I confess when I first saw the simulated image of an airplane bedecked in the colors of the rainbow flag, ostensibly on its way to Tel Aviv Pride, I thought it was some sort of joke.
Yet it really was the Israeli government’s intent, as part of an 11 million shekel ($2.9 million) advertising blitz, to “set up an international competition whose winners will be flown to Israel in a plane specially painted in gay pride colors,” Ha’aretz reported. While Israel has in recent years actively promoted itself as a gay tourist destination, the idea of blowing millions of shekels rainbow high on a plane dressed up in magical colors would have been something else entirely.
The backlash to this eccentric idea—which has caused the government to back down—first came from the LGBT community. Activist Netanel Azulay said LGBT people in Israel shouldn’t “allow the government to profit at its expense.” They “won’t allow the government to use it and lie to everyone that LGBTQ people have it good here.” Community leaders have insinuated that Tel Aviv Pride, scheduled for June 3, could become a protest event this year—in contrast to the party atmosphere the Tourism Ministry seeks to project in its overseas promotion.
Israel’s gay community has every right to be outraged. LGBT organizations receive but 1.5 million shekels ($400,000) a year from the state, a fraction of the budget proposed for Israel’s rainbow tour. After the murder of Shira Banki at Jerusalem Pride last year, Education Minister Naftali Bennett boldly promised to double the budget for Israel Gay Youth (IGY), which provides educational and social programming for LGBT youth. Gal Uchovsky, IGY’s president, said that the budget increase they actually received “wasn’t even close” to Bennett’s pledge.
Those within the community whom have long condemned the government’s prioritization of gay tourism labeled the rainbow plane an example of ‘pinkwashing’. “The gap between the painted plane and recent Knesset votes nixing LGBT rights bills, as well as between the budget LGBT groups receive and the budget for gay tourism,” Aeyal Gross wrote, “shows that the state has commandeered the gay community and its less-than-full rights for public-diplomacy purposes.”
Gross has often stated the Israeli government is in the practice of pinkwashing: in this case, the use of Tel Aviv Pride as a promotional tool to conceal that, behind the posters, everything isn’t quite as it seems for LGBT people in Israel. Especially interesting about the rejection of the rainbow tour idea, though, is how politicians on the left and center, even if they didn’t use the word pinkwashing (though some did), characterized and opposed the government’s daft proposal using the basic pinkwashing critique.
The Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg called the government ‘homophobic’ and said, “I am proud to see the LGBTQ community refusing to be a pawn in the hands of this government and demanding the justice and equal rights it deserves.” Her colleague Michal Rozin said the government must “understand that the gay community is sick of being the red carpet of the Prime Minister to the White House and the international community.” The Zionist Union’s Merav Michaeli condemned the plane as a ‘gimmick,’ adding, “Painting all aircraft in the colors of Pride could not hide the shame of this government.”
Tzipi Livni sarcastically asked if the rainbow plane was going to be used to fly gay couples overseas in order to get married, given the last government of which she was a member voted down her proposal for civil unions. Livni said—“as someone who has supported the gay community for more than twenty years”—that the government could not use Pride as part of a branding exercise “without showing an ounce of willingness to promote full equality in Israel. The gay community are our natural partners, not just when you need them, but all year round.”
I am not one to believe in the concept of pinkwashing, and consider LGBT rights one of those issues where Israel would be damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. In other words, those from outside Israel who shout the loudest about pinkwashing—or greenwashing, or any other kind of ‘washing’ for that matter—would just as surely castigate Israel if its civil law didn’t recognize some LGBT rights or accuse her of neglecting its gay community by not talking up the status of its Pride parade.
With the rainbow plane, however, it is easy to understand the gay community’s upset and why politicians on the left and center would reach for the language of pinkwashing. Right now, you have a government that has underfunded LGBT organizations and brought no tangible benefits to the lives of gay people—indeed, on occasions displaying outright hostility to members of the community—proposing to funnel 11 million shekels into a cockamamie scheme to brazenly chase the pink dollar.
Far from helping the government, this transparent manoeuver quickly became a public relations disaster and one the LGBT community and its allies won’t soon forget. This right-wing government is unlikely to meet the demands of community leaders, not only in terms of rights, but funding LGBT organizations to the same extent it finances its gay-friendly tourism campaigns, rainbow planes or otherwise. As such, gay Israelis are unlikely to play nice anymore. The genie is out of the bottle, in that regard. As Azulay said, “If there won’t be fully equal rights here then there won’t be profitable gay tourism.”