Schulman on Israel/Palestine and the Queer International
Ella Boureau sat down with Sarah Schulman, activist, teacher and author of 17 books, to discuss her new title Israel/Palestine and the Queer International which came out from Duke University Press in October. It is a fascinating read written in plain English that ties American queer politics to international anti-colonial struggles. A long time hardcore activist in the women’s movement, member of Act-Up, and founder of the Lesbian Avengers, Sarah has a particularly in-depth and long-range view of late twentieth century Leftist organizing, which makes her analysis of Israel/Palestine personal, relatable and pulse with relevance.
In the Flesh: Okay, so I think the best way to start for people who haven’t read the book is to just summarize why you took the trip to Israel, which led to writing the book.
Sarah Schulman: Okay. 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 the Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference. And 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. And my colleague at work, who’s a Turkish Jew, I 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” and I was like “What boycott?” Never heard of it. Never did I hear of this. So 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 she put me in touch with all these great people in Israel. Jewish queer academics. They all explained to me why I should decline and what the boycott was, and they explained to me that in 2005, a coalition called Palestinian Civil Society, and when you look at the list it’s like dentists, social workers, teachers, unions, all these types of organizations, asked the rest of us in the world to participate in economic and cultural boycott of Israel based on the boycott of South Africa. And Tel Aviv University was under this boycott because in Israel all 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. So now I understood that people like me supported the boycott, and did not want me to break it. And I looked around and talked to a lot of people and I realized that there was no other strategy that was as viable as economic boycott. Because when I looked at everything else around that people were recommending, none of it was working.
ITF: Like what?
SS: Well, uh, violence [laughter]. 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. 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. I realized I had to abide by it. So 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. I got my ticket on my frequent flyer miles, and people— I have no connection to Israel, very little, I mean I have relatives there but I don’t have any connections—other people in the queer diaspora set me up. And they set up this solidarity visit. Now in the meantime, I had gotten an email from PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) and they are set in Ramallah, and the guy who contacted me, his name was Omar Barghouti. Now he had been a student at Columbia in the 1980s during the South African divestment, and he modeled this on them. So he sent me an email saying, you know, “Dear Professor Schulman, thank you for taking this principled stance, blah blah” and suddenly I thought, you know, I wonder what he thinks about queer people. The reason I had that thought was that there’s a long history of the US Left supporting anti-gay regimes. Especially Cuba. I didn’t know any gay Palestinian people. I had never heard of any, or 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, you know, “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.
ITF: Could you talk a little bit about homonationalism and pinkwashing, the central terms that you deal with in the book?
SS: Okay, homonationalism is a phrase coined by Jasbir Puar, this professor at Rutgers and you know, 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. Like 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. And 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 like 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. So 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. 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. And 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 if you look at 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. So it has that American twist that it’s aimed at the poor.
ITF: And pinkwashing?
SS: Pinkwashing, pinkwashing is, which I’ve highly documented in my book, so people can go check out all my facts, it’s a deliberate policy by the Israeli government to exploit the hardwon gains of the gay community in Israel. To market Israel as a modern progressive society 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.
ITF: 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—
SS: But that’s not their motive, their motive is that gay men of a certain age were the most culturally influential demographic.
ITF: How did they figure that out though, that’s what’s so creepy to me, like how—
SS: Well, they had three years of pro bono work from Saatchi and Saatchi and Young and 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, cause they want men’s money. Cause men have the influence on the culture because of their incomes.
ITF: Didn’t you even say a certain age bracket?
SS: Sixteen to twenty-four.
ITF: Which is interesting because I wouldn’t think that the age of sixteen to twenty four would be the most powerful income-wise.
SS: Well supposedly they don’t have families to support, right, there’s that. So they have um, what’s it called, when you have extra—
ITF: Oh, expendable income?
SS: Yeah, they have extra income. But you know Jews are smart. I will never deny that Jews are smart [laughter] and they approached this whole re-branding thing brilliantly, but they forgot one thing, which is that, you know, a lot of what their saying is not true.
ITF: So there’s a moment in the book when you’re talking to journalist Udi Aloni, and you’re about to take the trip and—
SS: We were sitting right here [laughing].
ITF: Oh, ha. And he says something about, “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”. And 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?”
SS: 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—
ITF: At the feminist center in Ramallah, right?
SS: Oh, I mean the Palestinian queer movement is entirely run by women who are extremely feminist and put feminism up front and 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. So what Udi was doing was he was dangling the red herring, the false consciousness, because this idea that the West is gonna 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? We don’t have reproductive rights. 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. I mean—
ITF: More than men?
ITF: I didn’t know that.
