The racism of Equality

Activists should challenge the Equality Forum for its plans to honor Israel.

IMAGINE THE magazine Good Housekeeping awarding the Texas Department of Corrections its seal of approval for the cleanliness of its death row--pristine conditions, though the seating's a bit clunky!

Columnist: Sherry Wolf

Sherry Wolf Sherry Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation and an associate editor of the International Socialist Review. Her writing has also appeared in the Nation, CounterPunch and New Politics. She is a public speaker and blogs at Sherry Talks Back.

There is something obscene about an organization devoted to equality planning to feature at its national summit a theocratic police state whose existence is founded on the expulsion and ongoing repression of its indigenous population.

Equality Forum, a nonprofit organization whose mission "is to advance national and international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights through education," is hosting Israel's ambassador to the U.S. as their keynote speaker and featuring Israeli artists at their May conference in Philadelphia.

Its celebration of Israel's purported LGBT civil rights is truly an elaborate expression of totally missing the point.

Even the international human rights expert UN Special Rapporteur Miloon Kothari condemns the policies of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against its non-Jewish population: "The basic theocratic character of the Israeli legal system establishes ethnic criteria as the grounds for the enjoyment of full rights."

In other words, the oppression of 20 percent of Israel's population who are Palestinian--LGBT and straight--as well as the dispossession of the millions who are virtually imprisoned behind hundreds of miles of militarized walls in the Occupied Territories, expose the lie of Israel's supposed democracy.

Despite Israel's ongoing defiance of international law in the service of its 64-year occupation of Palestine, its institutionalized brutalization and daily humiliation of its native population, Equality Forum is embracing a campaign by Israel's marketers known as pinkwashing.

According to Palestinian LGBT activists, "'Pinkwashing' is the appropriation of queer voices in order to shift focus from human rights and international law violations committed by the State of Israel, to an image of Israel as progressive, tolerant and 'gay-friendly.'"

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IF EQUALITY Forum goes ahead with this vile charade, they will not only play into the hands of those who wish to cleanse the crimes of Israel by extolling the virtues of having openly gay soldiers crack Palestinian heads, but they will make themselves the target of an international boycott campaign.

I wrote to Equality Forum's director, Malcolm Lazin, as soon as I read of their selection of Israel as their "featured nation" this year. Mr. Lazin replied by listing Israel's LGBT reforms, which in reality only fully exist for Jewish LGBT citizens, and he cited Tel Aviv's status as "Best Gay City of 2011," according to GayCities.com.

He concluded, "Like the U.S. and other nations, Israel has not fully realized its promise of equality to all its citizens. These important issues and others are being debated under freedom of speech, press and assembly in Israel and elsewhere."

I suppose "not fully realized its promise of equality" could refer to the "apartheid regime" which "discriminates daily against Israeli Arabs and other minorities," according to Jewish-Israeli politician Roman Bronfman.

Or it could be interpreted as "a political arrangement that limits democracy to a privileged class and keeps others behind military checkpoints, barbed-wire fences and separation walls," as former head of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Seligman, puts it.

But that would surely be the most inexplicably polite way of describing a nation which has been under an official "state of emergency" since its founding in 1948. This allows for extra police powers in order to do things like arrest and detain hundreds of children, many as young as 12 years old, for throwing stones at tanks and armed soldiers, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

Israel launches frequent bombing raids into the Gaza Strip, under the pretext of security--attacks punctuated by outright massacres, as in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, when more than 1,400 Gazans were murdered; whereas 13 Israelis died, mostly soldiers, four from friendly fire.

It is a sad reflection of the primitive consciousness of a swath of the LGBT movement that the Equality Forum would justify highlighting Israel's LGBT rights despite growing international exposure of that nation's racist policies, including from LGBT voices within Palestine.

As Palestinian LGBT activist Haneen Maikey explains, "It doesn't matter what the sexual orientation of the soldier at a checkpoint is, whether he can serve openly or not. What matters is that he's there at all."

Sami Shamali, also a member of the Palestinian LGBT group, Al Qaws, agreed, "The apartheid wall was not created to keep Palestinian homophobes out of Gay Israel, and there is no magic door for gay Palestinians to pass through."

A recent delegation of LGBT activists, artists and cultural workers from the U.S. traveled to Israel-Palestine and published a poignantly detailed eyewitness account of their trip in an open letter. To the great credit of this delegation, they rise above the aggressively narrow viewpoint lauded by Equality Forum, which appears to judge human rights through the lens of sexuality issues alone.

In one sentence, they skewer the implicit racism and colonial mindset behind pinkwashing's attempt to shine a light on LGBT rights in Israel versus the homophobia of some Arab societies. They write:

It is our view that comparisons of this sort are both inaccurate--homophobia and transphobia are to be found throughout Palestinian and Israeli society--and that this is beside the point: Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine cannot be somehow justified or excused by its purportedly tolerant treatment of some sectors of its own population.

Bravo to the sisters and brothers who penned these words!

In Malcolm Lazin's email to me, he noted that there is a healthy debate about these policies in Israel and elsewhere. Unfortunately, that's not true. Equality Forum's own program, in fact, makes no mention of the devastated lives of Palestinians, queer and straight, and, not surprisingly, there is no Palestinian speaker on the program to expose these harsh truths.

I believe the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to expose and punish Israel's criminal behavior and demand an end to their apartheid policies, should put out a call to boycott Equality Forum's conference in May 2012.

More than anything right now, Israel fears "de-legitimization," especially in the eyes of Americans whose government finances the apartheid state to the tune of at least $3 billion every year. Yet Israel's own actions delegitimize that state in the eyes of anyone with a whiff of social conscience.

It is up to activists--Jewish lesbians like myself, straight gentiles, everyone who cares about social justice--to stand up to Israel's racist policies and those who help to veil them.

First published at Sherry Talks Back.