Last week, the neologism ‘pinkwashing’ made an unwelcome return to news headlines. On Friday January 22, protesters bearing placards denouncing Israel disrupted an event organized by the National LGBTQ Task Force as part of its Creating Change conference in Chicago. The protesters, it seems, were upset by the involvement of an Israeli LGBT organisation called Jerusalem Open House and a Jewish LGBT organization called A Wider Bridge that, the JTA reported, “seeks to build ties between gay communities in North America and Israel.”
Over at the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog, law professor David Bernstein was flabbergasted. “Many participants,” he wrote, “describe the demonstration as both anti-Semitic and physically threatening (and the hotel felt obliged to call the police), but we can limit ourselves to the sheer craziness of radical LGBT activists shouting “free Palestine” and anti-Israel slogans to shut down an event involving an Israeli LGBT organization when Israel is a gay rights haven and the Palestinian territories, to say the least, are not.”
This was, as I hope to explain, to miss the point about what really irritates these people. And while I share Bernstein’s dismay, he needn’t have been shocked by their apparent perversity. It is only the most recent manifestation of a peculiar malady that has disproportionately afflicted the Left for decades.
On Israel and “pinkwashing,” more in a moment. First, a word on what George Orwell called “habits of mind.”
In his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism, Orwell explored the effect of tribal loyalty on our capacity for reasoned judgment. What interested him was not nationalism in its narrow, literal sense, but a broader, figurative definition encompassing a commitment to “such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism, and Pacifism.” A weakness for nationalisms of this kind, Orwell argued, was a characteristic of what he called “the intelligentsia.”
He doesn’t define this vague term, but I take it to mean those who take pride in a refined sensitivity to the needs of the oppressed and in a sophisticated understanding of the nature of reality. It is what sets them apart from a reflexively jingoistic population, whom it is their self-appointed task to enlighten and instruct. The problem, Orwell said, is that the arrogance of nationalist certainty has a habit of leading even the most intelligent people into moral incoherence.
A writer as perceptive and gifted as G. K. Chesterton, he observed, may have been the unyielding defender of liberty and democracy at home, but his non-negotiable devotion to a sentimentalised notion of political Catholicism persuaded him to venerate Italian fascism and to ignore French colonialism entirely. Self-deception of this kind is made easier by adopting what Orwell called a “transferred nationalism” – the kind attached to a foreign leader, doctrine, or people.
[F]or an intellectual, transference makes it possible for him to be much more nationalistic—more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest—than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge. When one sees the slavish or boastful rubbish that is written about Stalin, the Red army, etc. by fairly intelligent and sensitive people, one realizes that this is only possible because some kind of dislocation has taken place.
An obvious benefit afforded by transferred nationalism, of course, is that one doesn’t have to suffer its consequences. Had he lived long enough, Orwell would not, I suspect, have been surprised to learn of Jean-Paul Sartre’s support for Maoism and the Algerian FLN’s murder of civilians; nor of Michel Foucault’s description of the Ayatollah Khomeini as “a kind of mystic Saint”; nor of the solidarity offered to the genocidal theocrats of Hamas and Hezbollah by queer Jewish-American radicals like Judith Butler.
Orwell notes that the political Left and Right are both susceptible to this phenomenon, but that among the intelligentsia of 1945, Communism was by far the predominant form of nationalism. With the hopes and dreams of Communist utopia long-since reduced to rubble, that once-unshakeable faith has been quietly re-transferred elsewhere. Today, Palestinian nationalism is the cause into which thinkers are invited to empty the same intense moral certainty that Orwell’s deluded contemporaries once wasted on Stalin.
Only, notice a distinction: Western Communists and their fellow travellers defended the Soviet Union because they were persuaded of the nobility of Communist doctrine. Western support for Palestinian nationalism depends on the Palestinians’ nobility as a people: what Bertrand Russell called a belief in the “superior virtue of the oppressed.” The problem is that many of the ideas actually animating Palestinians and their leadership have turned out to be antithetical to the values that Western intellectuals offer as evidence of their own moral standards.
