Torches and Metonyms of Freedom

Malinowitz, Harriet

In the 1920s, the noble ideal of women’s liberation became tied to the smoking of cigarettes.  In the 2000s, the noble ideal of LGBT liberation became tied to Israel’s image as an outpost of liberal democracy amid a desert of Arab backwardness. In both acts of mass persuasion, someone in effect said: Ethos, pathos, and logos be damned!  There’s a better way. It is virtually impossible to understand how contemporary rhetoric and mass persuasion function without examining their rhetorical infrastructure as constructed by the field of public relations.

In the 1920s, the noble ideal of women’s liberation became tied to the smoking of cigarettes.  In the 2000s, the noble ideal of LGBT liberation became tied to Israel’s image as an outpost of liberal democracy amid a desert of Arab backwardness. In both acts of mass persuasion, someone in effect said: Ethos, pathos, and logos be damned!  There’s a better way. It is virtually impossible to understand how contemporary rhetoric and mass persuasion function without examining their rhetorical infrastructure as constructed by the field of public relations.

Edward Bernays (1891-1995)—Sigmund Freud’s American nephew and the biggest force behind the development of the public relations industry—famously deployed his uncle’s ideas about the unconscious to “sell” people things through most of the twentieth century. What public relations “sold” was not only products, but attitudes and beliefs: about politics, economic policies, social conformity, bigotry, the corporate ethos, wars, patriotism, electoral candidates, other countries and cultures, the physical environment—and much more.  (See Century of the Self and Ewen.) Public relations redefined the art of persuasion, breaking with Aristotelian reliance on logic and empirical evidence to harness irrationality as a radical new instrument for altering mass public opinion. Very much a contemporary rhetorician in spirit, Bernays prescribed tapping into suppressed human desires (a concept he owed to Freud); manipulating symbols (his understanding of this process is very Burkean); and recognizing that the power of persuasion is not just a top-down, repressive affair, but rather is something that circulates in society (what we now think of as a Foucauldian notion).  Bernays called these the “newest weapons of persuasion” (131).

Perhaps Bernays’s greatest tour de force was staging a spectacle on behalf of the American Tobacco Company, which sought to swell the ranks of women as a market for the cigarette industry. By the end of the nineteenth century, smoking for women was already a matter of public debate, with women’s temperance groups and vice-sentinels on the “nay” side, and suffragists, flappers, and feminists on the “aye.” On the one hand, writes Allan M. Brandt, “Cigarette smoking was widely perceived to be a dirty ‘habit,’ characteristic of single, urban men . . . Tobacco, like alcohol, was associated with idleness, immorality, and sin . . . Women, widely viewed as the guardians of all things moral, played a central role in this early battle to extinguish the cigarette” (63). Yet, “Smoking represented a culturally contentious, if not radical, behavior for women . . . ‘For a woman it is the symbol of emancipation, the temporary substitute for the ballot,’ explained the Atlantic Monthly (April 16, 1916: 574-75) . . . A bill proposed in Congress in 1921 to ban women from smoking in the District of Columbia drew fire from recently enfranchised women” (63). By the early 20th century, the rise of a corporate-induced zeitgeist that prized buying and selling further complicated what was sanctioned as respectable behavior for citizens, and the cigarette “managed to contain contradictory meanings; while smoking often symbolized rebellion against social mores, at the same time it represented conformity to the mores of the rising culture of consumption” (64).

While he had already laid the groundwork for women’s smoking in the domestic realm by fostering the development of proper “spaces” for cigarettes in the kitchen—storage bins and tins for smoking gear to match those for flour, sugar, coffee, and tea (Tye 25)—Bernays realized that in order for tobacco sales to be optimized, he needed to break the taboo of women smoking in public. To get smoking women out of the pantry and into the streets, he engaged a corps of debutantes (recommended by a friend at Vogue) who, on cue, stepped from prominent churches onto Fifth Avenue at the March 31, 1929 New York City Easter Parade, whipping out and lighting up cigarettes. Bernays’s script had the women calling their cigarettes “torches of freedom,” and his proficient outreach to media ensured that the performance would be widely publicized as an emancipatory one. For example, from the United Press:

