How Sarah Schulman managed to get ‘Pinkwashing’ into the New York Times

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 20 Comments
Sarah Schulman
Sarah Schulman

One of the stars of the boycott conference at Penn was Sarah Schulman, the writer/professor who wrote the groundbreaking pinkwashing piece in the New York Times last November: How Israel uses gay-rights to launder its human rights violations.

In the Q-and-A, a man rose to ask Schulman how the piece had gotten into print. Schulman laughed and said, “Ok, here’s the back story.” And then told an astonishing story.

I’ll relate that story in a minute. First you have to eat your spinach: Schulman’s very wise ideas about the ways that the Palestinian solidarity movement can grow from “a vanguard movement to a popular movement.”

Schulman only got into Palestinian solidarity two years ago. But she has been a “hard-core” activist all her life, chiefly about AIDS and queer freedom. You can ask, Where has she been, what about Gaza? but that’s a stupid question, a question that blocks growth. And the beauty of Schulman’s engagement here is that when she was told not to go to Tel Aviv University two years ago, and she said, “What boycott?” she didn’t get defensive and nutty. No, she looked into the issue and saw that it was straightforward and simple– and then she was in.

This is the type of person we need to engage: morally clear, independent, brave people. Schulman’s own Jewishness dropped right away when she saw what Palestinians were experiencing. She had been there once, to see cousins. But any family allegiance simply dropped away when she saw what was going on. Beautiful.

And what Schulman counseled is that for the movement to grow and effect a paradigm shift in the U.S. discourse it must really work on its messaging. It must define one goal, ending US military aid to Israel. It must translate “manifesto culture to soundbite culture.” In doing so, it must avoid “heightened rhetoric, highly ideological language,” and academic language, including old left language.

It must do its utmost to find a Palestinian face who will be as imprinted for American news organizations and their bookers as Hanan Ashrawi was in a previous generation. It must open an office in NY with a Palestinian at the helm. It must seek celebrity endorsement.

And there was this, which I found personally persuasive and moving:

This movement reminds her of early days in LGBT and AIDS activism. It is a movement on behalf of rightsless people. (Hey–we are going to win!) But as the movement grows, “we have to be wise and we have to be flexible…. The founders [will] lose control of the discourse.”  Ideological purity will fade away as more and more come into the movement.  “That’s the price” of success. I believe Schulman  completely. I wanted to hug her. (And by the way I am happy to sacrifice all ego-capital that I have accumulated here, for the sake of the family of Mustafa Tamimi, killed when he protested his village’s loss of access to its sole source of water).

OK, now you’ve had your high fiber. The Q-and-A came and a guy asked how Schulman managed to get the pinkwashing piece published. Here’s her tale:

Last June a “young, Chinese American gay guy” who had not long ago gone to work at the New York Times Op-Ed page reached out to Schulman to write a piece on the 30th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS.

Schulman said, “You want a progress narrative.” She couldn’t write that. The young op-ed editor said, No, but when Schulman turned in her piece, which was not a “progress narrative,” it got killed, as she had expected, and the Times ran a “progress narrative.”

The young editor felt bad about the outcome and asked her what else she could write for the Times. Schulman sensed that he had a “very idealistic idea of the Times,” and no sense of the “Jewish politics of the Times” (oh, I love this phrase, it is a gift of insight), but she said, “What about pinkwashing?” Huh? The international promotion by Israel of the freedom it gives gays in Israel as a means of masking its denial of human rights to Palestinians. She showed the editor some pieces from the Guardian.

“He said, ‘Sure.'”

Schulman knew what was coming. She turned in a “900 word piece with 150 pages of documentation…. [and] for the next three months we fought over the piece…. [at times] we literally screamed at each other.”

The Times op-ed staff came up with question after question to challenge Schulman’s assumptions. No one there knew that she had a “secret research team of queer women,” translating documents from Arabic, Dutch, German and Hebrew!

One of the foolish queries on the piece was: “You have to prove that Israeli gay people are anti-Arab.” And there were “all these ridiculous delays.”

The documentation grew to 300 pages, and the Times just “couldn’t come up with something that would justify killing it.”

The piece ran on November 22. And I don’t see much evidence of “pulling and hauling,” as one of our earlier writer-savants puts struggling with the world. A fine piece, it ends: “The long-sought realization of some rights for some gays should not blind us to the struggles against racism in Europe and the United States, or to the Palestinians’ insistence on a land to call home.”

The piece was sensational. It is surely Schulman’s most famous writing. She took great pleasure when Benjamin Netanyahu cited it as a reason that he would not contribute to the New York Times.

