Why We Need A Pinkwashing Conference

Sigal Samuel on why even critics like Alan Dershowitz should welcome the upcoming Homonationalism and Pinkwashing Conference organized by Sarah Schulman.

Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images

Alan Dershowitz’s recent New York Post op-ed, which attacks the Homonationalism and Pinkwashing Conference scheduled for April at the City University of New York, does an excellent job of making clear the need for just such a conference. Dershowitz opposes the event on the grounds that it’s a “hate fest” that promotes “classic anti-Semitic bigotry in the name of gay rights.” But the way he arrives at this conclusion shows just how poorly understood the substance of the pinkwashing argument actually is. And what better way to clarify it than by holding a major conference?

Sarah Schulman, who organized the conference, first popularized the claim that Israel is guilty of pinkwashing—that is, of deliberately highlighting its stance on gay rights to mask its mistreatment of Palestinians—in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. Based on that op-ed, Dershowitz claims that Schulman “accuses Israel of feigning concern over the rights of gay people in order to whitewash—‘pinkwash’—its lack of concern for Palestinian people.” In a phone call Thursday, he explained that Schulman’s was “a very unclear article” but that he believes this is “the clear implication” of her words.

Unfortunately, it’s actually a flat-out misrepresentation of Schulman’s argument. Her belief, which emerges clearly from her other easily accessible writings, is not that Israel pretends to care about gay rights. It’s that those hard-won rights, once they’ve been recognized commendably and in good faith, then get used to portray Israel as progressive and modern, despite the occupation it continues to enforce. “Israel is trying to say that gay rights are emblems of modernity, and when you have them, it means that the whole society is advanced,” Schulman explained by phone. “And that therefore the violations of international law that the occupation represents don’t matter.”

Dershowitz, whose reading of Schulman is limited to her 900-word op-ed, also complains that she just “doesn’t say” how pinkwashing the occupation “is supposed to work.”

Are the media supposed to be so impressed with Israel’s pro-gay policies that they no longer cover the Palestinian issue? Well, that certainly hasn’t worked.

Are gays around the world supposed to feel so indebted to Israel that they no longer criticize the Jewish nation? That surely hasn’t worked, either—witness the increasingly rabid anti-Israel advocacy by some radical gay groups.

But these are straw man arguments. Schulman doesn’t believe pinkwashing aims to get the media to “no longer cover the Palestinian issue” or to get all gay people to “feel so indebted to Israel” that they’ll never criticize it; these would both be ridiculously unrealistic goals. So how does she think pinkwashing is supposed to work?

Luckily, she tells us. In a Huffington Post article and in her newest book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, she provides a detailed history of “Brand Israel,” the Israeli government’s marketing campaign to rebrand itself in the eyes of the world. When it launched in 2005, the campaign targeted men ages 18-34, the demographic researchers had identified as most powerful and influential. By 2007, it had expanded to target “liberals” more broadly. By 2009, it began to promote Israel as an international gay vacation destination. That same year, StandWithUs began a campaign “to improve Israel’s image through the gay community in Israel,” and the Foreign Ministry announced it would sponsor a Gay Games delegation “to help show to the world Israel’s liberal and diverse face.” In 2011, a Foreign Ministry official explicitly told the Jerusalem Post “that efforts to let European and American liberals know about the gay community in Israel were an important part of its work to highlight this country's support of human rights and to underscore its diversity in a population that tends to judge Israel harshly, solely on its treatment of Palestinians.” Pinkwashing, then, is supposed to work by using LGBT society to prove to liberals across the globe that Israel is committed to progressive values and human rights—despite its continued violations of Palestinian human rights.

Dershowitz was unaware of this evidence—which is to say, unaware of the actual substance of Schulman’s argument—until I relayed it. Still, he maintained that, since her Times op-ed was what brought pinkwashing into the public debate, “I’m entitled to make my judgment based on that article alone.” That’s a shame for Dershowitz—even just from a tactical perspective—because after hearing Schulman’s evidence, he was able to make a stronger case against it.

For example, in reference to the Foreign Ministry official’s statement to the Jerusalem Post, he argued, “That’s a fair argument for an Israeli public official to make. All the quote says is that obviously Israel wants to present a positive face to Europe with regard to its human rights record. And it should, because generally Israel’s human rights record is very good—with some deep flaws.” He also argued that Schulman’s evidence doesn’t suffice to establish intent to pinkwash the occupation. “That’s like saying the campaign ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ is designed to prevent people from exploring Virginia’s history of racism.”

These types of arguments hold far more swaying power than Dershowitz’s claim, in his op-ed, that Schulman’s “absurd and obscene argument is nothing more than anti-Semitism with a pink face,” which even other critics of the pinkwashing argument, like Jay Michaelson, can’t take seriously. Fact is, engaging with your opposition’s case on its own terms and in its most robust form is a lot more compelling than knocking down straw man versions of it—and clarifying that case is exactly what a conference would do.

But Dershowitz also opposes the conference on the grounds that, “if it’s going to be an academic conference, it should present a variety of perspectives” on the pinkwashing argument—the same charge that was leveled against the BDS panel at Brooklyn College last month. Schulman, backed by Jewish Voice for Peace, rejects the idea that the conference should be “balanced out” by speakers who oppose the pinkwashing argument, arguing that that notion betrays a double standard. “CUNY has many events on its 23 campuses that are fully supportive of Israeli government policies and no one has ever asked them to include speakers who hold ideas that are critical of those policies,” she stated. In Dershowitz’s view, that may be true for advocacy events, but it can’t—or shouldn’t—be true of academic conferences.

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Even if you subscribe to that view, though, it’s not clear that opposing the conference is the smartest way to go. Dershowitz’s opposition to the BDS panel ultimately backfired, gaining the BDS cause great publicity, and his opposition to the pinkwashing conference will likely have the same effect. Many Jewish activists who oppose the pinkwashing argument have been taking a different tack, choosing instead to position pinkwashing as a radical fringe view, well outside the LGBT mainstream. Speaking to the Forward, Jay Michaelson said the conference wouldn’t be vocally opposed because the reach of the pinkwashing argument was limited to “a small group of radical left scholars,” and Hindy Poupko claimed that “this whole concept of pinkwashing is only even known of by a very fringe and radical group within the LGBT community.”

That claim is “completely false” according to Schulman, who explained that this conference includes 181 speakers and sold out 400 seats six months in advance. “That’s not the fringe. Nobody can get a ticket now. If Judith Butler herself wanted an extra ticket, she couldn’t have it.” Acknowledging that there’s a difference between what’s popular in academia and what’s popular in mainstream circles, Schulman asserted that non-academics are quickly becoming aware of the pinkwashing argument. “The conference is a very significant marker in terms of the academic discourse. And it’s because of Dershowitz that it’s come into the popular discourse, too!”

Funnily enough, Dershowitz agrees with Schulman that the pinkwashing argument has entered the mainstream; that’s why he thinks it warrants the full-court press he’s now conducting. Yet if he really wants to fight it effectively, he should welcome the chance to learn more about it. “Some part of me is happy that this conference is going on,” he told me, “because it gives an opportunity to those of us who think the concept is an absurd and bigoted one to gather support from our friends in the gay community.” But there’s a better reason to be happy about the conference, and that’s that it will provide what is obviously a much-needed opportunity—for adherents, detractors, and fence sitters alike—to determine exactly what the pinkwashing argument is, and exactly what it isn’t.