No pride in apartheid: Israel’s pinkwashing and the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians 

With special thanks to Anastasia Gavalas

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CN: this article contains discussion of trauma, genocide, homophobia, racism and pinkwashing


To us, to liberate our country, to have our dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human right is something as essential as life itself.

Ghassan Kanafani, speaking to Richard Carleton (1970)

In the past few weeks, the atrocities that have taken place in Jerusalem, Gaza and other Palestinian neighbourhoods have deeply traumatised me. As a Palestinian, I have been traumatised, as have many other Palestinians, whether they are living under physical occupation or in the diaspora. Relentless ethnic cleansing that has occurred continuously since 1948 means those Palestinians living under occupation remain in a constant state of fear.

I have used social media platforms to shed light on what is happening and to express my anger. I have written posts, tweeted and created videos to explain to my followers that I as a Palestinian person deserve to live with dignity. It is 2021 yet I still have to explain to people that Palestinian people are human too. It is draining to have to beg the world to take action and convince people that your community does not deserve to be killed or ethnically cleansed.  

Most of us as Palestinians are dealing with many kinds of trauma related to the 73 years of continued massacres, ethnic cleansing and occupation. We have heard many stories from our parents and grandparents relating to our homes in Haifa, Yafa, Jenine and Nablus, from which they fled.

These stories remain vivid in our collective memory and we still keep the old keys of these homes, hoping to return one day. The various genocides committed against the Palestinian people, such as the Nakba of 1948 and Naksa of 1967, did not end there. Ethnic cleansing continues to this today, and is witnessed by many of our parents and grandparents who survived the creation of a settler-colonial state and its never-ending supremacist violence.

Their stories of survival – the stories of having seen the dead bodies of siblings, close relatives, neighbours; the stories of having fled to live in caves for months with no clean water – these are the stories we hear when we are young, the stories that lead us to ask “Mama, what does it mean to be Palestinian?”. As a child, we are often told that we ask ‘too many question’. As a Palestine child, asking one question is one too many.

These stories are embedded into memory and will continue long after our grandparents leave us. 

From the first Palestinians who were killed, expelled from their homes, and subjected to genocide, to the ethnic cleansing today, violence continues to engulf us. The state-sanctionned annihilation of the Palestinian people is something that we live and survive within, against, and in spite of, every single day.

After several days of posting, tweeting, and even crying on social media, I received an array of messages and comments from liberals and apologists of Israeli crimes, insisting that as a gay person, I should not be defending Palestine and my “homophobic” Palestinian community. My feminist and queer allies received similar messages.

It was also stated that if we were true queers and feminists then we would be ‘supporting Israel’ because as these commenters point out to me, it is the only country in the Middle East that has gay rights and gay pride.

These people continue to perpetuate orientalist logic, and so whether they are well-intentioned or otherwise is irrelevant, since this logic is dangerously harmful. I find myself constantly having to unpack and deconstruct the insults sent my way.

I should not have to be doing this. I should not have to be educating people on why painting the Palestinian community as ‘barbaric’, ‘backwards’ and ‘homophobic’ is a direct propagation of racist logic. I should not have to explain or prove my humanity to anyone.

At the intersection of oppressions

As a queer Palestinian person, I lead a double fight.

Firstly, the fight for queer liberation, which is global. The oppression of queer people is everywhere. Queer people are oppressed in the West, in America, in the UK, in Israel, yet we are told that queerphobia only occurs in the ‘barbaric’ Middle East.

The oppression of queer people may manifest itself differently in different communities and socio-political contexts – be it through work discrimination, housing discrimination, social intolerance, or deprivation of rights – but the essence of queerphobia remains the same. The fight against patriarchy and homophobia is a global one, but in acknowledging local specificities we can better understand what transnational solidarity means.

The second fight that I lead is the fight for my Palestinian identity, an identity which is systematically oppressed, erased and dismissed under a settler-colonial entity. Israel is no safe haven to queers if it systematically brutalises Palestinian queers.

The apartheid system entrenched by consecutive Israeli administrations treats all Palestinians in the same manner, regardless of religion, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. In the eyes of the Israeli state, we are all conceptualised as our ethnic identity, “Palestinian”, and therefore deemed lesser-than. In the eyes of the Israeli state, we are all worthy of being displaced from our homes. In the eyes of successive Israeli governments and their foot soldiers, we are all deserving of genocide. 

The double oppression that I experience, from my identity as a gay man, and from my identity as a Palestinian, deserves to be unpacked. Kimberle Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality has helped me to do this. She describes the ways that different systems and structures of oppression – such as racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism – intersect and are inextricably linked. We must be attuned to these intersections so as to understand the struggle of those people who, subjected to these structures, navigate multiple marginalised identities. 

