In the Flesh website editor Ella Boureau recently sat down with Sarah Schulman, activist, teacher and author of 17 books, to discuss her new title Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. It is a fascinating read, written in plain English that ties American queer politics to international anti-colonial struggles. A long time activist in the women’s movement, member of Act-Up, and founder of the Lesbian Avengers, Schulman has a particularly in-depth and long-ranging view of late twentieth century Leftist organizing, which makes her analysis of the Israel/Palestine conflict personal, relatable and pulse with relevance.
A full version of this interview, in which Schulman recounts her struggles against censorship in her efforts to promote Palestinian voices — both in the publication of her work and in her efforts to organize a conference on Homonationalism at CUNY — can be found at In the Flesh.
Ella Boureau: I think the best way to start for people who haven’t read the new book is to summarize why you took the trip to Israel, which led to writing the book.
Sarah Schulman: In 2009 I published a book on homophobia in the family [Ties that Bind], and as a consequence I got an invitation from Tel Aviv University to give the keynote address at a Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference. I really wanted to go, because I had a lot of homophobia in my family and there was something about discussing that to a Jewish audience that was appealing to me. I was talking to a colleague at work, who is a Turkish Jew, and said to her, “Oh, I’m going to the University of Tel Aviv,” and she was like, “Oh no, you can’t go. There’s a boycott.” I responded, “What boycott? Never heard of it.” She said, “Well, you should find out.” So I emailed two people: Naomi Klein and Judith Butler. Naomi Klein never answered me and Judith Butler got back to me in four hours and put me in touch with all these great people in Israel — Jewish queer academics.
They all explained why I should decline and what the boycott was. In 2005 a coalition called Palestinian Civil Society — and when you look at the list it’s dentists, social workers, teachers, unions, all these types of organizations — asked the rest of us in the world to participate in an economic and cultural boycott of Israel, based on the boycott of Apartheid South Africa. Tel Aviv University was under this boycott because in Israel the universities are not independent from the government, so when you boycott it doesn’t mean you don’t go to Israel, it just means you don’t normalize state-funded institutions. I looked around and talked to a lot of people and realized that there was no other strategy that was as viable as economic boycott. Because when I looked at everything else that people were recommending, none of it was working.
Well, uh, violence [laughs]. Seriously. Violence is a strategy that Palestine has used, unsuccessfully, and it has hurt them. Israeli violence tries to decimate [Palestinians] and kill them all and just obliterate them, so that doesn’t work either. Peace talks are a joke. Netanyahu doesn’t want peace; he just wants to take their land. The Oslo agreement was as disaster. I just didn’t see that there was anybody who had an idea that was better than the nonviolent boycott, so I realized I had to abide by it. I made a public statement saying that I declined in favor of the boycott, and that it was recommended to me by Jewish queers in Israel that I do a solidarity visit instead. So I got my ticket on my frequent flyer miles, and people — I have no connection to Israel, very little — other people in the queer diaspora set me up.
Now in the meantime, I had gotten an email from PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), who are set in Ramallah, from a guy whose name was Omar Barghouti. He had been a student at Columbia in the 1980s during the South African divestment, which served as a model for the current boycott. He sent me an email saying, “Dear Professor Schulman, thank you for taking this principled stance, blah, blah,” and suddenly I thought, “I wonder what he thinks about queer people.” The reason I had that thought was that there’s a long history of the U.S. Left supporting anti-gay regimes — especially Cuba. I didn’t know any gay Palestinian people. I had never heard of any organizations, I didn’t know anything about Palestine. I had the same anti-Arab stereotypes that everybody had. But somehow in my heart I knew that they were there and I didn’t want to participate in something that was going to hurt them. So I wrote him back and said, “I’m coming on this solidarity visit, if I come to Ramallah, will you meet with me to talk about queer politics?” And he said yes. So that’s how this whole thing started.
Could you talk a little bit about homonationalism and pinkwashing, the central terms that you deal with in the book?
