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Pinkwashing the Timeline

Zionists are scapegoating queer leftists

The writers of Eretz Nehederet would like to have a word with you. Since Hamas’s October 7 attack, the Israeli sketch television show, which is often likened to Saturday Night Live, has started uploading English-language videos to its YouTube channel in the hope of reaching an international audience.

The show’s writers see themselves as a faction in Israel’s “existential” battle against Hamas, one that “brandishes satire as weapon” and aims “razor-sharp satiric arrows” at progressives abroad whom it deems hypocritical and antisemitic. But while Eretz Nehederet is considered a liberal program in Israel, its recent viral sketches have chosen to heap scorn on targets usually favored by the far right. Take the November sketch “Welcome to Columbia Untisemity,” in which two college students sporting facial piercings and dyed hair helpfully explain that the “H” in “LGBTQH” stands for Hamas. They interview a Hamas militant, who effuses that they “can come to Gaza anytime, and we will throw you from the roof, you homosexual dirt.” One student, majoring in “queer postcolonial astrology,” responds with dopey excitement: “They want to throw me a rooftop party!” He then waves a version of a rainbow pride flag that bears the Palestinian flag in its center.

The sketch is emblematic of prevailing rhetoric since Israel’s all-out assault on Gaza began over six months ago. Zionists and their allies have painted queer solidarity with Palestinians as contradictory and naive. Israel, they argue, is the sole champion of LGBTQ rights in the Middle East, a progressive bastion of tolerance amid a sea of homophobia. But Eretz Nehederet’s videos lay bare a sentiment that has otherwise simmered right below the surface of Zionist discourse: a disdain for queerness. Rather than reserve its contempt for the political leaders engineering mass slaughter, the most popular television program in Israel has opted to scapegoat queer leftists, conflating them with Hamas’s leaders in their battle for the nation’s survival. Invoking the sneering trope of dimwitted, queer theory–addled college liberals, the Columbia University sketch and other propaganda from Israel’s supporters are ideologically indistinguishable from the hatred that flows from the American right. Taken together, this shared vocabulary—rooted in transphobia and extinction panic—reveals the heart of Israel’s ethnonationalist project.

In the middle of a city reduced to rubble, Yoav Atzmoni holds up a pride flag. “In the Name of Love,” it reads. Atzmoni, an Israeli soldier, states in an Instagram caption that it is “the first ever pride flag raised in Gaza” because “under Hamas, being gay means death.” The photograph, posted in mid-November, received more than ninety-five thousand “likes” and was cross-posted by several prominent Zionist accounts, including that of Eretz Nehederet guest star and self-described “Zionist pig” Brett Gelman. Atzmoni added that he intended for it to be seen “as a call for peace and as a message of freedom.”

Pinkwashing has been a staple of Israel’s public relations pitch to the West for decades, but it has intensified in the wake of October 7.

The post is, of course, gruesomely tone deaf. There is no freedom for the dead, and Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign has not liberated any queer Palestinians living in Gaza. The photograph is one of the more blatant displays of how Israel enacts mass displacement and destruction under a cloak of liberal values; in the case of LGBTQ rights, this is known as pinkwashing. Palestinian anthropologist Sa’ed Atshan has noted how Israel’s pinkwashing propaganda produces a reductive political landscape in which only “victim and/or benevolent Israelis and victim and/or malevolent Palestinians” can exist. He writes in his book Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique that “in this worldview, Israelis, both straight and queer, are victims of Palestinians, while queers, both Israelis and Palestinian, are saved by Zionism.”

Pinkwashing has been a staple of Israel’s public relations pitch to the West for decades, but it has intensified in the wake of October 7. A spate of viral videos and posts have derisively compared expressions of solidarity like “queers for Palestine” to “chickens for KFC.” This rhetoric is cruel on the surface—queer Palestinians are acknowledged only insofar as their oppression in Gaza can be wielded to strengthen the image of Israel as savior, legitimizing the state’s colonialist project. But the strict benevolent-malevolent binary also feeds into what political scientist C. Heike Schotten calls a “beleaguerment narrative,” in which the Israeli state casts itself as the perpetual victim of an “innately threatening, evil, or ‘savage’” political opponent. (In another illustrative Eretz Nehederet sketch, the BBC obtains a voice recording of Hamas militants admitting to accidentally blowing up a hospital full of civilians. “It’s not a big deal,” one says. “Maybe we had there a few gays.”)

Schotten argues that this framing fuels an “extinction phobia,” which “confuses oppressor and oppressed, presenting the subordinate party as capable of eliminating the dominant one,” a hallmark of ethnonationalist regimes. Israel’s war on Gaza has put this fear on full display, with the theme of being invaded, replaced, or erased a recurrent talking point among the pro-Israel camp, even as they undertake an invasion that has killed over thirty-three thousand Palestinians in Gaza. Some Zionists have argued that Hamas has imperial intentions, aiming to enact Sharia law in Western nations. “White girls do know that when the caliphate arrives it won’t matter that they wrote ‘free palestine’ on a piece of cardboard, right?” Eve Barlow, a prominent Zionist feminist, posted on X in December. Similar fears, unfounded though they may be, are used to undermine Palestinian demands: in February, Netanyahu’s cabinet rejected a plan for Palestinian statehood outright, with finance minister Bezalel Smotrich stating that Hamas’s attack on October 7 proved that “a Palestinian state is an existential threat to the State of Israel.”

