Scheduled from May 25th through June 3rd, Tel Aviv Pride is a week-long series of events that celebrate gay life.

For over nearly two decades, it’s become one of the city’s most popular annual festivals. Tens of thousands of gay Israelis and LGBTQ tourists from around the world enjoy the extravaganza, which seems to get bigger and better each year with new events added and more people taking part.

But for anti-Israel gay activists, Tel Aviv Pride is a means for discrediting the one state in the Middle East which actually treats its gay community with dignity and respect.

Below I highlight the latest campaign to put Tel Aviv Pride Week into service for BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions).

Introduction: Tel Aviv Pride

Last year an estimated 180,000 participants took part in Tel Aviv Pride 2015, including some 30,000 tourists—many of whom came to Israel especially to participate in the pride parade extravaganza.

This year’s 18th annual pride parade is scheduled for Friday, when officials also anticipate record-breaking crowds.

Tel Aviv has for some years been branded as an international gay vacation destination. Nicknamed the gay capital of the Middle East, its Pride Week events—the largest celebration of its kind in all of Asia—are “said to be fantastic”.

According to CAMERA, Tel Aviv’s gay Pride parade is the only such event in the world that’s part of the official municipal schedule, is produced by the city, and is government-funded.

Credit: Gay Tel Aviv, online

[Credit: Gay Tel Aviv, online]

For most people who have even a modicum of knowledge about the Middle East, all this is good reason to commend Israel for a remarkable degree of gay-friendly tolerance that’s sorely lacking anywhere else in the region.

As I highlighted in a prior post, no Middle Eastern country except for Israel extends civil rights to gays. Across the region, the “battle for LGBT protections” requires sustained Western advocacy because of “lethal homophobia and persecution”.

This is true for gays living in the Palestinian governed territories too, where the situation remains grim. Subjected to constant bigotry and harassment condoned by the governing authorities, life for gays is dire in Gaza, where homosexuality is still a felony. In the West Bank it isn’t a whole lot better. The Palestinian Authority currently has no civil rights laws that protect LGBTQ from discrimination. Many Palestinians there are so desperate that they’ve tried to seek asylum elsewhere—even in Israel.

So in the Middle East, LGBTQ progress is largely limited to the Jewish state. But in a bizarre twist, many gays who are active in the vehemently anti-Israel BDS movement seem to have no problem joining with a group dedicated to destroying the only democracy in the region where gays are welcomed into the mainstream.

Now a group of pro-BDS gay activists have rolled out a new campaign to get tourists to boycott this week’s Tel Aviv Pride on the grounds that Israel “denies freedoms” to Palestinians—the same Arabs who last week participated in (with one of them winding up winning) Israel’s first-ever transgender beauty pageant.

Miss Trans Pageant | HaBima National Theater | Tel Aviv | May 27, 2016 | credit: Pink News

[Miss Trans Pageant | HaBima National Theater | Tel Aviv | May 27, 2016 | credit: Pink News]

https://twitter.com/TelAviv/status/736458461102374912

Call it a colossally awkward moment for those relentlessly trying to isolate and ostracize the planet’s lone Jewish state.

The ‘Pinkwashing’ Charge

To most people who care about advancing gay rights, Tel Aviv Pride is something to be applauded.

But that’s not how anti-Israel activists see it.

For Israel-bashers, the Jewish state can never do good things without bad motives.

As we’ve highlighted in many posts (for a partial list see here), within BDS there’s been a concerted “odious campaign” to undermine an indisputable truth: Israel is the safest, most-welcoming, and most open society for LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East.

The demented term “pinkwashing” refers to the accusation that Israel is promoting its strong pro-gay rights record as a PR ploy to hide its alleged crimes and oppressive policies toward the Palestinians.

Basically, for the pinkwashing movement, Israel’s extraordinary tolerance of LGBTQ, and the numerous advances that the country’s gay community has acquired through the judicial system, shouldn’t be praised because they’re merely part of a sinister and manipulative scheme to cover up abuses of the Palestinians by touting an image of modernity signified by gay life.

StandWithUS on gay rights in Israel

Pinkwashing accusers readily admit that Israel has a commendable record on LBGTQ rights and acknowledge that the country—especially Tel Aviv—is known as a top gay destination. But they insist that Israeli officials are using its “vibrant nightlife, hot gay men, and beautiful beaches” as a ruse to deceive gullible gays in the West into supporting the Jewish state.

The reality, as we’ve noted in our posts, is that it’s the pinkwashing accusers who are doing the actual cleaning of dirty laundry, by ignoring and even excusing the Palestinians’ less-than-enlightened views on gays.

As we discussed, a 2014 Pew Research Center study reveals extreme homophobia in Palestinian society—only 1% of Palestinian respondents believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable behavior:

Pew study, views of gays in Palestinian territories

Pinkwashing accusers don’t seem to care about this, or the real suffering that homophobic governments and societies mete out to Palestinian LGBTQ. They could use a lot more Western help and support, but they’re being shortchanged by BDS-supporting gays who’re too busy obsessing on Israel and are unwilling to demand any higher standard from Arab states—what Fred Maroun rightly labels the “bigotry of lower expectations”.

