The controversy over two gay New York City entrepreneurs helping out Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz’s campaign just won’t die—and that’s a good thing. The row is highlighting the hypocrisy of advocating for civil rights at home and seeking to deny them abroad. And yet the coverage has focused mostly on the hypocrisy of gay businessmen supporting an anti-gay politician, less about the hypocrisy of why they do. Let me explain.
In late April, The New York Times reported that Mati Weiderpass and Ian Reisner, a pair of hoteliers with a small empire of gay-oriented businesses, hosted a meeting at their Manhattan penthouse for Cruz. They introduced Cruz to a business partner who makes political donations. Weiderpass and Reisner made for curious matchmakers: two openly gay businessmen lending a hand to a politician who has, in the words of the Human Rights Campaign, “consistently opposed equality for LGBT Americans.” The backlash from New York’s gay community came swiftly. Activists announced boycotts of Weiderpass and Reisner’s businesses, and hasty Facebook apologies ensued.
The national political press covered the flap extensively. More than a month after the meet, the tide of press has yet to subside—just last week the Times ran a feature on the row, a web item noting Reisner’s own maximum donation to Cruz (which he subsequently got returned) and an opinion piece incredulous that the gay duo were unaware of the breadth Cruz’s virulent anti-gay stances.
Less attention, however, has been paid to what sparked the meeting in the first place. Rich businessmen might be a natural constituency for Republicans, but Weiderpass and Reisner didn’t cite Cruz’s tax policies in their public remarks. Instead, the meeting, the introduction to the donor and Reisner’s own short-lived campaign donation were predicated on one issue: Israel.
In an interview with New York magazine, Reisner said the meeting was explicitly set up to introduce Cruz to Sam Domb, the business partner whom the Times described as having “raised considerable funds for pro-Israel politicians.” (“I know Sam would love to meet [Cruz] because Sam has all his views on Israel,” a sometime consultant to Cruz on matters of Israel reportedly said.) Same with Reisner’s direct donation: “I gave Senator Cruz a $2,700 check to show my support for his work on behalf of Israel,” he said.
There seems to be little question that Weiderpass and Reisner hold right-wing views on the Jewish state—Reisner said that Cruz, an überhawk even by the hawkish standards of Congress, “was on point on every issue that has to do with national security.” The TImes added: “The three men”—Reisner, Weiderpass and Domb—“are strong supporters of Israel, as is Mr. Cruz.” Cruz, for his part, has expressed an openness to sidelining Palestinian rights altogether. In March, he said he supports Israel deciding “whether they want to adopt a one-state solution”—that is, apartheid—“or a two-state solution.”
The obvious contradictions are there in full force: two of New York’s most well-known gay businessmen coming dangerously close to forsaking their own civil rights at home in order to help ensure that Palestinians don’t get them in Greater Israel. But the issue is more complicated, and hints at some of the more heated debates around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years.
I’m talking of course about “pinkwashing,” a portmanteau used by pro-Palestinian activists to describe efforts by pro-Israel figures to deflect attention from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by citing the country’s laudable record on gay rights. Pinkwashing burst into the mainstream in 2011 with a New York TImes op-ed, but remains a contentious term.
It’s amid this context that the kerfuffle over Weiderpass and Reisner’s ill-fated invitation brings other contradictions into sharp relief—a twist on the debate over pinkwashing. The natural home for gay-rights advocates in the American political system is the Democratic Party, which, though slow to embrace change, has officially come around. And yet American politics around Israel run the other way: prominent national Democrats, not least among them Barack Obama, have a tense relationship with Israel as its own politics shift to the right. (The shifting politics are reflected in fights like those over Iran diplomacy and support for a “unified Jerusalem” in the 2012 Democratic platform.)
The strongest source of unflinching support for Israel these days, then, isn’t the American Jewish community writ large, which trends liberal and Democratic, but instead right-wing Republicans—namely, a few Jewish megadonors and especially masses Christian evangelicals. And the wealthy right-wing donors have reacted in kind: billionaires like the hawk Sheldon Adelson lavish Republican politicians with millions, asking in exchange for total fealty to hardline pro-Israel stances. Yet neither the GOP nor Christian Zionists offer anything near robust support for gay rights—quite the opposite, in fact, with Ted Cruz as a paragon of these retrograde, anti-gay politics.
The political convergence of the anti-gay Republican Party and doctrinaire right-wing pro-Israel activism seem not to trouble these gay Zionists. But they might be making the case against pinkwashing for the pro-Palestinian activists: the struggle for civil rights is universal, whether you’re a Palestinian in the West Bank or an LGBT person in the U.S. The American right is the wrong side of both these issues, and l’affaire Cruz is a perfect opportunity to point that out.