Israeli Pinkwashing: Grounding Understandings of Homonationalism

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On the 7th December 2017, in the face of overwhelming international opposition, Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. A centre stage for brutal violence and home to illegal Israeli settlements, Jerusalem is, and has long been, the focal point of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In bullishly recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump has legitimised the continued illegal occupation of Palestine and further hindered the peace process. Now is a particularly pertinent time to equip ourselves with complicated understandings of Israeli nationalism in order to aid the fight for Palestinian freedom. A good starting point is to shift our critical focus from highly visible cultural reproductions of the nation to seemingly mundane, everyday acts. This change in perspective helps to ground grand narratives and create more nuanced understandings of the nation. In order to develop understandings of Israeli nationalism, this article explores one aspect of the Israeli nation-building project known as pinkwashing.

Pinkwashing has been used to describe the Israeli attempt to fashion a liberal and virtuous national image through the embrace and acceptance of particular sanitised homosexual bodies. Through the appropriation of gay rights discourse, Israel has sought to “conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life” (Schulman, 2011). Pinkwashing is a particular manifestation of Puar’s conception of homonationalism – the embrace of certain sanitised homosexual bodies in nationalist projects (Puar, 2007) – that seeks to present Israel as a “Western, progressive, democratic, and liberal state” (Gross, 2015: 85) and create a smokescreen for Palestinian occupation. Critiques of pinkwashing have mainly focused on heavily publicised events – such as Tel Aviv Pride Parade. These critiques have usefully exposed the ways Israel has self-represented as a liberal beacon in an otherwise barbaric Middle East. However, we need to shift the critical lens and examine how the Israeli nation is reproduced and sustained at a micro-level.

As Billig (1995) has explored, engaging how ideas about the nation are socially reproduced in everyday lives helps to complicate understandings of the formation of nation states; refuting the idea that “nationalism only strikes the established nation-states on special occasions” (Billig 1995: 5). Instead of only moments of “violent passion” (Billig, 1995: 5) marking the difference between Israel and Palestine/the Middle East, national identity is shaped and reshaped through banal acts. Looking at the everyday regulation of queer Palestinian bodies in Israeli space as a mode of social reproduction complicates a conception of a nation, anchored in ephemeral bursts of nationalism.

Within this interaction, Palestinian ‘otherness’ is ultimately measured in terms of distance from the homonormative ideal queer – the white, middle-class Israeli.

Ritchie (2015) has provided detailed research into several aspects of the politically charged everyday social reproduction in Israel; one of which is the policing of queer Palestinian bodies into Israeli bars and clubs. The club entrance is regarded by Ritchie as a social reproduction of the military checkpoint where “queer Palestinians are frequently denied entry when their papers reveal their Palestinianness” (Ritchie, 2015: 624). This social checkpoint relies on “a complicated set of racist—but specifically Israeli—practices, borrowed from the same logic that engenders the occupation” (Ritchie, 2015: 626). Within this interaction, Palestinian ‘otherness’ is ultimately measured in terms of distance from the homonormative ideal queer – the white, middle-class Israeli. Despite the celebration of gay rights within nationalist rhetoric, bodies that stray too far from the homonormative form are marginalised. In this way, the club entrance can be regarded as a microcosm for the racialised regulation of Palestinian bodies into the nation and national identity more generally. Clearly, rather than simply being sustained by visible flashpoints, nationalism is shown to be an “endemic condition” (Billig, 1995: 5) that is reproduced and normalised by everyday actions. Inherent within Billig’s insights is the recognition of the significance of “everyday, routine, and normalised objects and practices” (Christian et al, 2016: 67) to nationalism. These unremarkable, normalised, and therefore barely visible acts form the constant underlying ripple of nationalism that sustain national identities from day-to-day.

This process also complicates the notion of Israeli queer space as depoliticised and dislocated from wider political context. For example, Tel-Aviv is portrayed as a space “immune from the discourses and practices that structure the space of the nation more broadly” (Ritchie, 2015: 623). In contrast to this understanding, Ritchie’s insights into social reproduction in everyday interactions reveals “the contiguity of queer space and sovereign space”(Ritchie, 2015: 623). Far from transcending the political, queer space is highly politicised and plays a key role in reproducing ideas about the nation state.

Engaging with the political nature of queer space and racist regulation of queer bodies in everyday social interactions may also help to ground homonationalism as a concept. It has been argued that in the process of being transposed from a specific socio-historical context – post-9/11 US – Puar’s original conception has morphed “into a totalizing framework that depends on a dangerously simplistic construction of reality” (Ritchie, 2015: 620). Power is simplified to racism and “racism is understood in a universalizing manner” (Ritchie, 2015: 620) that allows critics to sidestep the complicated work of locating the varying meanings of race in specific contexts. As Currah (2013) notes, in focusing too heavily on simplified meta narratives of homonationalism and pinkwashing, there is a tendency to “overemphasize a unity of intention on the part of state actors and to imagine ‘the state’ as far more monolithic than it is” (Currah, 2013: 5). In this way, nations are represented as much more stable and bounded than they really are; the complicated intricacies and inherent fragilities are smoothed over and hidden from sight. Thus there is a danger that in critiquing Brand Israel through the lens of homonationalism, we risk reifying and fetishizing the Israeli state.  

We must embrace these nuanced understandings as a tool in the struggle against the brutal and illegal occupation of Palestine and the toxic marriage of Trump and Israel.

However, shifting attention to the social reproduction of nation state narratives at a micro level provides a contextual anchor for discussions of homonationalism. As Currah recognises, engaging with a concrete context, such as the social interactions in bars explored by Ritchie for example, helps to “understand at a much more historical and granular level what states are, what they do, and the effects of particular policies on sex” (Currah, 2013: 8). It creates a textured understanding rather than flattening lived experiences with grand narratives. Importantly, it thus helps to complicate an “all-encompassing and unassailable” (Brown, 2012: 1067) concept of homonationalism and reveal the vulnerability and potential for change.

Rethinking homonationalism in this way could help to “develop a nuanced framework for building coalitions to fight – rather than platforms on which to fight about” (Ritchie, 2015: 631). We must embrace these nuanced understandings as a tool in the struggle against the brutal and illegal occupation of Palestine and the toxic marriage of Trump and Israel.

Ryan Cattle has completed his master's in Gender, Society and Representation at UCL.