From the Closet Into the Knesset: Zionist Sexual Politics and the Formation of Settler Subjectivity

Mikki Stelder. Settler Colonial Studies. Volume 8, Issue 4. 2018.

This article examines the shifting politics of Zionist settler colonialism with regards to the emergence of a legally sanctioned and tolerated national gay citizen-subject. In other words, it discusses the sexual politics of Zionism as a particular modality of settler colonial subject making. It traces the itinerary of Israel’s LGBT movement to look at how the Zionist project becomes re-articulated on novel terms. This inquiry arises from the concern that Israel’s contemporary branding strategy of pinkwashing—using gay rights and gay life to promote Israel a liberal and tolerant state to attract support from liberals the world over—is predominantly framed as one manifestation of ‘the global conditions of homonationalism’. Following Palestinian queer anticolonial interventions that position pinkwashing more firmly within the Zionist settler colonial context, this article intervenes in such analytical practices in order to understand the settler colonial undercurrents that form the conditions of possibility upon which pinkwashing could emerge in the first place. Such conditions arise from the continued abjection, destruction, and disavowal of Palestine and Palestinians and Palestinian resistance to the settler colonial state.

Jasbir Puar’s work on homonationalism in which ‘national recognition and inclusion, here as the annexation of homosexual jargon, is contingent upon the segregation and disqualification of racial and sexual others from the national imaginary’, simply features Israel as an example of homonationalism that arises from the racialisation and sexualisation of Arabs without attending to Zionist settler modalities and legacies through which such sexual politics operate. Following Jodi Byrd’s warning not to conflate racialisation and colonisation even as they emerge simultaneously, I argue for a situated account of the settler colonial context of Israel/Palestine as a context of colonisation that cannot be easily collapsed into the sexual-racialisation of Arab and Muslim bodies post 9/11 although they sometimes operate together intimately. While such sexual-racialisation is formative of the contemporary crisis, framing Israel/Palestine in this way allows for the disappearance of the Palestinian (queer) native once again. Sexual-racialisation needs to be complemented by an account of the sexual politics of settler colonialism that extends beyond the imposition of modern sexuality on Palestinian queers. Jodi Byrd’s call to discern between processes of racialisation (and I would like to add sexualisation), and colonisation is crucial in understanding the limitations of Puar’s work regarding Israel/Palestine in which Palestinian indigeneity is easily collapsed into the racialised category of the ‘Arab’ and into Islamophobia, which marks race as the founding category upon which Palestine was settled, and erases other geographies of Zionist settling and the settler/native dynamic in Israel/Palestine.

Focusing on the specific formation of an Israeli gay identity in tandem with Israel’s shifting settler colonial discourse and sexual politics starting in the late 1980s, this article suggests that the itinerary of Israel’s LGBT movement forms the conditions of possibility for Israel’s pinkwashing campaign to take shape. Through an analysis of the itinerary of Israel’s LGBT movement, this article asks: how does Zionist settler colonialism form the conditions of possibility for an Israeli gay subjectivity and pinkwashing to emerge and how does their emergence re-arrange the Zionist imaginary?

I propose that Zionism is a specific settler colonial constellation that provides us with an altered understanding of the conditions of possibility for pinkwashing to emerge and an altered understanding of the Zionist project itself. If I were to join in the chorus of neologisms, I might call these sexual politics of Zionism homozionism, but I am hesitant to propose such a term as it enables the homo to be separated from the national as a distinct form of biopolitical subject formation that is not structured by and through ‘reproductive heteronormativity’ (RHN) as its founding logic. Following Gayatri Spivak, Nikita Dhawan argues that critiques of homonationalism, although essential, obscure ‘RHN’ as an irreducible condition for both homophobia and homonationalism to emerge. ‘RHN’ is a Spivakian term referring to ‘a complicated semiotic system of organizing sexual/gendered differential’. Spivak discusses how ‘we are in a double bind with RHN through the variety of our sexualities. This normativity extends to reproduction, with all its psychic uses, so that “human” can be established and distinguished from experiencing beings’. It is a structuring principle, or ‘irreducible … [U]pstream from straight/queer/trans’. ‘RHN’ finds its articulations within the Zionist settler colonial project that seeks to establish the settler as ‘human’, while reducing the native to a disposable ‘experiencing being’.

This article shows how Zionist settler colonial legacies operate at the centre of iterations of Israeli gay subjectivity. Scott Lauria Morgensen proposes settler homonationalism as ‘a condition of the formation of modern queer subjects, cultures, and politics’ in North America. Morgensen’s elaboration of settler homonationalism seeks to understand the affective appropriation and erasure of native sexual cultures for the construction of a viable North American modern queer subjectivity. Although it lends itself to the North American contexts, it cannot be so easily translated into the settler colonial crisis of Israel/Palestine. In contrast to Morgensen, I do not focus on the creation of a sexual modernity, but rather on how sexual modernity becomes scripted through the Zionist project, which constitutes Zionist hegemony and the ongoing destruction of Palestine. I focus on the shifting modalities of Zionist sexual politics that operate within the formation of the liberal settler state post-Oslo Accords. With this article, I seek to complement contemporary conversations on the formation of sexual subjectivities within settler colonial contexts. I suggest that the formation of sexual subjectivity is not only formed through settler colonialism, but serves its deepened entrenchment.

