Pinkwashing the Occupation

What is Pinkwashing?

Pinkwashing is a promotional tactic leveraged by organizations, governments and corporations in an attempt to appear gay friendly so as to financially profit.

When speaking about Pinkwashing in context with Isreal, we are talking about a marketing campaign the Israeli government employed to transform the country’s global perception away from a colonialist settler-state into a modern and liberal country by utilizing LGBTQ rights as both a hallmark of modernity and as a diversionary tactic.

Brand Israel and the Targeting of LGBTQ

Before moving forward I want to make it clear that I will be heavily referencing Sarah Schulman’s documentary on the history of Brand Israel.  It is incredibly detailed and while I will only be touching on the points in which the LGBTQ community is co-opted, but I encourage you to read the entire article to get a fuller understanding of many facets of Brand Israel’s forceful campaign.

We cannot speak about Pinkwashing without first speaking about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement. Briefly; in 2005 Palestinian activists called on the global community to join their fight by BDS’ing Israeli products and companies that have a hand in the oppression of Palestinians. This cry for justice brought to the public eye the ugly truth about Israel’s oppressive regime, tarnishing the country’s global image.

In response, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s office and the Finance ministry launched Brand Israel – a marketing campaign aimed at re-branding the country’s image to appear ‘relevant and modern’ rather than religious, militaristic and, well, oppressive. The campaign sought to achieve this objective by emphasizing certain aspects of Israeli society in such a way that Americans would travel to the country.

They did this in a variety of ways; funding trips for architectural, food and wine writers, partnering with Maxim to do a spread on “Women of the Israeli Defense Forces,” funding the ‘Israel: Innovation for Life” program (which resulted in the ‘Spotlight Tel Aviv’ program at the Toronto International Film Festival), sending and fully funding artists to international events under the pretext that they have been invited in an effort to “promote the policy interests of the state of Israel via culture and art including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel,” and so forth. The goal was to “convey an image of Israel as a productive, vibrant and cutting edge culture.”

Despite all this effort, in 2009 the East West Global Nation Brand Perception Index reported Israel as 192 out of 200 – behind North Korea, Cuba and Yemen. The BDS movement continued to tarnish the global perception of Israel, and none of their efforts – thus far – were proving to be helpful. A change in tactic was called for.

In 2010, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, the Lauder School of Government Diplomacy and Strategy and the Institute for Policy and Strategy held its January Conference inviting representatives from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Haifa University, the Prime Minister’s office, Reut Institute and a variety of private communications companies to discuss what they termed, “The Winning of the Battle of the Narrative” which reaffirmed the dire need for re-branding. The conference found that:

  • Criticism of Israel will stop when policy toward Palestinians changed
  • Israel correlated with the terms ‘daring and independent’ but not ‘fun and creative.’
  • 50% of people in Western countries are disengaged with no opinion on Israel, thus can be won over by strategic marketing.
  • “Narratives of victimhood and survival adapted by Israel over the years are no longer relevant for its diplomatic efforts and dialogue with the West.”
  • People respond to being addressed in familiar language that uses popular terms and are susceptible to simple, repetitive, consistent messages.
  • ‘In order to succeed online, one has to detach one’s self from strictly official messages and develop and online personality.’

In response to these findings, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs allocated approximately 26 million dollars toward the re-branding effort. The result was the Ministry of Tourism, the Tel Aviv Tourism Board and Israel’s largest LGBTQ organization – the Agudah – joined forces to launch Tel Aviv Gay Vibe, an online tourism campaign to promote the city as a premier gay travel destination.

In April of 2010, Brand Israel went a step further; they launched Israeli Pride Month in San Francisco. This was not, as it appeared on the surface, a grassroots initiative spearheaded by Israeli queers living in the city, rather it was a deliberately instigated event funded by the Israeli government. In response, QUIT (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) condemned Brand Israel of attempting to use the presence of LGBTQ society in Israel as proof of its commitment to human rights. The term Pinkwashing was used publicly for the first time.

In October the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association announced a conference in Tel Aviv with the goal of promoting Israel as a “world gay destination.” The attention this brought the country was massive, and was quickly followed up by statements from Stand With Us – a Zionist organization – that they, too, were undertaking a campaign to “improve Israel’s image through the gay community.” The Foreign Ministry office even went so far as to publicly state that they would be sponsoring a gay Olympics delegation to “help show the world Israel’s liberal and diverse face.”