And then a postscript. Schulman said that on January 24, the NYT ran this AP report saying that Tel Aviv is a great gay destination– “a plant” for the Israeli government, a “piece that had never been factchecked… rife with factual inaccuracies.”

Schulman concluded that the piece was “obviously some deal brokered between the Times and the Israeli government.” She wrote to her young editor to ask if the piece had undergone anything like the scrutiny that hers had received during its 3-month gestation. She did not hear from him.

20 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    February 6, 2012, 2:05 pm

    “She did not hear from him.” (Hope he still has a job at the NYT. Or somewhere.)

  2. HRK
    February 6, 2012, 2:23 pm

    . . . and no sense of the “Jewish politics of the Times”

    What an incredible euphemism.

    In other words, the Times is biased in favor of Jews and what’s directly and materially good for them alone (while, I might add, policing American discourse for any sign of other people’s ethnic biases).

    “Tribal ethics! Tribal ethics! Get your freshly printed tribal ethics hot off the presses! All the tribal ethics that’s fit to print–right here in The New York Times!”

    • pabelmont
      February 6, 2012, 2:35 pm

      “biased in favor of Jews” ?? Not exactly. Biased in favor of the intersection of two groups: [ (the Jews) ^ (the 1%) ] .

      And as we know the Jews in the USA who are part of the 1% in the USA are the AIPAC sweethearts, the neocons, or most of them are. They are either hard-right supporters of Israel’s most expansivists or else they are inhumane folks who are indifferent to the Palestinians and see no sense in “rocking the boat” where the “boat” is defined by the hard-liners.

  3. iamuglow
    February 6, 2012, 2:24 pm

    Great to hear how the article came about…no surprise that it was through the fluke of an editor who had “no sense of the “Jewish politics of the Times””. Endless respect to Schulman for fighting through & getting such a potent article published.

    This is all sage advice too…

    “…for the movement to grow and effect a paradigm shift in the U.S. discourse it must really work on its messaging. It must define one goal, ending US military aid to Israel. It must translate “manifesto culture to soundbite culture.” In doing so, it must avoid “heightened rhetoric, highly ideological language,” and academic language, including old left language.”

    “It must do its utmost to find a Palestinian face who will be as imprinted for American news organizations and their bookers as Hanan Ashrawi was in a previous generation. It must open an office in NY with a Palestinian at the helm. It must seek celebrity endorsement.”

  4. DICKERSON3870
    February 6, 2012, 2:35 pm

    RE: “Schulman said that on January 24, the NYT ran this AP report saying that Tel Aviv is a great gay destination– ‘a plant’ for the Israeli government, a ‘piece that had never been factchecked… rife with factual inaccuracies’.”

    FROM WIKIPEDIA:

    (excerpts) The 2009 Tel Aviv gay centre shooting resulted in the deaths of two people and injuries to at least fifteen others at the Tel Aviv branch of the Israeli GLBT Association, at the “Bar-Noar” (Hebrew: בר-נוער‎, “Youth Bar”), on Nahmani Street in Tel Aviv, Israel, on 1 August 2009. A 26-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl were killed.[1][2]…
    . . . As of January 2012, the crime remains unsolved… Two people were killed, and fifteen were wounded. The police had launched a search campaign to find the shooter, and in addition immediately closed most of the entertainment places for the gay community that operated during the same time of the shooting event, for fear of additional shooting.
    The gunman entered the building where a weekly event was being held (in the basement), shot in several directions and then fled on foot.[2][5][6] The building was frequented by gay teenagers who engage in social activities and listen to music.[6][11] The centre was small with one terrace; thus preventing anyone from escaping.[6] They instead hid under a bed and tables as shots were fired.[6][11] Israeli television said the crime scene was a “bloodbath”.[7]…
    . . . The shooter was masked, dressed in black and used a pistol to carry out his attack.[2][5][8][11][12] It is not believed his motive was related to nationalist terror but the exact motive is currently unclear.[2] The city’s gay community stated the killer had a homophobic motive while police have cautioned people that the attack may not have been a hate crime and that the motive remains unknown. . .

    SOURCE – link to en.wikipedia.org

  5. Krauss
    February 6, 2012, 2:37 pm

    You know, reading this, I think of when everyone is attacking you for talking about the intra-Jewish communal debate that has to get started – I mean really started.

    You talk frankly about the issues Sarah Schulman raises, the ‘Jewish politics’ at the Times. And yes, it’s all there to see. I mean, the NY Mag frontpage plant by Ronen Bergman, the frontpage NYT story about Adelson – without even a word about Israel?

    All these came after pressure was put on the NYT, probably from the higher echelons of the Jewish American community after the fall which did, let’s be honest, for once consist of a more balanced and critical view of Israel, from a purely liberal perspective.

