How I ‘pink-washed’ my way through Israel

A small, influential group of LGBT activists criticize Israel of promoting its gay-friendliness to distract from other policies.

Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade (370) (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade (370)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
I never considered myself a Zionist in any way, shape or form. Heck, until a year ago, I would have never even considered myself an Israel activist. But when we held the inaugural event last year for [email protected], which would serve as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) group at the Jewish National Fund, our event was protested by anti-Israel activists with big postcard boards stating, “JNF: Just Not Fabulous.” While I chuckled at their creativity, I felt a bit annoyed that my gay community was protesting Israel.
Growing up as a black-hat Orthodox Jew, I never celebrated Israel in a Zionistic fashion. Zionism was a secular concept, sort of like Thanksgiving and Hanukka gifts.
While I studied in Yeshiva in Jerusalem after high school, I didn’t connect to Israel until the summer of 2009 – my first summer in Israel as a gay Jew. I connected to the country in a manner that seemed to merge both my Jewish and gay identities together. I felt extremely at home in a country that embraced those two identities. (Well, in Tel Aviv at least.) WHEN I started organizing gay Jewish parties in New York City (think Matzo Ball, but for gay Jews), many of my party-goers asked me to push Birthright to organize an LGBT-themed trip. I was surprised to find out that Israel Experience, a provider for Taglit-Birthright trips was already organizing such niche trips. I staffed my first gay Birthright trip in January 2011 and saw how this life-changing experience impacted the lives of LGBT Jews from around the country.
When the Jewish National Fund reached out to me in 2011 about creating the first-ever LGBT group under the auspices of a major Jewish organization, I looked at this as a shining moment of advancement for the inclusion of LGBT Jews in the mainstream Jewish community. I was further surprised by our initial fundraising event that attracted over 150 attendees, with the proceeds providing two scholarships for LGBT students at the JNF-funded Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
Last month, I found myself once again as a madrich on an LGBT Birthright trip, shortly followed by participating in the JNFuture Leadership Institute Mission, a trip designed to showcase some of the projects of the Jewish National Fund (it’s not just planting trees, though we did plant one!). This would be my first time in Israel as a self-identified “activist” for Israel. I was certainly excited.
A SMALL, yet influential group of LGBT activists have been criticizing Israel of “pink-washing.” Pink-washing refers to Israel promoting itself as a gay-friendly country to distract the world from the mistreatment of the Palestinian people. In my honest opinion, there really is nothing to “wash,” as Israel does indeed afford many gay rights to our community.
Does Israel also have policies that I don’t agree with? Yes, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Israel does gay rights pretty well. (Thank you Israeli gay activists for fighting and winning these rights for our community.) Anti-green-washing activists accuse the Jewish National Fund of masquerading expulsions of Palestinians from their homes with environmental objectives. So, I came on this trip fully loaded, with open eyes, wondering what my blind spots might be.
The LGBT Birthright trip afforded all the hotspots of Israel with a dash of gay excursions here and there. We visited the LGBT centers in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, met a gay family who lived in Chanaton, interacted with gay and lesbian soldiers from the IDF, and had a night out at a gay bar in Tel Aviv.
When an anti-Israel activist e-mailed me accusing me of pink-washing, I simply responded by saying, “how is it pink-washing when it was our very own gay community that requested a trip of this sort?” When the trip was over, I spent a day in Bethlehem and the Palestinian side of Hebron. I was determined to spend some time in the Palestinian territories, experience a checkpoint and have conversations with local Palestinians.
At first, I was nervous about being in those areas as a Jew (I wore a band-aid over my Hebrew tattoo), but quickly felt comfortable and safe.
It was interesting hearing my Palestinian tour guide tell me about his thoughts on the conflict, the separation wall and his certainty that Israelis and Arabs can live in peace side by side. I felt, for the first time, full reassurance that if everyone in Israel had his passion and vision for peace that it certainly can happen. I was inspired, until he asked me if I had a girlfriend.
“No”, I answered. Without realizing that I had a look of disgust on my face when he mentioned the word “girlfriend,” he immediately asked, “Wait, do you have a boyfriend?” Not liking his tone of voice when stating “boyfriend,” I immediately replied no.
He then went on a rant on how disgusting homosexuality was and informed me of the rightful honor killings of homosexuals in Palestinian society. I was shocked to find that I felt comfortable being out as a Jew in Palestinian territories, but not as out as a gay man.
I immediately wondered about the anti-pink-washing activists who never discuss the mistreatment of gays in the territories, but are quick to criticize Israel for the gay rights it affords to its people.
THE JNF trip afforded me the opportunity to learn about some of the environmental projects that are funded throughout Israel. I kept my eyes open as I knew little about the claims of green-washing, but was determined to see what JNF really does besides planting trees.
I was surprised to learn of the construction of 220 reservoirs around the country that hold 66 billion gallons of recycled water and flood runoff for agricultural needs.
Israel is the leading nation in its efficiency of recycled water (70%), followed by a distant Spain (12%).
We also visited the JNF-funded Sderot Indoor Recreation Center that serves as Israel’s largest fortified indoor recreation center, which provide the children of Sderot and their families a safe haven to play while missiles are falling upon their city. All activities within the playground are designed to allow for the children to safely enter bomb shelters within the facility in under 15 seconds (the amount of time afforded to safely enter the shelter in case of a missile alarm).
We ended our trip with a visit to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies where Israeli and Arab leaders cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges.
On my flight home from Israel, I looked back at the various activities from the month and couldn’t help but feel annoyed by the very people who criticize Israel for the good things that are taking place in the region. When I try to think it through, I never really come to understand their criticisms of Israel.
What I do know, is that it’s those very same critics of Israel that have ignited a fire within me to stand and loudly support the State of Israel and all the good that she does.

The writer is the founder of He’bro, which produces and promotes events for gay secular and cultural Jews in New York. For more information, visit