Each year, in the lead up to Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), organizers expect backlash and attempts to shut down events. IAW 2010 was no different. The Ontario Legislature condemned IAW, The Toronto District School Board banned IAW from its premises even though no events were scheduled there, and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff slammed IAW for the second year in a row.
One noticeable difference is that this year queer issues have been front and centre in the attacks on IAW. This is no doubt in response to the “Coming out Against Apartheid” event at IAW, along with the huge success of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA). This backlash is an indication of success — our movement is growing and evoking strong reactions from Israel’s supporters. While this is something to be proud of, it means that now more than ever, all of us need to be prepared to answer these attacks by clearly giving our reasons for being queers against Israeli apartheid. My goal in writing is to give everyone the rationale behind queer Palestine solidarity organizing so that they can be empowered to counter the homophobic, sexist and racist arguments put forward by Israel’s supporters.
So I am going to take you on a little journey into pro-Israel logic around queer issues — along the way, I will challenge their rationale and dismantle their arguments, so that when readers are confronted with them, they can readily do the same.
The Zionists attacks queer down into three main points:
1. Palestinian society is inherently homophobic.
2. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and the only safe-haven for queers.
3. Queers worldwide should naturally align with queer-friendly Israel, not homophobic Palestinians.
Palestine is Homophobic
Let’s look at the first argument: Palestinian society is homophobic. I cannot disagree with that statement. Queer Palestinians do face violence and discrimination and it is unacceptable. I oppose homophobia in Palestine, but I oppose it everywhere because it exists everywhere, even here. Queers in Canada have achieved some rights and many people have dedicated their lives to fighting for those rights. Despite what Canadian nationalists want us to believe, we didn’t get these rights because we live in the enlightened, tolerant west — it was not simply the natural course of history here. Social movements achieved these changes through struggle. Anyone engaged in activism knows how hard it is to mobilize people even under the best of circumstances. Now imagine trying to organize under military occupation and apartheid — these are the enormous additional challenges facing Palestinian queer social movements.
Just take for example the fact that there is no place on earth, not one square foot where a queer Palestinian citizen of Israel, a queer from Gaza, the West Bank, and a queer Palestinian refugee could meet. Gazans are under siege and cannot leave, people in the West Bank need permits to travel, Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot go to Gaza or the West Bank and many refugees cannot go anywhere. So before we criticize Palestinian homophobia, we need to look at the challenges facing activists there, and remember that there are activists there. We need to ask how can we best support queer Palestinian social movements? The answer to me is clearly that we fight Israeli apartheid. Ending apartheid is good for all Palestinian social movements — queer and straight.
Queer Palestinians are oppressed by Israel as Palestinians, not just as queers. We cannot choose to support them as queers, but not as Palestinians or vice versa. Real support comes through solidarity — it can and does effect change. In South Africa, alongside queer mobilizing there, international queer anti-apartheid activism shifted the ANC’s position on queer issues and to this day, South Africa has some of the most progressive gay rights in the world. This can happen in Palestine if we work alongside queer Palestinians through genuine solidarity and supporting the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). You can see that happening already. When queer filmmaker John Greyson pulled his film from the Toronto International Film Festival in protest over the city-to-city spotlight on Tel Aviv, he was attacked in fiercely homophobic ways. In response, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) put out a statement condemning the homophobia of those attacks. In early 2010, Judith Butler, one of the most famous queer theorists taught guest lectures at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah. How does this happen? It happens because Greyson and Butler stand with Palestinians, support BDS and their solidarity is clearly having an impact.
Israel is a safe haven for queers in the Middle East
Since we are on a journey into the pro-Israel mind, for the sake of argument I will take their first point as true — Palestinian society is inherently homophobic. That brings me to point two — Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and the only safe haven for queers. First of all, Israel is not a democracy — it is an apartheid state. Apartheid is a crime under international law, a crime of systematic segregation based on race or ethnicity. Israel’s war crimes in the West Bank — settlements, checkpoints, the Apartheid Wall — and last year’s brutal military assault and the now three-year-long siege of Gaza are well documented, but the situation inside Israel itself is also one of apartheid. Palestinian citizens of Israel are second-class citizens — they cannot own much of the land, their towns and villages receive limited services, if any, and recently Israel banned the teaching of the Nakba — Arabic for catastrophe, referring to the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine in order to create the State of Israel. Israel is at best an ethnic democracy, meaning that membership in an ethnic group is required to have full rights. An ethnic democracy is not a democracy, it is apartheid.
