It’s November in Boston. Leaves carpet the streets and a chill sharpens the air; we prepare to give thanks that smallpox killed the Indians and left us their land; and it’s Out in Israel Month. This is a “campaign of education and celebration. We aim to educate about the status of civil rights for LGBT Israeli citizens, hard-fought for throughout the years, and celebrate the LGBT community and culture in Israel. Israel is a multi-faceted society with many faces and just as many narratives.” The Jerusalem Post tells me,
The program was an initiative of Israel’s consul-general to New England, Shai Bazak, and will feature performances by gay heartthrob Assi Azar. Azar, a popular TV host in Israel, will screen his made-for-television coming-out film Mom, Dad, I Have Something to Tell You to audiences around the Boston area, followed by panel discussions about life as an openly gay man in Tel Aviv. The event makes Israel the only country in the world to run a campaign promoting its LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) population.
Bazak’s job as consul-general is obviously to promote Israel, and promoting its protection of LGBT rights is a task he embraces eagerly. At a campus speaking engagement recently, he made the de rigueur comparison to the rest of the region:
“It is clear from what we have seen that large masses of people in the Middle East want democracy, and civil rights, and liberty and freedom … Democracy is the right to speak up. Democracy supports the rights of women and gays and minorities in society who are oppressed. However … this is a problem in the Middle East because even though many people want democracy, they don’t want it for everyone. This is a source of much conflict and much harm and is at the root of many of our problems.”
Now, Bazak knows exactly what it means to want democracy for some but not for others. In his past life — before serving as Binyamin Netanyahu’s press secretary during his first Prime Ministerial term — he was spokesman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the major settlers’ organization. As such, he defended the idea that settlers had rights and deserved political representation, while Palestinians who owned the land would get neither.
Bazak “lost Netanyahu’s affection over the years,” according to one press report, but gained another patron: Yisrael Beiteinu party chief and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman originally wanted to put Bazak in the prestige post of consul-general in New York. Netanyahu vetoed that, but approved Boston as a consolation prize.
Diplomatic sources deflected criticism that Bazak, with his strong Likud credentials, is not the right man to send to Boston, the site of numerous universities and one of America’s most liberal cities, saying that he has proven his ability to represent the country’s policies faithfully and well.
Clearly Bazak has hit on the gay angle as a way to sell Israel to “one of America’s most liberal cities.” His official biography on the consular website, meanwhile, omits his service to the extremist settlers, saying only that “Mr. Bazak has held many positions in Israeli government and the private sector.”
This is “pinkwashing” to the max: using rights protections for one group to conceal rights abuses against another. But the intriguing thing –suggested by Bazak’s own record — is the specific role of the Israeli right. After all, the two ministries most involved in marketing Israel’s gay record are both under the control of Yisrael Beiteinu: not only Lieberman’s Foreign Ministry, but the Ministry of Tourism under Stas Misezhnikov.
Yisrael Beiteinu has been widely called a fascist party. Its stab-in-the-back, racist rhetoric against Israeli Arabs fits part of that bill: “no loyalty, no citizenship” was its election slogan (think “even though many people want democracy, they don’t want it for everyone”). And its promotion of a heroic leader cult and a macho-mythologized Israeli identity fits another. Here, Haaretz describes its junior wing at a party conference:
The youths, ages 16-18, many of them good friends from school, had stood for a long time before the event began at the intersection near the hotel, waving Israeli flags and shouting “Death to the Arabs” and “No loyalty, no citizenship” at passing cars. …
On the bus back to the center of Upper Nazareth, one of the youths offers this explanation for his excitement about the party: “This country has needed a dictatorship for a long time already. But I’m not talking about an extreme dictatorship. We need someone who can put things in order. Lieberman is the only one who speaks the truth.” Adds Edan Ivanov, an 18 year old who describes himself as being “up on current events”:
“We’ve had enough here with the ‘leftist democracy’ – and I put that term in quotes, don’t get me wrong. People have put the dictator label on Lieberman because of the things he says. But the truth is that in Israel there can’t be a full democracy when there are Arabs here who oppose it.