Homonationalism is a phrase coined by Jasbir Puar, this professor at Rutgers. She can tell you her exact definition, but here’s how I understand it because it’s morphing as an idea: There’s an enormous continuum of experience for queer people right now. I have students who are in the most profoundly oppressed group you can possibly imagine. And then I know men who are so entitled that they have in fact more advantage than straight people because they can access two male incomes. So it’s the entire spectrum of oppression and privilege. For people on the more privileged side of it, particularly in countries where they have gay rights, which in the United States we don’t have, but in the Netherlands, for example, you’re seeing that once the obstacle of homophobia is removed, people start to identify with their racial and religious dominant categories that they were formally excluded from because of homophobia. Now they can embrace Christian supremacy, or in the case of Israel, Jewish supremacy or White supremacy and join anti-immigrant movements and all this kind of thing, as openly gay people.
This is because one of the really significant things that has changed in the world is that the primary opposition to homosexuality is religious. There’s very little secular right-wing anti-gay activity anymore. So right-wing nationalists who are for the most part anti-Muslim and anti-Muslim immigration are now welcoming white gay people, and some of them officially so. That’s homonationalism: it’s when the only thing that kept people from a nationalist identity is homophobia, and once that homophobia is removed they embrace all these racist and religious supremacy categories. In the United States it’s a little bit different because we don’t have gay rights, but look at the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell campaign: “if you kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan we will grant you a certain kind of citizenship.” So it is similar, although it’s aimed at the poorest people, the people who go into the military. It has that American twist, in that it’s aimed at the poor.
Pinkwashing — which I’ve highly documented in my book, so people can go check out all my facts — is a deliberate policy by the Israeli government to exploit the hard-won gains of the gay community in Israel. To market Israel as a modern progressive company by using certain kinds of symbols of gay life, like gay pride in Tel Aviv for example, as emblems of modernity, thereby whitewashing the crimes of the occupation. That’s why it’s called pinkwashing.
This is one of the things that really interested me in your book. You talked about how Brand Israel figured this out, that gay people are always at the bottom of the society and if you figure out how to market gay life that —
But that’s not their motive, their motive is that gay men of a certain age were the most culturally influential demographic.
How did they figure that out, though?
Well, they had three years of pro bono work from Saatchi & Saatchi and Young & Rubicam — the number one marketers of the world. So they had access to the most sophisticated market slicing possible. Because let me tell you, Israel’s not marketing to women, they’re not pinkwashing to gay women, they’re only pinkwashing to men, because they want men’s money, because men have the influence on the culture because of their incomes.
Didn’t you even say a certain age bracket?
Sixteen to twenty-four.
Which is interesting because I wouldn’t think that the age of sixteen to twenty four would be the most powerful income-wise.
Well, supposedly they don’t have families to support, so there’s that. So they have extra income. But you know, Jews are smart. I will never deny that Jews are smart [laughs] and they approached this whole re-branding thing brilliantly, but they forgot one thing, which is that, you know, a lot of what they’re saying is not true.
There’s a moment in the book when you’re talking to journalist Udi Aloni, and you’re about to take the trip, and he says something like, “Well, you know, what about feminism? What about honor killings and all this stuff?” because you were talking about supporting Palestinian queers, and you say that you were surprised that what came out of your mouth was, “That’s not my job right now.”
I’m just wondering if you could talk some more about that, because my personal reaction to this was two-sided. Where I was like, “Yes, that seems necessary for focus, but I also wonder if there’s something else behind it, where there’s now a fundamental lesbian distrust of feminist organizing?”
Not by me. I mean, I think that I was really right to say that. I think what I was responding against was the way that Arab culture and Muslim culture gets pathologized in the United States by looking at “the treatment of women.” I mean, my students on Staten Island who are very uninformed and very prejudiced, they all have this belief that women are treated badly in the Arab world even though many of them are in violent situations or don’t have control over their reproduction. Because they just look at being covered as having a meaning that it may not have. So [Udi] was trying to play with me with that. This idea that is basically Jewish supremacy, even though Orthodox Jewish women are also covered and controlled. But this idea that “I’m a modern person and Arab women are treated badly. And my responsibility as a feminist is to rescue them” and all of that is very misguided. So I think that I was resisting that. Later when I got involved with all the queer people, it’s all run by lesbians. It’s all women . . . the Palestinian queer movement is entirely run by women who are extremely feminist and put feminism up front. Their global network is run by queer women around the world. Some of whom are truly queer, some of whom are actually lesbian but use the word queer.
