Opposing the ‘pink-washing’ of Israel – rs21 member Colin Wilson explains the importance of a slogan increasingly seen on Palestine solidarity protests.
As millions of us throughout the world march for Palestine – as the rulers of countries like Britain and America are exposed as, in global terms, a tiny minority – the right are desperate to defend apartheid Israel. One recurrent theme has been juvenile mockery of people marching with the slogan ‘queers for Palestine’. Do these people not know how homophobic Palestine is? Are they not aware of tolerant Tel Aviv, to which so many queer Palestinians flee? Is the slogan not the equivalent of ‘chickens for KFC’?
There are four things to say in response to this.
First, we stand in solidarity with Palestine. Queer people, and so many others, do this because it is the right thing to do – to support a people forced into exile, held in an open-air prison in Gaza or slowly robbed of their land by settlers on the West Bank. Our response is not some calculated deal that our support for them is conditional upon their delivery of support for us, because that is not what solidarity means.
Second, there are queer people in Palestinian society fighting for their freedom – check out the website of alQaws, one such organisation, which has existed for years now. AlQaws stresses that, before anything else, their organisation is part of the struggle for Palestinian freedom – as they put it, when a queer Palestinian goes through an Israeli checkpoint, the IDF doesn’t care about their sexuality. Queer Palestinians face Israeli bombardment in Gaza right now, face attacks on the West Bank right now. Missiles and settler attacks don’t bring them liberation.
Claims that Palestinians experiencing homophobia find refuge in Israel don’t match up with reality either. Since 2018 Israel has defined itself as ‘the national home of the Jewish people’, making the second-class status of non-Jewish people clear. Palestinians from the West Bank can only enter Israel with a military permit. Al Jazeera reported last year that ‘Palestinians from the West Bank living on stay permits in Israel cannot get health or social benefits, cannot work in many professions, and until recently were not allowed to drive.’
Third, what about ‘LGBT-friendly Israel’? Netanyahu’s ruling coalition includes United Torah Judaism, which back in June declared that the ‘LGBTQ community poses greater threat to Israel than Hezbollah or Hamas’. Vicious homophobia is a strong political current in Israel – increasingly so, as the religious right gains in influence. In 2015, an Israeli settler attacked Jerusalem Pride, stabbing three marchers and killing 16-year-old Shira Banki.
Reactionary views on sexuality and marriage in Israel go far beyond queer people. The only Jewish marriages conducted in Israel are those by Orthodox rabbis. No interfaith marriages are possible, nor marriages for non-Orthodox Jews. Since 2001, more than 66,000 Jewish Israeli couples have had to go to other countries to get married. Only this August, Israeli women in Tel Aviv protested against gender segregation in Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) areas of the city which literally forces them to sit at the back of the bus. So much for Israel, a haven of sexual liberation.
Finally, let’s look at the bigger picture. As with so much right-wing support for Israel, what underlies these claims about queer people is racism – a vision of tolerant, enlightened white people versus barbarian brown savages. But this idea – of European ruling classes, settlers and colonisers bringing tolerant ideas about sexuality to the rest of the world – is an absurd joke. The history goes back a long way. It goes back to 1513, when Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, coming across men in what is now Panama who ‘dressed effeminately with women’s clothing’ threw forty of them as food to his dogs. It goes back to the genocide of American Indians, including many peoples among whom third and fourth genders were accepted. It includes the imposition of laws against same-sex acts throughout the British empire. It includes the British attempt, in north India from 1865, to bring about the ‘extinction’ – the colonisers used that word – of the transgender hijra community. And of course the European and American ruling classes who committed these crimes against racialised people enforced similar prohibitions on queer and trans people back at home.
But there is an alternative, a way towards liberation demonstrated in practice in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Most South African people living under apartheid accepted homophobic ideas, as did the main organisation leading the anti-apartheid struggle, the ANC. But that changed, and one factor was international solidarity. In 1984, Simon Nkoli, a openly gay black man, was arrested along with many other activists for involvement in an anti-apartheid organisation. He recalled that his fellow prisoners were, at first, homophobic: ‘the homosexuality thing dominated… they did not want to be tried with homosexuals. Then they did not want me on the witness stand.’
What helped me most was that I received so many letters. Everyone was writing to me, from anti-apartheid organisations and gay organisations the world over… In December 1986, for example, I got more than 150 Christmas cards from gay individuals, organisations and friends. And so I would say to the others, ‘Look, people won’t be against us. Look at how much support I’m getting’.
By the time of their high-profile trial, Simon’s fellow prisoners were in favour of him testifying and supported him – in the words of Mosiuoa Lekota, a fellow prisoner, ‘how could we say that men and women like Simon, who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, how could we say that they should now be discriminated against?’
As the anti-apartheid movement became increasingly accepting of queer people, apartheid was thrown into chaos by huge strikes – two hundred thousand miners went on strike in 1987. South Africa’s rulers were forced to dismantle apartheid to avoid the threat of revolution and save South African capitalism. The scale of these struggles meant that the end of white rule was not just about the replacement of white faces at the top with black faces, as in other former colonies. Thousands of people and organisations became involved in consultations about what the new South Africa would be like, debates that focused on the wording of the new constitution. As Desmond Tutu put it in 1995:
The apartheid regime enacted laws… which denied gay and lesbian people their basic human rights and reduced them to social outcasts and criminals in their land of birth…These laws are still on the Statute Books awaiting your decision whether or not to include gay and lesbian people in the ‘Rainbow People’ of South Africa.
The new constitution became the first of any country to ban discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
And this brings us back to Palestine. The liberation of queer Palestinians is inseparable from the liberation of all Palestinians. The growing insurgency at the end of South African apartheid opened up a space where accepted ideas were called into question, where oppressed and racialised people could discuss what freedom would really be like, could come to stand alongside their queer siblings. The end of Israeli apartheid – for example, as part of a renewed Arab Spring throughout the region – can involve a similar process of liberation. That’s the strategy that should guide anyone who wants sexual liberation in Palestine – not the fake concern expressed by apologists for imperialism and racism.