This is particularly acute in the case of Gaza, which has been held by Hamas since the jihadist organization seized it by force in 2007. The Hamas Charter is a work of genocidal conspiracy theory. It is also short and freely available online in English translation. In the Strip itself, compliance with religious law is enforced by a Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which reports to the Hamas Ministry of the Waqf. Mixing of the sexes and dancing is discouraged, and areas where either occurs have been closed down or attacked by Islamist vigilante groups. The sale and consumption of alcohol is, of course, prohibited. Book banning and political censorship are widespread. Demonstrators have been beaten, political opponents have been kneecapped and murdered, and Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel have been shot in the streets without so much as a cursory nod at due process.
The areas of the West Bank misgoverned by the ostensibly secular Palestinian Authority are scarcely better. The creation of the PA, pursuant to the terms of the 1993 Oslo accords, was supposed to midwife the emergence of a democratic politics in Palestine. Instead, it produced a kleptocratic police state. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is in year 11 of a four-year term. Palestinian law supposedly guarantees freedom of assembly, but criticism of the PA has resulted in the summary jailing and intimidation of Palestinian politicians, journalists, and citizens who have made the mistake of criticizing pervasive government corruption.
And across both territories murderous incitement against Jews, vilification of Israel, and the valorization of terror and its Palestinian “martyrs” are commonplace in mosques, classrooms, and media.
All this ought to present a challenge to the notion that Palestinian nationalism enjoys some kind of automatic moral advantage over its hated Zionist antagonist. Israel is, after all, a self-critical parliamentary democracy with a vibrant free press, and an independent judiciary that safeguards the equality of all its citizens before the law. On the available evidence, what is an independent Palestinian State likely to look like?
Consider the following table comparing LGBT rights and protections in Israel with those in the Palestinian territories:
* Same-sex marriage from abroad has been recognized since 2006
** No restriction if last MSM activity was before 1977.
It should be added that, although same-sex activity was technically decriminalized in the West Bank in 1951 (when the British Mandate Criminal Code was replaced by the Jordanian penal code), homosexuality there remains highly taboo. Gay Palestinians have faced extrajudicial torture, humiliation, blackmail, and beatings at the hands of the PA police; they have faced persecution in wider society; and they have been the victims of honor-based-violence and ostracism by their own families.
In Gaza, the British Mandate’s archaic 1936 ordinance authorizing a prison term of up to ten years for “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” [i.e. sodomy] remains in place, unamended. But as last year’s ILGA report revealed, this may be about to change:
In March 2014, media sources reported that Hamas drafted a law—planned to come into force in late-2016—that makes same-sex sexual behavior punishable by 100 lashes and up to five years in prison, and execution if such behavior happens three times. [Pg. 72]
While Tel Aviv is the home of a thriving LGBT scene and an annual Gay Pride parade, it is still extremely dangerous to be openly gay in Palestine. Hundreds of LGBT Palestinians have fled the territories for Israel. “We told the people in the village that we were friends, and for a while it worked,” said the boyfriend of one. “But then one day we found a letter under our door from the Islamic court. It listed the five forms of death prescribed by Islam for homosexuality, including stoning and burning. We fled to Israel that same day.”
But no appeal to the value of Israeli democracy can be allowed to pass unresisted. Palestinian nobility has to be protected at all costs, especially vis-à-vis its Jewish foe. Just as a fanatical attachment to Communist nationalism demanded a corresponding antipathy to Western capitalist democracy that was unanswerable to reason, so the Palestinian nationalism of its most fanatical adherents has become indistinguishable from a ferociously irrational anti-Zionism.
Once it became known that Israel intended to foreground its record on gay rights as part of a new public relations initiative, it was clear that something would have to be done to neutralize this threat to the moral order of things—and that maximum righteous indignation would need to be marshaled into the bargain.
As far as I can tell, the first time an accusation of Israeli ‘pinkwashing’ appeared outside of activist circles, was in a 2010 article for the Guardian written by an American queer theorist and Gender Studies professor named Jasbir K. Puar. But it wasn’t until the following year, when a Jewish-American novelist, queer activist, and humanities academic named Sarah Schulman published an OpEd in the New York Times on the subject, that the term received widespread attention. “Pinkwashing,” we discovered, described “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” In other words, Israel’s record on gay rights is simply a manoeuvre calculated to conceal its malevolent character.
Schulman and Puar’s argument was and is nothing more than a crude instrument of delegitimization. It says nothing about Israeli cynicism and rather a lot about their own. In their determination to transform the self-evidently laudable into the sinister and reprehensible, Schulman and Puar were prepared to empty the struggle for gay liberation itself of meaning and value. This may seem a perverse position for queer activists to adopt, but if one sees virtue in strictly binary zero-sum terms, it becomes imperative to deny your opponent credit for anything.