Before I proceed, the nature of these writings warrants an explication of the emergence of my query. Since 2010, I have been working closely with alQaws: For Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian SocietyPalestinian Queers for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, and Pinkwatching Israel. For this reason, my work centres on the question of how to write with the Palestinian queer movement. This question resonates with Rana Barakat’s pertinent query ‘how can a settler-colonial analysis be part of a deeply political scholarly mode of indigenous resistance in Palestine?’.

Palestinian anticolonial queer critiques caution against subsuming pinkwashing under the analytic of homonationalism. For this article, writing with means analysing the itinerary of Israel’s LGBT movement as part of the Zionist cultural archive. Inspired by Edward Said’s notion of the ‘cultural archive’ and Raymond Williams’s ‘structures of feeling’, Gloria Wekker describes the cultural archive as ‘located in many things, in the way we think, do things, look at the world, in what we find (sexually) attractive, in how our affective and rational economies are organized and intertwined’. She specifically alludes to the ways in which structures of superiority and domination are kept intact through the cultural archive as a repository of knowledge and feelings that constitute ‘a deep structure of inequality in thought and affect’ that has formed ‘a sense of self’. I ask what was the trajectory of Israel’s LGBT movement and how did it (re)articulate particular modes of belonging to the settler state? This article unfolds through an analysis of a selection of mainstream and academic texts written about and by the Israeli LGBT movement. Using these texts I trace particular itineraries of belonging and unbelonging within the settler state and the articulation of particular forms of ‘sexual citizenship’. Within these itineraries, the colonisation of Palestine and the racialisation–sexualisation of Palestinians are constitutively and intimately inscribed and obscured.

‘Parading Pridefully Into the Mainstream’

Media scholar and key figure in the landscape of Jewish-Israeli gay emancipation, Amit Kama, discusses what he perceives as the modes of oppression and repression faced by what he calls Israel’s ‘lesbigay movement’. His work is predominantly concerned with the ways in which lesbigays became included into Israel’s civil core and the ways in which the media and the state have accelerated the tolerance of homosexuality. He writes:

Unlike other ‘Western’ countries, several unique factors colluded in [the] practices of repression and oppression in Israel:

(1) The Zionist ethos accentuating the hegemonic precedence of a collective and united body of Israelis over personal needs and identities, especially in the face of an enduring sense of immanent [sicthreat from Arab neighbours  … In a climate of opinion where the collective was superior to personal identity, formation of an unorthodox, namely homosexual, identity was seen as an undesired cultivation of a capricious self.

(2) Zionism saw ‘the apotheosis of the masculine’ … embodied in the new Jew’s strenuously virile ideal … thereby precluding and repressing any signs of femininity in the Sabra … Since homosexuality has traditionally been conceived as sexual inversion … formation of a homosexual identity constituted a dire breach of the strict Zionist gender roles.

(3) The legendary indoctrination to self-actualization by bearing as many progeny as was nationally desired—what today referred to as the ‘demographic problem’—added another obstacle on the road to self-fulfilment for persons who would perhaps otherwise seek same-sex partners.

Kama traces these three obstacles for Israel’s lesbigay movement back to Zionist discourses, which are: the ideology of Zionist collectivism and homogeneity; Zionist masculinity; and the Zionist demographic challenge to secure a Jewish majority in historic Palestine. The passage quoted above is crucial as it provides the socio-political context for the emergence of Israel’s lesbigay movement. Furthermore, these obstacles paradoxically form the conditions of possibility for the emergence of an Israeli lesbigay identity. To give insight into the workings of this paradox, I ask here what are the discourses and constellations at work in Kama’s understanding of the challenges faced by Israeli lesbigays? And how do they relate to the larger Zionist settler colonial context and formation of settler subjectivity?

Kama is a renowned Israeli media scholar and lesbigay activist. He was married (outside of Israel) to former Knesset member Uzi Even, he is involved in gay surrogacy struggles, and has recently completed a survey commissioned by the Israeli government on how to attract more gay tourists to Israel. This article traces the three itineraries laid out by Kama. I discuss these three points as itineraries, as they (re-)inscribe particular settler movements of inclusion and exclusion, and nativise a particular narrative of the queer settler body onto the land and into the state that (re)territorialises space, land, and bodies. Instead of celebrating that Israel has embraced its Jewish LGBTQ constituents, I take a closer look at how Israel’s lesbigay movement articulates its belonging to the state and how these articulations reiterate and rely on unequal structures and ideologies that sought to legitimise the Zionist project, the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, and the ongoing settler colonial project today.

A key aspect of Zionism is the construction of Jewish belonging to the ‘Jewish homeland’, a project that entails the articulation of affective, bodily, economic, geographic, and political belonging to the land. It goes hand-in-hand with an active process of unbelonging that continues to consolidate Palestinian dispossession: the ongoing production, reproduction, and reification of practices of exclusion and dispossession of Palestinians. Unbelonging is a political, ideological, affective, geographical, representational, and economic structuring principle of Zionist settler colonialism.