SS: We’re behind the rest of the Western World. There’s only seven states in the US that reimburse abortion. It’s pretty bad and there’s plenty of states where no one will give you an abortion so there’s no abortion rights. So 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, uh, “You should move to Saudi Arabia and see how you like living there.” Well what does that have to do with the occupation?
ITF: What do you think the resistance of white western feminist organizations to having solidarity with Palestinian organizations is?
SS: It’s Zionism. Feminist Movement is very Jewish. Every oppositional movement is—The Left, historically, has had a lot of Jews, with many Jewish leaders. I think, you know, for example, 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.
ITF: Do you want to talk about the Feminist Press and your book?
SS: I mean, I, you know. I submitted the manuscript [of Israel/Palestine and Queer International] to the Feminist Press, and I got mixed—you know I’ve published 17 books, I really know a lot about the publishing world— and the answers I got, [the Feminist Press said] there was a problem with the content because they had nothing on their list that supported Palestine or questioned—and they have a lot of Jewish content. So they wouldn’t publish it. And then I was approached recently by someone who’s an intern there who told me that they have a Zionist problem. And it translates into censorship. And let me tell you, as a person who spent my whole life as a New York Jew that is not culturally consistent. I mean this has been a dialogic Jewish culture in this city. But when it comes to Israel, that’s the end of it.
ITF: Do you want to talk about your journey with that, which you discuss in the book?
SS: My evolution on Israel?
SS: 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.
ITF: 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, and putting that together with my father’s immigrant status, and my being an alienated lesbian kid in the suburbs, and I was like ‘Oh that makes sense’, it makes sense why 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 just, I had never put it together before.
SS: Yeah. We are just so under-informed. And the opposition is so vicious, they won’t allow the conversation. I 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. Like 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.
ITF: By who?
SS: 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’re able to get a panel of Palestinian writers, where they can talk about themselves and their writing.
ITF: When is that going to be?
SS: It’s going to be part of the PEN Voices Conference.
ITF: Oh, that’s really cool.
SS: Yeah. But I mean, so that’s very significant because that’s the largest international literary conference in the United States.
ITF: Yeah, that’s great, I was going to ask you if there had been any advancement in what you were talking about in the book of just the general invisibility of Palestinian writers in America, where they are not able to get visas or are not picked up by mainstream publications here. So that’s good to hear.
SS: Well that’s, we’re getting into more mainstream things. The fact that there are 181 speakers at the homonationalism conference is unbelievable. I mean I expected 30-40 proposals, and when we ended up with 181 speakers, I was like this is huge. There are people coming from Turkey, from Iran, to give their papers. I mean people are globally concerned with the gains of the queer movement being co-opted by racism and nationalism. Very concerned, like upfront, this is the major concern. You know, I didn’t know that.
ITF: Why do you think queers are more able politically to do this intersectional analysis?
SS: Well, let’s see. You know I haven’t done the demographic of gender but there are a lot of women at this [homonationalism] conference, and you know women are more radical because they have less power. This conference is so diverse, the Queer Arab Collective came up to me and asked to do the opening night party because there were thirty to forty queer Arabs coming to present their papers and this was the only way for them to get together. So I mean this is like the actual queer community, it’s profoundly diverse, it’s got a lot of women, and that’s why they’re radical.
ITF: That’s really exciting.
SS: Yeah, it’s very exciting. It’s like shockingly exciting. [laughter]. A lot of the drama of the whole thing was not anticipated, the numbers, the opposition—
ITF: Has there been a strong opposition?
SS: Well, the Anti-Defamation League which is funded by the Israeli government, filed a dossier with the president of the City University Grad Center, whose name is [William P.] Kelly, naming me, Jasbir [Puar], [Judith] Butler, and Haneen [Maikey] as people who need to be countered. And you’d think Judith Butler is untouchable considering she’s like the most prominent academic in the United States, but she’s not. Their complaint against her is that she’s trying to separate Zionism and Judaism. And for that reason she should be countered. And so then we had to fight back. Because I was getting these phone calls saying like “You must take out pinkwashing from this conference or we will cancel the conference”. For months! And I was saying “No, no, no, I refuse. That is never gonna happen”. And they’re like “We’re gonna cancel it, we’re gonna cancel it!” And then the president of the Grad Center, this Kelly guy, and I think it’s because his name is Kelly and he doesn’t know these Jews from those Jews and all he’s afraid of is getting called anti-Semitic, and he has some people from AIPAC on the board of trustees and there are right-wing pro-Israel people who are trying to infuse money into the Grad Center, there’s all this background, but he was telling us, you know “You have to have a fifth keynote and you have to incorporate the other side’s views organically or we will cancel the conference.” And I was like “No, that is never going to happen.” And then Jewish Voice for Peace, which Butler and I are both on the advisory board, they wrote a letter to him saying “There’s 23 CUNY campuses, every single day there are pro-Israel events in CUNY, None of them are countered. This is not academic freedom, this is a public university”. But even that didn’t do it.
