By Lois JC
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Israel/Palestine and the Queer International

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Sarah Schulman
Issue 376

As a Jewish lesbian academic growing up in New York, Sarah Schulman faced a skewed picture of Israel from both her family and the American media. But after experiencing extreme homophobia from her family she realised that they were “wrong about a lot of things. Why not this?” (Israel).

After declining an invitation to speak at the LGBT studies conference at Tel Aviv University she decided to join the Palestinian movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

Schulman looks at how LGBT groups can show solidarity with Palestinians while combating the policy of “pinkwashing”. In 2005 the Israeli foreign ministry and American marketing executives launched “Brand Israel”. The aim was to come up with a “plan to improve the country’s image abroad by avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians”. This included organising LGBT festivals and holding World Pride in Jerusalem. Another strand of the campaign is aimed at making Israel seem like the only gay-friendly country in the Middle East. Not only is this untrue (a Ha’aretz poll shows that half of Israelis believe homosexuality is a perversion), but it also relies on a racist depiction of Muslims and Arabs as “backward” as opposed to “modern civilised” Israelis.

The book recounts visits to Palestinian LGBT groups such as Al Qaws and Palestinian Queers for BDS (PQBDS), who aim to provide a voice for LGBT Palestinians. A central theme is that sexual liberation is tied up with fighting Israeli occupation. As Haneen Maikey of Al Qaws said, “When you go through a checkpoint it does not matter what the sexuality of the soldier is.” Schulman uses language implying a universal connection between members of the LGBT community because “we understand marginalisation”. But just because a person identifies as LGB or T does not mean they are on our side. There are gay members of the Israeli Knesset and there are many people who are out in the Israeli army – but they are not on the side of the Palestinians.

While there is not enough space here for a detailed analysis of queer theory it is worth noting that Schulman’s use of the phrase “queer international” comes from a very specific set of debates within the US LGBT movement.

Schulman is critical of LGBT groups that have become part of the establishment – known as “homonationalist” by some US activists. Pride was sponsored this year, for example, by an array of banks, supermarkets and soft drinks companies. In contrast to this, American left wing activists have developed the idea of a “queer international”, a more radical movement that claims to be anti-commercial and anti-racist.

Such commercialism should, of course, be opposed. But demanding the same rights as straight people is still an ongoing battle and the expansion of legal rights for LGBT people is a sign of success, not of failure. In attacking them queer activists can sometimes run the risk of mistaking their target.

There have been many steps forward in the campaign against pinkwashing. In 2005 there was a campaign to boycott World Pride in Jerusalem led by the Lebanese LGBT group Helem. In 2008 Queers against Israeli Apartheid was formed in Toronto and successfully resisted Zionist attempts to have it banned from the Pride march. In 2011, during an interview alongside Schulman, BDS activist Omar Barghouti publicly recognised the fight against pinkwashing and PQBDS as an integral part of the BDS movement. Schulman sees this change in Barghouti’s attitude as one of the successes of the PQBDS movement. Schulman’s stance on many issues fluctuates throughout the book. She discusses Hamas and the appropriateness of the term “apartheid”. At times you think she has drawn bad conclusions but on further reading she changes her mind as her activism makes her confront new issues and debates.

Schulman’s own development throughout the book makes it useful for those who are new to arguments around BDS and pinkwashing who may have questions of their own. The mixture of historical analysis and strategy is excellent; however I feel that at times her strategy can focus too much on celebrities and PR. This perhaps originates in her attempts to build BDS in America where the movement is still at a relatively early stage of development. Raising awareness is important, but only so far as it doesn’t take away from collective action.

The main lessons to be drawn from this book are that in order for the BDS strategy to win it must be wide ranging and inclusive. LGBT groups all over the world can take part in it, as can student unions and trade unions, cultural centres and workplaces. But crucially the struggle for genuine sexual liberation cannot be separated from the fight for freedom.

Israel/Palestine and the Queer International is published by Duke University Press, £14.99

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