06/19/2012 08:02 EDT | Updated 08/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Israel's "Pinkwashing" Is Not Whitewashing

It is with great fascination that I have been watching the latest round of the Israel "pinkwashing" debate unfold -- whereby the Israeli army supposedly draws attention to its relative openness to gays to conceal its continuing violation of Palestinians' human rights.

I am neither an Israeli citizen, nor gay. But I am a Jew and a Zionist, and I also am what's known in LGBTQ parlance as an "ally." In addition to devoting my life's work to understanding Israel in all its complexities and much of my community-engaged research to following LGBTQ issues in Judaism, I sit on the board of a liberal Zionist organization in North America, and am active in a grassroots initiative for Jewish community LGBTQ inclusiveness in Ottawa.

So it is with great fascination that I have been watching the latest round of the "Israel pinkwashing" debate -- a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians' human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life," according to the New York Times -- unfold. And what I see is sadly more expressions of cynicism and distraction from the real issues on all sides.

The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) recently posted a photo on its Facebook page of two male soldiers holding hands. Word soon spread that the photo had been staged. Outrage predictably ensued. A few weeks earlier, Israeli officials had pulled a similar stunt: in honor of Pride, the city of Tel Aviv had painted the bars of a crosswalk rainbow colors for a photo-op before returning them to white a few hours later.

Truth be told, the fact that these efforts were staged was more intriguing to me than disturbing. If the IDF cares that much about promoting its image as a place where LGBTQ soldiers can serve openly that it would ask two servicemen (one of whom, apparently, was gay) to pose in a homoerotic way, I find that, well, kind of touching.

But as the pinkwashing accusers see it, the IDF draws attention to its relative openness to gays and lesbians in order to shore up its self-image as the "most moral army in the world," all the while the IDF conducts a humiliating occupation -- with no end in sight.

Similarly, Israel advocacy groups, especially on college campuses, often partner with student LGBTQ groups to polish Israel's image in the face of heavy criticism of Israel's ethno-national character and its occupation policies.

There is indeed much truth to this analysis.

But the current mudslinging over pinkwashing (visit the Twitter barbs being traded between Ali Abunimah, editor of Electronic Intifada, and Avi Mayer, the social media liaison at the Jewish Agency) obscures what should be the real solutions, solutions that should be based on what is sadly becoming a quaint value in the age of shock talk: the value of fair-mindedness.

Before Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave Canada's public stance in the Middle East its current tone, Canadian diplomats long articulated the principle of fair-mindedness: criticize each side on its own terms, and give credit where credit is due. It was an approach that allowed the country to "punch above its weight" diplomatically, and have a say on some of the thorniest issues. Before the Arab-Israeli multilateral talks dwindled in the mid-1990s, Canada had been a "gavel holder" for the refugee working group.

How would more fair-mindedness help unravel the pinkwashing conundrum?

Instead of obsessing over whether the IDF and Tel Aviv municipalities photos were staged, whether the IDF's openness toward LGBTQ soldiers (a feat that indeed long preceded the repeal of America's "Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell" policy) is undermined by the lack of same-sex marriage (or any civil marriage at all) in Israel, and whether Tel Aviv's globally famous Pride festival hides the realities of the brutal occupation, activists should be fighting for LGBTQ equality as if there was no Israeli occupation, and fighting the occupation whether or not officials use Israel's LGBTQ record as a public relations tactic.

So yes -- Israel's supporters should promote Israel's positive treatment of gays and lesbians, while at the same time decrying the societal homophobia that exists: witness MK Anastassia Michaeli's recent homophobic rant this week and the negative reaction she received from other lawmakers. And Israel's supporters also need to grapple publicly with Israel's serious moral failings, not least of which is the occupation coupled with the various inequalities still plaguing Israel's Arab citizens.

With groups like Breaking the Silence, bringing to light crucial issues surrounding the moral corruption of the occupation, Israel cannot afford to hew to the status quo -- whether or not the soldiers knocking on Palestinian doors in the middle of the night are gay, straight or closeted -- without some serious policy reckoning.

And of course, if activists really want to see an end to pinkwashing, the most obvious solution is to fight for LGBTQ rights everywhere. Then Israel's claims will be that much less remarkable. And humanity -- in all its beautiful sexual diversity -- will be that much better off.

*An earlier version appeared in Haaretz