In terms of queer rights, yes, Israel has pride parades, some protection against discrimination and homosexuality is not illegal. Israel is not free of homophobia — the murder of two queer people in Tel Aviv last year, the stabbings at Jerusalem Pride in 2005 prove that homophobic violence still exists in Israel. The militarization of Israeli society only increases the level of violence there. However, for the sake of argument I will humour the Zionists and say that queers in Israel have a good thing going. The problem is that none of these rights are truly extended to queer Palestinians. I want to exemplify this by recounting part of my trip to Palestine this summer. I was in the West Bank and was invited to Jerusalem Pride. With a Canadian passport, I can make a trip from Ramallah to Jerusalem, but a queer Palestinian from the West Bank would have to sneak into Jerusalem for Pride and could easily wind up in jail instead. At Pride in Jerusalem, soldiers and police outnumber participants by at least two to one. It may seem obvious, but if you need an army for your parade, your country is not safe for queers. All the speeches made at Pride revolved around the theme of making Jerusalem an open, diverse and welcoming city. It was clearly a message to homophobes, but in an occupied city that is off limits to millions of Palestinians, the message is sickeningly ironic. I am not arguing that queer Israelis should not fight for their rights. My point here is that whatever rights queer Israeli’s enjoy, queer Palestinians do not. You cannot have true equality when apartheid exists.
Queers Must Support Israeli Apartheid
I now turn to the final, crucial step in Zionist logic: queers worldwide must support gay positive Israel, not homophobic Palestine. Intuitively we know this is wrong. It is offensive that they think that as queers we define our solidarity based on their narrow definition of gay rights and that they think we would forgive racism because they grant some gay rights. Yet somehow this argument is proving effective. To untangle this one fully though, we need to talk about what is really going on here. It comes down to this — Israel, like most western imperial powers, has managed to co-opt the language of feminist and queer rights.
To explain how this works, it helps to look at Canada first. So we have the real Canada — where there are over 500 murdered or missing aboriginal women that the police are not searching for, thousands of people, predominantly women living in poverty across the country and a Minister of Citizenship and Immigration appointing homophobes to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Then we have the mythical tolerant multicultural Canada, gay rights leader and liberator of Afghan women. I must admit the strategy is brilliant — commit massive human rights violations, but trumpet the human rights you do offer in order to cover up your crimes. Then you can claim that unlike non-western states you respect women and queers and therefore you are civilized, democratic countries. That is how they demonize non-Western states — label them intolerant and justify military occupations that bring tolerance to the intolerant.
In Israel’s case, they claim to be democratic, civilized and tolerant because, unlike the allegedly sexist, homophobic Palestinians, they respect women and defend the human rights of gays and lesbians. This becomes blatantly obvious when you see the way the Israeli State promotes that they allow women and queer people to serve in the army. This inclusion is used to make the Israeli army appear tolerant and inclusive. This ignores, of course, that this “open” and “welcoming” army commits war crimes against Palestinians — including women and queer people. There are no gay-friendly bombs, no feminist checkpoints and no such thing as a moral army.
If we do not challenge Israeli Apartheid as queer people, we allow the Israeli state to continue to propagate the myth that it is a tolerant, civilized democracy, even as it commits war crimes and repeatedly violates international law. When queer people visibly stand up against Israeli apartheid we interfere, not just with their PR campaigns, but with myth-making that is vital to letting them get away with apartheid.
Pride and ‘Politics’
One of the pro-Israel arguments that came out during protests against QuAIA marching in the Toronto Pride parade last year was the charge that QuAIA marching was politicizing Pride. Yes, it is offensive that straight, mostly homophobic Zionists are trying to tell us what pride is supposed to be about, but here I am inclined to agree with their assessment. Pride has, in many ways, lost touch with its radical roots and QuAIA is a return to good old-fashioned radical queer politics.
At a time where the Canadian military, the police, all political parties and major corporations march in pride, we need groups like QuAIA and other radical queer activists to make Pride political again. I often think that it would not be such a bad thing if pride lost all its corporate sponsorships. Think about it. What if queers here refused to buy into Canadian nationalism that tells us how great this country is because we have gay marriage? What if we instead demand to know why our country is involved in imperialist wars worldwide and wars on poor people, sex workers, migrants and First Nations people here at home? What if we recognize that we have won rights through struggle and honour those who fought, but at the same time critically examine how some of these rights were because some corporations know there is money to be made off us? What if we refuse to be a niche market, walking homo-dollar bills and instead spent our time, energy and resources to stand up against homophobia, racism, capitalism and apartheid? When that happens, we will have something to be proud of. So I am encouraging everyone to get involved — join Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, and come out for Pride 2010 to make the anti-apartheid contingent bigger, bolder and louder than last year.
Jenny Peto is an activist with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.