Gay Paradise in Zion? A Commentary on The Enlightenment Project
Several years ago, I was having dinner in Dupont Circle, a gay-friendly neighbourhood in Washington, D.C., with a gay Jewish friend and his boyfriend, also a Jew. My friend, who describes himself as both a “professional Jew” and a “professional gay,” brought up the topic of Israel. I don’t recall exactly what was said, but both he and his boyfriend expressed pride in the fact that Israel was rather tolerant towards gays and lesbians, much more so than its Arab neighbours. I agreed with the sentiment, but expressed some skepticism as to its value.
I remember saying that many right-wing, hawkish supporters of Israel, would proudly praise Israel’s record on gay rights, or women’s rights, or any other issue that showed that Israel was a modern, western, country, with a tolerant, progressive society, not unlike that of the United States or Canada. I remember thinking that these people didn’t give a rats ass about gay rights in America, or about feminism anywhere in the world, apart from trumpeting Israel’s superiority over its backward Muslim enemies. This was especially true for Israel’s Christian Zionist supporters, many of whom were actively hostile to gay rights and women’s rights.
This sort of analysis always made me a little uncomfortable, like comparing the Israeli military’s efforts to reduce civilian casualties with the goals of Hamas suicide bombers, who hoped to maximize them. Having the best human rights record in the Middle East is a little like being the best student in a remedial math class: not something you should really be boasting about. Sure, Israel is more tolerant of gays and lesbians, and more progressive on women’s issues than Syria, but so what? As a modern, western, democratic state, shouldn’t it aspire to play in the big leagues with the United States, Canada, western Europe and the like?
Flash forward to 2011. In his brilliant analysis of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax, Mircea linked to a fascinating article in The Guardian by Jasbir Puar titled “Israel’s Gay Propaganda War.” Puar’s piece echoed my previous concerns, namely that the Zionist propaganda machine was engaged in something known as “pinkwashing.” Puar pushed the argument far further, though, contending that Israel boasted of its strong regional record on gay rights to divert attention from its oppression of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. In addition, this pinkwashing glosses over the considerable homophobia that remains in Israeli society, both in the machismo of the military and from the more religious segments of the Jewish community. As Puar writes:
Israeli pinkwashing is a potent method through which the terms of Israeli occupation of Palestine are reiterated – Israel is civilised, Palestinians are barbaric, homophobic, uncivilised, suicide-bombing fanatics. It produces Israel as the only gay-friendly country in an otherwise hostile region. This has manifold effects: it denies Israeli homophobic oppression of its own gays and lesbians, of which there is plenty, and it recruits, often unwittingly, gays and lesbians of other countries into a collusion with Israeli violence towards Palestine.
In reproducing orientalist tropes of Palestinian sexual backwardness, it also denies the impact of colonial occupation on the degradation and containment of Palestinian cultural norms and values. Pinkwashing harnesses global gays as a new source of affiliation, recruiting liberal gays into a dirty bargaining of their own safety against the continued oppression of Palestinians, now perforce rebranded as “gay unfriendly”.
She pointed to a 2005 “Free Palestine” rally in London, where activists held signs that read “Israel: Stop Persecuting Palestine” and “Palestine: Stop Persecuting Queers!”, observing that “this framing has the effect, however unintended, of analogising Israeli state oppression of Palestinians to Palestinian oppression of their gays and lesbians, as if the two were equivalent or contiguous.”
To conclude, Puar employed the Israeli situation to address a broader question:
While Israel may blatantly disregard global outrage about its wartime activities, it nonetheless has deep stakes in projecting its image as a liberal society of tolerance, in particular homosexual tolerance. These two tendencies should not be seen as contradictory, rather constitutive of the very mechanisms by which a liberal democracy sanctions its own totalitarian regimes.
In effect, Puar has offered a relatively well-established critique of the entire Enlightenment project. With the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century, new regimes emerged, purportedly morally superior to the backward feudal monarchies of the past. Yet even these vibrant new nations cast a dark shadow. This is the view that any liberal, individualistic society will inevitably be built upon the backs of some oppressed Other: African slaves, ethnic, religious, and racial minorities, foreigners and immigrants, gays and lesbians, women, workers, peasants, the poor. From the British and French colonial Empires to the American Republic that embraced slavery, to our current societies, with vast inequalities and persisting prejudices, someone was and is always getting left out, or left behind. The modern liberal state needs inequality and exclusion, often through violence, in order to survive.
I actually have some sympathy for this line of thought. Still, I try to look at the situation more optimistically. If we acknowledge the injustices that continue to plague our supposedly enlightened countries, we can work to rectify them, to remain true to the still powerful ideals of liberty, equality (and not just equal opportunity), and fraternity, along with commitments to pluralism and multiculturalism currently under assault in Europe and America.
Furthermore, when reversed, this attack on the Enlightenment project also raises some interesting questions: why is it advanced capitalist western societies tend to be more tolerant of racial and ethnic minorities, of gays and lesbians, and of women? What is it in the logic of capitalism that weakens these types of discriminations, which are often slower to dissolve in the public sector, in government, and in unions?
A libertarian might answer that an individualist ethos is more conducive to anti-racist and anti-sexist views than a collectivist one. The case of social class, of course, is a different matter. I believe that capitalism must be tempered by a strong welfare state and labour movement. Still, on questions of non-economic forms of discrimination, I recognize that capitalism may have the better record (at least in the post-WW2 era), and may offer a way forward.