Bottom line: while the pinkwashing charge seeks to turn Israel’s positive gay rights record into something bad, pinkwashing accusers are nearly always silent at the same time about the plight of Palestinian gays and LGBTQ who live in other Middle Eastern countries, where they’re relentlessly persecuted and often are forced to flee for their lives.

Credit: New York Times online

[Credit: New York Times online]

Pinkwatching Israel’s New Campaign

Last week Pinkwatching Israel, a group of anti-Israel gay activists, launched a new campaign: “Boycott Tel Aviv Pride”.

Only Photo on Twitter Hashtag, summer of war

Pinkwatching Israel

According to its website, Pinkwatching Israel was founded by “queer Arab activists” back in 2010. Since then, it’s organized a series of programs with the goal of

creating a global movement to promote queer-powered calls against pinkwashing and pushing the BDS [boycott, divestment, and sanctions] Campaign Against Israel to the forefront of the global queer movement”.

Based on its social media and website, the group hasn’t been very active in recent years. But now it appears to have stepped up its game in advance of Tel Aviv Pride 2016.

On its website, in a YouTube video produced for the campaign (see below), and via a Twitter hashtag #BoycottTLVpride, Pinkwatching Israel is hoping to convince gays around the world to skip Tel Aviv Pride week because “There is nothing hot about cruising in a Warzone!” and “There is no pride in being used by the Israeli State for its propaganda machine!”.

It’s worth looking at closely at how Pinkwatching Israel builds its case.

On the one hand it develops the standard pinkwashing charge: by taking part in Tel Aviv Pride, visitors are allowing the Israeli government to “use your presence as a cover up for its war crimes”.

The insinuation here is that international gay tourists who go are egotistical and shallow—they callously care more about “dancing” on the “beautiful beaches” of Tel Aviv than they do about the “respect for human rights”. So, the goal is to make LGBTQ individuals feel ashamed for “forgetting” about the Palestinians.

On the other hand, the publicity also describes Israel as “arguably homophobic”, citing as evidence a controversial ad campaign that Israel’s Tourism Ministry unveiled back in April.

In what the Ministry characterized as a “bold and creative move”, but to my mind was pretty daft, last month controversial and mysterious online ads were run via social media and digital billboards put in place in multiple European cities to garner interest in the upcoming Tel Aviv Pride.

Credit: Pink News

Credit: Pink News

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with actively promoting Israel’s gay-friendly atmosphere as a way to attract gay tourists. But this PR needs to be clearly messaged. Instead, Israel’s Tourism Ministry ads left gay people the world over “buzzing with disgust and bafflement”:

Controversial pride week ad, Tweet

Realizing its error, Israel’s Tourism officials quickly responded by moving forward the second part of the creative ad—Europe would be devoid of gays, transformed into a dull and drab place, because all of the LGBTQ people would be in Tel Aviv:

Pride Week TLV controversial London ad

No harm, no foul.

controversial pride week ad, with second part

At least that’s how most people who had seen the initial partial ad, and subsequent completed one, reacted.

Rob Bullock ok with revised tourist ad

But not activists affiliated with Pinkwatching Israel. For them, the botched ad campaign signals some underlying, serious homophobia in Israeli society and among its leadership.

The entire claim is completely disingenuous, but I’ve seen it before.

As I noted in my prior post, while the pinkwashing accusation is most common, anti-Israel activists also resort to what I describe as “reverse pinkwashing” when it seems convenient to do so. The reverse pinkwashing charge goes like this: Israel likes to see itself as the bastion of tolerance in the region, but guess what? Israelis don’t really like gays, so gays and those who support LGBTQ rights shouldn’t like Israel.

That is, most of the time the anti-Israel camp accepts Israel’s excellent gay rights record but treats it as a government ploy to divert attention from its alleged shoddy treatment of the Palestinians. But, as with Pinkwatching Israel’s latest campaign, Israel-bashers sometimes also do a complete 180, making the opposing argument that Israel is fundamentally racist and intolerant.

So we’re told that Israel’s leaders aren’t feigning concern for the rights of gay people, because there’s actually no excellent gay rights record for them to cover up or manipulate. Israel is in fact an unsafe and unfair place for LGBTQ individuals.

Bottom line: This is the first time I’ve seen a BDS-promoting campaign use both a pinkwashing accusation and a reverse pinkwashing charge simultaneously. The result is a schizophrenic set of materials that say one thing about Israel—and its exact opposite too. But we probably shouldn’t be surprised. BDS in general isn’t exactly a paragon of logical consistency or well-reasoned argument and analysis.

Ta’alin Abu Hanna Wins the “Miss Trans Israel” Pageant

On May 27th, a 21-year-old Israeli Catholic Arab was crowned the winner of Israel’s first transgender beauty pageant. Ta’alin Abu Hanna, a ballet dancer who lives in Nazareth, beat out 11 other finalists who took part in the pageant at HaBima, Israel’s prestigious national theater in Tel Aviv.

