Sarah Schulman takes on pinkwashing at OUT Magazine

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Below are excerpts from a correspondence over a proposed article between novelist, academic and playwright Sarah Schulman and an editorial team from OUT Magazine: Aaron Hicklin, the magazine’s editor, and Jerry Portwood, its executive editor. According to Wikipedia, OUT has the highest circulation of any gay monthly publication in the United States. The emails were shared with us by Schulman; we are publishing her statements in full and summarizing the OUT editors’ notes out of respect for copyright. 

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The conversation started on Aug 30, 2012 when Hicklin contacted Schulman about producing a piece for an upcoming issue of OUT focused on Tel Aviv as a gay hotspot. He approached Schulman because of her November 2011 New York Times Op-Ed on pinkwashing. The piece was groundbreaking because it pushed pinkwashing onto the national stage (here Schulman shares some of the back story of dealing with the Times). Hicklin proposed pairing Schulman with a pro-Israel advocate to debate the issue and recommended Michael Lucas, who was at the center of last year’s controversy at the LGBT Center in Manhattan which canceled a fundraiser for Israeli Apartheid Week .

Schulman responds:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hi Aaron,

Honestly and sincerely, I think I should do the conversation with you.

Clearly you and I hold opposing views and I think we are the best pair.

Happy to do it in person or by email.

All the Best,

Sarah

On September 4, Hicklin responded saying he’d love to make this happen and that Jerry Portwood, OUT’s executive editor, would be the best person to debate (Hicklin being too tied up getting the issue together). He suggested the piece be framed as a correspondence between Schulman and Portwood.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dear Jerry,

So glad to be having this conversation. 

The place to start is with the history of the Israeli government putting money into persuading the world that “gay rights” should override human rights violations caused by the Occupation. 

I want to start with a link to my Huffington Post piece laying out the history of these policies by the Israeli government.

To summarize: The Israeli government worked with Saatchi and Saatchi (pro-bono) to re-market Israel to the world. They call this program “Brand Israel.” They realized that young men were the key market for transforming their image and began a series of targeted programs that included a spread of women soldiers in bikinis in Maxim, free trips for food and wine writers, and the deliberate decision to create Tel Aviv as a gay resort, while maintaining profound violations of international law for Palestinians, gay and straight.

So, the first question I must ask you is: Did the Israeli government, or any of their front groups, or any individuals who may be employed by that government give OUT magazine money, perks, access or “assistance” in creating this special issue?

Later on September 5th Jerry Portwood  responded that Out did receive assistance from the Israeli tourism board after OUT made an initial approach and began the discussion. He notes this is not unique to Israel and that OUT worked with the Swedish tourism board for a similar issue last year. He asked Schulman if she would ascribe any gay branding exercises by countries, including outreach to LGBT media, to be equally exemplary of pinkwashing inequalities?

Wedneday, September 5, 2012

Ok Jerry, but the Swedes are not in violation of UN resolutions.  How do you feel, as a journalist taking money from a government to promote a country that has a racial supremacy system in which Jews have more rights than non-jews?

The next day Portwood responded that it was his understanding the Jews and Arabs did have equal rights in Israel (with the exception of military service), including equal voting rights. He recognized that the Palestinians in the occupied territories did not share these rights.

Sept 6

Jerry,

Jews have many many rights that are denied Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Here is the documentation (pdf) of over 30 laws that are in place, new and/or pending that create different levels of legal rights for Jews and for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

In Summary:

Property:  

Israel has no constitution or any law guaranteeing individual liberties. All the base documents focus on ensuring the Jewish character of the state and privileging Jewish institutions. So, Arab Israeli citizens’ land and homes are often viewed as non-residential property. So their homes and land are regularly seized to construct Jewish settlements, or to give housing to Jews. 

East Jerusalem residents often have their citizenship revoked to make way for land appropriation. 

When has any Jewish citizen of Israel gotten their citizenship revoked because the state wanted their property? 

Education:

There are segregated educational systems. Palestinians attend different schools than Jews. If a Palestinian should make it into an Israeli University, no courses are offered in Arabic, including Arabic Literature.

Language:

Use of Arabic road signs are banned in cities that that government determines are “mixed.”

Marriage Rights:

Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot confer citizenship on their partners who are not already Israeli citizens, through marriage. Jews have this right.

Identification:

Palestinian citizens of Israel have asterisks on their passports that Jews do not have.

Free Speech:

The new “Boycott Law” prohibits citizens of Israel from supporting the nonviolence economic boycott of Israeli state sponsored institutions. 

Employment:

Priority in employment is given to veterans, and Palestinians are prohibited from serving in the army, and so are legally discriminated against in employment.

Legal Rights:

There are many laws keeping Palestinians who have been arrested from access to speedy trial, fair legal representation and clear charges, all are available to Jews.

Daily Life:

Palestinians are constantly harassed, searched and asked to produce identification, based entirely on race.

Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have testified that Israel’s separate systems of rights based on religion meets the definition of Apartheid.  

Portwood responded on Friday, September 7 saying the material Schulman sent was damning, but that  the”pinkwashing” charge could be extended to any country that prevents equal rights while trying to attract to gay tourists. He pointed out the examples of Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds and the array of Chinese human rights violations, including those in Tibet and Xinjiang. He noted that both those countries frequently reach out to LGBT publications and others for all-paid trips (referencing the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue shot on location in Cappadocia, Turkey). He finished by asking Schulman if she has visited Israel recently.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Jerry,

Israel is exploiting the hard won gains of its LGBT movement to falsely brand itself to the world as “progressive”. Gay people have been on the bottom of society for so long, that “gay rights” (which are limited and regional in Israel) have become signifiers that a society is advanced on the question of human rights, when it is retrogressive. So the presence of gay life in Tel Aviv falsely telegraphs “modernity.”  The reality is that gay men are no longer on the bottom rung of many societies, so this interpretation is false.

