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No Pride in Genocide

Pinkwashing & LGBTQ Liberation in Palestine

May 1, 2024

Graphic reading "Palestine is a Queer Issue"


I don’t know how long I will live, so I just want this to be my memory here before I die. I am not going to leave my home, come what may. My biggest regret is not kissing this one guy. He died two days back. We had told [one another] how much we like each other, and I was too shy to kiss [him] last time. He died in the bombing. I think a big part of me died too. And soon I will be dead. To Younus, I will kiss you in heaven.

Anonymous Palestinian living in Gaza, Queering the Map1Sarah O’Neal, “Gaza’s Queer Palestinians Fight to be Remembered,” The Nation, November 16, 2023.

ISRAEL’S BARBARIC GENOCIDE in Gaza barrels forward unabated with no end in sight. Palestinians are suffering a horrifying humanitarian nightmare unparalleled in scale and intensity in the twenty-first century. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 33,000 people have been killed since October 7, 2023, including 12,150 children, accounting for more than 1 percent of Gaza’s entire population.

Israel’s cruel and sadistic destruction has made Gaza uninhabitable for its population of 2.3 million people. The United Nations reports that 1.9 million Gazans, 85 percent of the population, have been permanently displaced from their homes. Israel’s goals are clear: ethnic cleansing and colonization.


Pinkwashing: Rebranding Settler Colonialism

To legitimize its practices of colonial expansionism and Jewish ethno-supremacy, Israel deploys justifications steeped in dehumanizing colonial racism masked in liberal rhetoric and humanitarian discourse. In the early 2000s pinkwashing became a critical tool in Israel’s arsenal of ideological justification.

According to queer Palestinian scholar Sa’ed Anshan, author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique, pinkwashing is based on four ideological underpinnings: (1) highlighting queer Israeli agency and experience while minimizing anti-LGBTQ discrimination within Israel; (2) emphasizing Palestinian homophobia and eliding queer Palestinian self-activity; (3) counterposing these contrasting LGBTQ experiences to promote a “clash of civilizations” discourse that presents Israeli society as inclusive and humane, Palestinians as subhuman, and Arab and Muslim culture as intrinsically backward; and (4) representing Israel as a beacon for LGBTQ legal rights and a haven for LGBTQ people throughout the Middle East, to promote gay tourism and increase political support for the Israeli state and its colonial expansionist policies.2Sa’ed Atshan, Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 2020.

Pinkwashing began as a political project as a result of converging historical factors. Prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel was a politically isolated pariah state throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in the eyes of many formerly colonized states across the Global South. In the West, Israel was associated with cycles of ongoing conflict and instability stemming from its routine involvement in regional wars.

Israel wanted to change the way it was perceived on the global stage and become further integrated into growing transnational trade networks emerging after the collapse of the Cold War and the onset of capitalist expansion and globalization known as neoliberalism. A key component of the Oslo Accords was the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Israel viewed this historic recognition as a gateway to further legitimacy and normalization of global political and economic relationships.

Throughout the 2000s, gay and lesbian people across the Western world were beginning to experience unprecedented advancements in civil rights and legal equality—repeal of antisodomy laws, antidiscrimination policies in employment and housing, marriage equality, adoption rights, access to inclusive social services and education—along with increasing mainstream cultural visibility and acceptance. Social change was achieved through the ebbs and flows of defiant activism against brutal, oftentimes violent, state sanctioned homophobia and religious bigotry. These gains were a product of struggle and have brought material improvement to many queer people’s lives, and they should not be dismissed or minimized because state actors manipulate them in the service of neoliberalism and imperialist domination.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry launched “Brand Israel” in 2005, a well funded, multimillion-dollar campaign to rebrand Israel’s image on the global stage. The purpose behind Israel’s campaign was to shed the country’s religious associations and connotations with conflict by reinventing itself as a liberal, “modern” state.

Advertising Israel as a welcoming place for LGBTQ people and a beacon for queer progress in a conservative, homophobic region remains an important component of this project. Israeli pinkwashing has taken many forms: marketing Tel Aviv Pride as an attractive destination for gay tourism; promoting international queer Israeli film, art, and cultural festivals; organizing LGBTQ Birthright trips for young Jewish people; and using social media and other online platforms to spread misinformation campaigns about Palestinian homophobia and antisemitism.

