On Queer Palestine and the Intersectional Critique

Discussing Queer Palestine in the Global North: two books reviewed


I have been wanting for a while now to dedicate one of my instagram-book-posts to Sarah Schulman’s Israel/ Palestine and the Queer International and one to Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique by Dr. Sa’ed Atshan. With selected passages from each book, as I usually do, because there is so much in both books that I know a lot of people can learn from. But with everything that is happening at the moment, I wanted to prioritise making people, especially those in Europe and North America, aware of these books as soon as possible and to not only limit this to an instagram post. I am sure there are many books that you can read / listen to, to inform yourself, but I wanted to highlight these two books that I’ve learned a lot from and have spoken to me the most.

Sarah Schulman is a Jewish queer activist, educator, novelist, with novels and non-fiction work that span over three decades. She has been an active member of ACT UP since 1987 and has co-founded the ACT UP Oral History Project. In Israel / Palestine and the Queer International, she describes her dawning consciousness of the Palestinian liberation struggle and expands on what she has learned along the way and the importance of queer solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Dr. Sa’ed Atshan is a Palestinian academic who is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, USA. In Queer Palestine and the Empire of Crtique he focuses on the rise of the Palestinian LGBTQ movement, the impact it had and still has both locally and internationally, as well as the global queer solidarity movement with the Palestinian liberation struggle.

With the global uprising of June 2020, it seemed as if a lot white folks, white institutions and so on, might finally make a massive shift towards truly valuing Black lives and putting forward material change. But seeing how things are going back to the way they were in the ‘underground’ dance music scene’ which I’m a part of, made me realize that most white folks are still not willing to push for material change. And when it comes to the lives of Palestinian people, most white people who consider themselves progressive, refuse to even do the bare minimum of speaking out in solidarity with the Palestinian people. With many of them using ‘not being well informed’ as an excuse. First of all, you don’t need to be ‘well informed’ to be against the oppression and killing of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. Secondly, I do understand the insecurities in discussions around supporting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, especially in Europe and North America, because most of our governments, if not all, are unapologetically pro Israel. Of course, the stance of our government heavily influences public discourse and vice versa and although things are changing, publicly expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people can still have a lot of negative consequences for some people, especially folks on the margins. But this is not the case for most people, especially those in a privileged position, and even if it does have consequences to stand for what’s right, isn’t it worth it?

When you stay silent, because you are not ‘well informed’ and you don’t put effort into educating yourself, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor. Lest we forget, white silence is violence. In Israel / Palestine and the Queer International Sarah Schulman discusses her own journey towards understanding and supporting the BDS movement and she is very honest about her own process.

“One of the strangest things about wilful ignorance regarding Israel and Palestine is how often “progressive” people, like myself, with histories of community activism and awareness, engage in it. In this way it somewhat parallels the history of homophobia, in that there are emotional blocks that keep many straight people from applying their general value systems to human rights for all. The irony, in my case, of being a lifelong activist and not doing the work to “get it” about Israel is deep and hard to both understand and convey. But I have come to learn that this insistent blindness is pervasive, and I want to use the opportunity of this book to confront and expose my own denial in a way that I hope will be helpful to others.”

There are those of us for whom support for Palestine was a given, because of the environment we grew up in or the friends we had early on. To them I’d like to say, and I want to emphasise that I am specifically speaking to folks in Europe and North America, some of us also need to educate ourselves to make sure that our solidarity is more in depth and not just on a reactionary level, which can sometimes reproduce anti-Semitic tropes. A mistake that is still made very often in Europe and North America that causes a lot of harm is, holding Jewish people all over the world accountable for the actions of the fascist Israeli state. Stop demanding from US-American Jews, Dutch Jews and so on, to speak on Israel. The right-wing, especially fundamental Christians and the Israeli government, push the narrative of equating Jewish people across the world with the state of Israel, even though there are Jewish led organisations in almost every country, including Israel, that stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation. So, as progressives we need to reject the equating of Jewish people with the Israeli state.

