It will be easier for our movement of subcultures to change the US than to change Israel — Sarah Schulman

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One of the most important voices in the American discussion of the issue is Sarah Schulman, the novelist and longtime queer activist who published a stunning piece on pinkwashing in the New York Times last year and then gave a really smart talk about how to organize a vanguard movement at the boycott conference in Philly in February. Schulman went to Israel and Palestine last month to show her new film about the AIDS movement– trailer above. I caught up with her on the phone the other day and asked her some questions.

When did you get back, Sarah?

We got back April 22. We were there for 10 days.

Why did you go?

Well the purpose of the trip was that Jim Hubbard and I have been collaborators for 25 years. We started New York’s LGBT film festival 25 years ago. The MIX festival. And we collaborated on a film about the history of ACT UP. [The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power] called United in Anger, a history of ACT UP. ACT UP was the last American social movement that was successful. We thought people in the opposition could learn a lot from that. And we didn’t want to take it to an Israeli film festival. They’re all state-funded. So we had a popup BDS film festival. Our New York premiere was at the Museum of Modern Art. Our international premiere was in Ramallah.


Sarah Schulman
Sarah Schulman

It was at Al Mahatta gallery on Saturday, April 14. Al Mahattah is an artists-run gallery in Ramallah, They have 2 beautiful exhibition spaces. They have traditional arts and crafts there too, jewelry and embroidery, but they also have a contemporary art exhibition space. And they were extremely gracious in welcoming us. We had a small and mixed audience. There were gay and straight, women and men and the response was incredible. They responded to the high price the AIDS activists paid, how many years they fought, and how brilliantly they changed their tactics. So that was a really great experience.

The next night we went to Tel Aviv, to Rogatka, an anarchist vegan café. It was a mostly Jewish audience. A lot of academics came and progressive queer activists came. I’d met some of them there the last time, in 2010 when I boycotted Tel Aviv University. There were various leaders of the trans movement, anarchists against the wall. And we got the Jewish response. They really appreciated the film, but they did not necessarily feel inspired, they felt envious. They didn’t think they could ever be in a movement like that. I think they could.

On the 16th we screened the film at the Alqaws (For sexual and gender diversity in Palestinian society) office in West Jerusalem, for 60 people. What was great was that it was a mixed audience—Jewish queer people were coming to a Palestinian space for events. A young Palestinian in the queer movement said that learning about ACT UP reminded her of when her parents told her about the first intifadah. There are a lot of similarities. The many years, the high stakes. Palestinians carried their dead through the streets as AIDS activists did. Also there is a section of the film that’s set during the first Gulf War in 91, when activists interrupted the Dan Rather news program, saying “Fight AIDS, not Arabs”.

Palestinian audiences responded to this, it’s a moment intersectionality– of course not knowing that so many years ago, people with AIDS were opposing the Gulf War and opposing anti-Arab sentiment.

How was Jim about not showing in the Israeli film festivals?

He started a gay film festival with me 25 years ago; he had no problem with not showing the film in state-sponsored venues. There was some backlash, however, from the director of the Tel Aviv lesbian and gay festival who posted on facebook that our film was boring and we were mean, and we were boycotting Israeli gays. Ironic charges, since any Israeli could come see the film if they wre willing to go to an anti-occupation or a Palestinian space. Apparently this style of denunciation is now de rigeur in some Israeli circles. But we weren’t familiar with the tactic.

We felt that his anger showed that BDS is working. I know we’re not the only queer filmmakers withholding work from state-sponsored festivals. Though we were the first to take our film on a popup BDS tour.

On the 17th we were hosted by Isha L’Isha. They are incredible, do you know them? The women’s organization in Haifa. They’re very radical, they published an incredible report on the role of silence in Israeli culture. They’re at the Haifa women’s center, they share space with Aswat: Palestinian Queer Women, and Kayan-the Palestinian feminist network. We were hosted by a women’s studies professor at Bar Ilan, a settlers’ university. It was a very small, mixed Palestinian and Jewish audience, and then we had a really incredible experience, in an Arabic theater, the al Midan theater in Haifa, hosted by Aswat, with the Palestinian cinema association and Baladna [Arab youth organization]. This was an entirely Palestinian audience.

