Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent attempt to undermine the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigations into possible Israeli war crimes in Palestine draws on the familiar trope of an Israeli island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. As quoted by Haaretz, Netanyahu responded to the investigation into crimes committed this past summer during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, saying that : “it is the democracy of Israel, a world leader in fighting terrorism, which is to be hauled to the dock in The Hague, while the terrorist war criminals of Hamas are the ones who are going to be pressing the charges.”
Indeed, many Israelis consider their army, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), to be the most ethical in the world. The IDF’s webpage promotes this image of a principled, humanitarian organization, including a special report on Operation Protective Edge that features infographics on the IDF’s “humanitarian aid” to Gaza, the IDF’s code of ethics, and reports on its past “humanitarian” missions.
This depiction of Israel as a bastion of democracy, modernity, and civilization in the Middle East is part of a sustained discourse of “ethics laundering.” This process involves camouflaging Zionism’s colonial elements through Western discourses on a modern, rights-based, rational, ethical, and civilized nation-state. Since the beginning of the movement, Zionists have associated their goals with the values espoused by powerful, modernizing Western nations, and have co-opted various rights-based agendas to frame Israel within this discourses. Given Zionism’s reliance on appropriating already-inhabited lands, support from Western nations was crucial. As such, “ethics laundering” is a project created for the international community’s consumption, though it is also an integral part of constructing Israeli identity.
Israeli ethics laundering and performative morality began with the World Zionist Organization (WZO), a body that advocated for a Jewish homeland predicated on the principles of Jewish persecution, morality, and civilizational superiority.
The Paris Peace Conference and Environmental Stewardship
The WZO was founded in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland under the leadership of Theodor Herzl. Its central aim was the creation of a national homeland for the Jewish Diaspora in Palestine. The WZO established the Jewish National Fund (JNF) at its Fifth Congress, held in 1901. The JNF was one of the most powerful nation-building propaganda organizations of the twentieth century, successfully creating and disseminating the idea of a Jewish Diaspora unified by a shared culture and history. The JNF purchased land and raised massive funds to further the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine before an Israeli state even existed.
The WZO began tying Zionism to the values of Western states immediately after World War I. In 1919, Chaim Weizmann, who would be Israel’s first president, spoke on behalf of the WZO at the Paris Peace Conference with the aim of securing colonial support for the Zionist movement. At the conference, Weizmann presented a proposal, requesting the creation of a Jewish homeland under the purview of Great Britain. This resulted in the establishment of British Mandatory Palestine, an entity that existed from 1920 until the British withdrawal in May 1948. Along with historical and religious ties to the land, the WZO cited environmental stewardship and agricultural productivity as key factors supporting the Jewish people’s claims to Palestine:
[T]he land itself needs redemption. […] Two things are necessary for that redemption – a stable and enlightened Government, and an addition to the present population which shall be energetic, intelligent, devoted to the country, and backed by the large financial resources that are indispensable for development. Such a population the Jews alone can supply.
The WZO’s justification for land purchases, “where necessary . . . at a fair pre-war price,” was based on a juxtaposition between the wealthy, modern, and environmentally-conscious nature of the Jewish population and the implied backwardness and poverty of the Arab inhabitants of what was then Ottoman-controlled land.
Following Israel’s violent creation in May 1948, the newly formed state continued the public relations tactics used by the WZO and JNF, and worked to connect the Jewish homeland with other moral, modern values and philanthropic movements.
Israeli Support for African-American Civil Rights
Among these efforts, Israel aligned itself with the African-American civil rights movement. The Israeli government openly supported the movement’s call for an end to race-based inequalities, a philosophy with which it identified given the Jewish people’s own experiences.
It also used the civil rights movement to help credentialize and support the Zionist cause. The Jewish Virtual Library begins its entry on Martin Luther King, Jr. with the observation that King was “an outspoken advocate on behalf of Israel’s security and against anti-Semitism, especially among the African-American community.” In a speech made to the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, King stated, “I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvellous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”
There were flaws, however, in Israel’s narrative about enjoying a rosy relationship with the renowned civil rights leader. Despite numerous invitations, for example, King never visited Israel prior to his assassination in 1968.
Israel’s tactic of projecting a strong humanitarian ethos continued to be an important factor in laundering its dispossession of the Palestinians and, as the twentieth century progressed, its occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s pro-LGBTQ Discourse
Like support for the African-American civil rights movement, Israel’s pro-LGBTQ position has been used to promote an image of Zionism as a movement that champions civil rights. Known as “pinkwashing,” Israel’s co-optation of a liberal, pro-LGBTQ agenda has been used to obscure other human rights violations (especially those carried out against Palestinians).
