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The Real “Pinkwashing” Scandal

When Sarah Schulman’s November 2011 op-ed on “pinkwashing” appeared in the New York Times, I had a conflicted reaction. There was the urge to respond, since such pseudo-academic fraudulence is not merely anti-intellectual at its heart but a voluble and angry protest against honest intellectual pursuit and thus threatened to further embarrass American academia. But there was also the understanding that no response was needed, because the column revealed that the idea of “pinkwashing”–the assumption that Jews grant rights to gays merely to manipulate them as part of Israel’s globalized chicanery–collapses immediately on its own expression.

For example, in one sentence Schulman criticizes Israel’s gay-friendly culture as a ruse because some in Israel’s public life are supposedly “homophobic.” But in the next sentence, she writes that Israeli pinkwashing “not only manipulates the hard-won gains of Israel’s gay community, but it also ignores the existence of Palestinian gay-rights organizations. Homosexuality has been decriminalized in the West Bank since the 1950s, when anti-sodomy laws imposed under British colonial influence were removed from the Jordanian penal code, which Palestinians follow.” In other words, Schulman’s own protestation against Israeli pinkwashing engages in thorough pinkwashing of Palestinian culture.

What this revealed was not only the unserious nature of Schulman’s “scholarship” but that the purpose of her op-ed was not about calling out pinkwashing; indeed, the op-ed is, to date, the clearest example of pinkwashing in print. Instead, Schulman was simply attacking Israel on behalf of the Palestinians from another direction. Call it the triumph of hope over experience, but I expected that since this was so obvious, the academic left wouldn’t sully its reputation any more by embracing this nonsense. I was wrong, of course, having given the academic left too much credit. In April the City University of New York hosted a conference on pinkwashing at which, as James Kirchick reports in detail, Schulman’s anti-Israel animus was made undeniable:

The CUNY conference promised to be a “pioneering, historic event, uniting a uniquely diverse array of speakers from many countries, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, ages, communities, universities, and academic fields in discussion around a new arena of thought.” Noticeably absent from this list of diverse and welcome attributes, however, was any allowance for the thoughts and real-life experiences of gay Israelis, American Jews, and others who might diverge in any way from Schulman’s message—as a look at several papers rejected by the conference reveals. And Schulman’s interactions with the people who submitted these snubbed paper topics seem to confirm that any proposal that challenged the existence of “homonationalism” and “pinkwashing” as parts of an Israeli government plot, or that even offered some nuance in discussing gay rights in Israel, never had a chance of being aired. When asked why Schulman had rejected these critical proposals, she wrote that they were themselves examples of the problem she is trying to combat: “We rejected proposals that were pinkwashing. The conference was a critique of pinkwashing. So, for example, if the conference had been about dismantling homophobia in the family, we would not have welcomed papers from ‘family values’ religious groups who saw homosexuality as a sin.”

Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Schulman is openly acknowledging here that the purpose of the conference was not enlightened debate but pure, unadulterated pro-Palestinian propaganda. The fact remains that her explanation is just plain untrue. Not only were papers that challenged the existence of pinkwashing rejected, but even papers that embraced the premise were rejected on the grounds that they allowed for a motivation of Israel’s pinkwashers beyond a desire to oppress Palestinians.

Among the papers Schulman rejected were those that criticized Israel’s trumpeting of its gay-rights accomplishments as cynical attempts to drum up tourism. Attacking Israel for manipulating human rights to make money would seem to be suitably antagonistic toward the Jewish state for a conference devoted to gobsmackingly dim-witted conspiracy theories about Jewish racialist domination. But it was not. One author whose paper was rejected but who was nonetheless sympathetic to Schulman’s work seems to have been screened out of even attending the conference (an experience shared by others).

As if that weren’t enough, Kirchick explains that those who accused Israel of trying to make money rather than subjugating Palestinians were accused by Schulman of being “Israeli government operatives.” Kirchick’s detailed account of it should be read in full, but he is surely correct when he writes: “Schulman’s behavior—accusing someone (by all accounts falsely) of being a spy for a foreign government and then compiling a dossier full of inaccurate ‘evidence’ when challenged on the veracity of her claim—is the work of an activist, or of a secret policeman in the old Soviet-bloc states, not a scholar.”

The reason for that is that Schulman’s work isn’t scholarship–something that was clear as day from her infamous New York Times op-ed. More concerning is how readily Schulman was accepted into the ranks of the academic left based solely on her hostility to Israel. It wasn’t deemed surprising that all it took was a creative–if fantastically silly–new angle from which to demonize Israel to win her approval from those circles. And that, surely, is the real scandal.


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