A 'Fight of the Century' Over 'Pinkwashing' and Israel

The Internet is still recovering from Mayweather vs. Pacquaio, but I’ve been fantasizing about a different “fight of the century” starring two outspoken LGBT agitators: Lucas versus Spade.

I’ve just read two extreme position statements on Israel/Palestine, both from within the LGBT community. One, from the right, was directed at me in an op-ed by gay porn king/Defender of the Jews Michael Lucas. Another, from the left, was directed at the Jewish LGBT group A Wider Bridge, in an interviewfeaturing queer academic and activist Dean Spade.

It would be interesting to get Spade and Lucas in a room together, but they are each boycotting one another, because each believes the other side of this debate to be evil. No exaggeration; Lucas compared me to promoters of the blood libel, and Spade stated several times that Israel is a worse colonial, racist, apartheid state than South Africa.

They do have a lot in common, though. Lucas convinced the New York LGBT Center to ban a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, while Spade convinced the Seattle LGBT Center to ban A Wider Bridge. That should count for something.

Well, since Spade and Lucas won’t debate one another, I’m going to do it for them.

One caveat: Dean Spade is a respected academic and a sharp theorist. Michael Lucas, to put it generously, is not. So it’s not a fair fight. Then again, while Spade would win the intellectual battle, Lucas has far more power, resources, and influence; in the real world, he’d win in a TKO.

Round one: Pinkwashing

Here’s Lucas: “Michaelson further panders to the anti-Israel crowd by bringing up the despicable concept of ‘pinkwashing.’ This discredited idea holds that Israel’s stellar record on LGBT rights is essentially a smokescreen to divert attention from its treatment of Palestinians. Those who are consumed by hatred for Israel cannot accept that the country does anything good for the right reasons.”

And now here’s Spade, one of the leading critics of pinkwashing, defining it as “A term used by activists to describe an explicit strategy taken up in recent years by the government of Israel to portray Israel as a leader in gay rights and a gay tourism destination as a way to deflect attention away from the extreme violence of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Through a campaign called ‘Brand Israel,’ Israel has tried to change its public image, promoting itself as a ‘modern democracy’ — and projecting a ‘LGBT-friendly’ image is just one part of this.”

Who’s right? Both and neither.

Pinkwashing is not a “discredited idea.” As Spade points out, it is a reality. Brand Israel is a thing. Hasbara (propaganda) is a thing. Right, Michael? Or are they not things?

On the other hand, Israel’s branding itself as a “gay tourism destination” is about money, not politics. Lucas is right when he says that critics of Israel can’t accept that it does anything for the right reasons. (Spade, as an anti-capitalist, might dispute that tourism PR is a “right reason,” but I don’t know.) Israel is a complicated, multifaceted place. One can talk about LGBT people in Israel, as a Wider Bridge does, without using it for hasbara purposes, as the Israeli Consulate sometimes does.

Note that Spade is not saying that Israel’s record on LGBT issues isn’t good. That, too, is a thing. Rather, he’s criticizing the hyping of that record as part of a wider strategy to depict Israel as some wonderful, liberal democracy — when in fact it has a deep (to Spade, fatal) flaw.

That kind of exploitation happens all the time. It’s why Ted Cruz mentioned Iran’s lynching of gay people in his recent “fireside chat”+ with two wealthy gay men (oh, of course it wasn’t about money; no sir). It’s not like Cruz actually gives a patoot about LGBT equality; he’s fought us at every turn, and then invented some more turns along the way. He’s exploiting us in order to say: Iran, bad on gays, bad bad bad. Israel, good on gays, good good good.

That is pinkwashing’s ridiculously simplistic “logic,” and as stupid as it is, it’s used all the time by Republicans like Cruz to get Jewish or gay dollars — like Lucas’s. To call it out isn’t a blood libel; it’s reportage.

Note that it’s also the exact inverse of the view that everything Israel does must be bad. Once again, Spade and Lucas are in heated agreement about how the world works.

Round two: Identity.

Here is identity, per Michael Lucas. “I was born and raised in Russia. What I witnessed there has made me a patriotic American, a proud Jew, a staunch supporter of the state of Israel, and a longtime advocate for gay rights.”

And here’s Dean Spade: “We see queer and trans politics as part of a broader political orientation that wants to end the brutal suffering caused by poverty, colonialism and racism. We know that queer and trans people who are in the most danger from violence, poverty and imprisonment will not benefit from a narrow inclusion politics that primarily benefits propertied people. We don’t want to fit into current systems that produce and maintain brutal maldistributions of land and wealth and get accepted and recognized by them; we want to dismantle those systems and build new ways of being.”