Puar and Schulman simply waved away evidence of Palestinian intolerance, secure in the knowledge that to do so would not have the slightest affect on the rights and protections they’d continue to enjoy in America. Anyone who did notice this sort of thing and decided to point it out, they declared, is a racist. “Israeli pinkwashing,” Puar revealed…
…is a potent method through which the terms of Israeli occupation of Palestine are reiterated—Israel is civilised, Palestinians are barbaric, homophobic, uncivilised, suicide-bombing fanatics . . . In reproducing orientalist tropes of Palestinian sexual backwardness, it also denies the impact of colonial occupation on the degradation and containment of Palestinian cultural norms and values.
In an essay for the academic journal Public Culture entitled Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World, Joseph Massad, a Palestinian-American professor at the Columbia University, had previously gone further. According to him, the very effort to universalise gay rights is a project of missionary colonialism on the part of a menacing network of orientalist NGOs and activists he called “The Gay International.” This baleful project, Massad claimed, is what is actually responsible for the persecution of “practitioners of same-sex relations” by Islamists and other reactionaries in Arab and Muslim societies.
Such people are inflamed, he wrote, not by their own bigoted doctrines and attitudes, but by the imperial imposition of Western conceptions of “gay identity” on societies where they do not, in fact, exist! For instance, Massad explained the persecution of homosexuals by the Egyptian state like this: “It is not same-sex sexual practices that are being repressed by the Egyptian police but rather the sociopolitical identification of these practices with the Western identity of gayness and the publicness that these gay-identified men seek.”
A very silly argument indeed! As Orwell remarked of comparable nonsense circulated by clever people in his own day: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
For taking perfectly justifiable pride in a progressive record on LGBT rights, Westerners in general, and Israelis in particular, suddenly found themselves forced to answer accusations of racism, cultural imperialism, incitement of Arab and Muslim gay-hatred, and the cynical laundering of neo-colonial violence. These are inflammatory charges calculated to elicit moral outrage and demands for capitulation not compromise. The Chicago protesters may have begun by chanting for an end to the occupation, but lest that term be confused with support for moderation and peaceful co-existence, such chants soon gave way to the eliminationist slogan “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!”
As an aggressive piece of activist strategy, the “pinkwashing” charge is shameless and shrewd. As a piece of moral reasoning, it is inane. For those intellectuals who contrive to revile Israel for the good it does as well as the bad, defense of Palestinian nationalism’s superior virtue has become the consideration before which all others must fall. But for ordinary, liberally-minded people whose capacity for clear thought has not been destroyed by spiteful masochism and obscurantist jargon, gay rights and the freedom to love openly as one chooses are precious for their own sake.
Contra Schulman, Puar, and Massad, an indication of a society’s civilization or backwardness can indeed be found in its treatment of minorities. And by any objective measure, liberal democracy—imperfect as it is—has a far better record on this than any one of the Middle East’s dictatorships, monarchies, and theocracies.
There persists on the intellectual Left an obstinate refusal to recognize this self-evident fact, or even to acknowledge information that might support it. “The nationalist” Orwell wrote, “not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
At a 2013 event held at the LGBT Centre in New York, Sarah Schulman declared herself to be in opposition to anyone “invested in systems of supremacy, whether it’s gender supremacy, religious or racial supremacy.” Asked by the journalist Sohrab Ahmari if she considered Hamas to be among those invested in such systems, she replied: “I don’t know enough about Hamas to give you a complete, intelligent analysis of Hamas.” So mesmerized is Schulman by the idea of the Palestinians that she cannot bring herself to even look at the specifics.
“Many [on the Western Left] whose allegiance went to the Soviet Union,” wrote the historian Robert Conquest, “may well be seen as traitors to their countries, and to the democratic culture. But their profounder fault was more basic still. Seeing themselves as independent brains, making choices as thinking beings, they ignored their own criteria. They did not examine the multifarious evidence, already available in the 1930s, on the realities of the Communist regimes. That is to say, they were traitors to the human mind, to thought itself.”
Jamie Palmer is a writer and film-maker and senior editor at Quillette. You can follow him on Twitter @j4mi3p