Jewish-Israeli Collectivity and the Lesbigay

Despite the many obstacles posed by Zionist practices of repression that Kama notes, the Israeli lesbigay movement has been on a relatively steady course toward inclusion and assimilation since the late 1980s. The rapid acceleration of legal inclusion is not necessarily reflected in a similar demise in homophobia, but is accompanied by heightened positive representations of lesbigays in the public sphere. In 1988, Israel removed its anti-sodomy clause as part of larger reforms of the then operative British Mandate Penal Code; in 1992, the Knesset passed the Equal Employment Opportunities Act integrating lesbigays more fully in the workplace; in 1993, the Israeli Army opened its ranks to ‘out’ gays and integrated anti-discriminatory policies into its statutes; that same year, Tel Aviv held its first gay pride parade; marriages performed abroad are now recognised; and, in 2005, a lesbian couple was the first to adopt each other’s children setting a legal precedent for lesbigay parenting. The period from 1988 until 1993 ‘legitimized to some extent, gay and lesbian representation in mainstream media. It also gave rise to a new queer culture that grew safely within the Israeli consensus’. If Zionism articulates such a supposedly static epistemological, ontological, and affective vision of the Jewish-Israeli citizen-subject, then how and under what conditions did a gay citizen-subject become imaginable, and how does it interact with practices of ‘exclusive Jewish sovereignty’?

According to Kama, the Israeli lesbigay movement is set on ‘parading pridefully into the mainstream’ or ‘from the closet into the Knesset’. In other words it expresses ‘an all-encompassing liberal aspiration of the Israeli lesbigay community to be included within the civil core’. The first obstacle Kama describes is Zionism’s rejection of individual rights and liberties in favour of a Jewish collectivism that can respond to Israel’s imminent ‘existential threat’. According to Kama, but also to Alon Harel, and Alisa Solomon, the legal inclusion of Israeli lesbigays fits within a larger trend of the liberalisation of Israel’s cultural and political economy during the years leading up to and following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Cultural and political liberalisation began to deemphasise a homogenous Zionist collectivity and body politic and gave, as Haneen Maikey cynically remarks, ‘some Palestinians, some authority, on some of their lands’. Israeli sociologist Michael Shalev notes that despite Israel’s liberalisation ‘the legacy of Zionist collectivism persists in many practices—and even more, the discourses—that surround the political economy’.

On 22 March 1988, the Knesset decriminalised sodomy as part of a larger reform of its Penal Code, a remnant of the British Mandate in Palestine and the colonial-legal system implemented in the British colonies. Criminalisation of sexual acts ‘against the order of nature’ does not exist within the contemporary Occupied Palestinian Territories, which are subject to Jordanian Law. The push for the repeal came from Yael Dayan, a Member of Knesset (MK) from the Labor Party and an enthusiastic proponent of the legal inclusion of gays and lesbians. Previous attempts to repeal the clause by Uri Avneri in 1971 and a group of left-wing MKs in 1978 had remained unsuccessful and relatively unknown within Israeli society. In Kama’s words ‘Israeli society, by and large (not excluding gay men themselves) was quite indifferent to these efforts; the country’s existential predicament invalidated personal issues, such as human and civil rights, that were dismissed as petty at best’.

His remark leaves no leeway for cynicism about Israel’s ‘existential predicament’, which is translatable into the fear of Israel’s imminent ‘threat of extinction’ that serves to legitimise the ongoing Zionist settler colonial project. Within this logic, Israel’s ‘existential predicament’ as an imminent threat commands the pre-emptive securitisation of borders and the containment of the indigenous Palestinian population in order to guarantee the safety of Jewish-Israelis. However, as Alaa Tartir notes, ‘unless “ordinary” Israelis recognise the occupation and acknowledge it as the main source of their insecurity, there is very little hope for peace’. The reification of the ‘existential predicament’ within lesbigay discourses renders the idea of the threat ahistorical and the logic of securitisation is translated into a love for the collective and for the settler nation. By constantly presupposing the necessity of an exclusive and homogenous collective Jewish body, the alignment and identification with this body becomes necessary to ‘protect’ the state. Any rupture in the collective Israeli body politic might disavow Israel’s claim to exclusive Jewish sovereignty.

The idea of the nation being under threat by certain bodies and not others establishes what Sara Ahmed calls an affective economy. She discusses how narratives of the fantasy of permanent exposure to injury construct figures of hate that then circulate as dangerous others and allows the normative subject, in this case the Ashkenazi Jewish-Israeli, to embody the beloved imagined nation. This affective economy not only allows for the narrative of the existential predicament to be installed discursively, as a regime of representation, but also for it to be incorporated affectively as a necro- and biopolitical tool for population control. She writes: ‘In such affective economies, emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments’.

Kama assumes that the necessity for a collective Jewish body politic in the face of the ‘existential threat’ historically left no room for Jewish diversity. The Israeli lesbigay would threaten the coherence of this ‘imagined nation’ founded on virile yet contained heterosexual masculinity and on fertile Jewish femininity. However, in the late 1980s, the relationship between the individual and the imagined collective started to change. The repeal of the sodomy clause was one way in which the idea of a collective body politic was reconfigured. However, the fantasy of the threat remained intact.

It is misleading to situate Kama’s account in a supposedly neutral narrative of gay emancipation, which would ignore the Zionist tropes underlying his own epistemological claims and the discussion about the repeal of the anti-sodomy clause. Although there was no public spectacle, the discourse around the clause was widely disputed among lawmakers. The law dates back to the time of the British Mandate where it functioned as a colonial statute based on the British Victorian Penal Code. The code stated that ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ was prohibited. Different lawmakers (from 1948 until 1988) disagreed on the limits and definitions of the clause as it was perceived as both addressing a man engaged in anal conduct with another man, and a man having anal sex with a woman. At some point, one lawmaker noticed the absence of women sleeping with women and deliberated whether to integrate this into the clause. The law was predominantly understood as a prohibition on male-to-male anal intercourse. However, in 1963, 15 years after the state’s foundation, Attorney General Haim H. Cohn recommended ‘not to persecute for the violation of this section’, unless it concerned non-consensual sex or sex with minors. While the law did not explicitly criminalise homosexuality, the prohibition of sodomy reveals sex was predominantly deemed as a way to secure and privilege reproduction of ‘Jewish’ bodies and consequently of a Jewish-Israeli workforce necessary for the Zionist settler colonial project.