Yes, I have been to Israel three times. Most recently in April, two years before that, and ten years before that. I have many relatives who live there: some are ultra religious, some life in kibbutz. And I have been to Palestine twice. I have witnessed Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas at unarmed civilians in Bi’ilin, and I have met with the queer Palestinian groups alQaws: for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society and PQBDS (Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) in Ramallah and Nablus.  Tel Aviv is a theater set, behind it is the reality of profound oppression and violation of human rights. Unfortunately you have made the moral decision to prop up the theater set, but collaborating with the Israeli government to false promote Israel as a progressive country, when it is actually in profound human rights violations.

Why did you decide not to interview Queer Palestinians living in Israel for your issue?

Portwood responded later that day that Schulman was right to say OUT should have included gay Palestinians in an issue on the LGBT community in Israel. He added that there was a small profile of a queer party for Palestinians and a piece on gay tourism in post-Mubarak Egypt, but conceded that OUT can do a better job of of covering stories like these. He ended by saying regardless of OUT’s own shortcomings it does seem there are not nearly as many prominent LGBT Palestinians as there are Israelis. He asks Schulman how she explains this?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Jerry,

I just talked to the people who run that queer Palestinian party and they say you never spoke to them.

At this point, Portwood stopped answering and OUT editor Aaron Hicklin picked the conversation up. Hicklin said he was enjoying the back and forth, although it felt “rather masochistic” on OUT’s part. He asked if he could call Schulman to discuss the structure of the piece.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Aaron

I think I would rather discuss by email. So far four important points have been made:

1) OUT took money from the Israeli government.

2) the executive editor did not know that Jews and Palestinians are under two different legal systems in Israel

3) The issue contains a story about the regular Palestinian queer party scene but did not talk to the people who organize it and

4) Palestinian queer groups were not interviewed.

Also there is a pervasive repetition of indifference or disinterest regarding human rights violations. I wonder how you feel about that.

Sarah

Hicklin responded the next day saying he was trying not to be insulted by Schulman’s email and charged that she was avoiding a direct conversation with OUT. Hicklin said he was offended that she implied he was indifferent to human rights abuses and shared that he had reported from Sarajevo under siege and from refugee camps near Bethlehem during the early days of Oslo (including being a 1996 Foreign Press Awards finalist for reporting he did on Arafat’s arrival into Bethlehem). He said he felt Schulman used the invitation to discuss “pinkwashing” as an opportunity to critique and dismiss Out and that he was hoping for something more constructive.

He also addressed Schulman’s points:

1. Hicklin said it was not true that Out received money or payment from the Israeli government for this issue.

2. He thanked Schulman for clarifying the legal states of Jewish and Arab Israelis and said that he didn’t think anyone at OUT would deny that “Arabs face major disadvantages in Israel and that the Jewish character of the state, enshrined in the declaration of Independence, helps to perpetuate social and economic inequalities.” He then clarified that Portwood was simply saying that Arabs in Israel have equal voting rights to Jews and share the same protections under the law.

3.  The article on the Palestinian Queer party scene was assigned to a journalist in Tel Aviv and had not been filed yet. He said he was open to any suggestions Schulman had for people to speak to.

Hicklin ended by saying it was disingenuous of Schulman to accuse OUT of not answering her questions when she hadn’t answered OUT’s: “is pink washing unique to Israel, and if not, why not broaden the discussion?” He said he just wanted to talk on the phone to discuss if the debate could still work and he wasn’t looking for “Out VS. Sarah Schulman.”

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Aaron

I want to stay on email to keep a record for precisely this reason.

Jerry stated openly that OUT received money from the Israeli Tourism Ministry, which is part of the government and gets its money from the government. He not only admitted it, he defended it.

I was not insulting you, I was summarizing the repeated attitude expressed by Jerry throughout the correspondence. He never once was troubled by the profound human rights violations. Read through the correspondence, I would be happy to send it to you.

Sarah Schulman

Hicklin responded that OUT would never take money for editorial stories (although it did receive assistance with hotel accommodations, editorial freedom is not compromised). Hicklin said he was feeling “tired, and honestly a little defeated.”

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Aaron,

I still have a number of quotes from him saying that OUT took money from the Israeli government and then defending that action.

I also notice that you don’t warn gay tourists with Muslim names that they will be detained at customs.

Sarah

No answer

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Dear Jerry [Portwood] and Aaron [Hicklin],

The man in the photo on OUT’s website is an Israeli government operative who was caught in a scandal reported on by the New York Times in which he used a false identity to falsely claim homophobia from the Gaza flotilla, which included out bisexual Alice Walker and many openly LGBT people.

Hicklin responded and thanked Schulman for the information about Omer Gershon, the man in the photo spread. He explained that the party in question had been held with an Israeli gay magazine and had a wide invite list. Hicklin finished:

I know you’re not advocating that we limit a cocktail party only to people we agree with, but certainly he was not involved in our editorial process in determining content for this issue, which bar a few serious pieces is largely focused on artists, writers, dancers, and musicians. I’m old-fashioned and tend to believe that artists and writers by definition transcend national borders and give to the world. They tend to be the heart and soul of the magazine.

Best

Aaron

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