Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

The Nakba and gay rights in Palestine and Israel

I spent an interesting Nakba weekend at Temperatures Rising, a conference on Palestinian liberation organised by a collective from CJPP. One of the most fascinating workshops – and, apparently, the one most objected to by Sydney’s Zionist lobby – was on Israel’s attempts to ‘pinkwash’ its reputation. This touches not only on Israeli efforts to market itself as a major gay tourism destination, but also its attempts to go further than this, using its claim to be a ‘safe haven’ for lesbians, gay men and straight women in the Middle East as a defence against scrutiny of its human rights record.
In Israel, as the opening presentation detailed, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1988, gays are allowed in the military, there is a legal age of consent for all sexualities of 16 and gay couples can foster children and adopt each others’ offspring. This is implicitly or explicitly contrasted by Israel’s marketers with the assumption that the ‘backward’ Arab/Muslim states surrounding it are intolerant towards all queer people and suppress their right to self-expression. Israel funds gay film festivals internationally and sells itself as a ‘fabulous’ gay destination at major tourism expos like Berlin. Zionist groups like Stand With Us appear at left-wing events such as the US Social Forum to present Israel as an open, tolerant place where Middle East gays can take refuge, and Israeli gay organisations try to co-opt international queer networks, for instance in 1986 trying to canvas global support for a gay and lesbian kibbutz being established as part of the Judaicisation policy in the Galilee or hosting the 2006 World Pride. Zionist campaigners have also used this supposed superiority in terms of gay rights to attack supporters of Palestine, including Fiona Byrne, the Marrickville Green candidate in the recent Sydney state elections, as I wrote about here. Pro-Palestinian groups have also been excluded from using LGBT resources such as the New York LGBT Center as a result of Zionist lobby attacks as recently as this February.
However, as the presentation pointed out, homosexuality was actually decriminalised in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank in 1956. The 2006 Jerusalem World Pride was ironically entitled ‘Love Without Borders’ whilst the Separation Wall (which obviously does not have special gay-friendly checkpoints punctuating it) was being finished off just a couple of miles away and dodgy legal proceedings were being used to strip thousands of Jerusalemite Palestinians of the right to live in the city of their birth. As a subsequent speaker pointed out, during a visit to a mixed gay rights organisation called Open House in Jerusalem, she was told that despite its claims as a ‘haven’, only one gay Palestinian has ever been granted residency (not citizenship, just residency) to live with his Israeli partner. More common is a situation in which gay Palestinians find themselves being blackmailed by the Shin Bet, who try to use their sexuality as a way of forcing them to become collaborators or informers. Gay Palestinians who can travel within Israel report that in order to be admitted to Tel Aviv’s gay clubs, they have to speak Hebrew and dress in fashions which aren’t identified as being ‘Arab’ in style. The concentration on Tel Aviv as a gay destination means that few visitors are likely to meet many Palestinian citizens of Israel, who don’t tend to frequent the city
And as I’ve written about elsewhere, a queer community centre in Tel Aviv was violently attacked by a religiously conservative Jew in 2008, killing several young men, and the World Pride festival in Jerusalem in 2006 was also subjected to violent attack by the religious right. This was contrasted by one speaker with an incident in the 1980s when the Palestinian bishop of Jerusalem was arrested for cottaging in London but on his return through Allenby Bridge his way was lined with Palestinians of all denominations who saw the attacks on him as an attempt to discredit him as a Palestinian despite his sexuality.
Depressingly, as gay rights campaigners pointed out at the time, the 2006 World Pride was one of the few issues in decades to unite the usually warring Jewish, Islamic and Christian religious leaderships in Jerusalem, in their rejection of this decadent, immoral presence in the holy city. As the speakers pointed out, many gay Palestinians and Palestinian women reject and resent Israel’s efforts to appropriate their social struggles as a weapon against their own people, pointing out that gay, lesbian and female Palestinians suffer just as much as straight male ones from the effects of the Occupation, be it checkpoints, demolitions, extra-judicial killings, land expropriations or political disenfranchisement. And, according to some gay Palestinian activists quoted, the Occupation can be blamed for the ‘freezing’ and ‘romanticisation’ of Palestinian culture, which makes social change and dynamism a more difficult proposition to negotiate on a day-to-day basis.
When I last wrote about this subject in response to the attacks on Fiona Byrne, I included a list of Palestinian and broader Arab queer groups and articles on the subject. Here are a few more:

Bekhsoos
MEEM
Palestinian Queers for BDS
And to wind up, here’s a story from the BBC about a Shas Party MK blaming earthquakes on gay people, just to show that homophobic nutjobs get everywhere.

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