By March of 2011, the Israeli stand at the International Tourism Fair in Berlin was encouraging gay tourists to visit Tel Aviv – this was after 94 million dollars of Israeli government money was invested into promoting gay tourism to Tel Aviv. With rapidity, the Tel Aviv Tourist Association filed a formal request with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association to host World Pride in 2012. Yet, in August of 2011 the Jerusalem Post uncovered the real purpose of the whole marketing campaign:

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Foreign Ministry official told the Jerusalem Post this week that efforts to let European and American liberals know about the gay community in Israel were an important part of its work to highlight this country’s support of human rights and to underscore its diversity in a population that tends to judge Israel harshly, solely on its treatment of Palestinians. Still, it is a topic that is so touchy he did not want his name used. But David Saranga, who works in the New York consulate, was more open about the need to promote Gay Israel as part of showing liberal America that Israel is more than the place where Jesus once walked. The gay culture is an entryway to the liberal culture, he said, because in New York it is that culture that is creating “a buzz.” Israel needs to show this community that it is relevant to them by promoting gay tourism, gay artists and films. Showing young, liberal Americans that Israel also has a gay culture goes a long (way) towards informing them that Israel is a place that respects human rights, as well, said Saranga.


So, to summarize what has been presented so far; Israel attempted to re-brand itself as a ‘progressive and modern’ society using elements of culture – food, art, wine, architecture, films, etc. When that did not work, they began specifically and deliberately targeting the LGBTQ+ community to do so.

Is Israel really queer friendly?

All of this bears the question of whether or not Israel is truly queer friendly. The answer, I think, is incredibly layered and complex. When I began reviewing Israeli laws pertaining to LGBTQ issues I was, admittedly, impressed. Many of the liberties that LGBTQ individuals are afford in Israel aren’t present here, in American legislation. I found that I was taken aback, and became hesitant to move forward with this post…. and that’s exactly the effect Pinkwashing seeks to attain. Had I not know the realities of the Occupation – seen it with my own eyes – these laws would have painted Israel in a very different light for me.  This is insidious on a variety of levels.

First, regardless of whether or not Israel is gay friendly is irrelevant when speaking about Pinkwashing. ‘Gay Friendliness’, in all its cultural and legal

First, regardless of whether or not Israel is gay friendly is irrelevant when considering Pinkwashing. ‘Gay friendliness’ – in all of its legal and cultural meaning – has been co-opted as a hallmark of political progressiveness and modernity. It is leveraged as a red herring to further a political agenda and a way to misdirect public attention away from the state’s brutal oppression of millions of Palestinians. In effect, these laws are implying that Israel couldn’t possibly be engaging in human rights abuses – look at how they champion human rights for the LGBTQ community.

Brand Israel not so subtly targets gay Jews living outside the state of Israel who may feel uncomfortable, alienated and/or threatened in their home communities. The marketing campaign posits Israel as a safe haven causing this demographic to consider claiming the Right of Return. This, in turn, justifies more housing for a growing population, more theft of Palestinian land to accommodate them and the continued building of settlements.

The truth of the matter is that Israel is not entirely LGBTQ friendly, while portions of Tel Aviv certainly are the more Orthodox neighborhoods throughout the country are vehemently homophobic. As an example; while Tel Aviv Pride is a generally laid back affair, Jerusalm Pride is starkly different; violence against attendees is common, anti-gay protestors are generally present and unopposed to using violence and – as an indicator of public policy – the Mayor of the city refuses to participate.

Finally, we need to speak to the truth as it happens on the ground; even the few places that are LGBTQ friendly, that acceptance extends exclusively to white, cis Jews. Pinkwashing promotes a homogenus image which excludes queer Jews of Arab descent and – of course – Palestinians. In fact, Palestinian queers are exploited on the most disgusting of levels with the Israeli government utilizing the Palestinian Authority to keep files on queer Palestinians. This information is used to blackmail queer Palestinians by threatening to out them to their communities if they do not become informants.

So, is Israel really gay friendly? On the surface – yes, it is – but when you dig past the superficial veneer you begin to see the rotten core. Israel is not promoting gay rights, rather it’s using the freedoms awarded to white, cis, Jewish gays as a public relations tool. It’s never been about gay rights, it’s about diverting public attention away from 51 year – and counting – occupation and colonization of Palestinian land while simultaneously appearing as a progressive, modern democracy.

Resources for further information  Pinkwashing Exposed, Seattle fights back (documentary)

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