The boycott Israel movement can’t have it both ways on LGBT equality

One week later, the debate over A Wider Bridge’s inclusion at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference (and subsequent protests against them) is still weaving its way through the online progressive community. Jewish, LGBT and Jewish LGBT leaders have criticized the Task Force, both for initially disinviting A Wider Bridge and for not taking a more forceful stand against the protestors, some of whom used explicitly anti-Jewish slurs and, in one case, physically engaged with a conference attendee. The protestors themselves maintain, while either dismissing or ignoring claims of hate speech and threats of violence at the protest, that disruption was the point. Their #CancelPinkwashing action has the LGBT community talking about pinkwashing as it pertains to Israel, which was their goal in the context of the broader Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

But not all publicity is good publicity, especially if your core argument has problems on the merits. BDS has gained momentum recently, including with members of the American LGBT and Jewish communities, in large part due to the fact that the entire American left is becoming increasingly critical of the Israeli government in general, particularly given its recent rightward shift suggesting that it has no immediate plans to make peace. However, #CancelPinkwashing’s more specific claim that Israel is only progressive on LGBT issues in order to provide cover for its other human rights abuses is a claim that, as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote earlier this week, both strains the imagination and has never been applied to any country other than Israel before. Furthermore, it leads one to ask: If BDS got everything it wanted, would the LGBT community be better or worse off?

Jerusalem Pride, via Wikimedia Commons

Jerusalem Pride, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a difficult question to answer precisely because BDS doesn’t state, up front, what it would mean if it got “everything it wanted.” The movement calls on countries, businesses, universities and people more generally to boycott, divest from and otherwise sanction the state of Israel until it “complies with international law and Palestinian rights.” By itself, this doesn’t commit the movement to a specific position on Israel’s right to exist or the two-state solution, among other political questions at the core of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Officially, they just want Israel to act like the Western liberal democracy it presents itself as. That’s frustratingly vague, but it sounds reasonable — reasonable enough to build a broad-based coalition that welcomes anyone critical of the Israeli government, right?


Despite my issues with the Israeli government, despite my shared desire for the country to comply with international law and despite my shared desire for Palestinians to have the political freedoms they deserve, I would not be welcome in BDS because I think these goals are compatible with a two-state solution. Despite the movement’s official agnosticism with regards to what its members mean when they say “Palestinian rights,” in practice that always includes the dissolution of the borders between Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for the creation of one state, not two (As the #CancelPinkwashing protestors chanted, “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea!”). Prominent pro-Palestinian intellectuals, including Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, have been barred from the movement for suggesting that this de-facto commitment to a one-state solution is some combination of naive, impractical and perhaps not even ideal.

This being the case, the choice BDS is presenting isn’t between a one- or two-state solution, but rather between different, equally vague visions of one state.

To be clear, it isn’t impossible to argue that one state is the only just outcome of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I disagree, but I see how the case can be made. However, if you’re going to make that argument in the context of an LGBT conference, you have to consider whether the full decolonization of Palestine (to use BDS’s terminology) will be better for the LGBT community, or whether it will be worse. And as AMERICAblog contributor InsideOutsider pointed out last Sunday, there isn’t any reason to believe that a one-state solution with full equality for Palestinians will be a net gain for LGBT people in the area.

When asked “Should society accept homosexuality?” 60 percent of US citizens said yes, 40 percent of Israelis said yes and just four percent of people living in the Palestinian territories said yes. Like it or not, justice in Palestine necessarily entails granting additional political rights to a group of people who, in the aggregate, are about as open to the idea of LGBT equality as Uganda. As Mark Segal, a member of the original Gay Liberation Front, pointed out yesterday in the Advocate, “It is so unsafe for out Palestinians that the organization fighting for Palestinian queer rights has to be located in Israel. Why? The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has declared homosexuality punishable by death.”

For BDS members, this doesn’t mean that supporting justice in Palestine makes you an anti-gay bigot — you could even say that anti-gay bigotry is incompatible with BDS’s stated goals relating to universal justice — but it does mean that they have to recognize the tradeoff they’re making. BDS can state a goal of full equality for all people, but given the choice, it prioritizes political equality for Palestinians over social equality for LGBT Israelis and Palestinians. That’s okay; we all make tradeoffs, but that also explains why people who care about LGBT issues without being heavily invested in the Israel/Palestine debate aren’t keen to join them. When you show up to Creating Change, a conference that does not adopt a specific politics regarding Israel/Palestine, it is very odd to try and shame the conference’s organizers into adopting your take on Israel/Palestine politics. Especially when the LGBT community as a whole isn’t likely to gain from your movement succeeding.

Members of the BDS movement have responded to criticism of their protest without seriously engaging with this point — a point that happens to lie at the core of the criticism. They simply restate their commitment to “building community in the name of justice for all” while refusing to concede that the upshot of their movement entails justice for a people who can’t be said to share in their vision.

They can’t have it both ways. BDS’s members can present their ideal vision of one state with full equality in which everyone gets along, but it has to be okay when other people point out that this vision is, well, idealistic. They can criticize the Israeli government and say (correctly) that its human rights abuses against Palestinians compound themselves to affect LGBT Palestinians even more harshly, and they can (correctly) point out that Israel has its fair share of progress to make to provide for the safety and equality of its own LGBT citizens. What they can’t do is make these claims while pretending that the state they would have replace Israel is at all likely to be better on this front. At the intersection between LGBT equality and Israel/Palestine politics, members of the LGBT community have legitimate concerns about what the “decolonization of Palestine” means for them, while they also know that Israel, despite its myriad issues, is the country in the region where they are most likely to be accepted. If members of BDS want to address these concerns and change the minds of people who don’t already agree with them, they’re going to have to do better than shouting these members of the LGBT community down as wrong and bad.

Especially since doing so misses an opportunity for solidarity. As I wrote last week, LGBT people on both sides of Israel’s borders have a shared experience in being the victims of violence at the hands of a dominant religious group. For LGBT Palestinians, that violence comes at the hands of two dominant religious groups — both Jewish and Muslim. There was an opening at Creating Change to put the focus on this common ground — in fact, A Wider Bridge planned on discussing the Orthodox Jewish attacks on last year’s Jerusalem Pride Parade at their event — but that chance was lost on protestors who insisted on having their social justice cake and eating it too.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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