Queer Activist Sarah Schulman Accuses LGBT Center Of "A Weird Kind Of Anti-Semitism"
The writer and veteran queer activist responds the New York center's refusal to host a reading in support of a campaign to pressure Israel. Schulman also affirms her support for the element of BDS that critics find most threatening.
The writer and activist Sarah Schulman blasted the rejection by New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of her plans for a reading of a book on Israel and Palestine, saying it was the center, not Schulman, who is playing on Jewish stereotypes.
In an email interview with BuzzFeed, Schulman — who was also at the center of a battle last week over a Brooklyn College Panel on the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel (known as BDS) — called the Center's decision "bizarre."
"It seems that they hold cliched and stereotyped beliefs about punitive rich Jews who will pull out their Jew-money if anyone criticizes Israel, and it was this misguided prejudice that lead them to defensively ban any criticism of Israel," Schulman, a professor of English at the City University of New York, said. "I know it sounds insane, but I honestly think that that is what happened. A weird kind of anti-semitism combined with a profound lack of intelligence and integrity."
The Center has said that it sought to keep the divisive issue out as part of an effort to maintain a "safe space" for Jews and Arabs alike, and LGBT people on all sides of the conflict. But Schulman argued that queer people ought, in particular, to be incensed by Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Israel, she said, "pinkwashes" its record by using events like gay pride parades "as signs of modernity."
"Queer people have not fought for so long to be used by a racist government to justify human rights violations," she said, adding that "there is a growing Palestinian LGBT movement [whose]] goals are: sexual and gender liberation, feminism and an end to the occupation."
While calls for pressure on Israel come from a variety of sources across the political spectrum and take a variety of forms, the BDS movement has provoked particular alarm from supporters of Israel because its principles include a "right of return" for Palestinians and their families displaced from what's now the state of Israel proper. In theory, the return of millions of Palestinian families could create a majority Arab state with a Jewish minority, something some backers of a "one-state solution" consider an optimal outcome, but which would effectively mean the end of the Zionist dream of a Jewish State. Others argue that it's a matter of principal but that most Palestnian families would not return, or might agree not to as part of a negotiated peace.
"I believe in equal rights for all human beings," Schulman said. "If there is a Jewish Right of Return, there can also be a Palestinian Right of Return. I do not support different levels of rights based on religion."
Full transcript of BuzzFeed LGBT's interview with Sarah Schulman
Saeed Jones: In the last few years, you've devoted a considerable amount of energy in writing and person to examining the experience of queer Israelis and Palestinians. Was there a specific catalyst for this focus?
Sarah Schulman: In 2009 I was invited to give the keynote address at the LGBT Studies Conference at Tel Aviv University. I was ready to go until a colleague told me that there was a Palestinian boycott. I soon learned that in 2005, Palestinians had asked for a boycott of Israeli state institutions. Their strategy is called Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: a nonviolent strategy to force Israel to comply with international law and end the Occupation. It is based on a similar approach used to force South Africa to end apartheid. Now, after a lot of investigation - both personal and intellectual - I have realized that this is really the only viable nonviolent strategy for change in Israel/ Palestine. I am open to other ideas, but so far have been able to find an approach that is as viable as BDS.
SJ: SJ: Some argue that BDS's stance on the Palestinian right of return is way too radical. Do you feel this is an accurate description of the group's strategy? And, as a follow-up, do you personally feel that Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish State?
SS: I believe in equal rights for all human beings. If there is a Jewish Right of Return, there can also be a Palestinian Right of Return. I do not support different levels of rights based on religion.
SJ: The LGBT Center's decision to bar you from discussing your book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International on its premises has, once again, sparked criticism from all directions. Why, if you had to speculate, does this keep happening?
SS: It's hard to understand the logic of the LGBT Center. At the failed community meeting with their director, Glennda Tentone and her board, there were no Jews on staff, yet they kept telling us that this censorship would make the Center a 'safe space" for Jews! It was bizarre, especially considering that Jews like myself, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Judith Butler, Joan Nestle etc were among the 1500 people who signed a petition for an open center. It seems that they hold cliched and stereotyped beliefs about punitive rich Jews who will pull out their Jew-money if anyone criticizes Israel, and it was this misguided prejudice that lead them to defensively ban any criticism of Israel. I know it sounds insane, but I honestly think that that is what happened. A weird kind of anti-semitism combined with a profound lack of intelligence and integrity.
SJ: Do you think the Center's reluctance to engage in a critical discussion regarding queer politics in Israel/Palestine reflects a broader tendency in the LGBT community?
SS: Absolutely. The current board comes primarily from Corporate, not from the community.They primarily rely on foundation support and city contracts to run their service programs and don't need or want community based organizations meeting there. It is no longer the center of gravity for the space. It's a bureaucracy, tragically.
SJ: Can you say a bit for our readers about why you feel now is the time for queer Americans to talk about the Mid-East conflict?
SS: The occupation of Palestine is a historic cataclysm and it is United States tax dollars that are funding its apparatus.The Israeli government is cynically manipulating the hard won gains of the LGBT movement in Israel to use them to whitewash or "pinkwash" the occupation. Since many people mistakenly see events like Gay Pride parades as signs of modernity, the government claims that Israel is a progressive country BECAUSE there are gay enclaves, queers in the military, etc. Queer people have not fought for so long to be used by a racist government to justify human rights violations. Also, there is a growing Palestinian LGBT movement, they now have 3 organizations: Aswat- Palestinian Queer Women, alQaws:For Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestiian Sociaty and PQBDS: Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.. And they consistently say that their goals are: sexual and gender liberation, feminism and an end to the occupation.