Israel/Palestine and the Queer International

Israel/Palestine and the Queer International

by Sarah Schulman

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Overview

Israel/Palestine and the Queer International by Sarah Schulman


In this chronicle of political awakening and queer solidarity, the activist and novelist Sarah Schulman describes her dawning consciousness of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Invited to Israel to give the keynote address at an LGBT studies conference at Tel Aviv University, Schulman declines, joining other artists and academics honoring the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Anti-occupation activists in the United States, Canada, Israel, and Palestine come together to help organize an alternative solidarity visit for the American activist. Schulman takes us to an anarchist, vegan café in Tel Aviv, where she meets anti-occupation queer Israelis, and through border checkpoints into the West Bank, where queer Palestinian activists welcome her into their spaces for conversations that will change the course of her life. She describes the dusty roads through the West Bank, where Palestinians are cut off from water and subjected to endless restrictions while Israeli settler neighborhoods have full freedoms and resources.

As Schulman learns more, she questions the contradiction between Israel's investment in presenting itself as gay friendly—financially sponsoring gay film festivals and parades—and its denial of the rights of Palestinians. At the same time, she talks with straight Palestinian activists about their position in relation to homosexuality and gay rights in Palestine and internationally. Back in the United States, Schulman draws on her extensive activist experience to organize a speaking tour for some of the Palestinian queer leaders whom she had met and trusted. Dubbed "Al-Tour," it takes the activists to LGBT community centers, conferences, and universities throughout the United States. Its success solidifies her commitment to working to end Israel's occupation of Palestine, and it kindles her larger hope that a new "queer international" will emerge and join other movements demanding human rights across the globe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822353737
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/12/2012
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,182,944
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Sarah Schulman is a longtime AIDS and queer activist, and a cofounder of the MIX Festival and the ACT UP Oral History Project. She is a playwright and the author of seventeen books, including the novels The Mere Future, Shimmer, Rat Bohemia, After Delores, and People in Trouble, as well as nonfiction works such as The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, and Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, which is also published by Duke University Press. She is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at The City University of New York, College of Staten Island.

Read an Excerpt

ISRAEL

PALESTINE and the Queer International
By SARAH SCHULMAN

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5358-4


Chapter One

AWARENESS

Like many queer people, I first imagined that BDS stood for bondage/ domination/submission. But actually it stands for boycott/divestment/ sanctions, a strategy chosen in 2002 by Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the occupied territories. Later the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was founded in Ramallah in April 2004 to create boycott, divestment, and sanctions as an international movement. Theirs is a nonviolent strategy, modeled on the South Africa divestment experience, to change Israeli policy through economic and cultural pressure.

Although I considered myself to be a well- informed participant-citizen, I had not heard the word "boycott" in relationship to Israel until 2009. That March my straight but pro-gay Jewish friend and colleague, Professor Dalia Kandiyoti, forwarded a series of emails from Toronto about the Canadian queer filmmaker John Greyson's withdrawal from the Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival. John had initially submitted his new film before the assault on Gaza, and it had been accepted. But he was deeply troubled by the subsequent brutality and decided to remove his film. As far as I know, this was the first time a queer person deliberately withdrew from a queer event because it was funded by the Israeli government. I come from a time when LGBT events had no state funding or corporate funding, and the concept of state sponsorship is one I am still getting used to. In 1986, Jim Hubbard and I cofounded MIX: The New York LGBT Film and Video Festival (now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary) with no funding. All of the expenses were paid by the community through the box office. The idea that LGBT organizations could be extensions of governments had been a reality for a while, but I had not realized the level of dependence that many LGBT groups have on government money. I had to update my thinking to make a realistic evaluation. I didn't know much about queer life in Israel beyond the most common generalities: queer people serve in the military, Tel Aviv has a thriving gay community, and the religious domination of Jerusalem made Gay Pride events there shaky, fraught, and obstructed. Yet I hadn't put together that the Israeli government was giving money to LGBT cultural events. And, naïvely, perhaps, I found it surprising. I associated religious right-wing governments with lack of support for gay people. I had not yet understood that by financially supporting Tel Aviv's LGBT community, the Israeli government was investing in something other than equality.