Cultivation of a LGBTQ-friendly discourse has not only helped to promote Israel’s image as a tolerant and democratic state, but also carries significant economic benefits. Israel is often touted as an ideal holiday destination for members of the LGBTQ community, notably by the PR company Brand Israel, which seeks to boost the Israeli tourism industry by advertising Israel as a liberal, rights-oriented country.
The image of Israel as a gay-friendly state is part of a performative modernity that allows Israel to depict itself as a democratic and moral country, in order to deflect criticism about policies and power structures that marginalize Palestinians, Bedouins, and immigrants from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
While the optics of a gay-friendly Israel are widely publicized, it appears that at least some members of the Israeli LGBTQ community are not receiving the acceptance so often depicted by Israel’s PR efforts. A recent documentary, “Israel’s Gay Exodus,” suggests that LGBTQ Israelis continue to suffer from serious stigmatization, and that many of them have been emigrating.
Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) is a transnational organization that seeks to recover queer discourses co-opted by the Israeli state. Established in Toronto, it has ties with queer organizations and activists in Canada, South Africa, Israel, and the West Bank. Its website acknowledges the need to advocate for LGBTQ rights while asserting that “the struggle for sexual rights cannot come at the price of other rights.”
Israel’s instrumentalization of LGBTQ rights was on display at the twenty-third annual conference of the National LGBTQ Task Force held in Minneapolis in January 2011. At the conference, a poster of the pro-Israeli PR organization StandWithUs was shown. The poster posed the question, “Why does Israel look like paradise to gay Palestinians?” and provided the following response: “Israel respects life.” Implied in this response is that the Palestinian community does not have the same respect for life and civil rights.
Netanyahu Committed to “Working Against Cruelty to Animals”
The Israeli government’s self-proclaimed respect for life has most recently manifested itself in official support for vegetarianism and veganism. In a Haaretz article, Netanyahu was quoted as saying: “besides my responsibility as a prime minister to protect our life here, I feel duty-bound to increase the awareness of working against cruelty to animals.”
Vegetarianism and veganism are becoming increasingly popular among Israelis, and are also being used by the Israeli government to signal its awareness of and sensitivity to popular discourses about environmental stewardship, restrictions on animal testing, cruelty-free consumer products, and the ethical treatment of animals.
The recent popularity of vegetarianism and veganism is partially due to a speech made by Gary Yourofsky, a controversial Jewish American animal-rights activist. In this speech, Yourofsky described the deplorable conditions in which animals are raised and slaughtered to produce meat, and advocated violence against people who wear fur. Yourofsky’s tactics seem to have struck a nerve with many Israelis, who are now choosing vegetarianism or veganism to demonstrate their respect for all forms of life and opposition to the suffering of innocent creatures.
In December 2014, the Knesset threw its support behind the dietary trend, and instituted “Meatless Mondays”, offering vegetarian menu items alongside entrees containing meat. In December, the IDF announced it would provide vegan food options, leather-free boots, and wool-free berets out of consideration for its vegan soldiers.
These actions pander to ethical trends within powerful Western countries, and are intended to shift international focus away from manifest abuses being committed by Israel against various populations. The Palestinians are not the only victims of this persecution. Mizrahim, Sephardim, foreign guest workers, and sub-Saharan African asylum seekers are among those who have been historically ostracized from financial, political, educational, and social privilege within Israel.
No Space for Criticism
When Israel insists it is being unfairly singled out for criticism, it justifies its outrage based on long-standing claims to being a bastion of Western modernity in the Middle East. This makes criticizing Israel particularly difficult, as it allows the government to present challenges to its policies vis-à-vis Palestinians and other marginalized communities as opposition to civil liberties. This stymies thoughtful discussions about ethics in Israel/Palestine by creating false binaries between modernity/democracy and backwardness/totalitarianism. As frequently conveyed by Israeli and international media outlets, these discourses help justify the on-going occupation of Palestinian lands based on ideas about Israel’s civilizing mission in the Middle East and the dangers posed to it by a hostile Palestinian state.
Of course, supporting African-American civil rights, pro-LGBTQ policies, and animal rights – is not negative, in and of itself. What is problematic, however, is that the Israeli government is deciding which groups and communities deserve civil rights, creating a division between those who should, in its view, be beneficiaries of rights and freedoms (Israeli Jews, oppressed populations in other countries, animals) and those who should not (Palestinians, Bedouins, and asylum seekers, all of whom threaten the demographics of a homogeneous, Jewish State of Israel).
Simply because the Israeli government can point to instances of support for civil rights and liberties does not mean it ought to be exempted from any and all critiques or accountability for its actions. Its hypocrisy is, in fact, particularly jarring, given Israel’s depiction of itself as a guardian of rights, liberties, progress, modernity, and democracy, while it continues to occupy the Palestinian territories and systematically discriminate against Palestinians, Bedouins, and African immigrants and refugees.
 Sarah Schulman, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2012), 142.