Abu Hanna after winning the title | May 27, 2016 | credit: Luke Tress, Times of Israel

Abu Hanna after winning the title | May 27, 2016 | credit: Luke Tress, Times of Israel

Abu Hanna will go on to represent Israel at the Miss Trans Star International pageant in Spain this August, where it will be the first time that an Israeli will participate. She’ll also be getting $15,000 in prize money for plastic surgery treatments in addition to flights and accommodation for hospital stays and recovery.

Credit: Pink News

Credit: Pink News

In accepting the title, Abu Hanna reportedly said that she is

proud to be an Israeli Arab…If I had not been in Israel and had been elsewhere—in Palestine or in any other Arab country—I might have been oppressed or I might been in prison or murdered”.

Abu Hanna, Miss Trans Israel 2016

Asked about the pinkwashing charge, pageant organizer Yisraela Stephani Lev reportedly told reporters:

Listen, there isn’t propaganda here. We live in Tel Aviv, in Israel, the only sane country in the region where people can live as gays or transgender and no one is going to throw them off the rooftop or slaughter them. This is just the reality here, it’s not some sort of brainwashing or pinkwashing or whatever”.

Bottom line: Pinkwatching Israel wants to shame gays who refuse to boycott Israel. In its caricature of the Jewish state as racist and colonial, any LGBTQ person who isn’t up for its BDS version of morality and justice is also fair game to be derided as racist and pro-apartheid, aiding and abetting war criminals while cruising for a good time. Ordinarily, even gay liberals opposed to Israel’s alleged illegal occupation have a hard time buying into this ludicrous pinkwashing charge. But with a Christian Arab trans woman winning an Israeli beauty pageant, this week in particular was especially inauspicious for trying to convince a gay audience to accept the “bullshit precept” that Israel doesn’t really respect human rights.

Israel: Gay-Friendly with Room to Improve

To be sure, as in all democratic countries, Israel’s LGBTQ community will continue to struggle for even greater access and rights.

Indeed, last month’s protests over the government’s investment of NIS 11 million (nearly $3 million) to encourage tourism to Tel Aviv Pride highlight that, despite the many advances that Israel’s gays have made, legitimate grievances remain.

The Tel Aviv municipality was reportedly thrilled that the country’s Tourism Ministry had “invested an unprecedented budget” in the parade.

But last month, leaders of the Agudah—The Israel National LGBT Task Force—at one point threatened to cancel the Pride event over lack of progress on pro-gay rights bills that did not make it out of committee for legislation, “inciting comments” from some MKs, and the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki at last year’s Jerusalem gay pride parade.

Shira Banki photo, Gay Pride Parade

The Agudah was reportedly especially “irked” by the government’s gimmicky promotion of Tel Aviv Pride Week, which this year involved an international competition and flying winners into Israel on an airplane painted with rainbow gay pride colors.

Plane for winners, TLV gay pride 2016

The Agudah co-chair Imri Kalman reportedly lamented:

Unlike gay communities around the world who achieved historic achievements, the gay community of Israel had one of its worst years….In response to the community’s demand[s]…we got in return a painted plane”.

Turns out Pinkwatching Israel doesn’t think much of the plane gimmick either, but for very different reasons. The group posted a second obnoxious YouTube video over the weekend, which lampoons the painted plane:

Personally, I think the plane idea was pretty creative and a good way of raising awareness of Israel as a gay-inclusive destination—as well as bolstering the media profile of Tel Aviv’s annual Pride festival.

Still, the Agudah has every right to insist that the government isn’t doing enough to promote the rights of the local gay community. Israel isn’t perfect when it comes to protecting the gay community, no country is, and plenty of work remains to be done.

Conclusion

In the Middle East, there’s always horrible news about LGBTQ persecution and suffering.

The Islamic State’s horrific abuses—executing young boys suspected of being gay by tossing them off rooftops—is replicated in a myriad of ways by the death penalty for LGBTQ and anti-gay policies in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Qatar—which are only the most dangerous countries in the region to be gay.

The region’s gay communities barely survive, living out their lives in fear and misery. Yet pro-BDS gay activists bizarrely choose to ally themselves against the only country in the region that actually respects the essential humanity of gay people.

As Israeli freelance writer Steve Kramer notes in his review of Pinkwatching Israel’s latest campaign:

It is a case of ‘the perfect being the enemy of the good,’ wherein Israel is castigated for not being perfect while the Palestine Authority and Hamas, the anti-gay rulers of millions of Palestinian Arabs, are encouraged to defeat and destroy Israel. LGBTQ groups ally themselves with the BDS movement in a frenzy of Jew hatred. Go figure…”

But this is exactly why pinkwashing—the supposed Zionist plot by which Israel’s support for LGBTQ people is merely a smokescreen for oppression of the Palestinians—is such a crazy lie and “strange manifestation of hatred”.

Tel Aviv Pride Parade 2015 | credit: Shani Shalgi, 52 Frames

Tel Aviv Pride Parade 2015 | credit: Shani Shalgi, 52 Frames

Feature Image: Tel Aviv Pride Parade, June 14, 2014 (credit: Times of Israel)

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman