Photo: Yale students walk out of class in solidarity with Palestine, Oct. 2023. Credit: Chris Garaffa.
In response to the growing solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle among U.S. college students, Israel has launched a shady new operation on campuses to intimidate and silence its critics and “pinkwash” its colonial occupation of Palestine by winning over LGBTQ influencers.
A new hasbara task force
The special “task force” is being coordinated by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, according to a recent report in the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. The Diaspora Affairs Ministry is how Israel, which claims itself as a state for all Jews everywhere, pressures Jewish diaspora communities around the world for support — support that has been collapsing among the U.S. public.
The plan calls for pressuring colleges and universities to dox and blacklist students for “antisemitism” — by which it means any opposition to Israeli apartheid — including blocking them from getting hired by potential employers. It also seeks to ban anti-Zionist student organizations and events on campus, explicitly naming Students for Justice in Palestine. These actions “should not have the signature of the State of Israel,” according to the task force. Instead, the task force would identify points of leverage within U.S. society, such as professional unions and big donors to colleges, and enlist their help in applying pressure to employers and university heads to “act against antisemitism.” The task force would also try to work with the U.S. Justice Department to bring legal action against groups like SJP.
Finally, the task force would seek out and deploy supportive social media influencers to college campuses to build support for pro-Israel activities, including demonstrations and street flyer campaigns. “The focus must be on influencers from the human rights, diversity, and gender identity realms [emphasis added],” Yediot Aharonot said.
This kind of state-level public relations management by Israel is called “hasbara,” a Hebrew word that roughly translates to “explaining.” As a small outpost of Western imperialism, Israel is heavily dependent on foreign support to maintain its occupation of Palestinian land and has spared no effort in cultivating a favorable image of itself abroad, including by pretending it is a bastion of human rights protections in a part of the world where such values are ostensibly absent.
Intensifying crackdown on Palestine solidarity
Along with the recent congressional decision to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism — paving the way for “legal” repression of pro-Palestine speech as hate crimes — there have been a myriad of other examples of corporate, educational, and cultural institutions targeting individuals and organizations for pro-Palestine speech and action. In one instance, a middle school teacher was even placed on administrative leave for simply posting “Free Palestine” on social media.
The Yediot Aharonot article notes that the task force’s efforts have already yielded success, with the Wexner Israel Foundation canceling its relationship with Harvard University and billionaire hedge fund manager Henry Swieca quitting the board of Columbia Business School — two campuses where anti-Zionist students have come under attack. At Harvard, student organizers have faced doxing and other harassment that seeks to publicly shame and intimidate them, and Columbia has banned SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization of anti-Zionist Jews, from its campus in New York City. Similar attacks have been levied against student organizations at Brandeis University, George Washington University, and others.
In the last 20 years, support for the Zionist project among the most progressive sectors of the U.S. working class has been steadily undermined by the tireless work of Palestinians, anti-imperialists, and Palestine solidarity activists. In a phone call leaked by the Tehran Times, this dwindling support was described by Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, as a “major major major generational problem … We have a TikTok problem, we have a Gen-Z problem.”
What little support Israel has been able to cultivate among these sectors of U.S. society has been contingent on a nexus of propaganda operations designed to create an image of Israel as “progressive.” “Rainbow washing,” a term coined by writers at Decolonize Palestine, refers to the myriad ways that Israeli propagandists actively cultivate the image of a “progressive” Israel using “socialist” rhetoric around the kibbutzim and labor politics (“redwashing”), environmentalism (“greenwashing”), human rights (“bluewashing”), feminism (“purplewashing”), queer liberation (“pinkwashing”), and religious and ethnic diversity and inclusion (“faithwashing”).
“Pinkwashing,” or the framing of Israel as a haven for queer and trans people in a supposedly “backward” and “barbaric” Middle East, is a key part of Israeli hasbara and relies on several key racist assumptions. Western homophobia was historically a fundamental building block of racist, Orientalist, and colonial narratives about the so-called Middle East, which was portrayed as a world of decadence, sexual deviancy, sodomy, and effeminacy in need of civilizing European morality.
As Zionism is an outgrowth of the European colonial tradition, it explicitly embraced the same fundamentally Orientalist and homophobic framing — a framing that itself was used for centuries by European antisemites to portray European Jews as weak, effeminate, corrupting influences. The construction of the Zionist state was framed as a way for European Jews, so long subjected to these same homophobic European characterizations, to claim a form of rugged, colonial masculinity and as such legitimize them as “real men” in the European mind.
Zionist masculinity, fundamentalist interpretations of Jewish jurisprudence, and its fascist, eugenicist obsession with cultivating settler natalism, has created a deeply homophobic society in Israel that does not even permit same-sex marriage. Despite this, relentless propaganda efforts have obscured these facts. Whether it is a pride parade in Tel Aviv or a profile of an openly gay or trans IDF soldier, unconditional support for Zionist settler colonialism is the price for limited and conditional rights for the tiniest subset of Israeli queers. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “homonationalism,” is comparable to similar campaigns by some in the U.S. LGBTQ movement to assimilate into imperialism through military service, the institution of marriage, and beyond.
Pinkwashing also relies on fundamentally racist stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim world as exceptionally and irredeemably patriarchal and homophobic. As explained above, this stereotype is relatively new, historically speaking, as through the mid-20th century the dominant Orientalist narrative about Arabs and Muslims was the one that despised the image of an effeminate and libertine East. The evolution of sexual and gender politics in Southwest Asia is complex, but it is undeniable that core aspects of contemporary legal regimes in various Arab and Muslim countries have much more of a basis in colonial, Western-influenced “modernization” campaigns than in the organic development of these nations and civilizations.
In this way, pinkwashing also provides fuel for conservatism and traditionalism all over the world. American reactionaries, who are actively working to roll back every gain people’s movements have made towards LGBTQ liberation in the United States, deploy the specter of the violent, patriarchal Arab to bash support for Palestine in the LGBTQ movement.
Similarly, ahistorical traditionalism from some sectors of Arab and Muslim communities, in the region and in the diaspora, are able to cast their homophobia as fundamentally at odds with “Western modernity,” “globalism,” or even “imperialism.” The historical record shows that this is a flawed analysis, but when an Israeli soldier steps out onto the ruins of an apartment block in Gaza to raise a pride flag over the graves of tens of thousands of martyrs, it is easy to see how this is a convincing argument for many.
Rainbow solidarity with Palestine!
Ultimately, every nation and civilization will have its own path toward full liberation for all people. Pinkwashing (and other forms of rainbow washing) have been deployed by imperialists outside of Palestine, especially around the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The only moral position when it comes to the question of sexuality and gender in Occupied Palestine and beyond is decolonization, national liberation, and peaceful development. Any other basis misses the point entirely.
Pinkwashing and these other efforts to promote “good PR” by the Israeli state and its friends are nothing but attempts to divide the rapidly growing Palestine solidarity movement at a time when millions of Americans are waking up and seeing Israeli apartheid for the inhuman horror that it is. All working and oppressed people here in the U.S., including LGBTQ people, should unite in support of Palestinian liberation. We share a common enemy: the LGBTQ-phobic, racist, imperialist U.S. government and the proxy states it uses to police the globe on its behalf, including Israel. When it is gone, and we can build a new world with respect for the self-determination of all people, then we will all be free.