Sarah Schulman on “Israel/Palestine and the Queer International” Interview by Nadia Gaber
On May Day 2011, the first Palestinian trade union conference for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli occupation was held in Ramallah, aligning labor organizers with the largest Palestinian civic movement, a non-violent resistance strategy that has solidarity the world over. This year, perhaps in its anticipation, the University of California-Berkeley students’ association passed its first divestment bill, following similar resolutions at UC Irvine and UC Riverside, while campuses like mine (UCSF) and Sarah’s (CUNY) have founded our own Students for Justice in Palestine chapters.
I was awakened to the BDS movement in college, but became more deeply convinced of its urgency and centrality to achieving a radically loving world as I watched revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere unfold. Now a BDS organizer myself – as a queer, socialist, woman of color – I was eager to read Sarah Schulman’s new book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, to learn how our communities can learn from and share in each others’ struggles. In it, Sarah describes her personal conversion to the anti-occupation effort, as shaped by her life’s work as an AIDS activist and author with the ACT UP movement; she is a novelist, filmmaker, and queer public intellectual working in New York. This is our dialogue.
Nadia Gaber: I was struck by the narrative style you’ve chosen for this book, the way your story recounts the particulars of your journey in a way that highlights the process almost over the politics. In contrast to a lot of literature on Palestine that delves into details of “the conflict,” you’re speaking from a standpoint that is ever-shifting but always yours — and relying on your history as a “credible” to do so compellingly. How does that style align with your intentions for the argument and a reader’s experience of it?
Sarah Schulman: You know, at this point formal questions are not decisions, but more like impulses that come from the subconscious and express organically. I now have a very wide palette, I guess.
NG: Did you begin this project then with a specific outcome in mind? Either a political motivation or audience you hoped to reach?
SS: I thought that the book could be helpful to people, like myself, who needed permission to move forward on Israel/Palestine. I showed mistakes and dumb turns and tried to demystify the process of changing one’s mind, which some people fear experiencing.
NG: How much do you think that permission stems from, or even requires, a shift in one’s actual identity? You talk in the beginning of the book about how the familial homophobia you experienced gave you the space from which to begin to rethink your Jewish-identified politics. Is that kind of rupture what’s necessary for individuals to move forward? How do you negotiate the possibility of leaving the rest of our (never perfect) communities behind?
SS: My experience is that people change for different reasons, two outstanding ones are 1) a personal awakening; 2) support from others to change. For example, familial homophobia — I believe — can change in reaction to stigma. If homophobic family members receive constant messages from people they know, authority figures and public media/entertainment that their behavior is anti-social, many will change. Of course there are always people who are pathologically rigidly fixed in destructive behavior, but most people will respond to the context around them.
NG: I suppose the difficulty is when people cannot be moved to see their actions as anti-social because they’ve left the “Other” outside their sociality. This is what Isha L’Isha points out to you about the dehumanization of Palestinians. What can we, as anti-occupation organizers, learn from how you all positioned queer sociality with respect to the public in the days of ACT UP?
SS: The most important lesson that anti-Occupation activists can learn from ACT UP is that within some basic foundational agreements, it is not worth micro-critiquing internally.
NG: That’s probably something the whole Left could learn from. So what about with respect to representing a marginalized group’s message? Do we ‘integrate’ or trade broad support at the risk of mainstreaming what makes us unique? Advocating for an end to the occupation of Palestine within a human rights framework has, for our group, been most effective, but seems in a way the shallowest of arguments.
SS: The two most controversial arguments in the world are: 1) all people deserve self-determination, and 2) that people must be accountable for the consequences of their actions on others. Stick with these and you will never be in the mainstream.
NG: It’s amazing how much energy goes into maintaining that reality. Or how alienated we must be to not easily agree on both points. Marginalization makes me wonder if queers and Palestinians share the reality of living in diaspora nearly everywhere? Did Queer Nation create a kind of homeland that Palestinian refugees can relate to or remodel?
SS: You would have to ask them.
NG: Fair enough. Just thinking about parallels in shared experiences of alienation in the ways queers and Palestinians negotiate geographic, political, and physical diasporas. On your tour did you see any patterns from the story of New York’s queer gentrification mirrored in the Jewish settling of Palestine?
