Waging war in the name of love is as old as the myths from ancient Greece, considered to be the birthplace of western civilization. The legend is that their army sent a thousand ships to liberate Helen of Troy all “for love.”
This month, an image of an Israel Defense Forces soldier raising the rainbow flag, a global symbol of gay pride since the 1970s, went viral. The image was posted and shared by Israeli government social media accounts.
On the flag, the soldier had written, “in the name of love.” On social media, he wrote: “despite the pain of war - the IDF is the only army in the Middle East that defends democratic values. It is the only army that allows gay people the freedom to be who we are. And so I fully believe in the righteousness of our cause.”
This soldier’s post is part of a phenomenon called “pinkwashing” or “rainbow washing” and has been part of an Israeli message for years. The idea that Israel is liberating queer communities serves as one of the pretexts for legitimising its violence in Gaza and the Palestinian territories.
But the photo of the Israel Defense Forces soldier waving rainbow colours obscures nuance, context and history.
Pinkwashing for political, economic gain
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has framed Israeli violence in Gaza as necessary in the name of “civilisation”. According to Netanyahu’s logic, “liberating” the queer people of Palestine would be a favour to that civilization. This is a logic presumably applicable to all Arab countries, where homosexuality is criminalised by law.
Israel’s premise that queer people under Hamas and the Palestinian Authority do not have a chance of survival is assuming that all queer people have equal chances in life.
In Gaza, homosexual relations between men is prosecuted under various laws and open queerness violates social and religious norms. However, queer activists in the Middle East have exposed how class factors into who is prosecuted or pursued under anti-gay laws. Many gay people live freely in the Arab world when they have economic or social power.
We cannot understand the Israel Defense Forces photo without reckoning with class or pointing to the relationships between imperialism, patriarchy and corruption.
Colonists criminalised homosexuality
Arab countries are slowly catching up on seeing an economic benefit to a gay-friendly reputation. But what took them so long? Western imperialism has a role to play here.
Although arguments against homosexuality have been made in the name of many religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam since their foundations, the French and British empires introduced secular arguments for the persecution of homosexuality when they arrived in the Middle East.
France and Britain had the same rationale as Israel today: they claimed they were bringing civilisation to the Arabs. Ironically, civilisation in the 1920s meant banning gay sex whereas today it means making it legal. In the past, Arabs were seen as “barbaric” for allowing gay sex; today, for criminalising it.
A corrupt legacy
Why did Arabs not reverse anti-gay laws when the French and British left? Why did LGBTQ+ rights ultimately rise in the West, but not the Middle East?
The answer is complicated but some of it lies in the deeper social structures that European colonialism helped establish in the Middle East.
Not only did they introduce penal codes: they also dismantled the social fabric and empowered a local patriarchy to uphold their laws long after colonialism ended. The French and the British had promised Arab patriarchs that they would empower them and recognize a large Arab state if they helped them defeat the Ottomans.
But Arab patriarchs could not achieve liberation from the Ottoman Empire alone. So they rallied women, workers, the youth, the elderly, and all ethnic, racial, religious and sexual communities to support them to achieve liberation.
When it became clear after the war that neither the French nor the British were going to fulfil their promise of recognising an Arab state, they proposed a second gentleman’s agreement which, unlike the first one, only benefited the Arab patriarchs. Colonial leaders offered Arab patriarchs economic incentives and prestigious political positions if they accepted the establishment of European mandates in the Middle East. This left the door open for further corruption.
To this day, corruption is a legacy. Some politicians in the Arab world opposing women’s and gay rights today are direct descendants of the Arab patriarchs that the West empowered. And Netanyahu has corruption charges against him.
A violent colonial history
We need to understand the problematic picture of Israel Defense Forces uniforms waving rainbow flags in the same way we understood in Canada that seeing police uniforms in pride parade also obscures a violent history.
Different histories show us how queer communities have fared better before the arrival of foreign troops: this holds true on Indigenous lands in Canada, in the Philippines, in India, in New Zealand and in Brazil. It seems that everywhere colonization went, it led to a decrease of the quality of life of queer people.
The picture of Israeli soldiers raising any flag in Gaza indicates colonialism – the fact it is a rainbow flag only points to a great historical irony.
Rayyan Dabbous is PhD student, Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto.
This article was first published on The Conversation.