The last few years have witnessed unprecedented visibility of trans people in popular culture alongside a strong backlash against trans people. The right is targeting trans people with bills to criminalize trans people’s use of bathrooms and public education campaigns that cultivate fear and hatred.
But these aren’t the only steps the right wing is taking in regard to trans people. The right is also leveraging trans issues as a tool for promoting right-wing security and military agendas.
One of the trans darlings of the right, Lt. Shachar Erez, “the first openly transgender commander in the Israeli Defense Forces,” is currently on tour in the United States. StandWithUs, a right-wing Israel advocacy organization, is coordinating events across the country featuring the trans soldier.
For StandWithUs, pinkwashing — the practice of promoting Israel as “gay friendly” in an effort to divert attention from the brutal colonization of Palestine — is not new. For at least seven years, the organization has been putting on events aimed at portraying Israel as an LGBT-friendly country. StandWithUs did not come up with this strategy on its own. The Israeli government developed it as part of its “Brand Israel” campaign, launched more than a decade ago to help improve Israel’s public image. The Israeli Consulate, StandWithUs and other Israel advocacy groups fund international tours of LGBT activists from Israel aimed at promoting an image of Israel as progressive, diverse and inclusive.
Another aspect of Israel’s branding is — and always has been — the use of the specter of anti-Semitism to frame the state of Israel as a haven for marginalized people. Critics of Israel have long had to contend with accusations of anti-Semitism.
This past weekend, over 1,000 people attended the Jewish Voice for Peace National Member Meeting in Chicago. Much of the discussion at the conference focused on the complexity of the current political moment, in which the right wing is simultaneously fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment and support for Israel, alongside growing anti-Semitism. This moment requires a complex analysis: The very same right-wing leaders and organizations that cultivate anti-Semitism unflinchingly support Israel, including illegal settlement expansion, and support the Zionist attacks on critics of Israel that call those critics anti-Semitic.
The political maneuvering involving trans people is equally complex. The right leads the current backlash against trans people, yet uses disingenuous trans-inclusion messages to build support for the Israeli military.
It is sad to see LGBT organizations duped by this strategy over and over again. On April 5, the LGBTQ Commission of the City of Seattle is sponsoring an event featuring Lt. Shachar Erez. In 2012, the same Commission agreed to host an event featuring a delegation of LGBT activists from Israel coordinated by the Israeli Consulate, StandWithUs and A Wider Bridge, an organization entirely focused on building US LGBT support for Israel. A significant controversy emerged when local Jewish and Palestinian queer and trans activists exposed the tour as pro-Israel propaganda and the Commission canceled the event. Despite the success, A Wider Bridge mobilized a successful backlash, forcing the Commission to apologize. Now, the controversy is back.
A similar controversy emerged in 2016 when organizers of the Creating Change Conference, the largest annual LGBT advocacy gathering in the US, agreed to host an event organized by A Wider Bridge. When critics exposed that A Wider Bridge is an Israel advocacy organization engaged in an anti-Palestinian propaganda strategy, the event was canceled. Again, Zionist activists mobilized a successful backlash accusing the conference organizers of anti-Semitism, and the event was put back on the program. Conference attendees organized a protest at the conference. Israel advocates charged the protesters, who were predominantly queer and trans people of color and included many Jews, with anti-Semitism.
These controversies are likely to continue as long as Israel advocacy organizations and the Israeli government engage in pinkwashing propaganda, exposing deep divides within queer and trans communities over race and colonialism.
For at least the last three decades, a predominantly white-led, corporate-funded gay and lesbian lobby has pushed a platform of military inclusion, hate crime laws, marriage and anti-discrimination laws. Meanwhile, racial-justice and economic-justice-focused queer and trans critics and organizations have articulated an alternative agenda. These voices have rejected a vision of equality that is about LGBT people becoming part of the police, the military, the corporate elite and the private family. They have worked to build a left-wing queer and trans politics that opposes militarism, including US military aid to Israel, and the growing police/prison state in the US that includes disturbing alliances with Israeli militarism.
These days there is much talk of increasing polarization in the US. No doubt, polarization exists inside queer and trans politics. As the right wing simultaneously foments homophobia and transphobia and uses pinkwashing propaganda to portray Israel as a progressive democracy, this polarization is increasingly visible. Figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Assi Azar, and Lt. Shachar Erez signal the danger of a far-right queer and trans politics that embraces racist, anti-Muslim, Zionist ideologies.
Controversy has surrounded Milo Yiannopoulos’ speaking tours. However, Israel advocacy propaganda is often embraced by LGBT organizations that are not aware that they are allying with far-right agendas. These organizations assume that gay rights or trans military inclusion are palatable topics aligned with justice and liberation. Why do LGBT organizations lack discernment regarding this propaganda? In part, this is the result of decades of media dominance of pro-military, pro-police US gay and lesbian advocacy. The idea of an anti-war, anti-colonial queer and trans politics remains out of reach for consumers of the most visible, available images of gay and lesbian political life.
But the use of a thin LGBT inclusion politics to make the Israeli or US military appear progressive is becoming a losing strategy. Resistance to pinkwashing is rising, and each controversy exposes new communities to the critique of this propaganda. A growing number of Jews in the US, especially young people, are becoming critical of Israel. The Movement for Black Lives has made its solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation clear, helping many people in the US see the connections between US and Israeli racism and state violence. Cross-movement organizing between Indigenous people in North America, including Water Protectors, and Palestine liberation activists is helping people see the links between US and Israel as settler-colonialism.
Strong alliances between the most compelling left movements of our time and the fight for Palestinian liberation are growing in the US, which is why Israel advocates are denouncing “intersectionality” as a threat to Israel. The connections that are being made in our movements right now will make it more difficult to cover the racist and colonial violence of the police, the military and the border with a rainbow flag.
Now is the time for LGBT organizations to clarify their positions on key progressive issues and do the internal education work needed to avoid taking actions that align them with Islamophobia, racism and militarism.