When Dalia and I talked about Greyson's decision to apply BDS standards to a queer event, I briefly thought about boycott as a strategy, but I did not bother to actually find out about it. Like most ignorant people I conveniently decided without evidence that it would not be effective. But I did take in that it seemed a way for people frustrated by the lack of progress in Israel to show their opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. It was a new action, and that was appealing. What made me pay even this much attention was my own knowledge of John Greyson's work and the respect I had long held for him as an artist and as an activist for South Africa. John belongs to a category of gay and lesbian artist that I call "credible." By this I mean that they have consistently produced artistically engaged work with authentic queer content and that they treat other openly gay thinkers and artists with a recognition and respect denied them by the straight world. Given how many queer artists pander to mainstream approval by closeting, watering down, or coding their content—or who turn away from the community at the first sign of mainstream recognition—those who have regularly chosen truth over power are people I take very seriously. The professional price one pays for authentic LGBT subject matter is life changing. So when these individuals take a stand, I pay attention.

The following August, Dalia started sending me emails again, this time because John Greyson had withdrawn his new film Covered from the Toronto Film Festival when it announced a "Spotlight" program on Tel Aviv. In his public letter, John cited as the reason for his withdrawal the Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin's announcement in Canadian Jewish News, which had described "Spotlight Tel-Aviv" as the culmination of the yearlong "Brand Israel" campaign. This was the first time I'd heard about Brand Israel. A well-funded and highly orchestrated marketing campaign to sell Israel to tourists and cultural consumers, Brand Israel promotes Israel as a modern, liberal society with open values while whitewashing its human rights violations and dual citizenship systems. Gissin described bus, radio, and TV ads, a traveling Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, and "a major Israeli presence at next year's Toronto International Film Festival with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian entertainment luminaries on hand." Gissin said that Toronto had been chosen as a test city for Brand Israel by Israel's Foreign Ministry, and he thanked sponsors for donating the $1 million budget. In other words, the Israeli government openly bought $1 million worth of programming at the Toronto Film Festival as part of a marketing campaign to normalize its policies.

"We've got real products to sell to Canadians," Gissin said. "The lessons learned from Toronto will inform the worldwide launch of Brand Israel in the coming years."

Greyson's letter went on to cite the one thousand civilian deaths in Gaza, the election of right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, the extension of settlements, the growth of the "Security Wall" and further enshrining of the checkpoint system. While the Toronto Film Festival's program described Tel Aviv as "a vibrant young city ... of beaches, cafes and culture ferment," Greyson noted that Naomi Klein, a Canadian writer, had called it "a kind of Alter-Gaza. The smiling face of Israeli apartheid." Klein, author of a best-selling analysis of modern capital's growth apparatus, Shock Doctrine, then followed up with a piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "We Don't Feel Like Celebrating with Israel This Year." She did not call for boycott of the festival, but she said that she and others would not go, and that their principled absence was a small way of showing support for Palestinians living under occupation and siege. I noted how important Klein was to John's decision and started to pay a bit more attention to her as well.

That fall, Jim Hubbard and I exhibited the ACT UP Oral History Project (www.actuporalhistory.org) at Harvard Museum. There, a visiting queer Israeli law professor, Aeyal Gross, asked me if I would like to go to Israel for a speaking engagement. "Sure," I said. "You would come?" he asked. "Sure," I said, feeling uneasy but having no idea why he asked the question. Two weeks later, in November 2009, I received an email inviting me to give the keynote address at the Israeli Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference at Tel Aviv University.

Staring at the message on my computer screen, I realized I had agreed to something that I did not fully understand. And that I had to now face and learn about the very questions I had long been avoiding. But how to proceed? I started with a person I trusted; I phoned my friend Dalia.

"I don't know," she said. "Is it being held at Tel Aviv University?"

Yes.

"They're under the boycott," she said. "Have you read Naomi Klein?"