In Eretz Nehederet’s “The Gospel According to Berkeley” sketch, two American college students and their professor (played by Gelman) visit Joseph and Mary in Jerusalem after baby Jesus is born. Gelman tells them that they’re actually Palestinians because Jewish people only arrived as colonizers in 1948—a straw man set up to mock Palestinian indigeneity. “You don’t practice Judaism. You practice Islam,” he says. “There are no Jews here.” They are also quick to emphasize that they are not three wise men from the West, but rather, “three wise persons.” It is notable that in this sketch, it is the queer students facilitating the erasure of Jews and their replacement with Palestinians.

The scene, alongside other handwringing over the “existential threat” Palestinians pose to Israel, calls to mind the great replacement theory, a hallmark of white nationalism which claims that white populations are being systematically “replaced” by ethnic minorities. Far-right Republicans in the United States have turned it into an all-purpose cudgel, brandishing it against migrants seeking asylum and queer, especially trans, people—anyone who threatens the construction of their “ideal” population. In Israel, Palestinians are treated as “demographic time bombs” and denied the right of return. That antisemites have long used this hateful ideology to persecute Jewish people makes the embrace of such views by Israeli politicians all the more troubling.

The outsize contempt for “queers for Palestine” amid Israel’s brutal campaign against Gaza is unsurprising, then, given ethnonationalism’s penchant for treating both trans people and ethnic minorities as demographic threats. But the full potency of this extinction phobia becomes clearer when we consider the ways in which it has been deployed by American Zionists to further other oppressive aims—namely, trans-exclusionary radical feminism, or TERFism. Israel’s claim to perpetual victimhood coupled with an extinction phobia is as much a fundamental aspect of Zionism as it is TERFism, and a survey of history reveals how often the two rear their ugly heads in tandem.

In the cases of both Zionism and TERFism, separatism was identified as necessary for survival.

Schotten identifies the late 1970s and early 1980s in America as a period that gave rise to the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, in which critiques of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians were repackaged as posing an existential threat to Jewish people. Meanwhile, lesbian separatism was emerging, which proclaimed the need for cis women-only spaces in light of “male transsexuals” infiltrating the feminist movement. In the cases of both Zionism and TERFism, separatism was identified as necessary for survival. TERFs frequently cast trans women as predators that seek to not only harm cis women but also render them extinct. This is evident in the title of Janice Raymond’s 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire, considered a foundational source for the TERF movement. By deploying the language of “empire,” Raymond portrays trans people as powerful agents bent on expansion, despite holding little structural power.

Today, far-right Republicans and TERFs alike commonly speak of trans activists as having eliminationist intent, bent on either erasing women or sterilizing masses of children through gender reassignment surgeries. In 2022, New York Times columnist Pamela Paul penned an opinion piece emblematic of a central TERF argument: “In a world of chosen gender identities, women as a biological category don’t exist. Some might even call this kind of thing erasure.” At the time, Melissa Gira Grant correctly identified the extinction phobia underlying Paul’s article. “Roughly half the people in America, many of them reeling from being robbed of something they were told was their birthright, were told by one rarefied columnist at the country’s most powerful newspaper that trans women are set to replace them,” she wrote in The New Republic. “Some may call that fascist. I do.”

Similarly, in her 2020 book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, former Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Abigail Shrier argues that there is a “transgender epidemic” afflicting teenage girls, deeming transness a “contagion.” Bari Weiss, a former New York Times opinion writer and avowed “anti-woke” crusader, has also been a leading instigator of anti-trans extinction panic. Her media company The Free Press published an incendiary article last year that alleged one clinic was rushing numerous children into sterilizing gender reassignment treatments, an account that unraveled upon further inspection. Weiss is also among the founders of Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, or FAIR, a nonprofit organization which opposes critical race theory and “gender ideology.” When Suzy Edelman, the wife of a billionaire hedge fund CEO,  donated a million dollars to FAIR in 2021, she wrote in an email that it was Weiss that had inspired her to “join the movement.” In another email she wrote, “Single sex spaces for women and girls must be protected. Transgenderism is a fiction designed to destroy.”

TERFs depict cis women as both victims of a malevolent, invading “trans epidemic” and the saviors of abused children “forced” into gender transition. Zionism casts Israelis as both the victims and saviors of malevolent and savage Palestinians. Given the shared ideological and rhetorical roots, it is notable that Weiss and Shrier are also outspoken Zionists, and their writings on both topics evidence striking similarities. “It is impossible to understand the existential urgency of the war of defense Israel is fighting,” Weiss wrote in The Free Press last month. In December, Shrier, like Eretz Nehederet, drew a direct line between trans people and the destruction of the Israeli state, asking in Commentary magazine, “Why are the BLM supporters, climate extremists, academic feminists, and trans activists so quick to side with Hamas . . . Why would so many LGBTQ+ groups side against a society that hosts some of the largest Pride festivals worldwide so that they can throw in with another that puts homosexuals to death?”

It seemingly did not occur to Shrier that the reason for international queer solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza could be because Israel has been found to be plausibly committing a genocide, Pride festivals be damned. Instead, she posited this answer: “They want to take over women’s teams and women’s restrooms” because “they enjoy making women afraid. They enjoy deleting girls’ names from the record books.” This proves to Shrier that “their” support of a ceasefire in Gaza is because “they simply want to inflict fear and instill chaos in a peaceable civilization they despise.” The image of a peaceful civilization, invaded by a savage other, hell-bent on destroying and erasing the prevailing social order? Some may call such an implication fascist. I do.