The tour enabled us to revisit old friends, make new ones, and it helped the Palestinian queer groups develop new partnerships with straight Palestinian groups they hadn’t worked with extensively before. Then we went to the Ana Lulu bar in Jaffa, for a gay sort of mixed screening. And Jim went to Bi’lin to participate in the weekly protest and teargassing, and then Jim went with B’Tselem on a tour of the West bank and I went to Nablus and met with people from Palestinian queers for BDS. I already knew them, and we spent the day together. I’d met them in Ramallah two years ago. We’ve done a few projects together. It’s been two years of successful partnering.

Then we came home.

Were you exhausted?

No. It was a great experience. It was exhilarating.

When was the MOMA premiere?


Was that a different crowd?

No, actually similar audiences. Our New York audience was all ACT UP people, people highly engaged at creating change, and people with a lot of faith. There are a lot of parallels between the AIDS movement and the Palestinian movement. Don’t forget that when AIDS started, homosexuality was illegal. You could be fired from your job, denied housing. You’re talking about two communities of people who are profoundly oppressed, and there were very high stakes. 500,000 people have died of AIDS in the United States, 80,000 in New York City alone. In the early 80s, no one was helping them, and they had no rights, and there was a feeling of being very alone. So there’s a lot of resonance between the two movements.

That makes me optimistic.

You should be. One thing that’s happening is the relationship between US queers and Palestinian queers and their Israeli allies is just deepening and evolving day by day. We’ve done a number of major events that are impacting on other communities. There are a lot of elements coming together. The in-person experience, the individual relationship, the organizational relationship, the institution building. Now it will be easier for other films to do BDS screenings and stay out of the Israeli film festivals.

And there was enormous word of mouth. We left copies of the film everywhere, in Palestine and Israel, and thousands of people read about it on facebook, so the knowledge of the events 100-fold surpasses the number who went to them.

Tell me more about the parallels between the movements and what other other movements can learn from ACT UP.

The most important strategic lesson is that if a tactic does not work, do not repeat it. Most people on the left constantly repeat tactics that don’t work. ACT UP was creative because they had to be, because lives were at stake. They were taking chances, being outrageous and ahead in tactical choices. That is the way to go. Be specific. ACT-UP never would hold a boring march with signs and have speakers. That’s the left wing paradigm. They did direct action, they learned from Martin Luther King. If a lunch counter is segregated, they didn’t give speeches saying “Please desegregate,” they took action to desegregate it. Obviously the level of state and police repression impacts on the range of tactics. During the AIDS crisis, hundreds of thousands died of government neglect, not from police violence. But in the States the Palestinian solidarity movement can learn from that history of creative direct action ACT UP participated in.

ACT UP needed the Food and Drug Administration to change the ways drugs got approval and were researched, so they shut down the FDA. They made it impossible for the FDA to function. They did it in a way that was theatrical, and the media could not ignore it. The costumes they had, and the way they did civil disobedience. At the beginning of the crisis, they did symbolic die-ins, with grave headstones made of cardboard. By the end they were literally carrying their dead through the streets. And throwing their lovers’ ashes on the White House lawn. These were the actions of desperate people.

And Palestine?

There is so much to learn from the Palestinians. We have seen an enormous amount of tactical change on the Palestinian side. BDS is a very significant tactical change. The hunger strikes are far more dramatic in their way than anything that ever happened in Ireland, even though they’re not getting the same coverage. The discussion at the one-state conference last spring was innovative and open-hearted. There’s a great deal of forward thinking and innovation coming from these movements.

You don’t have any xenophobia about going into Palestine, no apprehension about an Arab Muslim space?

I have very little affinity with religious people. So I don’t identify with ultrareligious views, be they from Muslims or Christians or Jews. I do identify with secular people around the world who are interested in women’s rights and increasingly in gay rights. That’s an international category. Those are my people. The fact of their religious or national identity is irrelevant. We share this larger principle of secular feminism.

