Back in March, after Indiana’s passage of a law that allowed for explicit discrimination against LGBT individuals, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray enthusiastically joined the call for a boycott of the state. Alongside an executive order banning use of city funds for travel to Indiana, Murray proclaimed: "Seattleites know that discrimination has no place in our City—that’s just equality 101.” He and many others saw the potential of boycott as an effective and legitimate tool to apply pressure against oppressive and discriminatory policies.
Murray is currently, however, ignoring another boycott call: that of Palestinian civil society against the Israeli state for its brutal human rights abuses and occupation of Palestinian land. In June, he will use Israeli government funding to headline an Israeli LGBT conference in Tel Aviv, not only violating the 10-year-old call for boycott but also promoting Israel’s attempt to brand itself as a gay-friendly destination to cover up its abuses against all Palestinians.
The Palestinian call for boycott confronts Israel’s explicitly discriminatory laws, which go far beyond Indiana's. Currently numbering more than 50, the laws limit political participation, land ownership, and family reunification for Palestinian citizens of Israel while upholding an apartheid education system deemed separate and unequal by Human Rights Watch. In addition to these explicitly discriminatory policies within Israel, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza face extreme restrictions of movement, limits on political expression, lack of access to clean water, home demolitions, military harassment, and massacres such as Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, 500 of them children.
Many of these policies and practices, such as settlements in the West Bank and the bombing of UN schools in 2014, are not only brutal human rights abuses but also clear violations of international law. Meanwhile, more than 7 million Palestinian refugees—the world’s largest refugee population—from almost 60 years of displacement and colonialism are unable to return to their homeland.
In the face of these atrocities, Palestinians have called for international observers to join the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel to pressure for a change of the status quo when internal resistance has not been enough. The US government already supports Israel’s military with more than $3 billion in aid last year, so as US residents, we have a particular obligation to join the BDS movement and advance Palestinian human rights. International pressure in the form of BDS was a powerful force in ending South Africa’s apartheid regime, and as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has attested, it can be a powerful force for Palestine today.
By headlining an Israeli LGBT conference that ignores Israel’s human rights abuses and excludes Palestinians, Murray clearly violates the boycott and, intentionally or not, helps uphold the status quo in Israel. The hosts of this particular conference, A Wider Bridge and Aguda, contribute to the goals of Israel’s "Brand Israel" public relations campaign, which explicitly seeks to shift Israel’s image away from these brutal colonial realities and toward more positive associations.
One particular tactic of "Brand Israel," named "pinkwashing" by activists in Palestine and around the globe, is an attempt to brand Israel as a gay tourist destination and a "gay-friendly" country. Meanwhile, Israel uses and promotes Islamophobic sentiments and anti-Arab stereotypes to portray other Middle Eastern nations as barbaric, anti-gay, and backwards. By setting up a simplified and racist narrative of enlightened Westerners versus barbaric Arabs and creating a "gay rights" litmus test, Israel attempts to push away its ongoing role in larger historical issues of colonialism and apartheid.
A Wider Bridge advances this pinkwashing narrative in the US by explicitly advocating for Israel in LGBT communities. Aguda, an Israeli organization, claims political neutrality yet ignores Palestine and Palestinians except when it can use them as part of this pinkwashing narrative—as victims in need of rescue by the supposed "gay-rights haven" of Israel. Like pinkwashing in general, this erases the lives and agency of queer Palestinians, as well as the work of queer Palestinian organizations such as alQaws, Aswat, and Palestinian Queers for BDS. The resistance of these groups to Israeli apartheid while advancing queer visions of liberation undermines the simplistic narratives of pinkwashing; as a result, they are regularly denied a platform and public voice by Israeli and American LGBT organizations, including this upcoming conference.
The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions is a powerful way to resist the oppressive laws and institutions of the Israeli state. Violating the boycott and headlining this conference are not neutral acts—they are political ones that implicate the City of Seattle in support of the Israeli state and its actions. I join activists in Seattle and worldwide fighting attempts to co-opt queer voices and history in service of colonialism, and urge Murray to heed the Palestinian call for justice by canceling his trip.
Jimmy Pasch is a queer Jewish activist with QuAIA (Queers Against Israeli Apartheid) and Jewish Voice for Peace.