“Pinkwashing” Comes to CUNY

In a region in which the laws of many countries punish homosexuality with lengthy criminal sentences or even death, Israel’s laws and history stand out. Indeed, by virtually any measurement, Israel’s gay rights record far exceeds that of the United States. Decades before the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision, Israel had decriminalized homosexuality. During the nearly 20 years in which Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell led to the United States kicking thousands of homosexuals out of the armed services, gays and lesbians served openly in the Israel Defense Forces. In contrast to the laws of several U.S. states, Israel allows gay or lesbian couples to jointly adopt children. Same-sex couples can’t marry in Israel, but the state does extend legal recognition to marriages performed in other countries, something that DOMA prevents the federal government from doing even for U.S. couples married in states like Massachusetts.

It’s easy to see why some in the religious record might find such a record troubling. But how could politically correct academics–people who purport to support equal rights for all–possibly criticize Israel for its gay rights record?

It turns out that, at least for some academic activists, finding an excuse to condemn Israel is more important than expressing support for gay rights. The preferred tool is an allegation of “pinkwashing,” a theory that first attracted national notice last year, courtesy of a New York Times op-ed from CUNY professor Sarah Schulman. Schulman summarized “pinkwashing” as “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life,” resulting from the unfortunate pattern of “increasing gay rights [causing] some people of good will to mistakenly judge how advanced a country is by how it responds to homosexuality.”

At Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic blog, an Israeli gay rights activist deemed Schulman’s argument “astonishing,” wondering how someone “putatively on the Left” could suggest that “a country shouldn’t be proud of its record of championing a progressive cause.” As Goldberg’s correspondent pointed out, the “pinkwashers” have the ability to harm more than logical discourse: “If the Left is not willing acknowledge the tangible differences between Israel’s treatment of its gay citizens and the persecution gay and lesbians face in many of the neighboring countries, and to throw its support to Israel, then it is risking seeing those hard-won gains evaporate.”

The “pinkwashers,” alas, are making their return. The CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies recently announced a spring 2013 conference with the only-in-academia title of “Homonationalism and Pinkwashing.” Suggested panel topics include “Arab Jews (Mizrachis) and Occupation/Pinkwashing/Diaspora”; “Queer and The Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions Movement”; and “Pinkwashing and Israeli Queer Cinema.”

Beyond an apparent complaint about the repeal of DADT (“In the United States, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have been invited into an equality defined, not by rights, but by the ability to participate openly in immoral wars”), most of the conference announcement focused on Israel. “Homonationalism,” the announcement warned, “has spread far from its roots in European xenophobia and US militarism to become an increasingly potent tool in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” with Jerusalem trying to avoid “the threat of economic boycott” by expanding “their marketing plan[!!] by harnessing Homonationalism to reposition its global image.” The “pinkwashing” effort, according to the Center, was a “deliberate and highly funded program” designed to ignore how “the oppression of Palestinians crosses the boundary of sexuality.”

The conference announcement is troubling for two reasons. First, one contingent of CUNY faculty embarrassing themselves on a Middle Eastern policy matter came quickly after another contingent of CUNY faculty did the same. Two high-profile professors in the CUNY faculty union traveled to Teheran to address not the plight of Iranian gays and lesbians but instead to offer unsophisticated political commentary. (The “pinkwashers” don’t seem too concerned with Iran’s policy of hanging gays, either; a suggested panel topic for the conference is “Iran, Iraq and the Use of anti-LGBT Persecution to Justify Military Assault.”) Like the “pinkwashers,” the CUNY Teheran contingent seems to have had no trouble with even the most extreme anti-Israel rhetoric; a fellow panelist ranted about how “tens of thousands of hundreds of thousands in front of the White House, hundreds of thousands, against Zionism and the media doesn’t cover that.”

Second, the “pinkwashing” movement raises profound, and disturbing, questions of the degree to which anti-Israel prejudice is tolerated in the academy. If 61 percent of Israelis had just voted to ban all legal recognition of same-sex couples, the Israeli Supreme Court had outlawed same-sex second-parent adoption, and platform of the State’s largest political party proclaimed that sexual orientation isn’t an appropriate category for anti-discrimination legislation (this combination is hardly far-fetched: all three have occurred in North Carolina since 2010), CUNY’s “pinkwashers” doubtless would be scheduling a conference decrying Israel for treating gays and lesbians as second-class citizens.

If Israel can be criticized by the same people, who have the same beliefs, for being pro- or anti-gay rights, doesn’t that suggest the agenda of the “pinkwashers” is simply reflexive hostility to Israel? And if an academic program sees no problem in scheduling a conference oriented around reflexive hostility to one nation, what does that say about the program’s values?

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

2 thoughts on ““Pinkwashing” Comes to CUNY

  1. I have signed this or a siamilr petition before, and received a response from Komen that they had no intention of recalling the toxin laden original perfume. I am signing again to ask them to step up to the plate and take truly meaningful action to protect women from cancer by RECALLING the original formulation from the shelves and from peoples’ homes. Yes, a product recall is inconvenient and costly, but so is cancer. Komen should do better than other industries and corporations to set an outrageously good example, not adhere to the same standards that polluting corporations use to evade responsibility for the damage their products cause. Hey, Komen, think of a recall as a publicity stunt, and you can write off the costs under your advertising budget!

  2. Thank you so much for hipping me to Pinkwashing!!!!!!! As a gay Jew, I have long sensed this phenomenon in *both* my communities! I’ve always filed it away in the same place as the self-congratulatory claims of Jewsih leadership in the Civil Rigths Movement (btw- I know it was real- my dad was involved, just sayin’ it seems to get a lot more play in recent years- what would *that* be called? “Blackwashing”? Too easy.) Anyway, glad to know this is off the ground!

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