Why the ‘Pinkwashing’ Debate is So Exhausting as a Queer Jew

For me, June, AKA Pride Month, is the best and most frustrating month of the year. I love seeing fellow LGBTQ people unabashedly celebrating themselves and the LGBTQ community. But I dread the intra-community arguments that inevitably happen around Pride. We argue about things like which sections of the acronym “belong” at Pride and how Pride events have evolved over time and have gotten too commercial. However, one particular ongoing argument leaves me drained and exhausted every year, especially as a queer Jew.

In 2017, three Jewish attendees at the Chicago Dyke March were asked to leave after displaying a rainbow flag with a Star of David on it. In the surrounding arguments about what exactly happened, multiple leftist groups framed this debate not about visibly Jewish queer people existing without being quizzed about Israel and Zionism, but about “pinkwashing” at Pride events. Pinkwashing broadly describes how corporations will attempt to appeal to the LGBTQ community while simultaneously harming the community through its business practices. But in this specific context, pinkwashing refers to the belief that Israel only enacts LGBTQ-friendly policies in order to draw attention away from its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

In an essay published by the Black Rock Anarchist Collective in defense of the Chicago Dyke March’s actions, one writer stated, “Just to make myself clear: if you are a Zionist, if Palestinians make you feel uncomfortable, or if you work for a horrible, violent, pinkwashing organization, go fuck yourself, and go fuck yourself somewhere other than Dyke March. Just because a space allows you to attend does not mean that the space is FOR you, and to assume that you have a right to come and make people feel unsafe in their own spaces just because you want to be visible in public is the HEIGHT of privilege, White fragility, Jewish feelings, and general fuckery.”

Just as there are fierce opponents to Israeli government policies in LGBTQ movements, there are a lot of public figures, agencies, and advocacy groups pushing against the “pinkwashing” narrative. They compare Israel’s treatment of LGBTQ people to other countries in the region, citing brutal treatment of LGBTQ Palstinians by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Honestly, everything about the pinkwashing debate is infuriating, and everyone involved needs to stop, drink a juice box, and take a nap. We need to remember that Pride celebrations, even in their most cringe-worthy corporate form, whether they are in the U.S. or Israel, are a net positive. Claiming that there is something inherently sinister about LGBTQ people having a slightly less miserable time in Israel are dressing homophobia, transphobia, and anti-Semitism in faux social justice language.

At the same time, we need to address the fact that Israel has a myriad host of issues when it comes to treating LGBTQ people with respect and dignity. Same-sex couples still cannot get married in Israel, because marriage is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate and there is no civil marriage. In 2015, an ultra-Orthodox extremist stabbed five people at the Jerusalem Pride parade, killing one. A far-right Israeli NGO put up homophobic billboards in Jerusalem right before their Pride celebration, and a man with a concealed knife was arrested at this year’s Pride parade.

Queer Palestinians in the diaspora should be able to discuss their problems with Israeli government policies and military actions without being told to “spend some time in Gaza and see how you like it.” Likewise, queer Jewish people like myself should be able to talk about the treatment of LGBTQ people in Israel without having to engage in a three-hour discussion of Israeli politics. I’m not exaggerating: I made one offhand comment about Israel at a Thanksgiving potluck once and got tied up in an argument that lasted until midnight.

I wonder if some of this bad discourse is because of how the Israel-Palestinian conflict is treated in leftist spaces. The conflict is frequently treated as an afterthought (a la “Oh, we need to sound woke, p.s. Free Palestine I guess”). If we actually wanted to incorporate justice for Palestinians in a meaningful way into the LGBTQ movement, that would require recognizing how Jews and Palestinians are closely related groups, both with historic ties to the Levant. It would also mean holding bad actors on all sides accountable for their actions and having difficult conversations about Israel and Zionism. But that requires hard work and coalition building, and many would rather harass Jewish proprietors of community organizing spaces or kick Jewish people out of LGBTQ spaces altogether.

One reason this argument is so exhausting is that it happens every single year. Every June, the discourse about pinkwashing is trotted out, and every year, leftist queer events make it clear that they will be policing people’s Jewish identities. This has most recently been seen with the Washington D.C. Dyke March, whose organizers sent a Facebook message to a Jewish woman saying marchers could wear “Jewish stars and other identifications and celebrations of Jewishness (yarmulkes, talit, other expressions of Judaism or Jewishness)” but it would not permit “pro-Israel paraphernalia” at the march. In comments to the Washington Post, one Jewish organizer Yael Horowitz didn’t clarify if rainbow flags with the Star of David violated the event’s policies, but did state that Palestinian flags were permitted. A joint statement from Zioness Movement, A Wider Bridge, and the JCRC of Greater Washington condemned the D.C. Dyke March and demanded that they apologize and allow Jewish marchers be able to march “as their full authentic selves.”

I find this kind of mixed messaging infuriating. Queer events should not be dictating to Jewish people about which expressions of our faith and culture are acceptable. Leftists need to stop playing this game where some forms of nationalism are praised while others are condemned. American, Israeli, and Palestinian nationalism all have toxic elements because nationalism is an inherently toxic concept. Also, I don’t trust organizers to be able to tell the difference between being proud to be Jewish and Israeli nationalism. I have a denim vest that I wear to all activist events that says עם ישראל חי (Am Yisrael Chai, or “The Jewish people live on”) and a patch of the flag of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Would I be asked to leave, or quizzed about Zionism and Israel, to prove that I’m one of the “good ones” if I wore it to the Chicago or D.C. Dyke March?

I want to be able to spend this month being proudly Jewish and proudly queer, but pinkwashing debates make me have to choose between the two. We need to stop making LGBTQ Jewish people pick from a false binary, and instead welcome to join all other LGBTQ people in the collective struggle for queer and trans liberation.

Elena Gormley

Elena Gormley is a religious school teacher, semi-professional beehive kicker, and Masters of Social Work candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. She is a big fan of cats, destroying systems of oppression, and klezmer mariachi music.

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