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Gay Paradise in Zion? A Commentary on The Enlightenment Project

with 2 comments

by Weiner

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.


Written by David Weinfeld

July 11, 2011 at 16:00

2 Responses

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  1. “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.”

    it seems to me that how one thinks about these two sentences is closely pegged to your place on the political spectrum of the late 20th century. that is, the post-war liberals (and their present-day inheritors) would no doubt say that although the first is true, the second doesn’t follow from it. a marxist or a world-systems or postcolonial theorist would say that they do follow, and have somewhat different explanations for why or how.

    also, and this is a different kind of marxist response, you might say that formal rights are required before other, more ‘real’ rights can follow. you’ve got to have bourgeois civil rights before you can win economic rights–or, economic/social rights are meaningless without civil rights.

    all of which is orthogonal to your point about ‘pinkwashing.’ how, in fact, do formal civil rights for gays compare in Israel and the US? say in terms of marriage and associated rights? how would you feel about a comparison between the wall the US has built across the US-Mexico border and the one between Israel and Palestine? the first makes more sense to me in terms of neo-liberal value-extraction than the second.


    July 11, 2011 at 17:14

    • Thanks for the comment Eric.

      I’m no marxist or post-colonialist or world-systems theorist, but I still believe in both sentences you cited. I think you are certainly right though, that the more fiscally conservative would have problems with the second sentence. I think it’s fair to say, though, that exclusion in the modern west, particularly the United States, is typically now one of class. Race and sex and ethnicity and sexual orientation still play large roles, but nowhere near the roles they used to, and at the individual level, people of all races and sexes and ethnicities and sexual orientations can succeed. This is the Age of Obama after all.

      As to your second Marxist response, this also makes a lot of sense to me. I do think that civil rights usually precede economic rights (though this wasn’t always the case for Je

      ws in Europe, or Blacks in the United States for that matter).

      I’m not an expert on gay rights, but I think Israel did pretty well compared to the US on that scale before the recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Israel has long allowed gays in the military. As for gay marriage in Israel, here’s what wikipedia has to say:

      A big problem is the lack of civil or secular marriage in Israel. As Alan Dershowitz likes to say, because Orthodox Judaism is the only branch of Judaism truly recognized by the Israeli government, the people who suffer from the greatest RELIGIOUS discrimination in Israel are in fact non-Orthodox Jews. Ethnic discrimination is of course another story entirely, but Palestinians are typically discriminated against as Arabs, not as Muslims or Christians or Druze.

      As for the the two walls you mention, I oppose both of them, though I think the US wall would be legal (so would a Mexican wall) as would an Israeli wall (and a Palestinian one) under the framework of a peaceful, recognized two-state solution. I think these walls would generally be bad for human rights and for the economic prosperity of both regions though.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment, though I’ll admit that words like “neo-liberal value extraction” make my head hurt.


      July 13, 2011 at 17:41

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