Dear Seattle LGBT Commissioners:
I recently received your invitation to attend a roundtable discussion with Lt. Shachar Erez, a transgender officer in the Israel Defense Forces who “advises youth, soldiers, and professionals on how to better integrate trans* people in to the armed forces.” As I understand it, you were approached by StandWithUs to co-sponsor this event.**
I will not be attending this event, and I write to urge you to cancel it. This event is part of a propaganda strategy that has been undertaken by Israel advocacy organizations like StandWithUs and the government of Israel itself to respond to worldwide opposition to the outrageous harm and violence toward Palestinian people perpetrated by the Israeli government. This campaign, called “Brand Israel,” aims to respond to the growing movement against apartheid in Israel by portraying Israel as “relevant and modern.” An important part of this effort has been to promote Israel as a LGBT-friendly country. Queer and trans activists around the world who oppose occupation and apartheid have called this strategy “pinkwashing” because it is a direct effort to conceal the violence and harm that Israel inflicts on Palestinians, including queer and trans Palestinians, by promoting Israel as “gay and trans friendly.”
In January 2012, I visited the West Bank of Palestine and Israel as part of an LGBT Delegation. We were invited by LGBT Palestinian organizations to come witness the occupation and meet with Palestinians and Israelis who are working to stop this violence and oppose the use of pinkwashing to obscure it. What I saw was utterly devastating. I visited a Palestinian village where the Israeli military uses tear gas and skunk water to harass families engaged in peaceful weekly protests against the theft of their land and water and met a family whose son was killed by a tear gas canister fired at his head. I sat in their living room and watched video footage of Israeli soldiers waking their children from bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night, arresting children, and shooting gas canisters into their homes. I visited homes and villages where the apartheid wall is being constructed to separate Palestinians from their farmland, from their families, from their jobs, from health care and schools. I passed through checkpoints where Palestinians are humiliated every day trying to get to work or school or a hospital. I witnessed the apartheid road system, where Israeli settlers are allowed to drive on certain roads and Palestinians are barred. I saw the use of elaborate permit systems to enforce apartheid and imprison Palestinians. I walked the streets of Hebron where a barricade separates the part of the sidewalk Palestinians are allowed to use and the rest of the road which Israeli settlers may use.
What I saw helped me understand why Palestinians have called for a boycott of Israel, utilizing the strategy taken up against apartheid South Africa. I understand why Israel is so threatened by this strategy of worldwide solidarity against apartheid that it passed legislation in 2011 outlawing the boycott to intimidate people within Israel out of participating in the global movement, and in 2017 banned activists involved in the global boycott movement from entering the country. I understand why an enormous range of writers, speakers, and artists, including icons like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Judith Butler, Alice Walker, Roger Waters, Adrienne Rich and Stephen Hawking have publicly supported the boycott and refused to participate in events in Israel.
In 2012, StandWithUs brought a pinkwashing tour to Seattle and the LGBT Commission agreed to have sponsor an event. Queer and trans Seattleites, including queer and trans Jews and Palestinians and our allies, came to the Commission to explain that the event, which was marketed as a chance for international exchange, was actually a propaganda event designed to create a misleading image of Israel as a progressive haven for human rights rather than a brutally colonizing country engaged in outrageous human rights violations. The Commissioners heard and understood and cancelled the event. We then faced a backlash from pro-Israel organizations that wrote hate mail to the activists who had spoken up and bombarded the City government with complaints. I made a documentary about this story which has been featured in film festivals all over the world and screened across the United States to people who are working to fight similar pinkwashing efforts. You can watch it online at pinkwashingexposed.net, and I hope you will. It is a story about the Commission you serve on and the ways that well-meaning people seeking to serve their communities can be put in positions that are contradict their social justice values. I am disheartened to hear that the Commission would choose to partner with StandWithUs again. StandWithUs is a right-wing group with ties to anti-gay leaders and a disturbing record of harmful tactics. SWU is not a friend to our communities, but an opportunistic organization narrowly focused on covering up Israel’s brutality, willing to use LGBT themes to do that if it works.