Notice how this difference of self-definition is closely analogous to Jewish ones. Lucas says, basically, “I was persecuted, and now I cheer for my team.” Many, many Jews think this way. Spade says, “I am persecuted and so I am against all persecution, regardless of team.” As Spade says elsewhere in the interview, oppression is oppression is oppression.

This is what progressive Jews say all the time. We’re not self-hating Jews; we are oppression-hating Jews. And when that oppression is perpetrated by Jews, we hate it doubly, since we are implicated by it.

From Lucas’s perspective, I am a self-hater — he said this in a Tweet, in fact — because I sometimes root against the Jewish team. But from a progressive perspective, I love my Judaism by sometimes criticizing (and other times supporting) Jews.

That is also true for leftist Jews. Many Jewish anti-occupation activists, and even Jewish anti-Zionists, are expressing their love of Judaism and Jewish values by fighting oppression wherever it is, but especially when our team is the bad team.

Now, I’m not on board with Spade’s politics for a host of reasons. I’m just not that far left on prisons, immigration, and economic policy, and Spade is quick to point out that they are critiques of America even more than of Israel. I don’t find these views unethical (as Lucas seems to); I just don’t agree with them on the facts.

So, while I hope that I am among the “activists working to dismantle racism, militarism and heteropatriarchy” that Spade mentions, it would be fair enough if he called me out for supporting capitalism, two-state Zionism, and some aspects of the criminal justice system. I may well be rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. To radicals, that’s what liberals do.

But I’m not a “patriot” either, in the sense that Lucas uses the term. He’s right to call me out, too, for being an insufficient cheerleader for my Jewish and American teams. He is correct: I don’t think loyalty is a moral value when it comes to states and religions. I save it for my friends, and family, and the values I hold dear — not to my tribe.

Spade and Lucas have diametrically opposed conceptions of what their identities should be about — just as conservative and progressives Jews do.

Round three: Thinking Better

Is there any common ground to be found between these two extreme positions? Not much. But here are some ways the rest of us could think more clearly about them.

First, it would help if Israel’s critics were all as thoughtful as Spade is about situating their critique in a coherent radical context. Spade isn’t just anti-Israel; he’s anti-nationalism and anti-capitalism. That context is exactly what is missing from many less reflective critics of Israel — which enables conservatives like Lucas to allege bias.

Disclose the context; tell us your vision. One state? Two states? No states? More occupation? More occupation but with less egregious human rights violations? I can respectfully disagree with Spade because he is clear and articulate about where he stands. And I can (and will) defend him against the likes of Lucas.

But that’s true for the Right also. What is the vision — for Iran, for Israel, for Palestine? Tell me how a hundred year occupation is morally or politically feasible. Defend your position that there is no Palestinian (or Iranian) partner with facts, not stereotypes, and not snippets of quotes out of context.

Second, complexity. Lucas is sure there are no good Iranians; Spade is sure there are no good Israelis. Really? Would it have killed Spade’s famous LGBT mission to Palestine to hear the narratives on the other side? Is there really only one narrative, ever? Are you sure the labels of colonialism and apartheid are analysis, rather than rhetoric? If Israel is a colony, where is its mother country? Does the Jewish nation, alone among all, not have the right to autonomy and self-determination?

And just as I have to constantly check my privilege and look for the persistence of racism, transphobia, and so on, is there not a responsibility to look for the persistence of anti-Semitism and call it out when we find it?

Just as Lucas’s overheated rhetoric of blood libels is ridiculous (especially applied to a rabbi, for God’s sake), so too the Left’s rhetoric of colonialism is, if not ridiculous, at least subject to interrogation.

So are its generalizations. A Wider Bridge happens to be run by the very same liberal, J-Street Jews that Michael Lucas says are blood libelers. True, they support two-state Israel, but they are not engaged in pinkwashing as Spade himself defines it. Indeed, it is ironic that post-binary queer theorists suddenly get very black-and-white when it comes to Israel. Professor Spade: A Wider Bridge is not the same as Stand With Us.

What Spade gets that Lucas doesn’t, though, is that oppression is oppression. Gay Republicans act as though conservatives are just great, except for this one little blind spot. Wrong. The same oppression that is anti-gay is also anti-poor, anti-brown, and anti-Muslim — and used to be anti-Jewish. Yes, Jews now have their piece of the pie, and many gays do too. But the knife is still in the hands of elites who cut with cruelty when they can.

Put another way: Come on, gay Jewish conservatives, can’t you see that you hate Arabs the same way that homophobes and anti-Semites hate you?

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly asserted that Dean Spade was not Jewish.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

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A 'Fight of the Century' Over 'Pinkwashing' and Israel

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