And they are in feminist coalitions. Like Aswat, the Palestinian lesbian organization, is part of Kayan, which is the Palestinian feminist coalition, and they share an office. So feminism is completely integrated into these movements. What Udi was doing was he was dangling the red herring, the false consciousness, because this idea that the West is going to rescue Arab women or Muslim women is absurd. We need to be rescued. I was thinking about this during the Obama election. What actually is the condition of women and children in the United States? Women do not have reproductive rights, because we don’t have healthcare. Women are still earning 74 cents to every dollar a man is earning. Women are getting foreclosed on at a rate that’s incredibly high as compared to men. Women make up homeless people more than men.
If you look at — women got kicked out of the army for being queer more than men, even though the emblematic Don’t Ask Don’t Tell thing was this handsome, studly gay man. So what is the condition of women in the United States? There’s this assumption that we’re so advanced here. We’re behind the rest of the Western World. There are only seven states in the US that reimburse abortion. I think my instinct was really good, because I hear the same arguments all the time. It’s the propaganda machine. And it’s always about, “You should move to Saudi Arabia and see how you like living there.” Well, what does that have to do with the occupation?
Why do you think white Western feminist organizations resist solidarity with Palestinian organizations?
It’s Zionism. The feminist movement is very Jewish. Every oppositional movement is — the Left, historically, has had a lot of Jews, with many Jewish leaders. For example, I think the Feminist Press is having a Zionist problem right now. It’s New York City, this is the epicenter of ill-informed ambivalence about Israel.
Do you want to talk about your evolution on Israel, which you discuss in the book?
I mean, it’s so long. Let me say that I grew up in New York City, which I think is the best place in the world for Jews and I think they should all move here and forget about Israel. Because when you grow up in New York, you’re culturally normal, but you’re not dominant, and a lot of people who grew up in the suburbs have this whole thing about Jewish Centers and this type of thing, and I never had that because I didn’t need to have a “Jewish identity.” I didn’t need to belong to a Jewish organization because just being here was fine. So even though my generation was the most pushed towards Zionism, I didn’t have that, because it was really a suburban thing. And we never had discussions about Zionism in our community pro or con because it wasn’t even something that was on the table.
Do you think that was something that was specific to your family though? Because you were saying that New York is the epicenter of where all this Zionist censorship is happening.
Well I think that hasn’t been examined. I didn’t go to Israel as a kid or anything like that. It just wasn’t part of our consciousness even though I do have a lot of relatives there, and I do come from a Holocaust family. You know, I did have certain assumptions about Israel that were wrong. I thought that they were being persecuted by Arabs, because that’s what we were told. But it was the other way around, actually, and I didn’t understand that.
I think it’s interesting, the distinction you make in the book about being a diasporic Jew and having a nationalist identity. It made me realize that I’ve always wondered why I don’t feel particularly tied to a nationalistic identity, and reading that, putting it together with my father’s immigrant status, and my being an alienated lesbian kid in the suburbs, I was like, Oh, that makes sense, it makes sense why I don’t identify strongly with the State. And I think that’s true for a lot of minority people in the United States. I think that reading this book makes it clear why [if you are an American minority], Palestinian solidarity makes sense. But I had never put it together before.
Yeah. We are just so under-informed. And the opposition is so vicious, they won’t allow the conversation. I think that also, on our side, a lot of it has been very ideological, for a long time. Very marginal language and stuff like that. And now it’s moving more into the mainstream. I’m a member of PEN. And for a few years a few of us were trying to get a panel of Palestinian writers at PEN and we’ve been obstructed.
By PEN. They had to be in dialogue with Israelis, or they had to have Thomas Freidman from the New York Times moderating, or it had to be at the 92nd St. Y. Like somehow they couldn’t just talk, it always had to be controlled by Jews. Finally this year we were able to get a panel of Palestinian writers, where they can talk about themselves and their writing. It’s going to be part of the PEN Voices Conference. That’s very significant because it’s the largest international literary conference in the United States.