" . . . Miss Bertha Hunt and six colleagues struck . . . [a] blow in behalf of the liberty of women . . . Miss Hunt issued the following communique from the smoke-clouded battlefield: ‘I hope that we have started something and that these torches of freedom . . . will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women, and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations." (qtd. in Tye 30)

What went unreported—because it was a fact carefully concealed—was that Miss Bertha Hunt was Bernays’s secretary. Yet she flatly denied her relationship to tobacco interests. Even the debutantes who were recruited for the stunt did not know who was actually sponsoring it (Tye 33).  Within ten years, twenty-percent of women were smoking (Mickleburgh), putatively breaking the bonds of gender repression while tobacco revenues soared (even as women’s prospects for real economic power crashed with the stock market).

It was the rhetorical genius of public relations to realize that in a persuasive appeal, the identity of the speaker, the audience, and even the subject and the purpose could be hopelessly scrambled in the public mind, so that objective third parties could appear to be endorsing the wisdom of adopting particular goods or ideas when, in fact, they were only the veiled—and profiting—instruments of highly interested parties. As Jurgen Habermas put it, in public relations “advertisement must absolutely not be recognizable as the self-presentation of a private interest”; rather, “it invades the process of ‘public opinion’ by systematically creating news events or exploiting events that attract attention.”  These events, he says, may appear to be entirely unrelated to a desired action or response, and are always grounded in emotionally charged, “well tested human interest topics: romance, religion, money, children, health, and animals” (193-94).  Nixon’s cocker spaniel, “Checkers,” helps redeem its owner as a man of humanity, worthy of the public trust (see; babies putatively thrown from incubators raise a groundswell of support for a war about oil (see Stauber & Rampton 167-74); a tobacco company’s conspicuous sponsorship of the arts comes to define its delicacy of mind and spirit (see Wu); etcetera.

Bernays’s Easter Parade afforded one of the groundbreaking works of open-air theater in which a dead-serious message was successfully encrypted in a public celebration. Eighty-five years later, Tel Aviv’s LGBT Pride Parade is a centerpiece of Israel’s “rebranding” activities. As Israel’s prestigious newspaper Haaretz put it in June 2014, “the beaches of Tel Aviv, now blanketed in rainbow flags and Pride revelers, is an essential destination” (Schaefer). It was not always thus.  How did it come to be?

Israel had grown unpopular on the world stage. Its ongoing illegal territorial occupation and settlement projects, its military aggressions, its denial of refugees’ right of return, its apartheid policies vis-à-vis the Occupied Territories, its second-class treatment of its own Palestinian citizens, and its manifold human rights violations in regard to the Palestinian people (e.g., expulsions; arbitrary arrests; indefinite “administrative detention” of Palestinians; land confiscations; house demolitions; extrajudicial assassinations; violent attacks on unarmed civilians; collective punishment; blockade; enclosures; curtailment of access to health, educational, water, power, and sewage services; repeated flagrant violations of international law) had tarnished its “image.” The United States was and is, to be sure, a deeply implicated enabler of all this, providing $3.1 billion annually in aid that subsidizes a quarter of Israel’s defense budget [Lake], vetoes of Security Council resolutions attempting to make Israel accountable, enthusiastic Congressional votes of loyalty and support, and tax exemptions for “charitable” groups that fund the settlements and the Israeli Defense Forces. Yet even the U.S., Israel’s unwavering benefactor, had come under pressure from some of its own constituencies—including left Jewish groups—to curb its largesse.

In 2005, directors of “Israel’s most powerful ministries”—the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Finance Ministry—met to discuss the results of “specialized research conducted by American marketing executives” and PR experts who constituted the “Brand Israel” group. Their investigation revealed that “Israel will win supporters only if it is seen as relevant and modern rather than only a place of fighting and religion” (Popper). Focus groups had shown what Bernays would have predicted: that what he scornfully called “the old propaganda” was not appealing to “target” audiences. A heavily-relied-upon architect of the “old propaganda” was The Israel Project, a PR outfit that approached the mammoth task of countering what they called the increasing “delegitimization” of Israel via conventional arguments: these are the myths presented to you, here are the facts; Israel wants peace; it is the only democracy in the Middle East; its enemies deny its right to exist; etc. But rapid changes in electronic media reportage—including, of course, social media—provided enough contrapuntal evidence to unsettle those messages. To steer the sinking ship that was world opinion of Israel back toward safety, what was needed was Bernays’s “new” approach: that of masking the real persuasive intention behind a mesmerizing and apparently unrelated cover story.

