A blog post by Jesus (aka Tony Wolkovitzky) pointed my attention towards an article in the New York Times dedicated to the urban culture of the Israeli city of Haifa. The article is titled “In Israeli City of Haifa, a Liberal Arab Culture Blossoms”, and boy, its a hilarious one. In Haifa, the NYT preaches, “30,000 Arab residents, around 10 percent of the population, include equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, and they are generally wealthier and better educated than Arabs elsewhere in Israel”.
According to the NYT gospel, “This makes Haifa a comfortable place for liberal Palestinians who want not only to escape the constraints of conservative Arab communities but also to be among their own people.” Surprisingly, the place where they can “be among their own people” turns out to be… drums… Jewish neighbourhoods!
“”If you live in a Jewish neighborhood, you are a stranger, and that gives you freedom as an Arab woman,” said Fidaa Hammoud, 32. […] She and her partner live together in a Jewish neighborhood where they run a Palestinian cafe called Rai. “I couldn’t do this anywhere else,” she said.” The emphasis is mine, as you probably guessed. From the murky description of their relationship I guess Ms. Hammoud is either unmarried or gay, and living in an Arab neighbourhood would be a nightmare for her, even in Haifa.
Essentially, what “makes Haifa a comfortable place for liberal Palestinians” is living alongside a significantly larger Jewish community. It is the Jewish community where they can escape to and where they enjoy the liberties and tolerance. Sadly, both the “liberal Palestinians” and the NYT fail to thank Haifa’s Jewish community even in a footnote.
But hey, what can one expect from a newspaper that produces a headline like “Israeli Woman Stabbed Amid West Bank Exchanges of Violence”, leaving it to the readers to guess, even after reading the article, that the pregnant woman was not “exchanging violence” with anyone but was stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist because she was Jewish.
Back to the Haifa article, the funniest part was the subsequent criticism of the article from Ayed Fadel, the owner of Kabareet nightspot, who is quoted by the NYT as saying “We want a gay couple to go to the dance floor and kiss each other, and nobody to even look at them, this is the new Palestinian society we are aiming for”. Mr. Fadel’s complete rant is available here, but basically he is pissed about having “been totally used as a “pink washer” with the quote above!!”
The thing is, Kabareet was among the bars and cafes that held screenings for Kooz Queer, the first Palestinian gay film festival. The only place in the Middle East such a festival is even imaginable in is Israel. Yet somehow, for Mr. Fadel, Israel still gets to be the bad guy for allowing the festival to take place. And the NYT pissed him off by not mentioning the “pinkwashing” angle of Kooz.
Let me get this straight (pun intended). A Palestinian LGBT-themed film festival is held in Haifa, Israel. One of its most important topics is the Israeli “Pinkwashing” – the supposed exploitation of the idea of Israel being LGBT-friendly to promote public perception of Israel as a cute and cuddly country. But doesn’t the festival prove exactly the opposite?
First, it shows that Israel is a gay-friendly place – just think how the public and the state would react to a similar event in any of Israel’s neighbouring countries.
Second, it demonstrates quite clearly that Israel is not trying to “pinkwash” itself. Its not like the festival was promoted by Israel as a proof of Israel’s cuddliness. Mr. Fadel probably sees this lack of attention as “being silenced by the Zionist oppressor”, but he’s not going to be satisfied either way, I guess.
Third and finally, by allowing a festival with “pinkwashing” smear theme to take place in a major Israeli city like Haifa, without as much as a grumpy face from a single Israeli official, shows that Israel respects the freedom of expression and opinion, no matter how obnoxious and detached from reality this opinion may be.
I’m not the first nor the only person to note that in the Middle East, this sort of liberal, secular and gay-friendly scene could take place only in Israel, under Israeli laws and protection. The NYT was apparently sufficiently concerned by the criticism to publish not one, but two responses by Margaret Sullivan, the NYT public editor, who “handles questions and comments from readers and investigates matters of journalistic integrity”.
According to Ms. Sullivan, Diaa Hadid, who wrote the original story, disagrees with the claim that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where openly gay persons have freedom and safety. Ms. Hadid points out that “Beirut has a fairly vibrant gay scene”. Perhaps to prove her point, Ms. Hadid can, once she gets the chance, report from a gay film festival in Beirut? In fact, I’d be pleasantly surprised if Ms. Hadid has something positive to report on gay issues from any Arab capital. In the meantime, I wish her all the best exploring the diverse subcultures that peacefully coexist in Israel.