In those first few moments I didn't have a sophisticated analysis, but I knew the fundamental fact that when it comes to Israel, no one comes out of it clean. Whatever I did, someone would be angry, and there would be repercussions and accusations. I pictured myself filled with conflict, fending off other people's anger and constantly scrambling to catch up. I did not even know the terms of the boycott. Did it apply equally to LGBT events? How could that be possible? That very week I had published a new book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, which was resonating broadly with readers. I certainly looked forward to talking about this most painful and fundamental subject with other queer Jews. Since LGBT people faced familial homophobia in Israel, they did not have full human rights. I assumed and hoped that the invitation to speak to people who are demeaned mitigated the terms of the boycott. So I started by looking for a way out.

But where did I begin ideologically? The Israeli oppression of Palestinians was wrong, horrifying, and unjustifiable on all fronts. This I had long understood. In my book on familial homophobia, I called for third-party intervention. That is to say, I made very explicit my belief that when people are victimized and ask others to intervene, those others should help them. In this case, I was talking about gay people being violated by their families, their partners, the arts and entertainment industries, and the state. Third-party intervention is certainly a principle I believed in across the board. In my book I called it "the human obligation." What circumstance better called for third-party intervention than that of Palestinians?

On the other hand, I very much wanted to accept the invitation, and I didn't even know what the boycott really was. Did I believe in boycotts? Yes. One of the first political movements I became aware of as a child was the United Farm Workers boycott of nonunion produce in the 1960s, which led to the creation of the union. In the 1970s, before dropping out of the University of Chicago, I witnessed the South Africa divestment movement, which would become even more popular in the 1980s. I had long boycotted Coors beer for its opposition to gay rights. My parents boycotted German goods all of their lives. Even in 1968, they would not drive Volkswagens or drink German beer, and they would never visit Germany. My mother refused to get on a plane because it was operated by Lufthansa. But I didn't know if the long boycott of South Africa ("Don't Play Sun City") had actually contributed to the fall of the white supremacist government there. Was it a key factor in regime change, or was it just encouraging to people on the front lines? And wouldn't that be enough of a reason? Were South Africa and Israel in any way comparable situations? Did that matter? Was there any other way for things to get better in Israel? Was there any other strategy that was preferable? And here was one of my biggest questions: Was this for me to decide? Wasn't it more important that victimized people received the intervention they were asking for?

This last question was a new one for me, for in my lifetime of political commitments, I had never worked in solidarity. I had asked for solidarity: asked for straight people to support queers and people with AIDS, asked men to stand up for women. I had always worked directly with oppressed constituencies. That is to say, when I was in the abortion rights, gay liberation, and AIDS activist movements, "we" were the people "we" were fighting for. I had observed others in solidarity movements where "they" were the people "we" were fighting for, and I had seen many errors. Most present in my mind was the movement of Americans in support of the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979. Supporters were told to restrain their North American values as culturally inappropriate and not bring up abortion. Only later did we learn that a major cause of death of young women in Managua at the time was illegal abortion. Today, despite Northern assumptions about Catholic countries' cultural alignments, Mexicans, Brazilians, Portuguese, and South Africans have gay marriage, whereas Americans do not. The leftwing negation of the humanity of gay Cubans was a bitter lesson, not to be forgotten, despite advances in that country. Gay people historically have been asked to subsume their desire for freedom to support other rebellions only to eventually realize that there is homosexual desire and practice under many different conceptualizations, wherever there are humans. Our willingness to accept that we are secondary had resulted in the abandonment of queer people in other places. This was simply something I did not want to replicate. I could never accept a politic that sacrificed gay people for Palestinians or the other way around, since these two categories, like all human categories, are never mutually exclusive. There had to be a path that represented a freedom vision for all.

"Read Naomi Klein," Dalia said.

I found and read the PACBI declaration on-line and then explored Naomi Klein's website. When I finally decided to ask Klein's advice as well, I wrote to her assistant, carefully spelling out my credentials and my situation. I hoped to avoid the disrespect problems that plague minority leaders by making clear to Klein's staff that my condition spoke directly to their agenda and that I was someone worth responding to. I made it known that I needed her advice for a reason larger than myself.