“All Lieberman’s really saying is that anyone who isn’t prepared to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, because of his personal views, cannot receive equal rights; he can’t vote for the executive authority. People here are gradually coming to understand what needs to be done concerning a person who is not loyal.”
The party’s core appeal is to the xenophobia of Israel’s million-plus immigrants from the former Soviet Union. However, it’s not just nationalism that wins their loyalties. Many, encouraged to make aliyah to Israel by a demographically desperate state, found that the Law of Return welcomed then but Jewish law didn’t. Up to half a million Russian Jewish immigrants don’t qualify as halakhic Jews in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
In part this is because of the celebrated “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, which allows people with one Jewish grandparent to immigrate (on the argument that since this was the Nazi standard for extermination, it should be Israel’s standard for citizenship). Orthodox parties have long campaigned to scrap this provision and bring the law into line with halakhic definitions — which would only deepen Israel’s demographic crisis. In the meantime, though, the incongruity between the state’s and the rabbinate’s definitions casts significant numbers of self-identified Russian Jews as outsiders in the land. Yisrael Beiteinu gives them psychological consolation by offering an Israeli-hood defined by loyalty and the exclusion (if not execution) of Arabs. It also promises material consolations: it’s a proudly secular party that presses to institute civil unions. This secularism in a state steadily more dominated by the Orthodox gives the party a peculiar appeal to gays as well.
So the semi-fascist party’s flirtation with gay rights has a logic to it. One self-described gay leftist writes:
It’s very tempting to just say “no” and resist any ties with Lieberman, whose MKs [members of the Knesset] are responsible for proposing a bunch of ugly new bills all meant to restrict freedom of expression.
But there’s more to it than that. I’m as Israeli as the next guy. I am a proud, left-wing patriot. As a gay activist, my first mission is to promote and normalize LGBT life in Israel.
The Russian immigrants who form the base of Lieberman’s constituency are in general the most homophobic part of Israeli society, even more than Shas’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.
So having Lieberman’s followers embrace the gay community is a very positive development, even if their motivations aren’t pure.
The fact is, there’s no way back for them.
After Lieberman embraces the gay community, he will never be able to speak or vote against gay laws in the Knesset. Next year, when we try again to get equal rights in adoption and surrogacy, his party will have to support those measures.
There’s a lot to be argued about in this dilemma. I’m sure somebody will invoke the figure of the little gay kid growing up in a Russian Jewish family, who will take untold comfort from the fact that his father’s favorite political party is no longer homophobic. And wouldn’t it be nice if President Mitt Romney in the US launched a campaign to attract gay tourists, to a country which by that time will be so broke and devastated that any travelling French homo would be welcomed as a savior along with his
Euros francs! Wouldn’t that strike a blow for internal acceptance too? And so on … But there’s a larger cost to the whole political community when an authoritarian thug like Lieberman gets to paint himself as a defender of somebody’s, anybody’s, rights. “Pinkwashing” corrupts the idea and practice of human rights, by throwing out the promise of universality and turning them into instruments of division and exclusion. What this story suggests is that it’s not just deception for external consumption: it also corrupts the polity from within. Lieberman pinkwashes himself. By expropriating the language of diversity and tolerance, he makes himself look like a decent participant in politics, and burnishes his own racism and violence with a secular and progressive sheen. The writer above isn’t going to vote for Lieberman, but he’s willing to accept Lieberman’s votes for his own causes. Isn’t that just about as bad?
In the way that absolute power corrupts, occupation — the exercise of absolute control over a population — has corrupted Israel’s politics. Lieberman’s ascent to respectability marks a further descent into corruption. That a foreign ministry under his leadership can talk with a straight face about “a multi-faceted society with many faces and just as many narratives” means the narrative has become a fantastic fairy tale. Among the many faces of tolerance, Lieberman’s is the portrait of Dorian Gray.