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Gay-Rights and Palestinian-Representation Clash in Chicago

“Pinkwashing’ propaganda or anti-Israeli bias?

By: Robert Swift/The Media Line

Israel, with Tel Aviv as its gay capital, is a champion of gay rights, an oasis of democracy and freedom for LGBTQ people in the Middle East.

Or it is a cynical regime, denying the human rights of millions of Palestinians while exploiting its gay-friendly image to mask its abuse of civil liberties.

Welcome to the juxtaposition between the gay rights’ movement, the campaign for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and the state of Israel.

An LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) symposium in Chicago might seem like a strange place to discuss the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but that’s exactly what happened last week when an estimated 200 protestors entered the 28th annual Creating Change Conference. The target of the protestors’ displeasure? Two representatives from Jerusalem’s Open House for Pride and Tolerance who had travelled from Israel to speak about issues affecting their community – not least of which was the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki last summer at the Gay Pride parade in the capital.

It had been unclear whether the Open House delegation would get the chance to speak as the organizers of the event, the National LGBTQ Task Force, had initially caved in to demands to prevent the Israelis from speaking, a decision that was later reversed following counter-demands.

Ultimately neither of the delegates, Tom Canning or Sarah Kala-Meir, were able to address the audience as they were swiftly evacuated via a side door following disruptions by the protestors.

Arthur Slepian, executive director of A Wider Bridge, who was attempting to introduce the Israeli speakers when the disruption occurred, described the protest as “filled with hate and intimidation, with a good dose of anti-Semitism sprinkled in.” Communicating with The Media Line by email, Slepian said, “Many of our guests were emotionally distraught and traumatized by the rage of the protest and its anti-Semitic content.”

The fact that the protest was instigated by fellow LGBTQ conference attendees added to this feeling, added Slepian, whose organization works to create connections between LGBTQ people in the United State and Israel.

So why did it occur? And what do these issues, which theoretically both involve the human rights of two different groups – Palestinians on the one hand and LGBTQ people on the other – have to do with each other?

Founded in 2005 and comprised of numerous non-governmental organizations and social campaigns, BDS is a movement aimed at ending Israeli rule over Palestinians. To its advocates the boycott is a peaceful and democratic form of protest; to its detractors it is an attempt to delegitimize the state through rhetoric that borders on the anti-Semitic.

Initially treated with contempt in Israel, BDS and similar campaigns aimed at discrediting the state of Israel are increasingly seen as a threat.

Hijacking a conference discussing LGBTQ issues is par for the course with BDS campaigners, Aaron Kalman, foreign media spokesperson for NGO Monitor, told The Media Line. In the past BDS campaigners have attempted to draw artificial comparisons between Palestinian issues and those affecting African Americans and piggyback their cause onto debates surrounding tuition fees at City University of New York, Kalman argued. “(The) BDS campaign presents the world in a distorted and simplistic manner, blaming Israel for all the evil in the world,” the spokesperson said.

Taking the opposing view, Ofer Neiman pointed out that the Israeli government itself is responsible for creating the connection between LGBTQ issues and Israeli/Palestinian politics, not BDS campaigners. “It’s a way of saying ‘don’t discuss apartheid, Israel is so lovely,’ it’s an attempt to dodge the question and force another question onto the agenda,” Neiman, an Israeli citizen and member of the group Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within, told The Media Line.

Neiman is referring to what is known as ‘pinkwashing,’ described by those who use the term as the manipulation of LGBTQ issues to rebrand Israel to make it appear more equalitarian and ‘Western-friendly’ than it actually is. In order to counter this use of soft power, Neiman explained, BDS targets groups that are funded by the Israeli government.

As to the issue of pinkwashing, Arthur Slepian said that it was possible to celebrate Israel’s achievements in LGBTQ issues while simultaneously being critical of the government when it fell short in other areas, something that BDS campaigners failed to understand. “Sometimes the Israeli government acts with a degree of hypocrisy, touting the country’s record on LGBTQ rights, but failing to take the policy actions needed today to back that up,” he suggested. But that was no reason to shout down the Israeli LGBTQ representatives, he added.

Open House and A Wider Bridge both denied any connection to the Israeli government.

“We are not funded in any way by the Israeli government,” Arthur Slepian said.

A representative from Jerusalem’s Open House told The Media Line that their project does not receive government funding though it does request and receive an annual grant from the local municipality.