    But her story still proves just biased towards Israel the paper of record remains, despite the right-wing propaganda on the contrary. This is part of the reason why the struggle against Israeli apartheid will be much longer, White-rule South Africa didn’t have an entire lobby in America, one that extends far into the media sphere, to protect it.

    But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and that that Apartheid should be taken on – without demonizing Jews in general which is also important to avoid.

  6. Matthew Graber
    February 6, 2012, 2:50 pm

    Thank you Sarah, and thank you Phil. This weekend was spectacular, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to share such moral clarity with everybody there.

  7. Cliff
    February 6, 2012, 2:54 pm

    Schulman only got into Palestinian solidarity two years ago. But she has been a “hard-core” activist all her life, chiefly about AIDS and queer freedom. You can ask, Where has she been, what about Gaza? but that’s a stupid question, a question that blocks growth. And the beauty of Schulman’s engagement here is that when she was told not to go to Tel Aviv University two years ago, and she said, “What boycott?” she didn’t get defensive and nutty. No, she looked into the issue and saw that it was straightforward and simple– and then she was in.

    This is the type of person we need to engage: morally clear, independent, brave people. Schulman’s own Jewishness dropped right away when she saw what Palestinians were experiencing. She had been there once, to see cousins. But any family allegiance simply dropped away when she saw what was going on. Beautiful.

    I think I used to be way too cynical about this sort transformation but it was pointless and unfair. I remember feeling that way about Medea Benjamin, back during 2008-2009, when Phil ‘introduced’ her to the MW community and explained her background and initial hesitation to tackle the the issue.

    In the above quote, I think Phil gets right to the point though. It’s silly to gate-keep Palestinian solidarity (who is acceptable and who isn’t).

    • Newclench
      February 6, 2012, 3:58 pm

      Oh yes. And this:
      “It must translate “manifesto culture to soundbite culture.” In doing so, it must avoid “heightened rhetoric, highly ideological language,” and academic language, including old left language.”

      In other words, the small tenters must give way to a broader understanding of what it means to be pro-Palestinian rights. Schulman understands that some of the folks most bitterly denounced here on MW are in fact key to expanding the Palestinian message in the United States – precisely because they don’t give a shit if the gatekeepers (of ANY side) like or don’t like what they have to say.

      • iamuglow
        February 6, 2012, 7:54 pm

        Its funny you use word “gatekeepers”…aren’t you the guy who was trying to block ‘Palestine’ from being mentioned at OWS?

    • Philip Munger
      February 6, 2012, 4:13 pm

      I think I used to be way too cynical about this sort transformation but it was pointless and unfair. I remember feeling that way about Medea Benjamin, back during 2008-2009, when Phil ‘introduced’ her to the MW community and explained her background and initial hesitation to tackle the the issue.

      In the above quote, I think Phil gets right to the point though. It’s silly to gate-keep Palestinian solidarity (who is acceptable and who isn’t).

      Wasn’t there a Mondoweiss article last year about various peoples’ transformative moment, where they finally got it? Many people have related to me that it was only when they finally got to meet some Palestinians that they realized how fully they had been fooled by the barrage of intentionally distorted stereotypes. It was certainly that way for me, when I went from pro- to anti-Zionist overnight, merely by having attended an exhibit of children’s art from Sabra and Shatila camps in November 1982. There were many Palestinians there (and a few Jewish non- or anti-Zionists too), and they became my friends.

      As Rachel Corrie wrote home from Gaza, concluding her last email, “I wish you could meet these people. Maybe, hopefully, someday you will.”

      Sarah Schulman, observing that BDS “must do its utmost to find a Palestinian face who will be as imprinted for American news organizations and their bookers as Hanan Ashrawi was in a previous generation. It must open an office in NY with a Palestinian at the helm. It must seek celebrity endorsement,” is prescient. The new Ashrawi is already here, I suppose. Just not yet recognized.

  8. Daniel Rich
    February 6, 2012, 3:31 pm

    Q: You can ask, Where has she been, what about Gaza? but that’s a stupid question, a question that blocks growth.

    R: Really? What degree of stupidity are you referring to and since when do questions block growth? [Galilei questioning papal findings comes to mind]. Back in the day I happened to be a staunch defender of Israel and I think anyone has a right to question my motivations, regardless.

    • MHughes976
      February 6, 2012, 3:42 pm

      Almost all the western world was thinking about something else, looking the other way etc. until recently. I for one was to my shame blinded by (among other things) the Oslo agreement and the promises of 2ss just round the corner. Why bother too much about a problem that was just about to be solved?

