority of mainstream Israeli LGBT organizations and the other the queer and radical activists who reject  the terms of the deal and refuse to remain quiet. Disagreements about the proper response to the Bar Noar bloodshed and the program for the rally the following week created an atmosphere of distrust and alienation.  Almost a year later, the issues came up again in the discussions concerning Tel-Aviv Pride. Activists were concerned that the parade would be de-politicized, i.e. it would not address the broader context of oppression, but rather provide another opportunity for branding Israel as a gay heaven and therefore the epitome of liberalism. As the date for the 2010 pride parade approached, a group of queer-radical activists decided to hold an alternative parade a few hours before the municipality-sponsored parade. (While some activists marched in both the alternative and the municipal parades, others took part in a smaller alternative parade that took place at the same time as the municipal one).

The decision to hold an alternative parade rather than march in the main parade as a queer-radical bloc, coincided with the identity-politics-based splintering of the queer bloc, which in previous years would march at the municipality-sponsored parade. Many of the groups from which the “pink-black” bloc drew significant numbers of its participants, now chose to march in the parade as identity based groups, such as the transgender group, bisexuals, femmes, etc.  While clearly the visibility of these groups is important, especially in the face of their erasure from representation, it is also necessary to consider the effect of this on the possibility of queer, rather than identity, politics.

A few days before the parade, the Gaza flotilla incident heightened the tensions in the LGBT activist community. Rumors were spread in the gay online press, and then by an openly gay representative on the Tel Aviv city council, who is one of the main organizers of the municipality-supported parade, that queer left-wing activists plan to come to the parade carrying Turkish and Palestinian flags, together with their radical banners. Those spreading these rumors warned from what they called an “occupation” of the parade by the queer radical left. The mood became increasingly fraught and a day before the parade, in an effort to reduce tensions, representatives of a wide range of LGBT groups, both mainstream and queer, signed a declaration in favor of tolerance, pluralism, and freedom of speech, and condemning any form of violence. At the parade itself, while there was a presence of GLBT groups from the left-wing Meretz and Chadash parties, the Israeli right-wing nationalist group I’m Tirzu, present there for the first time,  gave out Israeli flags. Some participants wore stickers with the slogans  “I am a proud Zionist,” and “no to the occupation of the parade” [by the radical left – A.G] reinforcing the homonationalist message. (The Hebrew word for “proud” is ge’e, which sounds similar to “gay,” and this pun is often used intentionally).

Almost a year after the murder in Bar Noar, we see that the community is not united in a battle against homophobia. Instead, the “deal” struck in its aftermath aligned the newly invigorated homonationalism with homonormativity and exacerbated the conflicts between Israeli LGBT and queer activists, as was all-too apparent in the contentious period before the pride parade. There is more need than ever for queer politics which will reject homonationalism, while not denying the progress achieved on GLBT rights and the need to join efforts in fighting homophobia, a need that is more apparent than ever in the wake of the Bar Noar murder.

9 replies on “Israeli GLBT Politics between Queerness and Homonationalism”

Thanks Professor Aeyal Gross. I can see a pattern. The contemporariness of wider issues such as relations between countries, politics, HIV, travel, economics and normativity in influencing image of given countries. There is need for mentorship and guidance on influence of immediate, short and long term social dimensions that affect; one’s visibility, determination, individual life-span, jobs, educations, skills and relation with law. After 2 years when people are reading and analysing what happened will there no recriminations??? Today, it may be good to follow their agenda (pink-washing, green-washing, rainbow-washing……) but will this after 5 years remain relevant and palatable? Something that parents or participants in those marches will say “yes I am proud I was part of this”. Shall we see: empowerment, accountability, value for money, value for time, sustainability, consistence, upliftment, reasonableness…………..values?? This is my anti-backlash readiness plan. Otherwise, society will be ready for something new every time……..Thanks Professor!!!

[…] Israeli GLBT Politics between Queerness and Homonationalism « Bully Bloggers The recent use of the term “pinkwashing” to describe Israel’s use of gay rights for propaganda, patterned on “greenwashing,” may be somewhat misleading. Whereas greenwashers only pretend to “go green,” Israel and its advocates often co-opt advances in gay rights that actually took place, to push forward a nationalist agenda. While Israel’s record on gay and more generally LGBT rights is far from perfect, there is no denying that considerable progress has been made. As a matter of fact if we want to fully understand the role of LGBT rights in Israeli homonationalism, we must not deny the progress that actually took place, but rather engage in further comprehension and analysis of this process. We should also not erase the hard work of activists and the hardly won achievements. (tags: israel lgbt activism) […]

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