The recent controversial endorsements of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and 1980s feminist icon Gloria Steinem brought into prominence a long-standing division between powerful, privileged white women’s “feminism,” (if it might even be called that), and intersectional feminism, with its focus on the necessity of analyzing overlapping and intersecting systems of oppression. That rift is most pronounced when it comes to Palestine, where solidarity has been selectively extended, or rather, restricted, to a small segment of the population, thus exonerating Israel of its wholescale oppression of the entire Palestinian nation. However, as more and more people understand the interconnectedness of struggles against state-sanctioned violence globally, and join the growing network of anti-racist coalitions, there are indications that the insularity of the question of Palestine is finally eroding.
Albright’s incongruous comment, that there is a “special place in hell” for women who do not stick together, was met with immediate reminders that she had once dismissed the killing of 500,000 Iraqi children as “worth the price” of US-imposed sanctions on Iraq. The callousness of such a remark reeked of the anti-Arab racism that has unfortunately characterized all recent US administrations. After all, she was secretary of state under Bill Clinton, a supposed progressive Democrat. And Hillary Clinton is trying hard to project herself as the “more progressive than thou” candidate, with a stellar foreign policy record. Clearly, she is not concerned by her role in the devastation of any number of Arab and Muslim countries. And she proudly flaunts her support for Israel—unwavering, and unconditional of course. Indeed, she seems utterly unfazed by the fact that her support for Israel comes at a time when that country itself has veered so far to the right that it now openly acknowledges that it is practicing apartheid. Obviously, in her view, establishing and maintaining a “Jewish democracy” is worth the price of the subjugation of an entire people. A self-proclaimed “progressive feminist,” Clinton thus nevertheless fully embraces the dehumanization of Palestinians that Zionist supremacy hinges on.
Clinton is sadly representative of a large segment of Global North feminists who still fail to grasp the macro-environment of Israeli, state-sanctioned gender violence against the Palestinian people, preferring instead to look exclusively at the micro-culture, and blaming Arab patriarchy and Islamic fundamentalism for the oppression of Palestinian women and gays. Yet women and queer groups in Palestine are quite articulate in their demands that solidarity not single them out, because they will never be free so long as they live under Israeli occupation and apartheid.
It is important to note that virtually every Palestinian women’s organization is part of the Palestinian civil organization’s call for global solidarity in the form of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel until it abides by international law and stops violating the human rights of the Palestinians. Since that call was first issued in 2005, various women’s organizations have repeatedly issued more calls for solidarity in their struggle not against Islamic fundamentalism, but against the Israeli occupation. When a delegation of US-based women of color and indigenous women visited the West Bank in 2012, Palestinian women repeated that call, explaining: “We are not asking you for heroic action or to form freedom brigades. We are simply asking you not to be complicit in perpetuating the crimes of the Israeli state.”
More recently, in November 2015, Palestinian women in East Jerusalem issued another call, also asking for solidarity in their struggle against the largest oppressor, Israel. “We women of occupied East Jerusalem call for immediate protection as we witness and suffer the widespread and serious violations of Palestinian human rights, including physical attacks and injuries, severe psychological threats, and persecution by the Israeli settler-colonial state and settler entities.”
The entire letter is an eloquent and persuasive expose of Israeli state violence leading to the feminization of poverty, even the feminization of slavery, couched within an analysis of Israeli violence against the entire Palestinian people, not just women and children.
The refusal of Global North feminists to acknowledge the reality of life under occupation for the Palestinian people is a refusal to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes against an entire people. As such, it reflects a narrow focus on who can be a victim: women, children, and, in the 21st century formulation of colonialist savior feminism, queer people. Maya Mikdashi’s aptly titled “Can Palestinian Men Be Victims?” crystallizes the denial of the humanity of Palestinian men that Zionism hinges on, which is most obvious when Global North feminists denounce the “disproportionate number of women and children” killed in Israeli assaults.
Palestinian men, according to this logic, are always-already guilty, non-civilian, terrorists, eminently killable. “Women and children” are redeemable, but only because they are always-already victims, with no agency. And this disempowered status can conveniently be blamed on Arab patriarchy.
This selective focus, which lets Israel off the hook, is denounced by many Global South feminists, who understand that Israel, as a settler-colonial state, is the major player in oppressive dynamics, including but not restricted to gender roles. They understand that Palestinian women cannot be “free” until Israel stops violating their human rights as Palestinians. Thus intersectional feminism highlights, and seeks to end, the invisibilizing of the suffering of the entire Palestinian people, old and young, ’48 and 67 and Diaspora, men, women, and children of all sexualities.
Similarly, Palestinian queers are adamant that their liberation cannot happen without the liberation of the entire Palestinian people. Groups such as PQBDS (Palestinian Queers for BDS) and Al-Qaws have consistently denounced attempts to divide Palestinian society by focusing only on the oppression of queers that results from Palestinian homophobia. They point out that there is no magic pink door in the Apartheid wall, and that Israel does not distinguish between straight and gay Palestinians before dropping bombs on densely-populated neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip, demolishing a Palestinian home in East Jerusalem or displacing entire communities from their ancestral land in the Naqab.
Yet there are hopeful indications that this counter-productive myopic vision—a myopia that would skim over millions of Palestinians, simply because they are men, or straight—is finally eroding in the Global North. Among the more important recent developments is the landslide vote in favor of BDS by the NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) in November 2015, which Palestinian feminist scholar Rabab Abdulhadi called a “browning of the institution.”
The vote represented an understanding that justice is indivisible, and that global feminist solidarity is necessarily an anti-colonial, intersectional practice, rather than a diamond-bejeweled white fist raised towards a glass ceiling which prevents privileged women from achieving the presidency of the world’s largest hypermilitarized imperial power.
Similarly, the disruption of the pinkwashing workshop at the Creating Change Conference in Chicago in January 2016 was a clear sign that a growing number of gender activists in the US realize that queer struggles cannot be used as a smokescreen to conceal Israeli war crimes. That disruption was coordinated by a diverse national coalition of queers of color who challenged the Zionist narrative of Israel as a haven of tolerance, diversity, modernity. More importantly, the disruption articulated a recognition that pinkwashing, as it focuses exclusively on the oppression of queer Palestinians in what is presented as an irredeemably homophobic and violent, “barbaric” micro-society, has the sinister effect of dehumanizing all but openly gay Palestinians.
Zionist ideology seeks to create a Jewish supremacist nation that hinges on the brutal subjugation of an entire people. But as with the rejection of Clinton and Albright’s “feminism,” the outrage over Israel’s crimes is spreading, and a growing number of voices are stating, loud and clear, that the price of the “Jewish democracy” is not worth it.
With the understanding that Zionism is the greater oppressor of the Palestinian people comes the responsibility to avoid complicity in this system. In the US, we cannot look to our next president, whoever s/he might be, to do so. But we can and are organizing at the grassroots level to help expose, challenge, and ultimately abolish, Israeli apartheid.