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Seattle’s gay activist mayor headlines Israel 'pinkwashing' conference

Clearly, neither Mayor Ed Murray nor his staff understands the powder-keg nature of ethnic relations in Israel

In early June, Seattle’s mayor, Ed Murray, a gay activist and champion of gay marriage, heads to Tel Aviv where he will be keynote speaker for a controversial international conference celebrating 40 years of gay rights in Israel. His expenses, including airfare and accommodations, will be paid for by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

This reinforces the notion that both his trip and his participation in the conference are a part of Israel’s hasbara efforts, better known as pinkwashing. Israel’s hasbara campaign (there is even a minister in the cabinet who is responsible for such marketing and branding) specifically targets minority ethnic (African-American, Hispanic), religious (Christian evangelicals) and gay rights (LGBT) groups around the world seeking to find various niches of support.

I contacted the mayor’s press aide, Viet Shelton, in preparing this piece. He initially promised to provide Murray’s schedule and the names of those accompanying him on his trip. The information didn’t arrive on the date he specified. When I called to inquire, he responded that it wasn’t “ready” for public release. I asked him to provide the most up-to-date version of the itinerary and said I would note this in my reporting. He refused and said he would only release the information in “final” form. He said he “hoped” it would be ready that night but would be at the latest by the end of the week. Even then, he made no commitment that this would be the absolute final date. At that point, I gave up.

Local LGBT activist and Seattle University Prof. Dean Spade filed a FOIA request for all e-mail traffic related to planning this trip. The staff replied that the information would not be ready until the day the mayor left for Israel. It seems the mayor’s staff is afraid of being transparent about his Israel trip.

Local LBGT activists have protested against the mayor’s journey with a rally outside City Hall.  These supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement complained that progressives like Murray should maintain solidarity with Palestine. Travelling to Israel, especially to promote its image as a gay mecca, clearly violates BDS.

Murray reacted swiftly and decisively, rejecting the claims of opponents of the trips. He reaffirmed what he views as the progressive mantra: support of a two-state solution. As if seeking to validate his credentials, he added that he planned to visit “Arab” members of the Knesset (MKs) and the West Bank. When I asked Shelton which MKs Murray would see, the press aide said arrangements were still being made. I also asked who he would meet on the West Bank and received the same answer. When I asked who was making these arrangements, he didn’t know. I asked if it might be the Israeli foreign ministry, and he said that was likely.

Local leaders of the New Israel Fund (NIF), a liberal Zionist human rights grantmaking organisation, officially endorsed the mayor’s pinkwashing efforts. In a Seattle Times op-ed they promised: “We will be happy to arrange for him to meet leaders in civil society fighting for civil rights, including Palestinian-Israeli leaders, to ensure that his presence celebrates Israel’s successes.”

NIF’s national communications director tweeted she was “proud” of the op-ed and wanted “progressives” like Murray to “celebrate Israel’s successes”.

What’s disturbing about the assumptions in this statement and the liberal Zionist approach in general is the view that the condition of minorities inside Israeli society may be bifurcated. On the contrary, Israel’s oppression of both its Palestinian citizens and those in the Occupied Territories is of a piece with its treatment of Mizrahim and the LGBT community. The pinkwashing approach falsely promotes Israel as a gay refuge while giving short shrift to the other social inequities at the heart of Israeli life.

Further, the progress on issues of gay rights is confined largely to the “bubble” of Tel Aviv, which is a city that faces toward Europe. The rest of Israel, especially the Orthodox and settler movement has a quite different response. Israeli gays don’t fare nearly as well once they leave this protected enclave of Tel Aviv.

Clearly, neither Murray nor his staff understands the powder-keg nature of ethnic relations in Israel and what they are stepping into. They do not understand it’s almost unfathomable that any Palestinian MK would be willing to meet them under these circumstances. It is possible a PA representative or even Mahmoud Abbas himself would meet him on the West Bank. But that’s nothing to brag about.

The conference is co-sponsored by a San Francisco pro-Israel LGBT group, A Wider Bridge (AWB), and the Israeli gay rights NGO, the Aguda. The US group has courted controversy in Seattle before by persuading the Seattle City LGBT Commission to host a reception for an Israeli delegation consisting of gay activists, one of whom was a settler. After local gay activists organised to stop the event, the commission cancelled it.

The Seattle Jewish community reacted with anger, claiming this was a violation of free speech and an affront to Jews. Elected officials promised such things would never happen again. Pro-Israel NGO StandWithUs promised another delegation would visit and be welcomed by city government. But nothing ever happened.

AWB though, didn’t give up. When Murray was elected mayor a year ago and the group’s founder, Arthur Slepian, began planning his conference, he targeted him as an important “get”. I spoke to Slepian and he told me that the conference was funded only by the two organisations and their donors. When I asked whether the Israeli tourism ministry and city of Tel Aviv were also providing funding (they’re listed as “sponsors”) he claimed they weren’t.

Slepian would not say which donors or foundations were funding the conference. He pointed me to the list of funders displayed on AWB’s website. Among them were two important hardline, pro-Israel foundations - Paul Singer’s family foundation and the Schusterman Foundation. Singer is a billionaire hedge-fund manager who’s given millions to the Republican Party, along with a panoply of right-wing pro-Israel organisations like StandWithUs and the Israel Project. He is an ardent supporter of the current right-wing Likud government as well.

The Schusterman Foundation is one of the foremost donors to pro-Israel causes in the US. Among their favorite grantees is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and that group’s campus pro-Israel advocacy programme. Schusterman also sponsors an institute devoted to the positive portrayal of Israel in academia. It also pays salaries of Israeli professors to teach courses about Israel at US universities.

AWB’s IRS 990 report for 2013 only lists $250,000 in revenue. Hosting the international conference they’re sponsoring would likely cost that much or more. So the odds are that there are other sources of funding that Slepian was concealing.

When I spoke with Slepian I noted the titles of the conference programmes dealt with international LBGT issues. None of the sessions dealt specifically with gay rights in Israel. No sessions on the challenges gays face in Israel, on the lack of gay marriage there, or the ardent opposition to gay rights among key members of the ruling coalition, including the religious settler party, Jewish Home. In fact, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on a study published this week finding that over half of transgender Israelis have been physically assaulted for their gender orientation.

Slepian assured me that Israel would not be presented with rose-coloured glasses and that there would be in-depth discussions of Israel’s deficits. Frankly, I am unpersuaded.

The other conference sponsor, the Aguda, is a mainstream gay NGO. In 2009, it faced unwanted publicity when gunmen attacked its gay youth centre and slaughtered two gay teenagers. Though police arrested a suspect several years later, their state witness escaped, disappeared, and then later refused to testify. Charges were dropped. In a possibly related matter, the police also charged a former director of the centre with having sex with a minor. He accepted a plea deal in which he admitted guilt. It was suspected that the sexual liaison may have caused a homophobic family member to organise the attack on the community centre. But none of this has ever been examined in a court of law because Israeli police proved unable or unwilling to solve the crime.

When Ed Murray delivers his keynote speech to this august international gathering, he may want to consider speaking a few uncomfortable truths about the real status of minority LGBTs and Palestinians, rather than standard pinkwashing pablum.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israelis dance behind a rainbow-coloured flag during the 12th annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem on 18 September, 2014.