Dr. Sa’ed Atshan points out in ‘Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique’

“Although there can be overlap between anti-Semitism and opposition to Zionism, distinguishing between them is essential, and acknowledging that distinction is necessary in order to recognize when anti-Semitism has actually become manifest. From the Palestinian vantage point, what matters is not how Zionism is romanticized but how it is practiced.“

Big part of both books is the BDS movement and Brand Israel.

Dr. Sa’ed Atshan:

“In 2005 the Israeli government launched its Brand Israel campaign, and Palestinian civil society launched its Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS movement demands boycotts against institutions complicit in Israel’s system of oppression and has motivated queer Palestinian activists to cultivate transnational solidarity networks. Its genesis marked a turning point for queer Palestinian activists, connecting their activism not only to Palestinian and Israeli audiences but also to people around the world.”

Sarah Schulman:

“What makes BDS difficult is that it requires a critical mass of people to take the time to understand why it is necessary and how it works. And it is dependent on people outside of Palestine and Israel to carry it out. We have to be the ones to impose sanctions, or else there are no sanctions. It is a strategy devised by the oppressed, but dependent on allies. And as far as I can see, it is the strategy with the most potential for success.”

It is very important that we listen to the will of the Palestinian people and if you are on board with the BDS movement you respect and advocate for what the movement’s demands are. Remember, it is not about you, it is about the will of the Palestinian people. The 3 demands of the BDS movement are; 1. Ending Israeli occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall, 2. Recognising the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, 3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

Dr. Sa’ed Atshan:

“Boycotts have become the major tool and mode for engaging with Palestine solidarity globally, including in many LGBTQ communities. The formal endorsement of BDS by the queer Palestinian movement has provided LGBTQ Palestinians with a seat at the Palestinian civil society table, thereby challenging Palestinian homophobia and altering perceptions of queer Palestinians within Palestinian society.”

There is the narrative that being critical of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, which in Germany, combined with their collective public guilt for sins of the past, is deep embedded. So much so that BDS movement is compared to the Nazi boycott of Jewish people. And this narrative is so widely spread that even nightclubs organise a solidarity march for Israeli and release statements defining Palestinians is terrorists and Israelis is the sole victims. When Susan Slymovics, an established anthropologist and the daughter of a survivor of Shoah, was scheduled to speak at the Free University in Berlin in 2018, there were calls to cancel her appearance. And because of her support for the BDS movement, she was even labeled as Anti-Semitic.

Sarah Schulman:

Portraying BDS as “pro-Palestine and anti-Israel” makes it sound like a football game, with false assumptions of equality of positions and equal playing fields. What will be justice for the Jews will also be justice for the Palestinians.

It is important to understand that speaking up is not enough and we need to be fully on board with the BDS movement. This is especially important for those of us in Europe and North America, because most of our governments directly support the oppression and killing of Palestinian citizens, either financially and / or with arms deals. So if our country is standing with the state of Israel, it is our responsibility to write, call, e-mail, the elected officials we voted for.

In countries like the Netherlands where there is a multiparty-system, some parties are less clear about their support for the state of Israel, but Bij1 is a party that unapologetically stands with the Palestinian people. So it is your responsibility to address this with the party you voted for and specifically the candidate who received your vote. I am specifically addressing white people more than BPoC here, because white voices still carry more weight with those (white people) in power, and solidarity demands engagement and support across differences.

Sarah Schulman:

“I have been in antiwar demonstrations with Catholics who actively fight against abortion rights, which I consider to be essential to female autonomy. So the only reason that sharing a common outrage with Hamas at the killings in Gaza disturbed me more than all the other religious fundamentalists I had had some moment of common ground with in the past was my own prejudice. Once that conceptual gap was faced, I examined the specifics. Hamas was democratically elected. It doesn’t matter what I think about Hamas. What matters is that my country, the United States of America, is providing military aid to Israel, who in my name is committing war crimes. So, consistent with my lifetime of work for justice, my responsibility regarding Israel is to speak out against what is being done in my name with my tax money. Period. It’s not always so clean, these decisions, but they still need to be faced.”

Both books obviously also focus on the LGBTQ section of Brand Israel.