The abolitionist John Brown was a strict Calvinist; and religiously committed people were very important in Egypt and in the hunger strikes.

I don’t oppose religious people. I personally am not that comfortable working with very religious people. I have a high comfort level with my community, which is where I can be effective. It transcends nation; there’s a queer international. There’s a global queer community of people who experience their sexuality differently based on their cultural context. But what they share is a desire to be integrated into their own societies, whatever that would be. There are people in BDS movement and in the queer movement who wear hijab, who are fierce feminists and intellectuals and great friends and allies.

What about the stereotype of Palestinian society as a repressed traditional society versus modern Israeli society?

Within the gay community there is a highly funded campaign on behalf of the Israeli government to say that gay rights for Jews in Israel means that Israel is a progressive country, which is absolutely false. They’re trying to separate gay rights from human rights. It’s hard for me to even understand that conceptually. But they are very active right now, sending the Israeli ambassador to all these gay events, and speaking at synagogues. They are making a push to say that the occupation doesn’t matter. So it’s very confusing to people, and it’s hard to refute. The Jewish gay community is being told, it’s irrelevant that Palestinian human rights are violated and internationals’ human rights are violated, because in Israel we have certain kinds of gay rights and therefore we are progressive. It’s confusing to a lot of gay people. And they don’t understand that a lot of this is funded by the Israeli government. They think this is a normative discourse that’s naturally arisen. They don’t understand that it’s constructed. It’s like arguing that daddy is beating your sister but he’s giving you chocolate, so he should be praised. The gay community is being bombarded with this message right now. It is a sign that we’re being successful.

I have a friend who works in a feminist thinktank. When I talk about Palestine, she says, Yes but Hamas. What do you say to her?

Look at the United States. We’re having a crisis because we can’t separate religion and politics, and this American crisis is part of a global crisis, and it’s certainly true in Israel. It’s not specific to any region. The real question is, Who is “we”? Like when some Jewish people say, “they should not outnumber us”. Who is “us”? Those crazy religious settlers don’t identify with secular queer Jewish people. Instead of going for these kneejerk false characterizations of who one’s community is, I look much more to the substance of people—artists, feminists, intellectuals, queer and queer-friendly people.

This is my big problem with the two staters. They want to work inside the Jewish community. But if they organized in the larger community, they would find a lot of people who shared their values but not their religion. It’s an argument for one united democratic state.

Yes. One of many advantages of the one state vision is that the religious extremists whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian won’t get together, they won’t unite. That allows the rest of us- openminded Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druse, to get together and figure out what kind of society we want to have.

How optimistic are you politically about the US on this issue?

I think the bigger strategy here is that in America, change comes from subcultures. It does not come from the center. A lot of subcultures can be engaged on this issue. There are secular Jews, LGBT people, African Americans, academics, artists, students and Arab Americans. Each of these communities has its own leaders and own credibility. They don’t look to dominant media. Each of those communities is doing countercultural thinking about the issue. This is how America changes. This is how the AIDS movement succeeded. The largest demonstration ACT UP ever had was 7000. You don’t need a majority, you need a critical mass that’s very focused and forward thinking. At the beginning, gay people had no rights and there was complete discrimination against gays in the culture. There was no treatment for AIDS, they didn’t know what caused it. But what transformed that very high level of indifference and neglect was that the AIDS crisis was very broad. It was the highest cause of death for young women of color. And you could build a coalition of straight and gay women, whites and people of color, the broad gay community, IV drug users, people infected through drug transfusion– whatever communities they had around them. That’s how that movement grew. They were very very strategic. They picked goals that were winnable, doable and reasonable. They proposed solutions that made sense, and they used direct action to win those goals. To force the powers that opposed them to negotiate.

Which is why I always get back to the thing– there needs to be much more visibility for the Palestinian side in the US media, there needs to be a human face for Palestine, spokespeople that Americans can relate to, like the Israelis have spokespeople in the media. That’s unfortunately true, but it’s true. The IMEU is doing an incredible job. But I think the movement also requires some kind of corporate agency. Publicists and pr firms. As distasteful as that is, that’s how the media works. Almost every article you read in the New York Times is part of a PR campaign. Interest groups pressure media for coverage

Did that happen in the AIDs movement?