That same day I also wrote to Berkeley professor Judith Butler, who is at the top of my list of credible LGBT people. I had heard Butler speak at the City University of New York on Israel a few years before. Knowing I was looking to her for guidance, Butler got back to me in four hours with many concrete leads and suggestions. Read this, read that, find out about this person, find out about that. I was getting my own personal reading list in classic professor mode. She never told me what to do, but sent me further down the rabbit hole.

"Talk to people in Israel." Like who? "Write to Dalit." Who is Dalit? "If you accept," she said, "Omar is going to ask you why." Who was Omar?

It was the beginning of Sarah-through-the-looking-glass. I was entering a world of people, acronyms, and organizations that were entirely unfamiliar to me. Anything else? "Read Neve Gordon's article 'Boycott Me.'" Who is Neve Gordon? "Read Naomi Klein," she said.

I started reading and wrote back to the LGBT Studies Conference hosts that I very much wanted to come and was trying to make it work. I still thought that would be the inevitable outcome. Then I started following up on Butler's contacts, beginning with the Israeli academic and activist Dalit Baum.

The title of Dalit Baum's 1996 doctoral dissertation in mathematics from Bar-Ilan University is "Skew Algebraic Elements of Simple Artinian Rings." She coordinates the organization Who Profits from the Occupation (www.whoprofits.org), was a member of Black Laundry (an Israeli LGBT group against the occupation), and is the recipient of a Facebook fan page celebrating her utter butchness. These commitments plus Butler's recommendation were enough credential for me to trust her. In other words, like Greyson and Butler, she is accomplished, community oriented, and out in her work. Credible. Still no word back from the Klein camp, but Dalit Baum wrote me right away.

After much thought and some conversations, my recommendation to you is to decline the invitation and to do it publicly. It seems odd that of all the rich conferences in Tel Aviv University, it would be our little queer studies conference that would suffer the loss.... [The boycott] represents a clear and valid request from a wide range of groups representing a people under extreme and violent repression.... A solidarity visit should be organized. You can have alternative events, in grassroots or Palestinian venues and use your visit to learn and teach by meeting the communities and speaking about it later abroad. Naomi Klein has just visited here in such a manner, it was a learning experience for all. One thing I was thinking about today was how much the academic boycott is really an educational tool. It is making you and us, for example, examine the implications of this visit by asking a lot of questions and contacting more people. Thank you for taking the time to think this through.

Honestly, this was not what I had expected. There would be no more hedging now, no easy way out. I reviewed my path thus far and was surprised at what I saw in my own behavior. I had gone only to other Jewish people for guidance. I had not gone to Palestinians for advice. Nor had I even reached out to John Greyson, who is not Jewish. Without realizing it, merely on impulse, I had set out to make this decision Jewishly. And yet the safest of all possible paths—the one most likely to lead me to accept the invitation—had instead brought me to this moment. Like every matter involving Israel, the divisions are profound, and one simply, at some point, has to decide. Plenty of Jews had realized this before me. And this was where I would join them.

I had never in my life turned my back on queer people. But this idea Dalit proposed—of a solidarity visit—appealed to me. A picture started to form in my mind: I could still meet the same folks and talk to them, just in a different building, under different auspices. To stay home and do nothing, to literally "boycott" seemed absurd. What would that accomplish? But to go to Israel and to Palestine and meet and talk and listen, that felt reasonable. In fact, it felt productive, like a positive active step. I started to imagine that an action that felt right might, after all, be possible.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from ISRAEL by SARAH SCHULMAN Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments IX

Introduction: Before 1

Part I Solidarity Visit

1 Awareness 23

2 Preparation: Learning from Cinema 40

3 Maps 48

4 The Jewish Embrace 58

5 Solidarity Visit 67

6 Palestine 77

7 Finding the Strategy 86

Part II Al-U.S. Tour

8 Homonationalism 103

9 Amreeka 133

10 Backlash 156

11 Understanding 172

Conclusion: There Is No Conclusion 175

Appendix Brand Israel and Pinkwashing: A Documentary Guide 179

Index 187

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