The Israel Project’s competitor, ISRAEL21c, is a PR organization based in California’s Silicon Valley that focuses on upbeat “lifestyle” issues.  In other words, it moves beyond what it calls the Israel Project’s traditional “crisis management”—a strategy that “frequently ends up reinforcing Israel’s image as a conflict-ridden place” (Popper)—to simply change the subject. War-mongering? Human rights violations? Religious fanaticism? Never mind.  Focus, instead, on Israel’s contributions to health and technology (“Christopher Reeve called Israel the ‘world center’ for research on paralysis treatment”; and guess who invented Instant Messaging?); on the good life (food, wine, and film festivals around the world showcase hip Israeli products; try enjoying your Rosh Hashana apple and honey this year while skydiving!); and on its vibrant, humanistic, liberal democracy which is so much like America’s (“DogTV” shows that are “scientifically programmed to keep pooches stimulated, happy and comforted when they’re home alone”; and of course, gay pride!). As former ISRAEL21c executive director Larry Weinberg once put it, “We are trying to broaden the bandwidth to include Israel’s accomplishments [from the ‘narrow bandwidth’ that encases Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians]” (Rosenblatt “Marketing a New Image”).

Asserting Israel’s identity as a “western” nation despite its geographical positioning in the Middle East has roots back in the nineteenth century. Then, Americans’ knowledge of Palestine came primarily from the writing of missionaries, whose “biblical mythology transformed the area into an extension of the Judeo-Christian West” and thus ineluctably “assigned an altruistic motive to Western imperialism” (Davidson 8). The “bipolar world view” of “the civilized West” versus “the backward East” (Davidson 1) is well known to readers of Edward Said’s Orientalism and much work that followed it. As Michael M. Suleiman has written, “With the discovery, translation, publication, and very widespread distribution [in the 18th-19th centuries] of the Arabian Nights, the view of Muslims/Arabs as libertines, sex fiends, and oppressors of women gained particular ascendancy” (2).

While not very long ago, the legal, social, and familial repercussions for homosexual activity in the United States were grim, today the banner of gay rights—as with rights for women—has become the must-have fashion accessory for societies that want to be counted among the enlightened and urbane—that is, like “us.” When, during the August 2014 onslaught on Gaza, a Facebook friend posted an article about a lesbian rabbi of a large New York gay synagogue who expressed sympathy for Palestinians, some of the indignant “Comments” included, “Shaking my head, yet again. Are you suggesting that gays should be in favor of ‘Palestine,’ where they would be beheaded for their sexuality, rather than in favor of Israel where they would be welcomed?” (Levy).

This is precisely the response sought by those who brought us “pinkwashing,” or the strategic deployment of gay-friendliness to deflect attention from a state’s more nefarious practices. (The term was originally used in reference to the mawkish pink ribbons used to distract from the ghastlier aspects of breast cancer). So while other “rebranding” sites like offer the global business community “inspiring stories” on “breakthrough innovation from Israel,” and casino billionaire/Republican philanthropist Sheldon Adelman’s reThink Israel Facebook page deploys the new “beyond the conflict” strategy to make Israel “cool, not uncool” for American 18- to-24-year olds (Rosenblatt “Israel Outreach”; Elsner), sites such as Gayway TLV and A Wider Bridge (“Building LGBT Connections with Israel”)—in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism—coalesce around the Tel Aviv Gay Vibe website (“discover the pink side of the white city”) and drape the rainbow colors across the Holy Land. They also link to a breathtaking range of LGBTQ-focused groups and events—from what appear to be the relatively mainstream, The Aguda: The Israeli National LGBT Task Force, Tehila (“the Israeli equivalent of P-FLAG”), and the Other Israel Film Festival to drag shows at the Evita Bar, the Beef XTreme “kinky fetish party,” and Tel Aviv Pride trips for the New York-based “HEBRO for Gay Jews”: “HIGH HOMODAYS 2014: Party ‘n Pray! Celebrate the new jew year with your favorite hebrew hotties (and the goy-toys that love us)…..Party like it’s 5775!”)

