Schulman on Her Jewish Identity & Queer Politics at the Gay Center
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A book reading two years in the making, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid's (QAIA's) event featuring Sarah Schulman had its innocuous moments (the actual reading of a memoir, by genre an uncontestable ground), its humorous moments (Sarah recounting that growing up in a Jewish family she had no idea who Jesus Christ or Mary were), and its tense moments (the Q&A, or as I like to call it, the P&A—Pontificate&Answer—session).
The Center should be thanked for ending its discriminatory policy, specifically against groups—POC groups—critical of Israel. Room 101, historically important as the space of the ACT UP meetings of the '80s and '90s, overflowed with members from the LGBT community, a majority of whom were supportive of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and QAIA—and were over the age of 30 (there were maybe 10 people in their 20s there). As Sarah joked, "I know about 90% of the people in this room."
Sarah began by contextualizing her politics with her family history: Eastern European immigrants and survivors of the Holocaust who "never trusted a gentile but sure did want to look like them." Essentially, she read, and at times paraphrased, the introduction to Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, and then she read bits of chapters 5 and 6 about her solidarity trip. Again, completely innocuous. Sarah presents her coming of age—her understanding of the state of Israel, of the contemporary definition of Zionism, and of her own relation to the complex politics of "Israel/Palestine"—through various trials and tribulations. She has never asserted a politics or a political position without first aquiring a range of knowledge, and usually knowledge through experience. She's had to continuously negotiate her own Jewish identity with her queer politics based on universal human rights. What is "home," what is a "homeland"? What is the difference between a critique of the state of Israel and that of Jewishness? What is the desired endgame of BDS? How does my relation to my Jewishness, how does my Jewish guilt, relate to my politics?—these are all questions Sarah poses to herself throughout her memoir. That the Center initially banned this reading is beyond perplexing and beyond infuriating but perhaps speaks to both the power of literature and the power of experience. (Perhaps Sarah was the Wife of Bath in a previous life.)
The Q&A P&A was largely supportive, with only a handful of dissenters. These dissenters, Jewish white men, seemed to have problems with Sarah based on two egregious misreadings: one was the inability to distinguish BDS from Hamas; one man wanted Sarah to comment on Hamas and she simply couldn't, because BDS and Hamas are two distinct entities, with the most profound difference being that BDS is non-violent and Hamas is militantly so. (To me it's almost like saying that all Christians are members of the Westboro Baptist Church.) Another misreading was that of pinkwashing. Another white Jewish man claimed that Sarah was herself conducting acts of pinkwashing by bringing queer Palestinians to America, as if hosting queer Palestinians in America is the equivalent of a state power (here, Israel) oppressing a particular community and pretending that it promotes and promises equality to all. This question literally made no sense but it does bespeak how those within the Jewish community who are defensive are at the root of things defensive because they lack information...much like Sarah did at the beginning of her journey nearly 10 years ago.
Two things struck me about this event: the first concerns the queer interest in the Israeli apartheid. From Sarah's perspective, as a Jewish American, her interest makes sense. Any American should take note of the fact that America doles out billions of dollars to support the Israel military state. As a queer person, however, I have yet to understand why the community seems so fixated on this issue, like it's the new Ghana (although it seems queers dropped Ghana in a hot second).
The second is how gender was at work at this event and how it's at work within the dynamics of QAIA and BDS more generally. There are a lot of women, queer women, lesbian women, Jewish lesbian women and queers, and POC lesbians and queers who figure as the biggest advocates of the campaign to bring awareness to the Israeli apartheid and to pinkwashing more generally. White men, white gay men, Jewish white gay men, seem to stand at the opposite end of the spectrum. Methinks this difference has a corollary in money differences within our community and, specifically, mechanisms or modes of power that the gay "pink dollar" buys. .... This is a correlation that needs to be addressed more thoughtfully, at a later time.