Pushing for a discreet legal revolution, a small group of Israeli gay lobbyists from the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights (SPPR) founded in 1975 with the support of Yael Dayan—who later formed a Knesset subcommittee for the prevention of discrimination based on sexual orientation—were able to yield support from left- and right-wing MKs. When the anti-sodomy law was amended on 22 March 1988, the headline of the popular newspaper Ma’ariv read ‘Sexual Liberation in Israel: Consenting homosexual relations between adults are no longer punishable’. According to Kama, this moment proved ‘the most vital incentive in the self-empowerment of the gay community’. Kama’s emphasis on the repeal of the anti-sodomy clause as the pivotal moment in lesbigay history reveals the male-centeredness of such an orientation.

The dominant discourse of which Kama’s work is exemplary sees the decriminalisation of sodomy as having paved the way for creating a homosexual identity and community. This moment of Foucaultian reverse discourse turned the homosexual of the law of prohibition into a sanctioned homosexual who started to speak as such and demand recognition. In this case it could demand recognition within the settler colonial state. The discourse of tolerance that takes shape through sanction contributes to what Wendy Brown in Regulating Aversion characterises as a depoliticisation that ‘involves removing a political phenomenon from comprehension of its historical emergence and from a recognition of the powers that produce and contour it’. A discourse of tolerance is part and parcel of historical and political processes that individualise and naturalise structural inequalities, as it erases how the identities through which difference is negotiated ‘are themselves the effect of power and hegemonic norms, or even of certain discourses about race, ethnicity, sexuality, and culture’.

The repeal of the anti-sodomy clause was part of larger reform of Israel’s Penal Code. Liberal advocates merely talked about removing the prohibition on anal intercourse from Israel’s Penal Code, but remained largely silent around the issue of homosexuality. According to Harel, the silent removal of the clause made it more appealing to right-wing Knesset members to support the repeal, because it would not fracture what Harel calls the heterosexual consensus, which I see as constitutive of the Zionist consensus. In this sense, gay lobbyists and their quest for legal inclusion first focused on a redistribution of legal access—conceived as for Jewish-Israelis from the start—that only later turned into a quest for recognition and a more public constitution of lesbigay identity combined with the continued quest for full legal inclusion. Harel points out that the way in which Israel’s legal system became accountable for the legal inclusion of non-heterosexual Jewish-Israelis appeared as an attempt by conservative politicians to keep homosexuality from being publically discussed:

By eliminating the prohibition on anal intercourse, conservative members of Parliament hoped to eliminate the political existence of homosexuality by eliminating its regulation. The discreet tactic used by advocates of the statute was therefore crucial to the success of the legislative initiative, by failing to mention homosexuality, the new statute seems to achieve precisely the purpose favored by conservative members of Knesset, namely the complete annihilation of homosexuality from political discourse.

What becomes visible is the role of ‘RHN’ in both the constitution of a legally sanctioned homosexual subjectivity and in the maintenance of Zionist heteronormativity, which is at the centre of the settler colonial state. The erasure of homosexuality from political discourse was celebrated by the lesbigay movement as a pivotal moment of inclusion into the state. Although the push for the removal of the clause was rather silent and invisible, Harel’s statement contradicts Kama’s celebratory account of how the media reported on the repeal, as becomes clear in Ma’ariv’s report. Yet, from the 1980s until 1993, Israel’s gay legal revolution remained relatively invisible as it was fought at the level of policy and without a public and consistent gay movement or widespread visibility, and also received support from conservative MKs. In contrast to Harel, I argue that the repeal of the clause and the relative silence around it—as potentially transgressing the boundaries of a heterosexist society—performs a regulatory and regularising articulation and creation of ‘homosexuality’, not as a particular tactic of silencing, but more importantly, as a specific articulation of ‘RHN’ so central to Zionist settler colonial discourses and practices. ‘Homosexuality’, or homophobia for that matter, were not annihilated, the shift that occurred was their regulation in relation to the reproduction of the heteronormative, national, Zionist body politic.

For their silent revolution, Israeli gay lobbyists were able to yield support from liberal MK Dayan and Reuvin Rivlin, a conservative MK for Likud, and the current President of Israel. During the time of the repeal, Rivlin publicly rejected homosexuality as it went against ‘Jewish values’ and the values of Zionist collective cohesion. In 1989, at the first large-scale conference organised by the gay lobby group Otzma, Rivlin still stated ‘homosexuals are deviant but not evil, I will not fight for homosexuality, but I will fight for everyone who wishes to live like that and is consequently harmed’. Today he positions himself as ‘the first MK to accept the gay community as equals who can contribute to society’. Supreme Court Justice Kedmi reiterated a similar sentiment on public television in 1996. He said,

like other abnormal individuals, they [the gays] are also an integral part of our social fabric; and as long as one cannot point out a special reason justifying the limitation of their rights … one cannot deprive them of these rights.

