Sunday, March 25, 2012

Some things are just too hard to pinkwash

For the sake of this post, I will assume we all know what pinkwashing is. Anyone who needs a tutorial is hereby referred to Sarah Schulman's much-discussed op-ed in the New York Times Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’ published in November of 2011.

One of the mantras that we frequently hear from people who promote Israel as The Only Democracy In The Middle East (TODITME) and a gay haven is that members of the LGBT community can serve openly in the so-called Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, which is the official euphemism for the Israeli military. Apart from the fact that Israel has mandatory conscription for a majority of its population (well, if they are Jewish, but not ultra-Orthodox or female-Orthodox, or if they are male Druze), making it illegal for most LGBT 18 year-olds to refuse to serve, a recent incident has painted "the most moral army in the world" (another widespread myth) in very different light.

On March 20, 2012, Associated Press reported that the weekly magazine Bamahane (literally, 'On the Base'), published by the IDF's Education and Youth Corps, has gotten "in trouble" over a report about male soldiers who in their spare time participated in drag shows. The Israeli daily Haaretz ran a similar, slightly more detailed piece on the topic the same day, in both its original Hebrew and translated English editions. The main new piece of information in Haaretz is that this was the Purim edition of Bamahane. To me, this is telling on a number of levels. First, it means that the IDF could not even tolerate a bit of Purim-spiel in the spirit of holiday festivities. It also means, however, that matters of gender expression are a priori relegated to positions of mischief and ridicule, which is troubling in and of its own.

Now, the Hebrew Haaretz piece also included a statement by Shai Doitsh, president of the Agudah, Israel's association of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, condemning censorship against LGBT contents in IDF publications, given that it is, as he sees it, "one of the most progressive armies in the world." But there is more. Also on March 20, the Hebrew news site, which had recently launched a [Gay] Pride portal, published an even more detailed account of the events that led to the looming censorship of LGBT-related contents in Bamahane. Here we learn that the order came from the very top, namely from Major General Orna Barbivai, commander of the IDF Manpower [sic] Directorate. Ironic, isn't it, that the first woman to break the gender barrier and earn the second-highest rank in the Israeli military is now combatting nonconforming expressions of gender by her soldiers. What the general said, according to the Mako article, is that she would prevent the army publications from airing and future "provocative" articles.

Mako also reveals (and this may be old news to many of its veteran readers) that the editor of Bamahane, Major Yoni Shanfeld, is himself an out gay man, and that both the current and previous chief military rabbis have chastised him for publishing articles that included coming out stories of soldiers and officers.

The stories we hear from pinkwashers on a regular basis really don't matter much. They are of no interest to the average Palestinian who has exactly zero human rights in the eyes of her occupiers. Yet sometimes it is important to understand that even the things that they tell us about the glorious lives of Israeli LGBTs are borderline mythical.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Update from B'Tselem

Today I received the following e-mail from Jessica Montell, Executive Director of B'Tselem:

Dear Uri,

In fact, B'Tselem is not a sponsor of the J Street conference. This was a mistake in the e-mail and will be corrected later today. We are a participating organization, and are very glad to be part of a long list of Israeli and American groups participating in J Street and dedicated to pursuing a different and better reality for Palestinians and Israelis alike. This year we are proud to be organizing a distinguished panel addressing Israel's human rights record and the way the international community treats Israel when it comes to human rights issues - a question that is many times abused by the political debate, but rarely examined factually.

Aside from organizing this panel, B’Tselem was not involved with any other aspects of the conference, including the decision to feature former PM Olmert. B’Tselem has raised grave suspicions regarding serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law under the Olmert government, specifically regarding Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. These suspicions and responsibility for any violations have yet to be adequately investigated and addressed. If asked, we would not have advised featuring Olmert as a speaker. 

B’Tselem set up a US presence to promote human rights awareness and advocacy among US audiences. We are glad that J Street  offers the opportunity to engage with a broad and diverse spectrum of views. We are committed to ensuring that human rights are a central part of this conversation, especially within an atmosphere in the US where many times such voices are silenced.