Shifting gears, I want you to talk a little bit about something you say later on in your book, about being in the “prison of privilege” and how being under-informed is an unconscious choice.
Is it unconscious? I don’t know. I mean, there are a lot of people who did the work that I never did. So what’s the difference between them and me? I mean, I just avoided it. I knew that what was going on in Israel was wrong, I just decided to never deal with it, somehow.
But it’s not like you weren’t active doing other things, or giving your time to other causes. Don’t you think that it’s also a question of timing?
No, there was something in me. I didn’t want to deal with it. And I see it now with so many people that I talk to. One of the reasons I wrote the book was for people who didn’t want to deal with it, or deal with it in a way that’s easier. That’s one of the goals of the whole thing. It’s mostly for Jews, that book. Anyone can read it, but I think that’s who it will be most helpful to. Because it’s from inside the problem.
I’m wondering how you navigate this line of spreading information to people who have privilege but don’t have the knowledge, and spending so much time on it that you fall into a replication of this privilege.
You mean like Jewish substitutions and stuff like that?
How do you mean?
Well, one of the things I talk about in the book is the danger of Jews being substituted —
So that Naomi Klein has been a spokesperson [for Palestinians], or Judith Butler has been a spokesperson, now I become a spokesperson, and Palestinians don’t ever become spokespeople. That’s huge. But one of the answers to that is something like this conference where queer Muslims and queer Arabs and many queer Palestinians, not just one, are gonna have a voice. I’m doing the work to create an environment in which that’s possible, so that’s one antidote. And there’re a lot of [Palestinian activists] who are very much against the idea of a Palestinian spokesperson in the media.
Well, I describe that in the book, and I feel like they don’t understand how America works. I don’t feel like you can succeed without that. There are people who I think would be great spokespeople for Palestine, but they don’t want to be put forward.
And that’s not something you feel like you can convince them of?
We have the discussion all the time. Like there’s Ali Abunimah, who runs Electronic Intifada. There’s Diana Buttu, who sometimes is on CNN. There are a few people who’re emerging, who are really smart. But there’s no Naomi Klein. There’s no go-to person where every time Israel does something CNN has to call them. And that’s what we need, because there’s no human face for Palestine in the United States. Omar [Barghouti] is there, and a lot of people who are occupying that space in the margins, but there’s nobody in the mainstream media. You know, we need to be in magazines that people read in laundromats. And there’s more comfort with Jews. I mean people are always calling me to get access to the Palestinians. It’s like, “call them yourself.” You know, they want the Jews to mediate it somehow.
I noticed that the tone of this book seems to be a little different from the tone of your other books. I always think that your books are pretty optimistic and empowering, but this one seems like the most hopeful book of yours that I’ve read. Why is that?
Because it’s totally winnable. This is winnable. You know, compared to the AIDS crisis, this is winnable — because, first of all, Israel is self-destructing. Although they are intent on killing more people, causing more suffering, and all that, their strategy is not a winning strategy, just from a purely pragmatic point of view. And they’re doing things that are not going to work. Once you start doing things that are not going to work, you are in trouble strategically. The alternative view is a reasonable view. The idea of one-state, where everyone has democratic citizenship and a vote, and two rights of return is a completely reasonable and amenable solution.
The key is to end U.S. military aid. Because we are the ones who are financing — what just happened in Gaza, we paid for that. And you know that Obama and Susan Rice are still kissing Israel’s ass, and Hilary Clinton. That vote on Palestinian statehood was the U.S., Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands and Palau, versus the rest of the world [laughs], which is really gross and not justifiable. And it’s changeable. So these are the basic principles of organizing, right, you have to have a goal that’s winnable, do-able and reasonable, and you have to have a way of winning it. You can’t repeat strategies that don’t work. That’s why I think economic boycott is a great strategy. It’s not the only strategy, but it’s very easy. I mean, they are asking us to boycott, so we have to do it, and it’s not that hard.