Although these quotes undeniably perpetuate homophobic rhetoric, it does not have an impact on the Justice’s emphasis that Jewish-Israeli lesbigays deserve the same rights as heterosexual Jewish-Israelis within the Zionist state. Zionist collectivity functions as a prime rhetorical and affective figure for the inclusion of lesbigays and not, as Kama and Harel contend, that lesbigays would threaten this idea of collectivity. Homophobia obviously exists, but the possibility of imagining a lesbigay identity as and within the national body politic emerged through the very mechanisms that were foundational of the exclusion of lesbigays in the first place. While lesbigays might destabilise modes of subjectification that celebrate heterosexuality and masculinity, by virtue of their Jewishness, Jewish-Israeli lesbigays nonetheless found entry into the legal and the public sphere. As Kedmi states, one needs a special reason to justify the limitation of someone’s rights, and identifying as lesbigay does not constitute such consideration. This was repeated once again in the campaign for Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunities Act, an act that Rivlin helped design despite his objection to homosexuality. This act was set up to protect lesbigays at the workplace from discrimination. The malleability of Zionist discourses to accommodate Jewish difference stands in stark contrast to Israel’s ongoing practices of non-citizenship, dispossession, and death experienced by Palestinian communities. Such conditions resonate with Israel’s Basic Law system that was revised during the same era of liberalisation. Israel’s version of human rights, its Human Dignity Basic Law states, ‘the purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’. Besides the fact that such a law excludes a priori those who are not Jewish, the law can also be easily suspended in case there is a threat against the state.

Before there was even a broad movement to speak of, the ‘homosexual’ became reified as a proper Jewish-Israeli gay citizen-subject through the liberalisation of Israel’s body politic and rescripted homophobia as discursively sanctioned alongside the legal sanctioning of queer subjects because they were Jewish.

The 1993 Oslo Accords promised a more liberal era for Israel, while it simultaneously further suffocated Palestinians and Palestinian resistance and was widely critiqued by prominent Palestinian thinkers such as Edward Said. Despite the cultural, economic, social, and political liberalisation of Israel’s body politic in the 1990s, the discourse of exclusive Jewish sovereignty remained uncontested. In other words, instead of unsettling the settler state, it became further entrenched through the liberalisation of the Israeli body politic.

The legal reforms redefined who could be part of the settler colonial state. But rather than disrupting dominant Zionist tropes of belonging, these tropes were internalised and consolidated by the lesbigay movement. The ‘silent gay legal revolution’ sutured the body of the lesbigay to Zionist tropes of belonging in which rights are not bestowed because one is a citizen, but because one is Jewish, therefore undermining the possibility for other forms of citizenship to emerge.

In another context, Edward Said describes how Zionism can only function through the continued disavowal and dispossession of Palestinians:

On short, all the constitutive energies of Zionism were premised on the excluded presence, that is the functional absence of ‘native people’ in Palestine: institutions were built deliberately shutting out natives (IDF), laws were drafted when Israel came into being that made sure the natives would remain in their ‘non-place’ (civil rights), Jews in theirs, and so on. It is no wonder that today the one issue that electrifies Israel as a society is the problem of the Palestinians, whose negation is the most consistent thread running through Zionism.

If we are to believe Kama, a rise of individualism became a prime condition for lesbigay visibility to emerge. What Harel calls Israel’s ‘silent gay legal revolution’ coincided with a political power shift from Likud (Rivlin’s party) to the election of Yitzak Rabin’s Labor Party in 1992. The gay legal revolution not only coincided with a period of liberalisation of Israel’s economic policies, which was already in process, but also with a liberalisation of social and cultural politics, specifically after the Oslo Accords in 1993. The deregulation of the economy was accompanied by a deregulation of certain aspects of the Zionist hegemonic sexual and cultural imaginary. It is not a coincidence that these two things occurred simultaneously. With the election of Rabin, the liberal individualist rhetoric that Zionism previously foreclosed gained currency as a means to legitimise the Zionist settler colonial state within the new post-socialist order.

‘As the legacy of Zionist collectivism persists in many practices’, the climate of legal, economic and socio-cultural liberalisation remained Jewish. The reconfiguration of who counts and who belongs within this state in the 1990s opened up Jewish-Israeli modes of belonging outside the strict parameters of a heterosexual body politic. Yet, the notion of collectivity itself and its founding principles were kept and served as points of identification. This liberalisation constitutes both a rejection of Zionist ideals of the collective, homogenous social body (which had been stratified from the beginning) and at the same time consolidates it both discursively and affectively as Jewish through the liberal proliferation of ‘Jewish’ difference.

The liberalisation of what can constitute the collective body mixes a Zionist ethos with the pluralisation of Jewish-Israeli collectivity as foundational for the new image of the state. Instead of a radical break, a rather eclectic and contradictory reshuffling of modes of identification and desire took place within the Zionist consensus of Israel as a ‘Jewish’ and democratic state. This reconfiguration glosses over the continued native dispossession of Palestinians and occupation of Palestine, and nativises the queer settler along traditional Zionist trajectories by suturing the body of the lesbigay to classic tropes of territorial masculinity within Zionist body politics. Although the repeal of the sodomy clause opened a door for more positive public visibility, and for the state to withdraw from the bedrooms of some of its citizens, at the same time it intensified and concealed its discursive and affective power over what constitutes the sanctioned settler body politic.