  9. Justice Please
    February 7, 2012, 6:14 am

    Seriously great job! Good post from Phil, with spinach and all. And even greater job from Sarah! To actually fight the manifest bias within the NYT, not giving up, and getting the piece through. That’s inspiring, I bet many others (maybe myself included), would have given up and lamented about censorship and bias.

    Sarah, on the other hand, showed that the powers which hold as back are not invincible. We can overcome them if we are courageous and focus on the message.

  10. aeyal
    February 7, 2012, 6:36 am

    A lot of interesting things here and a lot of interesting insights from Sarah Schulman. It’s also interesting to note how while the debate on this issue has been going on Israel for over a decade, and internationally for a few years, a NYT op-ed causes so much uproar. Still, regarding the AP story, I doubt the “conspiracy” theory. So many news outlets were doing stories on this selection of TLV as a gay tourist destination, and so many of them were interested in the “pinkwashing” aspect . As I wrote on the topic a few times in the past, and as one of my pieces was cited in Schulman’s piece, I was contacted by so many news agencies/reporters… So going to the AP story ran in the NYT, while I think there is MUCH to criticize in it, we should recall it was not a NYT piece. It was published in many places (not just the NYT). Moreover, the AP reporter chose to interview me, taking this quote from me:
    “Aeyal Gross, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, noted the huge strides made in Israeli gay rights. But he also accused the government of “co-opting” the gay community to deflect attention away from violations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,… “If you care about gay rights, then you should also care when the rights of others are abused.”

    This in addition to citing to Schulman’s piece itself. Now of course we can say this was done to “pinkwash” the piece itself…” but my hunch (from my contacts with the AP office) is that it was not such a sophisticated conspiracy….. just a story they ran which to a large extent served Tel Aviv’s image, (and of course Israel’s by inaccurate “facts”, such as a description of Tel Aviv as refuge for gay Palestinians from the occupied territories, without addressing the fact that Israel actually refuses to give such refuge) but also included the criticism.

  11. Kathleen
    February 7, 2012, 10:17 am

    “You can ask, Where has she been, what about Gaza? but that’s a stupid question, a question that blocks growth.”

    That is the biggest bullshit line I have ever read at Mondoweiss. While it is important not to persistently badger someone about being aware of the Israeli human rights abuses and the unwillingness of the Israel government to abide by international law and UN resolutions and chose NOT TO DO ANYTHING. It is “stupid” not to recognize that their silence is complicity. Acknowledge this even apoligize for this and then move forward.

    What blocks growth is denial of the silence and the complicity.

    Great that Schulman persisted and was able to get that article through.

  12. stevieb
    February 8, 2012, 11:33 am

    I totally agree with your premise, Phillip Weiss. Good article and great points…

  13. Matthew Graber
    February 12, 2012, 1:40 pm

    Dershowitz berated the NYT editorial staff for this in his speech at UPenn. Made me smile when I watched the video.

    From my transcript:
    …the answer is not, “Yes we stole your land, but we’re good to gays”. That was the article that was in the New York Times a few weeks ago. One of the stupidest articles ever run in the New York Times by this idiot professor that says that the only reason that Israel treats gays well is so that they can treat Palestinians badly. How the Times would allow that piece of drech to slip through the editorial pages is just remarkable to me. I’ve never seen a lower standard of editorial judgement than that article.

    A lot more of my analysis is up on my website: link to radioagainstapartheid.libsyn.com

  14. robynochs
    February 14, 2012, 4:39 pm

    This is my first post on this site. I wanted to respond to one sentence in this article:

    “Schulman’s own Jewishness dropped right away when she saw what Palestinians were experiencing.”

    I’m not sure what that means. For me, my Jewish values, as they were taught to me (an obligation to do my part to heal the world, a culture that encourages questioning and debate), are precisely what prompt me to question the status quo and to stand up against inequality.

    Had I crafted this sentence, I would have written,

    ” Schulman’s own Jewishness WAS TRIGGERED when she saw what Palestinians were experiencing.”

    • Danaa
      February 14, 2012, 5:40 pm

      robynochs, I think you may have misread the sentence. I believe Phil meant it as it was written wherein “Jewishness” is interpreted in the sense Gilad Atzmon gives it – a tribal-uber-ales approach to the world. In this sense, Jewishness is specifically set in opposition to both Judaism and the Jewish values you espouse, where Tikun Olam runs through and in-tandem with universality.

      The sentence after the one you caught actually makes that clearer, as it mentions Sarah had to break up – on some level – with her own family to reach the insights and moral clarity she has obviously attained.

      Personally, I got a kick out of Phil’s shout out to the Gilad term, in just the way it was meant (rather than all the rubbish it has garnered since it was coined).

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