Highlighting a “gay-friendly Israel” and minimizing homophobia internal to Israeli society depend on dehumanizing Palestinians as pathologically reactionary and undeserving of solidarity. The goal is to justify and/or direct attention away from Israel’s brutal colonial and apartheid policies and, in turn, draw on political anxiety anchored in anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia to demonize Palestinian resistance and undermine growing global solidarity movements.


No Pink Door at the Apartheid Wall

The most recent iteration of this racist, colonial logic is a photo of Yoav Atzmoni, a reservist in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that went viral online in the early weeks of Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza. Atzmoni is pictured holding a rainbow pride flag, with the words “In the Name of Love,” written in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Behind him lie the ruins of Palestinian homes, schools, and neighborhoods, flattened by Israeli bombs.

In an interview, Atzmoni explained that the Israeli military “is the only army in the Middle East that protects democratic values … It’s the only army that allows LGBT people the freedom to be who they are, and therefore, I fully believe in our goal.” Stating that his own rights would be threatened if Hamas defeated the IDF, he declared, “I won’t let them bring me back into the closet.”3Lubna Masarwa, “Israel–Palestine War: Soldier Flying Rainbow Flag in Gaza ‘Textbook Pinkwashing,’” Middle East Eye, November 13, 2023.  The absurd implication that the homophobia of some Palestinians justifies the displacement and slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians and wholesale genocidal destruction of an entire society reveals the deep level of racist dehumanization intrinsic to Zionist colonialism.

The experience of queer Palestinians is completely disregarded; there is no pink door to escape the horrors of Israel’s genocidal terror.

Typical of such pinkwashing narratives, the experience of queer Palestinians is completely disregarded; there is no pink door to escape the horrors of Israel’s genocidal terror. IDF bombs do not distinguish between civilians’ sexuality or gender identity when they rain down on schools and hospitals, level entire residential blocks, or terrorize overcrowded refugee camps. Contrary to Israeli claims that cities such as Tel Aviv represent a safe haven for Palestinian queers, Israeli law forbids the state from granting asylum status to Palestinians.

Rarely are LGBTQ Palestinians from the Occupied Territories or Gaza granted permission to enter Israel. Most who do obtain entry come illegally and face precarious circumstances and intense racism. Despite pinkwashing distortions, queer Palestinians are not provided rainbow passports through Israeli checkpoints or apartheid walls.

Equally destructive is the racist dehumanization inherent to the pathologizing of Palestinian society as uniquely and irrevocably homophobic. In treating Palestinian homophobia as fixed and immutable, pinkwashing logic alienates LGBTQ Palestinians from their own society, painting them as permanent outsiders devoid of agency for social change and victims in need of rescue by their colonial saviors.

As the LGBTQ Palestinian organization alQaws explains in their statement, “Beyond Propaganda, Pinkwashing as Colonial Violence,”

Pinkwashing pushes the racist idea that sexual and gender diversity are unnatural and foreign to Palestinian society. When this idea is internalized within Palestinian communities, it alienates queer and gender non-conforming Palestinians. These composing social pressures tell queer Palestinians that they must give up on some part of their identity.44. “Beyond Propaganda: Pinkwashing as Colonial Violence,” alQaws, October 10, 2020.

Queer Palestinians have agency to confront queer oppression within their own society, to build political formations, and to simultaneously resist their own ethnic cleansing and dispossession at the hands of Israeli settler colonialism. Palestinian queers do not require pinkwashed Zionist saviors; they deserve our solidarity in our shared struggle for collective liberation.


Homophobia in Israel and Palestine

Sexual and gender oppression are not unique to Palestine. Homophobia and transphobia are structural features of every capitalist society. LGBTQ people throughout the world experience varying degrees of oppression, discrimination, and violence, compounded by a multiplicity of factors such as race, class, immigration status, religious background, disability, and others.

Contrary to Israel’s rebranding efforts, homophobia and transphobia persist in Israeli society. Anti-LGBTQ prejudice remains firmly rooted within conservative, religious sections of the population, and Israel’s growing far right and neofascist parties. LGBTQ Israelis have had success obtaining certain legal advancements, from the repeal of sodomy laws to the recognition of out-of-state marriages, partial access to adoption, employment protections, and the ability to serve openly in the IDF—terrorizing Palestinian civilians.