The Gay Soldier-Citizen

The second obstacle to the emergence of an Israeli lesbigay movement and identity, according to Kama, is the way Zionism performs ‘the apotheosis of the masculine’. The forms of oppression Kama refers to can be traced back to Zionist discourses around gender, sex and race located in fin de siècle European medical and cultural discourses. Rampant anti-Semitic discourse stigmatised European Jewish men as effeminate, weak, degenerate, passive, not-man/not-citizen; as sissies. As a reaction, early Herzlian Zionism started to concern itself with the reconfiguration of the ‘Jew of Europe’. Daniel Boyarin has called this remasculinisation of European Jewish men, historically, a form of ‘colonial mimicry’. However, the constitution of the Zionist state, its abjection of the diaspora Jew, and the colonial settling on Palestinian lands troubles Boyarin’s allusion to mimicry. To call the formation of the settler state an act of colonial mimicry effaces the lived reality of colonial occupation for the indigenous population.

Early Zionism was set on redeeming the Jew of his, and I use the male pronoun deliberately here, ‘degeneracy’ by re-masculinising and whitening him. His trajectory starts with Theodor Herzl’s ‘new Jew’ and Max Nordau’s ‘Muskeljud’ (Muscle Jew) around the turn of the century, and was replaced by the ‘Sabra’ (Arabic for prickly pear, but re-appropriated by Zionism to connote a strong Israeli born pioneer with a soft core) with the advent of European Jewish colonial settling in Palestine. Throughout the formation of the state of Israel and its official declaration in 1948, the Sabra, as virile, strong, masculine, and soldier-like signified the opposite of his European-diasporic counterpart. He furthermore relied on the abjection and construction of Arabs and Palestinians in particular as effeminate and sexually excessive. In order to understand the (re)configuration of the Jewish-Israeli lesbigay as a soldier, I trace it back to these earlier itineraries of the masculinisation of the Jew of Europe to lay claim to land. The historic emphasis on Zionist Jewish masculinity is reiterated as a viable settler modality for Israeli lesbigay articulations of belonging.

The prominence of the soldier and the army as central to Israel’s national imaginary enabled the entry of Jewish-Israeli gays, and to lesser extent lesbians, into the public imaginary through the figure of the gay soldier. An event that first visualised the gay soldier discourse was the public coming-out of former Lieutenant Colonel and Knesset Member Uzi Even in 1993. Lee Walzer writes ‘The revelation [of his coming-out] created a public storm—against the military and for Even, who comes across in person as very much the army officer, no-nonsense and masculine’. With Even’s ‘coming-out’ in the Knesset and the Rabin government’s 1993 legal revision of Israeli army statutes, gay soldiers could now openly serve in all ranks. For the first time, a spectacle of positive public gay visibility took form in Israel’s mainstream media. At the same time, the Israeli army continues to deploy sexual politics as a coercive tool in its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the surveillance and control of Palestinians in 1948.

The emphasis on how Even’s masculine militarism contributes to Israeli society transforms the army into an institution of social recognition and identification that is more important than the identification with heterosexuality as a regime of recognition, and sutures sexual politics into militarisation. In conjunction, Even’s performance of the loyal gay citizen-subject fits within a performance of the ‘whiteness’ of the Sabra that has shaped mainstream Israeli lesbigay politics. Raz Yosef, following Ella Shohat’s discussion on how the whiteness of the Zionist project operated to erase, exploit, and exclude Arab and African Jews, addresses how the whiteness of the Zionist project also affects articulations of gay identity as predominantly Ashkenazi. The predominance of Ashkenazi Jewishness constitutes a specific orientation that propels the lesbigay movement towards Zionism as a European colonial project. Even’s ‘coming-out’ and the public visibility of the movement generated by this participated in the redistribution of hegemonic economies of desire and identification. Even though the inauguration of the Rabin government seemed to open its doors to liberal diversity, Palestinian sexuality continued to be constructed as always already threatening to, and excessive of, the Zionist body politic. It therefore deepened the racism, sexism, and queerphobia central to the Zionist colonial project of the affirmation of Ashkenazi masculine Jewishness.

Making Babies for the State

The last trope that Kama discusses as an obstacle for the Israeli lesbigay movement is that of Israel’s ‘demographic war’. This ‘demographic problem’ privileges the need for the reproduction of the collective body and the continued influx of (preferably Ashkenazi) Jews under the Law of Return. It also requires the continued displacement of Palestinians and the deportation and containment of non-Jewish migrants and refugees. All this happens within the purview of Israel’s ‘existential predicament’ that it would cease to exist if it would stop defining itself as Jewish. This binds the idea of nation, securitisation of Jewish hegemony, and national belonging to the production and reproduction of Jewish bodies. In conjunction, the reproduction of non-Jewish bodies and interfaith marriages are constructed as endangering Israel. Reproductive technologies not only distinguish between Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians, but also affect non-white Jewish communities in Israel. Ethiopian Jewish women seeking Aliya to Israel have been forced to unwittingly take Depo Provera shots, an anti-conception drug that causes infertility of up to 10 years. The Israeli body politic is therefore not only Jewish; it is also white.

The discursive reproduction of (Ashkenazi) Jewish heterosexuality would render homosexuality threatening. However, with the rapid development of reproductive technologies and the attempts of the contemporary Israeli lesbigay movement to legalise and expand reproductive technologies and legal recognition of gay parenting and surrogacy as its main emancipatory strategies, the lesbigay movement transforms from a point of anxiety into another discursive and material exercise of Zionist sexual politics, in which the abjection of Palestinian sexuality plays a major role. Especially surrogacy is central to the representation of Israeli lesbigays as viable and valuable partners in solving the ‘demographic problem’ of the settler colonial project. Legalising surrogacy is privileged over other forms of transnational adoption, as it would allow, in the words of legal scholar Frederick Hertz, ‘Jewish eggs in Jewish mothers’.