Pinkwashing isn’t unique to Israel (and neither is “nation-branding”); in fact, if the U.S. weren’t starting to brandish a “gay is good” doctrine over the heads of its putatively backward Arab global neighbors, Israel’s pinkwashing would fail to generate the affinity and bonding that is its aim. “It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the news that the United States has come out as the global defender of LGBTQ rights,” wrote documentary filmmaker and Jadaliyya ezine editor Maya Mikdashi. “Would the American army, for example, start ‘enforcing’ the rights of gay Iraqis or gay Afghans? Would the United States impose sanctions on governments that were non-homo friendly?” We did, of course, claim credit for the smiles of Afghan women pulling off their burka hoods in 2001 (even as we ignored the still-veiled, non-driving women in Saudi Arabia, our good friend), and our camaraderie with Israel can only be enhanced by the fact that both countries are now among the open-minded who welcome gays in the military.

Many have argued—and I would agree—that the latter is an example of the workings of homonationalism, a term coined by Jasbir Puar in her 2007 book, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (and that she says is “short for ‘homonormative nationalism’”) (38). Homonationalism is enacted when nations extend the range of liberties and opportunities associated with heteronormativity to a new homonormativity that acts—as Puar has put it elsewhere—as “golden handcuffs”: racially and ethnically dominant queers are accorded privileges in exchange for their allegiance to and public identification with the norms and doctrines of the state (including those that are racist, xenophobic or imperialist as well as those involving conspicuous consumption).  It is a Faustian bargain. As Katherine Franke has put it, “In these contexts, both the cultural intelligibility of a gay citizen/subject and his or her rights-bearing status stand as the metonyms of freedom” (31). In exchange for the full entitlements of cultural citizenship, the homonationalist essentially consents to become a mascot, enabling the nation to perform its identity as modern and democratic by virtue of its “tolerant” embrace of the queer. No longer the predatory homosexual in the shadows, a dangerous fifth column in western society as communists, terrorists—and Jews—have often been, the contemporary LGBT person openly, and with a civic hug, wields a flag, marries a partner, raises children, consumes goods, serves in the military, runs for office, turns to legal remedies when her rights are violated, expects deferential service in hotels and restaurants, and, hand in hand with her partner, cheers on camera for her country at the Olympics. Meanwhile, by virtue of a phenomenon that Puar calls “homosexual sexual exceptionalism” that is cast in relief against the redeployment of “Orientalist constructions of ‘Muslim sexuality,’” (Terrorist Assemblages 4), the homosexual’s place in the shadows has been taken by the new homophobe: the dark-skinned fundamentalist, the stealthy immigrant, the Muslim extremist, the suicide bomber, the fanatical beheader of innocent gays, unchaste women, and journalists: the very embodiment of why we need to have a perpetual War on Terror.

Katherine Franke has written in her brilliant essay, “Dating the State: The Moral Hazards of Winning Gay Rights,” that while various cities and countries have marketed their gay-friendliness for touristic and other economic purposes, Israel’s campaign was different because it was not just about “niche marketing”:

Israel’s public embrace of gay rights figured at the core of a project to distract attention from, if not to cancel out, the growing international condemnation of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.  To this end, the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs has solicited applications from Israeli citizens who would like to serve as “public diplomats,” traveling abroad (at the state’s expense) spreading the good word about Israel. The announcement makes clear that the program “is primarily interested in receiving applications from people representing the diverse faces of Israeli society, including . . . representatives of the gay community.” (10)

“Israel,” writes Franke, “has effectively used the ‘gay issue’ to advance a larger political aim of proving that Palestinians are too backwards, uncivilized, and unmodern to have their own state” (16). She goes on to say,