Yet LGBTQ people are still denied basic legal rights. Marriage policies in Israel are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate court system, which makes same-sex marriages and civil unions illegal. Israeli adoption policies enforce homophobic discrimination; gay couples are permitted to adopt only as a last resort, in circumstances where no heterosexual adoptive family can be found. While Tel Aviv is highlighted for its queer urban enclaves, large Pride festival, and culturally accepting attitudes, pinkwashing obscures the systemic intolerance, discrimination, and violence against LGBTQ people embedded within Israeli society, including widespread transphobic violence, anti-LGBTQ bullying in schools, and persistent familial rejection and abandonment.

At the same time, minimizing or eliding the harsh realities of queer oppression within Palestinian society undermines efforts to challenge Israeli pinkwashing and is unattuned to the material realities of queer Palestinians. Homophobia and transphobia are institutionalized and systemic in the Palestinian Territories. In Gaza, sodomy law criminalizes same-sex relations, while in the West Bank, polls reveal 95 percent of the population disapprove of homosexuality, widely viewed as a Western phenomenon.

Political discussions about LGBTQ issues are far less common in the Palestinian Territories. Public displays of sexual and gender transgression are rare. But queer and trans oppression within the West Bank and Gaza is not a fixed or immutable feature intrinsic to Palestinian society.

Oppressive systems of sexual and gender regulation are explained by overlapping factors, including: the legacy of European colonialism; Western imperialism’s support for reactionary, authoritarian regimes; and the growth of political Islam in response to the collapse of secular Arab nationalism and the failures of the Oslo Accords. Nevertheless, as history demonstrates, social hierarchies that have been constructed can also be transformed.

In the face of brutal Israeli colonization and widespread homophobia within Palestine, LGBTQ Palestinians refuse to be victimized by pinkwashing savior narratives and instead exercise their own capacity for self-organization and political agency. The growth of the Internet and social media has exposed previously isolated Palestinian queers to an increasingly transnational LGBTQ ecosystem, creating new opportunities for community formation. The first queer Palestinian organizations, alQaws and Aswat, formed in this context during the early 2000s.

LGBTQ activists in Palestine organize simultaneously to oppose Israeli settler colonization and sexual- and gender-based oppression entrenched within their own society, building lifesaving mutual aid networks for vulnerable queer and trans populations and creating new organizational infrastructures of collective resistance to colonialism and homophobia. Queer Palestinians’ voices and organizations have become integral forces in the global campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). They’ve raised a queer and feminist lens within the overall struggle against Israeli apartheid.


Palestine and Queer Liberation

Queer and feminist activists in Palestine aspire to transform Palestinian society’s attitudes on homosexuality and gender expression. But their ability to build political movements for queer and trans self-actualization is greatly impaired by brutal conditions of genocide, occupation, and apartheid. Harsh regimes of military control and surveillance fragment Palestinian society and jeopardize basic survival.

What’s necessary is an internationalist, anti-imperialist queer politics, grounded in solidarity and uninhibited by capitalist borders and racism.

Anti-pinkwashing campaigns, a global BDS movement, and a revolutionary upheaval of Arab masses throughout the region are key ingredients in dismantling Zionist settler colonialism. The formation of a decolonized secular and democratic state in historic Palestine is the gateway to upending the asymmetrical power relations between Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians.

The collective struggle for that state will help create the social conditions for queer and feminist emancipation in the region. As Sa’ed Anshan argues, queer and Palestinian liberation are intimately bound together:

LGBT Palestinians recognize that an end to Israeli oppression would likely make it easier to empower and liberate queer and trans Palestinians … Like their feminist counterparts and like many feminists among them, queer Palestinians cannot be required, even when some of them acquiesce, to halt the struggle against heteropatriarchy in Palestine. For most queer Palestinians, that struggle is no more and no less critical than the fight for Palestinian national self-determination.5Atshan, Queer Palestine, 80.

In this new chapter of the Palestinian freedom struggle, what’s necessary is an internationalist, anti-imperialist queer politics, grounded in solidarity and uninhibited by capitalist borders and racism. The martyrs of Gaza deserve nothing less. ×

  1. Sarah O’Neal, “Gaza’s Queer Palestinians Fight to be Remembered,” The Nation, November 16, 2023.
  2. Sa’ed Atshan, Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 2020.
  3. Lubna Masarwa, “Israel–Palestine War: Soldier Flying Rainbow Flag in Gaza ‘Textbook Pinkwashing,’” Middle East Eye, November 13, 2023.
  4. “Beyond Propaganda: Pinkwashing as Colonial Violence,” alQaws, October 10, 2020.
  5. Atshan, Queer Palestine, 80.

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