The affective and discursive slippage of queerness as undesirable is imprinted on the body of Palestinians. Gayness, as an accepted and reproduced point of identification is construed as excluding non-Jewish-Israeli queers. Palestinians are Orientalised and rendered sexually other and excessive. Within the ‘demographic war’ narrative Palestinian women are reduced to their wombs that are featured as ‘breeding grounds’ for Palestinian ‘suicide bombers’.

Within Zionist sexual politics, the intensification of reproductive technologies as a form of reproductive warfare operates at the affective, political and cultural level. Reproductive technologies as reproductive warfare also show how Zionist sexual politics operates at the very level of the cell. From gay surrogacy to birth control and sterilisation, reproductive technologies as reproductive warfare are central bio- and necropolitical tools of population control within the Zionist settler state.


Jewishness trumps gayness as a prerequisite to citizenship and rights. Although the political right has expressed repulsion about the idea of homosexuality, there seems to be no reason why Jewish-Israeli lesbigays should suffer, legally at least, because of their ‘condition’. The normalisation of gayness within Zionism, or rather the construction of a Jewish-Israeli gayness that sets itself apart from the ‘degenerate’ and threatening sexuality of Palestinians shifts Zionist sexual politics in which some forms of gayness, or gay visibility can now be imagined and reproduced within it as a way to articulate Israel as exceptional. Gayness articulated within Zionism performatively consolidates Orientalist images Palestinians as those who can either become objects of desire, or those who have to be kept at bay because they would be threatening to these shifting Zionist sexual politics and the Zionist state. These politics pass for ‘democratic pluralisation’, while at the same time reiterate masculine and militaristic modes of belonging in which Israel’s ongoing settler colonialism remains unchallenged, formative, and invisible.

The value of gayness within the Zionist project seems to fit neatly into the contemporary context of homonationalism and homonormativity. Lisa Duggan’s concept of homonormativity is constituted by a US-centric temporal logic that describes the depoliticisation of queer movements in the present-day US. Homonormativity is ‘a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption’. It addresses itself on the one hand to an imagined gay public, and on the other, to ‘the national mainstream constructed by neoliberalism’. Puar’s concept of homonationalism continues Duggan’s analysis by showing how normativity and nationalism enfold LGBT people into the state in a post 9/11 ‘war on terror’ that thrives of the racialisation–sexualisation of the other.

As this article has shown, it behoves us to inspect the itineraries of Israel’s lesbigay movement in order to understand the conditions of possibility for its emergence without reducing it to an example of homonationalism or homonormativity. Critical scholarship on LGBTQ movements in the US often seems to lament the loss of a radical queer agenda that sought to connect struggles for sexual liberation with the larger concerns of a civil rights movement and anti-war politics. In contrast, as Palestinian queer critiques stress, the Israeli gay movement did not move from coalitions with anti-militarist and anti-racist groups into patterns of domesticity and consumption. ‘Israeli groups … “joined” the Israeli national project by promoting values such as militarism and heteronormativity as the primary routes to acceptance by society.’ In conjunction, Palestinian anticolonial queer critiques show that to imagine a queer movement simply through coalition with anti-racist and anti-war movements disregards the presence of those queers who might inhabit all such sites and do not simply form the sexual component of coalitional politics. They refuse to separate being Palestinian from being queer and suggest that anti-racism and anti-militarism are central aspects to any viable queer politics.

In light of such an analytic, the trajectory of Israel’s lesbigay movement from the ‘closet into the Knesset’ might be seen as a model for US formations of homonationalism and homonormativity. Although Duggan’s temporal incentive to lament the loss of a more coalition-based understanding of queer politics is necessary in order not to forget that other kinds of coalitions are possible, it might be worth pursuing an analysis of ‘formerly radical’ queer movements through a settler colonial analytic and to foreground those sites of queer struggle for cannot afford depoliticisation. Within such a pursuit the search for how the native is disappeared might be crucial.

Morgensen commences such a project by showing that US settler colonialism forms the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the modern queer subject but limits his analysis to how this erases indigenous sexual cultures. Within this article, I have shown how the formation of a settler subjectivity through the prism of Zionist sexual politics does more than erase indigenous sexual cultures, it further enshrines the settler colonial project of indigenous dispossession and death through the proliferation and expansion of settler subjectivities. Settler colonialism is not only a condition of the formation of hegemonic queer subjectivities as Morgensen would have it, the formation of hegemonic queer settler subjectivities entrenches the continuation of the settler colonial project within the liberal moment. This is as true for Israel/Palestine as it is for other settler colonial contexts.

The early stages of the Israeli lesbigay movement are at the heart of the reproduction of the Zionist project in novel terms. Its prideful parading into the arms of the settler colonial state and its subsequent articulations of inclusion reveal a shift in who can be considered part of Zionist collectivity. The self-evident modality in which Israel’s lesbigay movement continues to seek entry into Zionism’s most important institutions erases its structuring settler colonial underpinnings. The value of gayness is not only situated in overcoming the sissy stereotype, as Solomon argues, it also becomes an emblem of Israel’s liberalism, and thereby becomes a rhetorical figure in the continued material, affective, and discursive dispossession, displacement, and erasure of Palestinians and Palestine. It forms the backdrop upon which pinkwashing, and perhaps even conceptualisations such as homonationalism can take form.

