On Queers Against Israeli Apartheid & Pinkwashing

New York City Pride Parade 2011

The season of rainbows is here again. A time when everyone’s happy and everyone’s gay. Everyone, that is, save one group whose presence few seem to understand. I’m talking, of course, about Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).

QuAIA is mostly silent during the year, keeping to themselves and their circle of radical activists. But, once a summer, due to their presence in Toronto’s Pride Parade, they attract a lot of attention with their message of…well…umm…what exactly is their message, and what do queers really have to do with apartheid anyway?

The message of QuAIA, though difficult to discern from its unclear name and heavy use of radical-activist-speak, is, when boiled down, actually quite simple. So simple, in fact, that I’m surprised by their inability to explain it to the public.

For those who don’t know, QuAIA takes issue with the Israeli government’s use of ‘pinkwashing’ to brand their nation as a gay-friendly destination for queer travelers. (Pinkwashing is essentially the act of exploiting one’s tolerance of queers to sell a product—in this case, Israeli tourism.)

In 2005, Israel embarked on a rebranding campaign meant to market the country as a hip place to spend one’s money and, ideally, draw attention away from the oh-so-inconvenient problem of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

One aspect of the campaign was to tell the world how accepting Israelis are of LGBT people. And it’s true. Even though there remains a strong conservative and religious opposition in the country, the policies of the government are quite queer-friendly. Same-sex marriages are recognized (but not performed), Pride festivals fill the streets, gays are allowed in the military and are able to adopt children, and anti-discrimination laws are even on the books. Compared to the vast majority of countries on this earth, Israel is far ahead in the LGBT rights race.

So what’s the problem then? Simply put, QuAIA takes issue with hard-fought human rights victories of one group being used to hide, and, in effect, legitimize, human rights violations against another.

Advocates of such gay-branding say that advertising a country’s “friendliness” towards a group of people is perfectly legitimate—and they’re right. But they’re also missing the point.

When Israel shows off how gay-friendly it is, and pundits inevitably highlight how gay-unfriendly the rest of the Middle East is, it’s easy to view Israel as a beacon of freedom in a sea of despair. And this is where QuAIA comes in. To them, Israel is no such beacon and should not be seen as one, given their treatment of the people whose land they occupy and blockade.

Before I receive the obligatory hate-mail that comes with writing *anything* on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I should say that I’m not writing this to provide commentary on what’s actually happening there. I’m writing because QuAIA is failing to bring their message to anyone but the converted.

A queer group that labels itself with a contentious term—apartheid—that then can’t explain to the general public why queer people have anything to do with it, is destined to fail. And this is unfortunate, because they do have important ideas—criticizing ‘pinkwashing’ being the most important.

For anyone who thinks that QuAIA is doing a fine job, just look at practically every editorial on them in mainstream media organizations across Canada. Few, if any, engage with QuAIA’s actual issues, instead focusing on how awful the rest of the Middle East is toward gays, making queers against Israel seem silly and out of touch. I’m not saying it’s right, but what else can we expect from lazy commentators who aren’t forced to engage with specifics.

Sure, QuAIA might explain themselves perfectly fine on their website, but when the vast majority of uninformed people don’t read their website, it doesn’t mean much. QuAIA need to realize that if they *actually* want to effect change, they need to have the public on their side. And that’s not going to happen when the mainstream media is given free reign to shape the debate in favour of Israel. The purpose of QuAIA, as I see it, is to force the public to engage with this issue—something they’ve failed to do thus far. And how should they go about this? By dropping the radical-activist-speak and by making an actual effort to explain themselves. If you have a message, it’s your job to get it across, not to sit there and bemoan the obstacles in your way—in this case, the “zionist media”.

As legal rights and support for queers enters the mainstream at a faster and faster pace, pinkwashing is only going to spread. We need to call it out when it happens and tell the businesses and governments engaged in it that we don’t accept their exploitation of our only-recent acceptance in society. And that we especially won’t accept it when used to cleanse the image of controversial products.

We must remember that gay rights haven’t always existed, and that we don’t have them now because they were simply bestowed to us in an act of kindness. No, our brethren fought tooth and nail to wrestle those rights and privileges from the hands of those now trying to profit off of them.

And this, in an awfully roundabout way, is what QuAIA is failing to get across to thousands of queers each summer. Just so you know. Because, it’s not like they were going to tell you.

Photos courtesy of Paul Lowry and Loozrboy via Flickr

10 comments

  • I find it quite sad that the one country that even tolerate homosexuals in the slightest is being targeted here. It’s actually disgusting. How can anyone claim to be progressive when in other countries in the middle east, gays are killed?