Since the oppression I face based on my ethnicity as Palestinian is connected to the oppression I face based on my sexual orientation as gay, understanding the common roots of these different oppressions allows me to fight against both racism and homophobia at the same time.

I fight for queer liberation with my Palestinian community and together we fight for liberation from a settler-colonial state. The Israeli state tries to convince Palestinian queers that our own communities are homophobic and transphobic. It perpetuates the notion, through orientalist social and political discourse (such as social media campaigns, promotional videos, the withdrawing of funds for LGBTQI+ initiatives from Palestinians) that gender and sexual variance is foreign to our communities and indigenous to Israel.

In doing so, it perpetuates the notion that our own Palestinian community cannot and will not accept us, that we must look to Israeli society for acceptance. I am not oppressed because the Palestinian community is inherently homophobic and transphobic; I am oppressed because of an apartheid system that insists on perpetuating the notion that Palestinian society is ‘backward’. As alQwas affirm in a recent analysis paper:

Pinkwashing tells queer Palestinians that personal (and never collective) liberation can only be found by escaping from their communities and running to their coloniser’s arms.


Homonationalism and the pitfall of Western liberals

I have also begun to question why liberal pro-LGBTQI+ Westerners support Israel and Tel Aviv pride, yet refuse to support me, a queer Palestinian resisting genocidal crimes.
The state of Israel positions itself as LGBTQI+ friendly yet continues to oppress Palestinian queers. Israel positions itself as queer inclusive yet it excludes some queer people based on their (Palestinian) ethnicity. We can use the concept of homonationalism, coined by the academic Jasbir Puar in her book ‘Terrorist Assemblages’, in order to make sense of this phenomenon. 

Homonationalism is short for ‘heteronormative nationalism’ and describes the co-optation of LGBTQI+ rights and discourse into nationalist politics, for white supremacist ends.

Homonationalism has been used in the West, for example, to justify the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities. Homonationalist discourse was at play with respect to LGBTQI+ support for Trump’s Muslim ban (which prevented citizens, including queers, from majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States).

Those supporting the Muslim ban in the name of gay rights did not stop to take into consideration the needs of their queer Muslim brothers and sisters. Another example of homonationalism is the way that the Obama administration oversaw the legalisation of gay marriage and increasingly neo-liberal gay-friendly discourse, whilst continuing to bomb Middle Eastern countries, and giving billions in funding to the state of Israel.

If homonationalism is the co-optation of gay rights into nationalist rhetoric, ‘pinkwashing‘ refers to the very specific phenomenon seen in Israel’s co-optation and weaponisation of gay rights for the purpose of furthering, justifying and masking its genocidal policies against Palestinians. 

For example, Israel spends millions of dollars every year on organising Tel Aviv Pride. According to liberal LGBTQI+ activism in the West, this is enough to qualify a country as “the only democracy of the Middle East”. Yet these activists miss the crucial point that Tel Aviv Pride is a process of pinkwashing, by which Israel attempts to promote itself as a safe haven for queers and therefore contrast itself to a ‘backwards’ ‘homophobic’ Palestinian society. This, in order to justify or detract attention away from its settler-colonial violence. 

Pinkwashing has nothing to do with gay or queer liberation, and only makes sense as a political strategy within a wider discourse of Islamophobia and settler-colonialism, at the expense of Palestinian lives. Borrowing from Giorgio Agamben’s comments on the US response to the 9/11 attacks, Israel becomes a “state of exception”, in which violence and ethnic cleansing is normalised, routinised and justified in the name of self-defence.

As a result of pinkwashing, international LGBTQI+ movements and activists often stand in solidarity with Israel as it plays the role of self-proclaimed defender of queer rights in a ‘backwards’ Middle East. Thus, pinkwashing allows Israeli governments to use a façade of gay-friendliness in order to mask over the violence faced by indigenous Palestinians..
I urge Western liberals to remember the following quote from Black trans activist and leading figure of the Stonewall Riots, Marsha P. Johnson:

No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.

Johnson had nothing but a brick to defend herself and her community against a militarised police force. Today, in 2021, I see my community fighting back with stones and bricks against the forces of an apartheid state. And I urge Western liberals and white gays to actively remember the roots of the pride marches they now participate in. Pride is not a party, it is liberation. Liberation cannot be achieved by those whose privileges allow them to benefit from oppressive states and systems. Liberation can only be achieved by the oppressed, the marginalised and the sidelined.

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All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Source: Montecruz Foto

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