A Tale of Two Friends: BDS, Pinkwashing, and Pride

Last Sunday, while I was helping to lead a Young Jewish and Proud event designed to educate the Jewish community about the Palestinian call for BDS in Los Angeles, my oldest friend in the world, Mordechai Levovitz, was celebrating the inclusion of his Jewish Queer Youth group in the New York Celebrate Israel parade. While we respect each other deeply, Mordechai and I clearly have some interesting differences of opinion when it comes to Israel.

We grew up together in the leafy suburb of Brookline Massachusetts and as we were born in the same month, our very first debate was over who was older (I lost that one-counterintuitive as it seemed, the fact that my birth date was numerically higher actually made me younger). We spent countless hours playing together as children and I was devastated when his family moved to New York. A few years later, my family moved to Israel. We managed somehow to stay in touch over the years, always finding the time to debate topics that were important to us. I didn’t know that Mordechai was gay when we were growing up. He was always just Mordechai. But as it turns out, we were both fish out of water in the Orthodox Jewish world of our parents. As my parents shuffled me around from Yeshiva to Yeshiva in Israel, I was starting to identify as a rebellious heretic. And I now know that underneath his black hat, Mordechai was negotiating the difficulties of being a closeted gay Orthodox Jew.

As our divergent biographies might suggest, our respective relationships with the State of Israel were different from an early age, although not as different as they might have been. Mordechai was never an ardent Zionist. This may sound strange, but growing up Orthodox in a way meant that Israel was never a lynch pin his Jewish identity. By contrast, I was forced from a young age to confront the realities of the Jewish State in which I lived, and on a high school trip to the Nazi death camps, my opposition to the Zionist narrative started to become an important part of my identity.

In addition to its military adventures, Israel has for the past decade been the battleground of an intensive PR war. On one side is the State of Israel and its apologists who are trying to brand the Jewish state as a progressive, liberal democracy. And on the other side are the Palestinians and their supporters who are trying to brand Israel as an Apartheid, human rights-abusing ethnocracy. Over the last few years, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has taken to touting Israel’s record on gay rights as a way of promoting their branding. This strategy has created great dissonance on the Left. On the one hand, Israel undeniably has a better record on gay rights than many other countries in the Middle East, but on the other hand, Israel denies millions of Palestinians their basic rights and has made their existence a living nightmare. What is the appropriate response? Is it possible to support gay rights without supporting Israel? Is it possible to oppose Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians without having to pretend that Egypt and Lebanon are on par with Israel when it comes to gay rights?

As with everything that touches the Israel/Palestine issue, the responses to this dilemma have been deeply polarized. On team Israel, there are people like Stuart Applebaum and Benjamin Weinthal who argue that:

Western LGBT activists and intellectuals should be devoting our energies to combating movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, and reject the absurd obsession that some members of our community have with bashing Israel, the Middle East’s only LGBT oasis.

And on team Palestine, people like Sarah Schulman argue that:

In Israel, gay soldiers and the relative openness of Tel Aviv are incomplete indicators of human rights — just as in America, the expansion of gay rights in some states does not offset human rights violations like mass incarceration. The long-sought realization of some rights for some gays should not blind us to the struggles against racism in Europe and the United States, or to the Palestinians’ insistence on a land to call home.” 

When Schulman’s OpEd was published in the New York Times in November, Mordechai and I went at it on Facebook. While I think that we both had more nuanced positions than the above-quoted activists, our disagreement was substantial. Mordechai argued passionately that as a matter of objective fact, LGBT people are treated better in Israel than they are in the Palestinian territories and that Israel should be rewarded for this. I argued that human rights struggles ought not occur in isolation from one another and that LGBT activists should be fighting side-by-side with the Palestinians and against Israel.

In his Huff Post recounting of JQY’s participation in the Celebrate Israel Parade, Mordechai had this to say about his encounter with a group of Queer anti-Zionist protestors:  

Disappointingly, instead of supporting our inclusion, the Anti-Israel Queer group joined in the booing. It seemed that they'd rather join in on LGBT hate than understand our right to celebrate our Jewish culture. These left wing groups accuse any LGBT celebration of Israel as "Pink Washing" Israel in an attempt to divert attention from the suffering of the Palestinian people. I can only speak for myself in saying that loving Israel in no way impinges on my concern for human rights. It is exactly this love of Israel that makes me hope and pray for peace, prosperity and fairness for all people in the region. Celebrating a homeland says nothing about agreeing with specific foreign policies of the government. Certainly, I can celebrate July 4 without believing in every U.S. policy. We celebrate Israel as proud LGBT Jews without washing away the suffering of others. Celebration and concern often exist in dialectic, and it would be simplistic to say that we can't experience both. We take pride in that Israel has a thriving LGBT community and hope that one day its surrounding countries will similarly treat their LGBT citizens better. Opening doors of inclusion in every culture can only help in the long term struggle for universal human rights.

Before I jump in to my problems with this passage, I want to state for the record that I think it was distasteful of this group to show up and boo at JQY. Indeed, as strongly as I disagree with Mordechai on this issue, I think that JQY’s inclusion in the parade was a watershed moment for gay rights in the Jewish community and I am really proud of Mordechai for making it happen. It takes a special kind of courage to stay within the Orthodox Jewish world and fight for gay rights and a rarer kind of skill to actually be effective at it. Having said that, there are a number of statements here that I think are problematic.

First, while I do think that the booing was distasteful, I think it’s an overstatement to characterize it as “joining in on the LGBT hate”. I wasn’t there, but short of these people holding hands with anti-gay bigots, this sounds like editorializing to me.

Second, I don’t think that Mordechai really “loves” Israel. Why would he say that he does? Because for a while now, there’s been an unspoken and insipid litmus test imposed on Liberal Zionists that requires them to precede any criticism of Israel with a statement of love. I believe that Mordechai is playing along with this unspoken rule here and it’s totally unnecessary.

Third, showing support for Israel in its current state is very much contrary to a concern for human rights. Israel perpetrates human rights violations against the Palestinians on a daily basis. Moreover, Palestinian civil society has called for a worldwide boycott, divestment and sanctions program against Israel. The extent to which individuals choose to adhere to this call as consumers is a matter of personal conscience, but publicly participating in a parade that celebrates Israel seems to me to be a slap in the face of the Palestinian people and would seem to demonstrate a lack of regard for their human rights.

Fourth, the backhanded way in which Mordechai mentions the fact that the surrounding countries don’t treat their gay citizens as well as Israel does is unattractive. He knows that the purpose of this comparison is to appeal to a problematic binary worldview, but he wants to score rhetorical points with it all the same.

Finally, I think that Israel is proof-positive that selectively opening the “doors of inclusion” DOES NOT necessarily help in the struggle for universal human rights. In Israel, it doesn’t matter whether you are L,G,B, or T-if you’re born to Palestinian parents, you have fewer rights than those born to Jewish parents.

And with all of this, I can’t think of a more stirring affirmation for Mordechai and JQY than marching in this parade. The place that Israel occupies in the American Jewish experience is something that deeply disturbs me, but it is a reality. And as much as I actively work against this reality, I also acknowledge that the inclusion of JQY in this event is cause for celebration.

I have some deep philosophical differences with my old friend about how solidarity work ought to be conducted. But I hope that we will continue our makhloket leshem shamayim, our dispute of noble motivation, for many years to come. Happy Birthday, Mordechai!