Sarah Schulman:

“At this point I sat down and with help from the anti-occupation global activist community, amassed a year-by-year documentary guide to pink- washing so that the history and context of this emerging paradigm could be more easily understood and confronted. And the first thing that became clear, while doing this work, was that pink-washing was a direct product of Israel’s remarketing campaign: Brand Israel.”

Dr. Sa’ed Atshan:

“As Palestinians and as queer people, they name Zionism and homophobia, respectively, as the two primary reasons for their marginalization. Yet pro-Israel queer advocates such as Jayson Littman relegate Zionism to an “other issue” from LGBTQ rights. For queer Palestinians, Zionism and homophobia are fundamentally connected through ethnoheteronormativity. Queer Palestinian activists also experience the Zionist demand not to “single out Israel” as a lack of ability to even articulate the source of their oppression.”

An argument that is used often in discussions by those who want to defend the oppressive Israeli state is, that “Israel is being singled out” and that “Singling out Israel is inherently anti-Semitic.”

Sarah Schulman:

“This is the weakest argument in this entire debate, and the one repeated the most. People never claim that Israel’s action does not violate international law. That’s a given. They simply argue that to do so is all right because others do it as well. It is disheartening to see members of the opposition be so careless and knee-jerk. I want them to have good reasons for their positions.”

There is also this idea, especially among white liberals, of being afraid of being labeled anti-Semitic and that excuse is used to not stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Instead they choose to be ‘neutral’ and think that Jewish people are the only people who can critique Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic, although, as shown above, even Jewish people are labeled anti-Semitic for being critical of Israel.

Sarah Schulman:

“I cannot overstate how much I hate and disagree with this statement. And even as I write this a year and a half later, I am sick of hearing it. As far as I am concerned, most non-Jews are anti-Semitic, and this simple assertion of the secret threat of the all-powerful Jew to brand some innocent Christian with the label “anti-Semite” is a good example. They don’t seem to be afraid of being anti-Semitic on a wide range of other planes. Only when it comes to criticizing Israel are they suddenly controlled by the thought.”

Sarah Schulman also addresses how some institutions who receive funding refuse to work with or de-platform those who are critical of Israel, because they fear that they will lose their funding, even when there is no proof that they will. This is mainly based on the anti-Semitic trope that Jewish people control everything, especially finance.

Sarah Schulman:

“I started to realize that there was a strange new configuration at play. The leaders of the LGBT Center, most of whom were not Jews, appeared to believe, without evidence, that there was a contingent of rich, vengeful, punitive gay Jews—whose names no one seemed to know—that were funding all our LGBT institutions. That, if we continued to have free speech and open debate in our community, these unnamed punitive rich Jews would take their Jew money and shut down the community.”

By now I hope it is clear how important reading / listening to these two books is. They show that ignorance is a choice; that evidence-based opposition to specific present-day Israeli actions is not anti-Semitic prejudice; that some anxiety around criticising Israel is itself rooted in anti-Semitism; that solidarity around basic human rights doesn’t require agreement on all contentious issues; and that LGBTQ+ rights and Palestinian rights are not in opposition. Both books obviously discuss more than these topics. In Dr. Atshan’s book there is an entire chapter dedicated to LGBTQ+ Palestinians and their resistance, Sarah Schulman talks in detail about her part in the first LGBTQ+ delegation from the United States to Palestine organised by Al-Qaws and Aswa, which took place in 2011 (which was co-led by Dr. Atshan). Schulman also talks about the anti-occupation queer Israelis she met and Dr. Atshan about how queer Jewish Israelis are one of the most vigourous and vocal supporters of Palestinian queers. The usage of the term apartheid to describe Israel is also discussed in both books, alongside the boycott movement against South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the role that news media and films play, to name a few.

I’d like to end with this passage from Sarah Schulman’s book:

How did the Europeans, who caused the pain in the first place, get off scot-free, while the Palestinians, who had nothing to do with it, ended up paying the price?

Here are things you can and in my opinion should do and tell your family and friends to do:

Buy both books through your local bookshop or get them directly from the publisher. I’d recommend reading / listening to Sarah Schulman’s book first.

Israel/ Palestine and the Queer International by Sarah Schulman, Duke University Press (2012)

Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique by Dr. Sa’ed Atshan, Stanford University Press (2020)