The criticism of Israel embodied in the term pinkwashing does not deny the fact that gay men and lesbians enjoy a wide range of civil and other rights in Israel.  They do. Nor does the term deny that sexual minorities struggle in Arab societies. They do. Rather, the claim is that comparisons of this sort are irrelevant . . . [M]any LGBT Palestinians bristle when the Israeli government purports to speak on their behalf and look after their interests, driving a wedge between their gay-ness and their Palestinian-ness. Israel expresses an interest in their welfare only so long as their interests are framed as gay. To the extent that they identify as Palestinian, Israel’s helping hand cruelly curls into a fist. Indeed, that helping hand is more symbolic than real, since gay Palestinian asylum seekers cannot seek refuge in Israel, nor can most gay Palestinians enjoy the hot gay nightlife of Tel Aviv due to the severe limitations placed on their movement by the laws of occupation. (17-18)

Franke adds in a footnote, “In Palestine, the oppression of LGBT people takes place as a cultural, not legal, matter. Palestinian ‘law’ does not criminalize same-sex sex. The Palestinian Legislative Council has not adopted a criminal sodomy law” (n. 17).

Meanwhile, what the Gay Israel websites do not link to, unsurprisingly, are the websites of Palestinian LGBTQ organizations such as:

  • Al-Qaws, which “inspires and engages its community to disrupt sexual and gender-based oppression and challenge regulation, whether patriarchal, capitalist or colonial, of our sexualities and bodies” and seeks to “create an open society that celebrates diversity in all its forms”;
  • Aswat, “a group of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning and queer Palestinian women . . . living inside Israel,” and whose mission includes building “a Palestinian community with sexual diversity that is an integral part of the Palestinian society; one that is promoting the social and political struggle for equality and freedom”;
  • Palestinian Queers for BDS (PQBDS), who reside both in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel and “promote and stand for the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.” “As Palestinian queers,” they write, “our struggle is not only against social injustice and our rights as a queer minority in Palestinian society, but rather, our main struggle is one against Israel’s colonization, occupation and apartheid . . . ” 

Neither do the Israeli gay websites link to Helem (“the Arabic acronym of ‘Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders”) in nearby Lebanon, which welcomes “any person who shares our values based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” opposes segregation of all sorts, and enunciates a broad range of progressive goals including ending discrimination against women and increasing the minimum wage.

Though some claim that “for gay Palestinians, Tel Aviv is Mecca,” the truth is that “Israel has never granted asylum to Palestinians, gay or not . . . even those who can credibly claim that they will be killed if they are sent back to the West Bank or Gaza” (Peratis). One commenter in the Facebook interchange mentioned earlier assured the rest of us, “According to Shaul Ganon of the Israeli based gay rights group, The Aguda, ‘The P.A.'s usual excuse for persecuting gays is to label them collaborators . . . ’” (Caronia). This oft-heard, cavalier framing of the situation as an “excuse for persecuting gays” was given the lie on September 12, 2014, when Haaretz announced that reservists and veterans of Israeli Defense Forces intelligence Unit 8200 had written an open letter to the prime minister, conscientiously refusing to carry out further military duties. They declared that they routinely gathered information that “harms innocent people. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself” (Cohen). Sometimes they would target people who were critically ill, bribing them with access to treatment and threatening to withhold it if they did not inform on their relatives. Some submitted testimonies saying that by intercepting conversations that constituted “invasion of most areas of life,” “the unit would target details, such as the sexual orientation of Palestinians so that they could be blackmailed into becoming informers.” One wrote:

"If you’re homosexual and know someone who knows a wanted person and we need to know about it – Israel will make your life miserable . . . Any such case, in which you ‘fish out’ an innocent person from whom information might be squeezed or who could be recruited as a collaborator was like striking gold for us and Israel’s entire intelligence community." (qtd. in Lynfield)

Israel’s gay vibe does not exculpate that nation from its human rights and international law violations any more than cigarettes ended job discrimination, sexual assault, unequal pay, and all the other outrages that afflicted women without much public comment between the first and second waves of the women’s movement. But the fact that manipulating unlikely symbols of “freedom,” then and now, here and there, is deemed so worthy of massive investment—financial, political, cultural—is testament to the enduring, intoxicating, persuasive power of the irrational, the absurd, and the irrelevant.

Works Cited

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Aswat: Palestinian Gay Women. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

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---. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

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---.“JEWISH WEEK: Marketing a New Image.” January 20, 2005. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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