Those advocates were not available. No one was interested in helping people with AIDS. There was no alternative strategy beside the broad coalition. However, there were very experienced press and advertising people with AIDS in the movement who had connections and savvy. In this case it seems to me that it’s easier to change the United States than it is to change Israel. So you need spokespeople based in New York, who Americans can relate to, being put forward regularly as the go-to person, as the equal-time person, with a sophisticated media apparatus. Even when Abbas-whatever you think of him– spoke to the UN. That was quite a speech, but he didn’t smile, he didn’t look at the camera. There was no acknowledgment of contemporary media. Watch Obama, he’s the opposite. Smiley, charismatic, tells jokes, is plain spoken. He’s  a great media model, whatever you think of the policies.

What does “apparatus” mean?

Apparatus is the mechanism of power. If you’re an outsider, it doesn’t just happen. No one in America gets a voice because the dominant culture decides it should. The system has to be forced against its will to transform. Apparatus is multipronged. You need to have creative activity in different subcultures for a change in US policy. You need much more activity on campuses. Though the SJPs are very exciting, you need to build more support for BDS, more support for divestment, more media approaches.

What about the fact that Jews have been such a factor in liberal causes in this country, such leaders, and on this issue they’re conservative, so that affects the whole leftwing discourse?

There’s a lot of misinformation. A lot of American Jews support the two state solution because they think that’s a progressive position. I was at the one-state conference at Harvard, there were many luminaries, including emeritus professors, and there was no media coverage. They don’t get substantive information. If they knew that young Jewish people are shooting tear gas at peaceful demonstrators  every Friday in Bil’in or if American Jews had to walk through the Qalandiya checkpoint and confront the fact that it has nothing to do with security and everything to do with humiliation– there would be a shift. I don’t think they’ve seen it with a human face.

This is where I differ. I think they have the information and they don’t care.

Look at my own experience. I’m 53. If you told me as a child that a Jewish person would go into a village and commit an atrocity, I would have said, that’s insane. I was born 13 years after the holocaust, so I grew up thinking that’s impossible. Now I know that happened in 1948 at Deir Yassin. I didn’t have that information. You never see coverage of secular Palestinians. There are a number of universities in the West Bank, but you never see coverage of the Palestinian college students in the NYT magazine or the New Yorker.

Our difference is that I think you are confusing cause and effect, that there’s a role our religious community plays in all this–

True. They have been hung up on racial supremacy.

But that’s a conversation for another time. Thanks Sarah!

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“They’re very radical, they published an incredible report on the role of silence in Israeli culture.”

I would love to hear more about this

What a superb interview. It’s all about the abuse of power. “Even when Abbas-whatever you think of him– spoke to the UN. That was quite a speech, but he didn’t smile, he didn’t look at the camera. There was no acknowledgment of contemporary media.” I don’t think it would have made any difference. He didn’t speak English. I think it goes way deeper than PR . The Palestinians are an abused nation. Ordinary goys all… Read more »

Israel looks impregnable close up but it lacks the capacity to reinvent itself that the US has. Obama’s u-turn on gay marriage is very interesting because it shows how the politics can change to follow the people- at least on social issues. Economics are a different matter. The US could give up slavery and Jim Crow and embrace gayness . Israel can’t accept the Palestinians . It’s a far more brittle polity based on an… Read more »

Very interesting conservation between you and Sarah…..very sharp, both of you.
I think she is right about subcultures..and if they put ‘brutally honest’,not mealy mouth typical pc displays out there in our political faces they can be very powerful.

“The most important strategic lesson is that if a tactic does not work, do not repeat it. Most people on the left constantly repeat tactics that don’t work. ACT UP was creative because they had to be, because lives were at stake. They were taking chances, being outrageous and ahead in tactical choices. That is the way to go. Be specific. ACT-UP never would hold a boring march with signs and have speakers. ” Ain’t… Read more »