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Sponsors of Israeli group weren’t here for open dialogue

Seattle Times, March 26, 2012

The Seattle LGBT Commission was right to cancel the reception for visiting Israeli gay leaders and its decision opens the door for true, inclusive dialogue, writes guest columnist Stefanie Fox.

I love to talk. As a child, my mother constantly had to remind me not to share widely my recently memorized phone number and address. “You should know who you’re talking to first!” she’d chastise. As a community organizer, I joke that I’m in it for the conversation. I truly believe social change is built in the relationships between people.

So why did I ask the Seattle LGBT Commission to cancel its recent event? And as a Seattle citizen who is queer and Jewish, with a lifelong commitment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, why did the commission’s decision make me proud of our city?

Because — just as my mother taught me — you have to know to whom you’re talking, and why they are interested in talking to you. The planned event has been presented to many as a group of Israeli LGBT activists here in Seattle simply to share stories cross-culturally. That is a lie.

The flier for the event indicates that among the primary sponsors are the Israeli government, through its Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest, and the hawkish right-wing Israel advocacy group, StandWithUs (SWU). These sponsors are not interested in promoting open, inclusive or honest conversation about LGBTQ rights in the Middle East.

I may love to talk, but I don’t trust a conversation about my rights as a queer person led by an organization that cozies up to some of the most vicious homophobes on record.

SWU, which tellingly claims Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are legal despite the fact that virtually every country in the world, including the United States, says they are not, also has an ongoing alliance with the virulently homophobic pastor John Hagee and his group Christians United For Israel (CUFI). The organization’s director, Roz Rothstein, has given a featured keynote at CUFI’s conference. Hagee infamously argued that “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans,” because “there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that Katrina came.” He also claimed the anti-Christ was “a homosexual.”

Furthermore, SWU members are on record bullying with homophobic and racist taunts, and in one case physical violence, those seeking peace and justice in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

So why is SWU bringing LGBT Israelis to Seattle if they don’t care when Hagee or the organization’s own members spout homophobic hatred? The answer is simple: to cynically co-opt LGBT identity and issues in order to shift perception of Israel.

Indeed, this well-documented “pinkwashing” tactic is part of “Brand Israel,” a campaign launched by Israel in 2005 to counter its increasing international isolation. Rather than address Israel’s human rights violations, the root reasons for concern in the international community, the Israeli government decided instead to direct international attention away from its treatment of Palestinians by promoting Israel as a model of progressive modernity.

Many of us actively support LGBTQ friends and relatives in Israel and their struggle to live a life free of discrimination, but advances for Jews have not affected Palestinians living under occupation, including those who are LGBTQ, who suffer from discrimination, persecution, restriction, and daily threats of violence from Israel.

LGBTQ Palestinians don’t have a special line at checkpoints; special body armor when Israeli bombs drop on hospitals, schools and civilian homes; or magic wands to stop the weaponized bulldozers that tear down homes and uproot orchards. And Palestinians living inside Israel are treated as second-class citizens, regardless of sexuality.

The LGBT Commission’s responsibility is to LGBTQ people in Seattle, not the Israeli government and groups that cynically exploit our LGBT community to justify Israel’s illegal occupation. The voices of Palestinian queers and queer Jews like myself are systematically silenced by the kind of “Brand Israel” propaganda SWU and the Israeli Consulate advance. The commission’s decision opened the door for real, inclusive dialogue about LGBTQ issues in Seattle and the Middle East.

Stefanie Fox, a lifelong Washington resident, is the director of grass-roots organizing for Jewish Voice for Peace, which promotes Middle East peace through justice and equality for both Palestinians and Israelis.