Irit Zvieli-Efrat, head of an Israeli lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender information clearinghouse called Hoshen, doesn’t mind being asked about “pinkwashing.”
What she can’t comprehend is how gay activists in Tacoma — and, even more, a municipal LGBT advisory panel in Seattle — could cancel invitations to her and other Israeli gay rights leaders on less than 24 hours’ notice.
The two-week U.S. tour, including earlier appearances without protests or disruptions in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, interspersed “professional events” to compare notes with U.S. gay rights advocates and “speaking events” to Jewish organizations, Zvieli-Efrat said. The tour was sponsored principally by A Wider Bridge, a Jewish LGBT group based in San Francisco, with some financial support by the Israeli Consulate. Local sponsor StandWithUs Northwest provided logistical but not financial support.
Three months earlier, Zvieli-Efrat had held hassle-free meetings with Rainbow Center and Youth Oasis Center representatives in Tacoma.
“Pinkwashing” is defined by pro-Palestinian activists as attempts to use gay-rights successes in Israel to deflect civil-rights concerns about the treatment of Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.
“It was frustrating that the events that were canceled were professional events,” Zvieli-Efrat said. “We are not government. We are [non-governmental organizations] creating social change…. We’re not trying to convey anything negative.”
She and her companions — Avner Dafni, executive director of Israel Gay Youth; Ohad Salmon, new media director and LGBT liaison at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco; Iris Sass-Kochavi, a volunteer with Tehila, the Israeli equivalent of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, and Adir Steiner, an official in the Tel Aviv mayor’s office who won a landmark case for same-sex partner rights in the Israeli Defense Forces — are far from alone in their consternation.
At least six of the nine Seattle City Council members took the city’s LGBT Commission and Office of Civil Rights staff to task before and during a quickly reorganized hearing of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee on March 21.
The unpaid volunteer commissioners, who already had issued an apology, also got an earful from a wide range of leaders from the Jewish and sexual minority communities.
“The commission actually took a nonpolitical event and politicized it,” testified Louise Chernin, president of the Greater Seattle Business Association, the LGBT community’s chamber of commerce, before the committee.
“We at least owe our guests civility,” said Andrew R. Cohen, treasurer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and a GSBA member. Cohen is also a member of the JTNews board.
Palestinian rights advocates, several of them Jewish, also spoke at the hearing, but no one on the commission or the council defended the cancellation.
Eitan Isaacson, a software engineer who served in the IDF before moving to Seattle, and Dean Spade, a Seattle University assistant law professor and transgender activist, denied that hatred of Jews was involved.
Spade told the committee his father escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938. Presenting petitions of support for the cancellation signed by 3,500 people, he said he was horrified by what he saw on an LGBT visit to the West Bank.
“Refusing to participate in pinkwashing doesn’t make any of us anti-Semitic,” he said.
Commission members said they were blindsided by the intensity of the protest and feared the panel would be ill-equipped to handle the confrontations they feared if the meeting with the Israelis were held as planned.
Council member Nick Licata questioned how the panel could have been caught by surprise — “anything is a controversy when you talk about the Mideast,” he said — and how the commissioners could have failed to anticipate the impact of cancellation.
“It seems to me like almost a panic situation occurred,” Licata said. “I think cutting off dialogue doesn’t really help anyone.”
Council member Bruce Harrell, chair of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, told commission staffer Julie Nelson she should have given the commission better advice.
“Let us know when you need help…nothing should defeat the desire for an open dialog,” Harrell said. “We [in City Hall] screwed up on this one.”
The episode began shortly after the delegation’s agenda was posted on Facebook. Tacoma organizers backed out of a meeting on March 15 after being surprised with an email, telephone and Facebook blitz. A meeting in Olympia that evening was moved from a delicatessen to Temple Beth Hatfiloh because of a boycott threat. Then the Seattle commission voted to cancel its session the next day.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and City Council members Sally Bagshaw and Jean Godden hastily arranged to meet with the delegation the next day, March 16.
Pinkwashing claims date back more than a year, pushed chiefly by activists in the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign with mixed results.
Partly because of such pressure, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organization canceled plans to hold the group’s annual convention last December in Tel Aviv. At the same time, the ILGYO board went ahead with plans for the group’s Youth Leadership Summit in Israel.
In February, rejecting a pinkwashing accusation, national leaders of PFLAG met in their offices with Anat Avissar of Aguda, an Israeli LGBT organization, in an event cosponsored by the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Across the U.S., “people asked us about pinkwashing. That’s a legitimate question, and I respect everyone who asked that question,” Zvieli-Efrat said.
For the tour, she said, professional meetings generally provided the Israelis a closer look at U.S. research on GLBT issues and U.S. organizations gained insight into how gays gained such high prominence and pervasive influence in Israel.
In a survey announced by American Airlines and gaycities.com in January, Tel Aviv was rated the best gay city in the world, 43 percent to 14 percent for no. 2 New York.
George Bakan, owner and editor of Seattle Gay News, said he had been especially eager to hear from Steiner about how the IDF became the first military force in the world to allow openly gay men and lesbian women to join the ranks.
“I think we really missed an opportunity to hear their experience,” Bakan said.
“It’s a puzzle to me why the commission decided to proceed to a vote,” he said. “They could have welcomed their comments and thanked them for their concerns and then moved on.”
Zvieli-Efrat acknowledged that despite the success of gay rights activists in Israel, LGBT organizations remain almost totally divided along ethnic lines. The lone exception, she said, is that a few gay Arabs and ultra-Orthodox young people occasionally show up at Tehila in Jerusalem, although not at Tehila’s other operations in Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv.
Zach Carstensen, the Jewish Federation’s director of government relations and public affairs, said the lesson to supporters of Israel, especially in the Jewish community, should be to work closely with cosponsors so everyone is prepared for the inevitable protests.
“The unfortunate thing is that there are groups on all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict who want to fight that war right here in Seattle, Washington,” Carstensen said.
Robert Jacobs, regional director of StandWithUs, said the commission was contacted soon after the anti-pinkwashing campaign began and repeatedly assured the sponsors that the meeting would be held as planned.
“We weren’t caught by surprise” by the protest, but the commissioners realized only on the evening of March 15 that it could become “an issue of international politics,” Jacobs said. “Since they didn’t know what to do, they decided to cancel the meeting.”
Plans are now being drafted for another Israeli LGBT group to visit Seattle in November, and this time there will be no commission cancellation, Jacobs said.
“That’s an absolute,” he said. “They were basically told by the City Council … and they accepted that.”