An undated family handout picture of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
Now that Israeli police have arrested six Jewish suspects for the kidnap-murder of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, it’s safe to say that the teen was not killed by his own family for being gay.
Of course, Mohammed’s family has been saying that all along. They’ve been saying it ever since the burned-alive teen’s body was found in the Jerusalem Forest on July 2. “Our family is not involved in any disputes and he was a good boy,” one cousin told Haaretz. “This is not a family problem. This was a kidnapping and everyone has to know that.” So why did Israeli media outlets insist on floating the “honor killing” theory?
It’s not clear who started the rumor that Khdeir’s family murdered him for being gay. Many believe that it was the Israeli police who first fed this line to journalists — primarily in off-the-record briefings, and primarily to right-leaning outlets who would be willing to quote them as unnamed sources.
Whether or not that’s true, the media’s willingness to play along, combined with the police’s insistence on keeping the true details of the investigation under strict gag orders, allowed a baseless theory to spread far and wide among a credulous public. It was particularly popular with those Israel supporters who would rather believe this grisly murder was the work of Palestinians (“see, they even kill their own family members!”) than of fellow Jews.
What’s the upshot? Well, let me put it this way. The next time a pinkwashing conference rolls into town, I can pretty well guarantee that there will be a panel discussion with the name “Mohammed Abu Khdeir” in the title.
A quick refresher: When critics accuse Israel of “pinkwashing,” they typically mean that Israel is deliberately highlighting its liberal stance on gay rights to detract attention from its mistreatment of Palestinians. But pinkwashing is about more than just emphasizing how good Israel is on gay rights: It’s also, very often, about emphasizing how bad Israel’s neighbors — read: Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians — are on that same issue.
Of course, sometimes that criticism is deserved; sometimes those neighbors do display disturbing strains of homophobia. But sometimes — as in the case of the Abu Khdeir family — they aren’t actually being homophobic at all. They’re just getting caught up in a narrative, a comfortable contrast between “us” and “them,” a story with which Israelis are already very familiar and which can therefore be counted on to gain traction very quickly.
Which is exactly what it did.
But now that Israeli police have abandoned that story, the media outlets that floated it are left in an uncomfortable position. They attempted to make Israel look good by making Palestinians look bad, and they attempted to do that by using a dead teenager’s possible sexual orientation (note that we still don’t actually know whether Mohammed was gay or not) as a tool against his own people and his own family. Instead, they succeeded only in doing one thing: furnishing pinkwashing critics with a new panel discussion, a new book chapter, a new young face to illustrate the case.
Sigal Samuel is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not writing for the opinion section, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s kabbalistic secret societies. Her novel “The Mystics of Mile End,” available in Canada and forthcoming in the U.S., tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Tablet and The Walrus, among others. Contact Sigal at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter at @SigalSamuel.