Jessica Montell
Executive Director

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sad day for B'Tselem (USA)

From: Uri Horesh
Subject: Re: B'Tselem USA to Host Panel at J St Conference
Date: March 15, 2012 8:40:42 PM EDT

Dear Ms. Sussman,

The email you sent me (and, no doubt, thousands of other supporters) earlier today, should have angered me. Rather, it deeply saddened me. See, having grown up in an Israel full of racism, xenophobia and nationalist hatred, there have been very few organizations that have never – but never – failed to embody a sense of straightforward goodness. The two that instantly come to mind are Physicians for Human Rights and B'Tselem. 

B'Tselem USA's sponsorship of J Street's upcoming conference, particularly with Ehud Olmert as its keynote speaker, is the first instance in my recollection of the organization's history that it has strayed from its righteous path. 

B'Tselem has always set the bar high for everyone, no exceptions, when it comes to human rights. It has never played political games. Its supporters don't care that "J Street is better than AIPAC." "Better" isn't good enough, if it doesn't meet the stringent standards that B'Tselem itself has set for others to follow.

My friend Ali Abunimah has eloquently and meticulously demonstrated in his recent Electronic Intifada post that your participation in, let alone sponsorship of the J Street conference are not in line with the stellar record of B'Tselem. 

Please admit that you have made an error in judgment, and withdraw your support from the conference.

Peace - سلام - שלום,
Uri Horesh

PS: I will be publishing this letter on my blog at and possibly elsewhere on the Web.

Uri Horesh
Philadelphia, PA

Dear Uri,

B'Tselem USA is proud to be a sponsor of J Street's third annual conference, Making History, in Washington later this month.  J Street is the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.  The conference will feature former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israeli writer Amos Oz, a member of B'Tselem's Public Council, journalist Peter Beinart, a member of B'Tselem USA's Advisory Council and Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center.

On Monday, March 26, B'Tselem USA will present the panel, "Holding Israel to a Universal Standard or to a Higher Standard on Human Rights?"  The panel will feature Zehava Gal'on, the founding Executive Director of B'Tselem, current member of Knesset and Chair of the Meretz Party, Iain Levine, the Deputy Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and Alan Elsner, the Senior Director for Communications and Research at the Israel Project.  Uri Zaki, Director of B'Tselem USA, will lead these prominent Israeli and American academics, practitioners and human rights experts in an analysis of the record of the media, various UN agencies, governments and international organizations regarding Israel and human rights, and discuss appropriate responses. 

Israel receives a lot of international attention and criticism for its human rights record. Is this appropriate and fair? Is Israel being held to a higher standard than other countries? Should we as Jews demand more from Israel than we do from other countries? In fact, the international community is not a monolith of this matter. Some international actors are indeed using the language of human rights as a tool to advance an anti-Israel agenda. Others are applying the same universal standards to Israel as they do elsewhere. Still others have a special interest in Israel for understandable reasons, which results in disproportionate attention, both positive and negative. How do we, who care about Israel and care about human rights, navigate this complexity?

We invite you to join the conversation with J Street and B'Tselem USA this month.  Sign up for J Street's national conference now, as space is limited.
We hope to see you there,
Rachel Sussman
B'Tselem USA

B’Tselem USA enriches American political and public discourse regarding human rights in the Occupied Territories, advocating the research of B’Tselem, the leading Israeli organization working to monitor, document and advocate the improvement of human rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  B'Tselem USA provides accurate, reliable information to policy makers, key stakeholders, and the public at large about the reality on the ground. B’Tselem USA promotes the equal rights of Israelis and Palestinians to live in freedom, security and dignity, affirming a universal commitment to human rights principles and strengthening Israel’s democratic foundation.

הארץ Haaretz

العربية.نت | آخر الأخبار Al-Arabiya