The purpose of movements for queer and trans liberation is to break free from systems of violence and harm and build a just world. Trans service in militaries that are enforcing colonial rule, and protecting the theft of life, land and water from indigenous people, is not liberatory. It is not liberation if trans people get to participate in arresting children, preventing people from reaching hospitals and schools, shooting tear gas and bullets at colonized people. Co-sponsoring an event designed to glorify the Israeli Defense Forces aligns the Commission with values that are directly at odds with the racial justice and social justice values claimed by the City of Seattle. Particularly in this political moment, it is vital for us to be clear about what we support and what we oppose. I want to see the Commission prioritize supporting queer and trans immigrants, queer and trans Muslims, Black queer and trans people, queer and trans people with disabilities, queer and trans people facing police violence, homeless queer and trans people. I want to see the Commission joining the efforts of social movements across the US opposing the Trump administration’s brutal policies and plans. Instead, you have chosen to sponsor an event utterly aligned with Trump-style politics: Israel is a leader in building illegal, racist walls, imprisoning vulnerable people, and practicing apartheid. This event is propaganda for apartheid and colonialism, and it exploits queer and trans movement politics and undermines our quest for justice and liberation.
I strongly urge you to cancel this event. It is part of a public-relations campaign to conceal apartheid and violence, which I trust the Commission does not mean to support. I would be happy to discuss this further in person or by phone if that is useful.
**Stand With Us is also organizing at least one other event with this speaker in Seattle.
Dear Professor Spade,
Thank you for expressing your perspective on this matter. We want to clarify that the Commission is not sponsoring the event, but we’re invited to have a discussion with a trans Israeli soldier. Additionally, we have not been contacted by StandWithUs. A Sister City Association is sponsoring this event.
Some members of the Commission have elected to attend this meeting in an effort to participate in dialogue and critical conversation. Other Commissioners are not attending for a variety of reasons—several Commissioners will not attend because they do not support the event occurring. While a couple of Commission members do plan to attend the event and engage in conversation, that is not an endorsement from the Commission as a whole of any views expressed at the event.
Because the Commission is not a sponsor of this event, we cannot cancel it. Since the event would occur with our without our participation, we invited you specifically because we value your knowledge and the perspective you would bring to this conversation. We apologize that the intent behind our invitation was not clear. We have been and continue to seek diverse community voices to participate in this discussion. Given that your online presence has a much greater reach than ours does, we politely ask that you update your Facebook post and website to clarify our role in this event.
Though we are often asked to meet with individuals from other cities and countries to share our work, the work of the Commission is focused primarily on addressing the immediate and long-term needs of LGBTQ individuals living and working in Seattle. We appreciate you contacting us to share your expertise. We invite you to our April 20 Commission meeting to further share your expertise and discuss the history of our Commission with regard to this issue.
City of Seattle LGBTQ Commission
Thanks for sharing the message below with the Commission.
I find it hard to understand how the Commission can claim not to be sponsoring the event when the invitation I received says “Please join the Seattle – Be’er Sheva Sister City Association and the Seattle LGBTQ Commission for a roundtable discussion with the first openly transgender officer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Shachar Erez.”
I expect the Commission to use discernment about events that it puts its name on, like this one. I know the Commission is capable of rejecting sponsoring events because in 2015 I was part of a group of activists who asked the Commission to sponsor a screening of a documentary film we made about the Commission and the pinkwashing controversy it was involved in. The Commission declined that opportunity for education, dialogue and engagement claiming it didn’t want to revisit a controversial and divisive topic. It is now clear that the Commission was not interested in engaging with or supporting Jewish and Palestinian LGBT activists who are part of anti-racist Palestinian liberation activism in Seattle, but is willing to sponsor events featuring Israeli military officials. At this time in particular, it is vital that the Commission gain clarity on whether it will align with pro-military, pro-war, pro-apartheid forces or support grassroots anti-racist queer and trans activism in our city.
I am disappointed to receive a response focused on distancing the Commission from its decisions rather than being accountable and denouncing an event that uses trans issues as a cover for racist, colonial militarism. Perhaps the Commission might be less concerned with how its actions make it appear when I report them on social media, and more concerned with the message that putting its name on this event sends about its values.
I remain open to engaging with the Commission about this event and decision, but I cannot honor a request to remove my concerns while this event goes forward. I would be happy to support the Commission in learning more about these issues and working to pursue the racial justice and social justice values that the City of Seattle asserts. I urge the Commission to pull out of all participation in this event.