To call the trajectory of the Israeli lesbigay movement and Israel’s shifting sexual politics merely one formation of homonationalism would gloss over what is in actuality: the value of queerness for Israel’s Zionist settler colonial project. As I have shown, Israel’s lesbigay movement oscillates in-between a liberalisation of Zionist sexual politics and its very consolidation through a novel discourse on Jewish plurality that started to take shape in the late 1980s. If I regard the movement from the ‘closet into the Knesset’, the Jewish-Israeli gay subject is folded into the state as a citizen by aligning himself with the broader Zionist liberalisation of the legal, political, and cultural economy since the 1980s that sought to legitimise the Zionist project in a post-socialist Zionist context.

The moment of inclusion erases the historicity of the movement’s own trajectory. Contrary to understanding inclusion of Jewish-Israeli lesbigays as supposedly inaugurating a post-Zionist moment that has overcome its own settler colonial, sexist, racist, patriarchal, and misogynist foundations, the discourse of Zionist consensus and Israeli militarism is reiterated in the itineraries of Israel’s lesbigay movement and hereby affirms exclusive Jewish-Israeli settler sovereignty.

The further entrenchment of settler colonialism through Israel’s enfolding of Israeli lesbigays has left its mark on the conditions of possibility for Palestinian queer activism. Haneen Maikey (founder of alQaws: For Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society) and I describe how Israeli lesbigay politics and Israel’s pinkwashing campaign establish a relationship between Israeli lesbigays as benevolent saviours and Palestinian queers as ‘immature’ and ‘weak’ victims of Palestinian homophobia in the absence of gay rights. We describe how alQaws started out within the Israeli LGBT organisation Jerusalem Open House (JOH) over a decade ago. The Second Intifada and Israel’s war on Lebanon led to the separation of alQaws from the JOH. Maikey and I explain ‘within these organizations it was accepted to talk about sexuality, but politics had to be left at the doorstep, unless it aligned with demanding inclusion into the state, a priori excluding Palestinians’. The itinerary of Israel’s lesbigay movement forms the backdrop on which Israel’s pinkwashing campaign could develop as a nation branding strategy to divert attention from the occupation of Palestine.

Israel has also become a prime location for gay tourism since the mid-2000s, which ‘allows the generation of economic profit … thus reproducing the colonial system in its abuse of indigenous resources’. Ramzy Kumsieh and I describe how ‘gay tourism’s financial revenues do not only stimulate Israel’s economy, they are considered a direct investment in Israel’s war machine’. In response to Israel’s gay tourism campaign, a new Palestinian-led campaign has been gaining momentum since 2016. It urges gay tourists to refuse to visit Israel until it respects the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement’s demands. It follows almost a decade of Palestinian queer activism that began with the call for boycott of World Pride in 2006, and developed into a large-scale campaign in 2010, with the launch of the Palestinian Queer Call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions.

Wala alQaisiya, Ghaith Hilal, and Haneen Maikey show how Israel’s lesbigay itinerary and pinkwashing campaign have contributed to the constitution of a particular image of queers within Palestinian society: ‘the collaborator and the Israelized’. These images are the effect of a ‘racial and normalizing logic around the meanings of sexuality and homosexuality’. The struggle for Palestinian queers, according to alQaisiya, Hilal, and Maikey, lies not only in resisting the settler colonial state, but also in resisting the internalisation of the colonisers standards when it comes to sexuality and sexual emancipation. They worry that ‘pinkwashing promotes the false idea that Palestinian LGBTQ individuals and communities have no agency or place inside their own societies’ and ‘this creates a detrimental and toxic colonial relationship where the colonized comes to perceive the colonizer’s presence as necessary’.

The toxic link with ‘the collaborator’ image also forecloses Palestinian queer inquiries into the patriarchal narrative of Palestinian liberation and the workings of ‘RHN’ in Palestinian society. The multidirectional work of alQaws, for instance, includes resistance to the settler state and the reduction of Palestinian liberation to pre-existing gendered narratives that paradoxically incorporate a colonial inflection of social fragmentation. Concretely, this also means disrupting ‘the policies of fragmentation and division of Palestinians, as the main colonial/Zionist strategies used since 1948’. alQaws’ work is unique in that it refuses the divisions between Palestinians on the basis of either religion or locality, arbitrarily imposed by the Zionist state, that are often ‘reproduced inside LGBTQ spaces, too often creating a specific hierarchy of power relations that is familiar to the general society’. It is one of the few Palestinian organisations operating on both sides of the ‘Green Line’ that separates Palestinian communities in Israel from those in the West Bank and also from Gaza. Their approach performatively ‘offers a glimpse to the undivided and decolonized Palestinian society’ they hope to create and ‘challenges the very being of Zionism’.

Under the above conditions of exclusion, (dis)possession, and domination, Palestinian anticolonial queer critiques are focused on the decolonisation of Palestine and the decolonisation of queerness. alQaws summarises its work as ‘decolonizing Palestinian identity within the Palestinian queer community’; ‘imagining a decolonized Palestine’; ‘refus[ing] to normalize with Israeli LGBTQ groups’; and, ‘challenging the hegemony of Western LGBT organizing’.

Within the framework of native survival and sovereignty, Palestinian anticolonial queer critiques and activism foreground the necessity to understand Israel/Palestine as a settler colonial context whose dismantling behoves a settler colonial analytic that demands Palestinian sovereignty and justice as the main frame of struggle. Dismantling and responding to Zionist settler colonialism, however, is only part of the work, and Palestinian anticolonial queer critiques cannot be understood as simply responses to Zionist settler colonialism as a singular terrain of struggle. Starting from here then might foreground other avenues of sovereignty and justice that enable imagining what a decolonised Palestine might look like.