For Progressives, A False Dichotomy On Israel

For Progressives, A False Dichotomy On Israel

Conflicted young Jews who feel caught between the progressive values we hold in our DNA and an increasingly radical “left” agenda that demonizes all things Israel may have come to another fork in the road. The silencing of activists from Jerusalem Open House at the Creating Change conference last week sent a signal to those of us at the intersection of an American Jewish community struggling with its relationship to Israel, and an LGBTQ movement trying to deepen its solidarity with other liberation movements around the world.

I work at the New Israel Fund, an organization that promotes social justice and human rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and I also serve on the board of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ synagogue in New York. These affiliations put me right at the crosshairs of a growing schism.

What does it mean for us when we see, as we increasingly do, an “either/or” attitude that forces us to choose between being affiliated with Israel and being good progressives? And for those of us that identify as LGBTQ, what do we do when our desire to participate in that movement comes into conflict with a monolithic stance against Israel? How do we respond to events like Friday night’s scene at the Creating Change conference, when Israelis trying to make change in their own society are silenced, accused of “pinkwashing” (the charge that Israelis use the country’s gay-friendliness as a smoke screen for its West Bank policies) and shut out from a global Queer-led justice movement that they need to be part of and that needs them to take part?

In the face of these impossible questions, we must not allow ourselves to be co-opted either into tone-deaf “Israel advocacy” or equally one-sided “anti-Zionism.” We are smarter than that.

Our true movement — the movement for a just, democratic Israel and a free Palestine — needs us. It needs our voice calling for something a bit hard to capture in a tweet or on a protest sign: nuance. By conflating every struggle into one struggle, by dismissing any sign of progress as a condemnation that we haven’t gone far enough, by calling any individual bravely working for change within hostile systems an accomplice to the enemy, we sell ourselves and our intelligence short.

The pinkwashing argument denies our ability to understand nuance. It assumes that I cannot simultaneously hold in my head two realities: that Israel must do much more to protect the rights of Palestinians (including queer Palestinians), and that Israeli society has made great strides towards acceptance of LGBTQ people generally. 

A historic and unfair claims of pinkwashing suggest that to be a “good” member of a broad-based queer movement, one must categorically reject not only the Israeli government but also any individual Israeli who falls short of calling for dismantling the entire state. It is a false notion that would force some into positions that almost all progressives disagree with — such as calling for the forced expulsion of millions of Jews in Israel.

But this argument also does a disservice to the thousands of Israeli activists and organizers — queer and straight — who are struggling every day to reverse the injustices committed by that state. It alienates those learning from and contributing to a global struggle for justice and liberation from oppression of all kinds. Ironically, when we apply the label pinkwashing with so little consideration, we actually help make it happen: We distract from Israel’s actual shortcomings by purporting that the gains made by LGBTQ Israelis — over the fierce opposition of many Israeli leaders — was actually part of a plot to burnish Israel’s reputation abroad. It makes it harder to discern actual Israeli-government supported smokescreening when it does happen —and it happens plenty. 

If we, like those on the right, deny a middle path we will ensure only that the very people working hard to make change within a deeply unjust system are further isolated from the world, from their progressive counterparts and from access to all that these communities and networks provide. This will further entrench isolationism and nationalism in Israel.

What happened at the Creating Change conference, the outright violent hostility to people that my own organization supports, was difficult to watch from afar. I felt torn between an LGBTQ movement of which I feel proud to be a part, and my support for Israeli activists who should be natural allies. That is the “intersectionality” I believe in, and that is why I see no contradiction between my work supporting civil and human rights in Israel and Palestine, and my activism in the LGBTQ movement. 

So let’s not fall prey to the false belief that supporting the positive change-makers within Israel means colluding with an evil state. This is as absurd as suggesting that by working at a public university you therefore must support every action taken by the State that issued its charter. Let’s be brave enough to hold multiple and even conflicting narratives at the same time. Be big-hearted enough to extend compassion and respect to those holding viewpoints that we deeply disagree with. And believe in the change — towards justice for everyone — that we know someday is coming.

David Shmidt Chapman is senior program officer for the tri-state office of the New Israel Fund.

read more: