Queer scholar and activist Sarah Schulman reads from her new book at the LGBT Center
(Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
For the first time in two years, a discussion focused on Israel took place at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community Center in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The event’s star was Sarah Schulman, the prominent queer activist and scholar whose landmark New York Times Op-Ed helped to populariz the term “pinkwashing” in the discourse on Israel/Palestine.
Over 150 people packed into a room touched by history at the LGBT Center to hear Schulman read from her recently released book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. The room it was held in, as Schulman said, was the room where she and hundreds of others organized in the 1980s to break institutional silence and complicity over the AIDS crisis. And last night, it was the room where Schulman and others broke the LGBT Center’s self-imposed silence on the question of Palestine, as the center had instituted a moratorium two years ago on discussions and events on Palestine.
Schulman spoke about her personal upbringing and relationship to Israel, her support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and why Israeli “pinkwashing” to cover up human rights abuses was real. And the question and answer session turned into a forum where anti-Zionist Jews, Arabs, Palestinian queers and supporters of Israel bantered back and forth with Schulman.
The very fact that the event came and went was a victory for the Palestine solidarity community, and specifically the queer activists who had worked for the past two years on overturning the ban on Israel/Palestine related discussions at the LGBT Center. When Queers Against Israeli Apartheid in New York City first tried to host Schulman at the center, they were denied space. But after the decision to deny Schulman space renewed attention and organizing around the LGBT Center’s ban on Palestine-related discussions, the moratorium was lifted. The atmosphere at Schulman’s event was at times celebratory, with loud cheers for Schulman and colorful posters adorning the large room. “Queers love drag queens, not F16s,” read one poster, while another stated, “NYC Queers stand with Palestine.” The event was the kick off for New York City’s Israeli Apartheid Week.
Schulman’s talk, which was based on her new book, was part personal memoir and part political analysis. She began by explaining how she grew up in New York City in a very Jewish home. She was surrounded by reminders of the Holocaust. Support for Israel, and with it the tired slogans of Israel as a “land without people for a people without a land,” were part of her upbringing too, though she did not grow up in a strongly Zionist household. Schulman said that if you told her Jews committed atrocities during the fighting that led to the founding of Israel, “I would have thought you were insane.”
Throughout Schulman’s life as a political activist–she was a member of ACT UP in New York–Palestine never came up. But when she was invited to Tel Aviv University in 2010, the issue of Palestine solidarity and the BDS movement was thrust into her life. Schulman wanted to go to Tel Aviv, but decided against it after finding out about the BDS call and consulting with other academics, like Judith Butler. She publicly declined to attend and instead embarked on a solidarity visit where she met BDS advocates, Palestinian queers and Israeli radicals. “I realized that I could boycott and come to communicate with people,” said Schulman, emphasizing that the BDS movement targets complicit state institutions.
Her tour around Palestine profoundly affected her, particularly when she went to a demonstration in Bil’in. Schulman said that witnessing the tear-gassing of protesters by Israeli soldiers caused her to firmly break with an “us vs. them” mindset where Jews were “us” and Palestinians were “them.” Instead, the “us” became everyone working against Israeli repression, Schulman said. And she celebrated the fact that, while the BDS movement at first did not welcome the support of Palestinian queers, that has now changed.
Now, Schulman is a prominent BDS supporter who has organized an upcoming conference on “Homonationalism and Pinkwashing” at the City University of New York, though only parts of the conference will focus on Israel. (“Homonationalism,” as the website for the conference explains, is a term that refers to when “sub-sectors of specific gay communities achieve legal parity with heterosexuals and then embrace racial and religious supremacy ideologies.”)
The conference has been harshly attacked by Alan Dershowitz, among others, as Schulman noted. Dershowitz called the conference an anti-Semitic “hate fest” in the New York Post. “There’s a level of rhetoric that’s so crazy and pathological,” commented Schulman. “They can’t have a rational discussion because they want racial supremacy.”
The question and answer sessions started off with a bang, as a woman explained that she gets a visceral (and negative) reaction whenever she hears people advocating for a boycott of Israel. The woman says she was taken hostage by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine when she was thirteen, and talked about her trauma and the collective trauma that Jews feel. Yet she emphasized that she knows that boycotting Israel does not mean boycotting Jews, and that the BDS movement was about ending Israeli apartheid.
There were a number of dissenters in the audience. One questioner, later identified on Twitter as Wall Street Journal writer Sohrab Ahmari, asked Schulman how she could talk of Israeli repression when Hamas cracked down on gay and women’s rights. Schulman replied that while she did not know enough about Hamas, they were democratically elected to be the government in Gaza, and emphasized that it was Israel that was the primary reason why Palestinians are not free. Jayson Littman, a gay advocate for Israel who attends AIPAC conferences and who has organized LGBT Taglit-Birthright trips, dissented as well. Littman asked Schulman whether she herself was “pinkwashing” the situation for Palestinian queers by bringing them to the U.S. to speak about their society. Schulman handed the floor over to a Palestinian queer member of the organization al-Qaws. He explained that “pinkwashing,” the term used to describe how the Israeli government uses their status as a gay haven to paper over human rights abuses, is reserved for those who have the power to “pinkwash”–governments, primarily.
The conversation turned to the alliance between the U.S. and Israel and how to change it. Schulman was optimistic, and said that the U.S. would change before Israel would. “When significant subcultures move on Israel/Palestine, the U.S. will move,” said Schulman, explaining that, in her mind, that process is how the U.S. changes. She said that subcultures like the LGBT community, academia, students and progressive churches were already moving on the question of Palestine. Schulman also criticized the tendency of Americans to look to Jewish leftists to speak on behalf of Palestinians. For instance, while the term “pinkwashing” is now associated with Schulman, she said that the Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah coined the term.
The event marked the first time in two years that advocates of the BDS movement held forth at the LGBT Center. In 2011, the LGBT Center banned discussions of Israel and Palestine following the threat of a donor boycott from a gay porn producer and right-wing Zionist. The donor boycott was threatened since the LGBT Center was providing a venue to groups organizing against Israeli apartheid. One gay labor leader and supporter of Israel, Stuart Appelbaum, said that he was “aware of offices of elected officials reaching out to try to save the Center from itself…People at every level said they were going to call to find out what was going on.”
But last month, the LGBT Center reversed itself. And immediately after the LGBT Center lifted its moratorium after the decision to bar Schulman sparked renewed outrage, local gay officials issued a statement. While the officials, including Mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, expressed support for the lifting of the moratorium, they derided the BDS movement and the “pinkwashing” charge. “We categorically reject attempts by any organization to use the Center to delegitimize Israel and promote an anti-Israel agenda,” the officials stated.
Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, the group that organized the Schulman event, criticized the officials’ letter. “The elected officials’ makes clear, both to the Center and to the queer community, that the Center’s ban on mentioning Palestinians, queer or otherwise, has its source in powerful political circles,” the group said. “The bigotry institutionalized in New York City’s politics, which has chained our community center for the past two years, must still be challenged.”
Israeli Apartheid Week activities are continuing throughout the week.
Correction: This article originally reported that Schulman had known Israel advocate Jayson Littman personally for a number of years. That is incorrect; Littman says Schulman only knew of him and that they had only met once before.