SS: No. I don’t know that situation well, but it seemed to be quite a different monster.
NG: I want to switch gears to ask about the Homonationalism and Pinkwashing Conference you just held in New York – what was the experience of organizing that event like, perhaps in contrast to Al Tour? No threats to cut CUNY’s funding, I hope?
SS: Actually, we wisely did it without funding. That way no one could “take away the funding.” The whole thing was paid for by registration fees, which started at 30 dollars.
NG: That’s great! And I read it sold out six months early. What excited
SS: This was a gathering of people who represent minority opinions, and are therefore often forced into positions of repetition and explanation. Here they were allowed to expand, think, and be supported to discuss. The ideas presented were so new and interesting that instead of correcting, there was a lot of listening.
NG: Any strategic breakthroughs, or new organizing ideas?
SS: So many. Not really sum-upable. Which of the many areas interests you the most?
NG: Oh, I bet. I suppose I’m most interested in what fueled solidarity with Palestinians amongst the queer community; partly in what resonates specifically (how much is productive resentment at being conscripted for oppression?), but also in understanding the kind of emotional, political, or intellectual formations that can resonate across identity/affinity groups.
Did you come to think differently about the most impactful sites of activism: student organizing, celebrity spokespeople, consumer vs institutional boycotts, academia, art?
SS: You know, queer people need each other for love and sex and- as a result- will always have a special interest in each other. How other queer people live is of great interest and can often be an in into other understandings. In this case, the exposure to the Palestinian Queer movement and their very compelling and inspiring leaders, has made Palestine more visible to US queers. This way “in” reveals that Palestine is a multi-dimensional society, just like every society- which may seem obvious. But when the media is as closed to Palestine as the US media, it is difficult to get a realistic grip on who Palestinians are and what they are going through.
This year, I have visited a number of student groups working on Palestine, and my own campus (The College of Staten Island, City University of New York) has just started a Students for Justice in Palestine. Most of these groups are working on divestment from companies that profit from the occupation. My impression is that the Students for Palestine movement has the opportunity to become THE student movement, much in the way that The South Africa Divestment movement became THE student movement in the US in the 1980’s.
Regarding public figures who speak out for Palestinian rights, the numbers are growing. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was a juror at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Cassandra Wilson refused to perform in Israel. Alice WAlker, of course, was part of the Free Gaza Flotilla. Cynthia Nixon supported boycotting a Settlement Arts Center called Ariel. The ranks are growing.
But ironically, the best publicity for the question of Palestine in New York has been censorious attacks by the Right Wing on public institutions. Alan Dershowitz and Right Wing Jewish groups attempted to shut down Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti’s event at Brooklyn College, Dershowitz, The Anti-Defamation League and ay Jews who are right-wing on Israel like Andrea Weiss and Daniel Hurwitz, tried to shut down our conference at The City University GRaduate Center, and Michael Lucas and Stewart Applebaum tried to ban me from reading from my new book at the LGBT Community Center. None of these efforts were successful. But they all shined a spotlight on the repressive tactics of the pro-Israeli government advocates.
NG: I hear you on all levels. And it’s so exciting to hear your optimism, as someone who has lived and worked and created through one of the most radical American political movements. So my last question is about the way we can get a grip on Others, in order to make them part of Our “in” group. I’ve come to feel that to truly ally with others, there has to be some embodied, empathic connection at the root of solidarity politics. Has this held true to your experience? Do you think such a connection exists in the queer and Palestinian fights for liberation?
SS: You know, I don’t think that the thing I feel is “empathy” (which is also the title of one of my best novels) because, after all – it is the cheapest of emotions. It’s more that something becomes obvious. As soon as I started facing Israel/Palestine, it became obvious that the occupation must end. In many ways the situation of the Palestinians resonates for me with the condition of people with AIDS in the early 1980’s. You have two groups of people who are profoundly oppressed and need support, and yet are being depicted as predators. They are in danger and yet they are presented as dangerous. This profound distortion, through the looking-glass, the claim that a person who deserves help is the problem, is so clearly morally wrong to me, that this recognition is what makes me understand that I have to be there.