    So, Israel is the bad guy in all this? Julian, please write an article about how gays are treated in the rest of the middle east… the very fact such a protest / movement exists is deplorable.

    • The fact that Israel bestows its gay citizens with more rights than most countries on earth does not make it off limits from criticism by queers.Also, I shouldn’t have to say this, but, the article has nothing to do with the horrendous policies of other Middle Easter government’s against queers. At no point do I excuse these countries, nor would I ever do so (which I should hope goes without saying). 
      Please do not confuse my criticism of Israel’s practice of pinkwashing for anything other than that.

      •  Oh no, Israel isn’t being tolerant enough. Those bastards. It’s not like they have dozens of countries breathing down their necks that want to wipe them off the map…

        Where are the queers against Iran and Egypt? Where are they?

        See, this is exactly why I can’t take gay movements like this one seriously in the slightest. I really don’t think you understand what exactly is at stake in other countries… DEATH.

        It goes beyond intolerance… you will be killed. Instead, this group honestly nitpicks at Israel… that’s just disgusting.

        • Let’s say you live in an apartment building.

          The guy next door welcomes you in and offers you food and drink, but he also has the guy who originally lived in the apartment locked in his cupboard and beats him badly.

          It’s your right to criticize your neighbour for his mistreatment of the apartment’s former tenant. The unrelated fact that the guy down the hall wants to kill both you and the guy next door does not mean that your criticism of your neighbour is invalid and should stop.

          Maybe that’s an argument that will play with mainstream media watchers.

          •  Except the guy in the apartment doesn’t have anything against you. And his “mistreatment” of the former tenant is greatly exaggerated.

            But let’s ignore the Palestinian issue for just a moment, because that’s not really the issue at hand. It’s a matter of priorities and what’s right.

            Strictly speaking on the gay issue here, we are in Canada. We are not in the middle east. So we should focus our attention on North America in general. But, there comes times where this is a global issue…

            So, they could nitpick a single middle eastern country, and they go after Israel? The one country that actually tolerates them? The greatest ally to the west? That Israel?

            If anything, it’s a slap in the face — a hard one at that — to the gays who get killed in Saudi and other places… see, although Israel isn’t perfect, they’re on the right path with the issue… and that is tolerance.

            The other places have ZERO. That’s the problem.Don’t condemn Israel. I mean, of all things…

            I really don’t think people in this community understand the real world or are too afraid to criticize it, or simply just pretend it doesn’t exist.

            But no, let’s focus our attention on Rob Ford — the Toronto mayor — being overweight and not attending a pride parade. Because heaven forbid he has a different point of view or just doesn’t want to attend…

            Let’s ignore the biggest issue facing homosexuals and nitpick on Israel who is — because leftist loves this word — soooooo bigoted.   

            If you’re going to criticize the Middle East, go after the real enemies. Not the ONE country who tolerates you.

          • I too have never understood Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, for the reasons mentioned in this article: Compared to the vast majority of countries on this earth, Israel is far ahead in the LGBT rights race and the only place in the Middle East that has a pride festival – so why single out Israel? If this article is correct – (that QuAIA is protesting against pinkwashing) then I have even less respect for QuAIA. In many places in the Middle East you will be killed if you are gay, but they are protesting against Israeli marketing campaigns? What a joke.

  • Couldn’t agree more with the conclusion of the author that wearing your oppression as a badge of honour is counter-productive and will inevitably divide political movements into feuding factions that their enemies then exploit. 

    However, the most telling quote in this article is the following: ”If you have a message, it’s your job to get it across, not to sit there and bemoan the obstacles in your way—in this case, the “zionist media’.” This borders on anti-semitism in my view,  and belies their claim to being a legit criticism of Israel. The old canard that the Jews control all the media and use it as a tool to conspire against their ennemies is unacceptable whether if comes from the extreme right or the extreme left.  

    • Thanks so much for your comment. Regarding the “zionist media” quote, you’re absolutely right. I used the term—in square quotes—as criticism of the very people who use the term. I’ve been accused of working for the “zionist media” (not at ForgetTheBox), and the only effect was to make everyone on the receiving end not take seriously those hurling such ugly words. 

  • I hope one day the Arab world gets 10% of the criticism Israel does.
    Israel apartheid is a gross exaggeration of the conflict. But these are people who live on the margins of society, completing degrees in “I’m a victim studies”, who go to protests to feel important. To them the world paradigm is “oppressed vs oppressor”, and any information to argument that doesn’t fit into their narrow world view gets discarded. Sad.

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