ITF: What did it?
SS: Butler rolled up her sleeves. I’ll tell you, she is not a diva. She is not. She did what only she could do and what we can’t do. She got on the phone with really powerful people and she got them to call the president of the Grad Center and she talked to him and she gave a lot of her time talking to some really heinous people. I mean there’s one real dickhead, who she spent like hours with on the phone, paying attention to him—I mean I can’t, all I can do is to tell him to go fuck himself because I don’t have the patience for that [laughter]. But she finessed it so that we got our conference without any compromises. But if she hadn’t helped us, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.
ITF: If she hadn’t done that, would you have just cancelled the conference or would you have compromised?
SS: I never would have compromised. But I was prepared for the publicity battle that would have to ensue when they cancelled and we had to write to 400 people who had registered and tell them that the conference was censored. I was getting ready for that campaign. Let me tell you that one of their demands was that I not talk about it in public. “Could Sarah not discuss this in public” and I said “No I can’t agree to that”. [Laughs].
But I mean there’s no way—I’m a professor at the City University— how could I be complicit with the City University violating academic freedom? I can’t do that! It’s just never gonna happen, that’s what I kept saying. “It’s never gonna happen”. [laughter].
ITF: Asking you to not talk about how they were going to cancel the conference because you didn’t include the Israeli view?
SS: Yeah. We have Israelis in the conference. But that’s not good enough for them. They have to be pro—I don’t know what they want. Pro-nationalistic, I don’t know. They never said specifically what these people have to believe.
ITF: So for the Homonationalism conference, is there going to be a way for people who can’t go to access it online?
SS: We’re going to live stream the keynotes and a couple of the panels. We’re going to post everything else on Youtube, and then we’re going to publish a volume of proceedings.
ITF: And you mentioned that Haneen Maikey [of AlQaws] is going to be speaking at Barnard… after?
SS: Before. Because we don’t have money to bring her. So Barnard is paying for her to come. I mean this conference doesn’t have a dollar of funding from CUNY.
ITF: And they still were pressuring you to cancel.
SS: Well that was, I have to say, a smart move on my part because they kept saying “We could take away your funding” and I said “Aha, we don’t have any funding”.
ITF: Well, how could they have demanded you cancel without their funding?
SS: Well they would have had to figure that out. For them to actually cancel would have been quite difficult because there’s nothing for them to pull. So all the money comes from registration. I decided to do that for two strategic reasons: one was so that they couldn’t pull the funding, but also I think that gay people are too dependent on funding. If you are going to let governments control you because they’re giving you funding, then you shouldn’t take funding. So I hate all that and I don’t try to get funding for things and I think that things should be grassroots funded. So, we did it. We got enough people to buy tickets in advance to pay for this thing so we didn’t need funding. And that’s how it should be because once you’re bigger than your actual support base, you’re too big. You’re a bureaucracy at that point. You know I’m like an anti-theory person, I hate theory and I love praxis: the application of theory to practice. And Lesbian Avengers, I wrote the Lesbian Avengers Handbook, I don’t know if you’ve read that.
ITF: Yeah, I have.
SS: Well, one of the principles was that theory emerges naturally through practice. So you say, okay, we have to charge for this conference. How much are we gonna charge? And then we came up with: $30 for students, unemployed and retired. $50 employed, $60 for tenured, $100 if you earn $100,000 a year or more. There’s a lot of theory behind those decisions. But it’s based on something material. And that’s what I like to do. I hate empty theoretical discussion, it makes me crazy. That’s one of the dangers of academia, is that there’s all kinds of academics who do that. It’s very destructive. Don’t tell me what your theory is. Show me what you’re gonna do and how you’re gonna do it.
ITF: Okay, 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.
SS: Is it unconscious? I don’t know. I mean there’s 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.
ITF: But, I mean 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?
SS: 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 wanna deal with it, 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.
ITF: 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.
SS: You mean like Jewish substitutions and stuff like that?
ITF: Uh, what do you mean?
SS: Well one of the things I talk about in the book is the danger of Jews being substituted—
ITF: Oh, yes! Yes.
SS: 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 like 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 I also do discuss the conflict with Palestine about this issue. That there’re a lot of [Palestinian activists] who are very much against the idea of a Palestinian spokesperson in the media.
ITF: And that’s not something you feel like you can convince them of?
SS: 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. Like 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. And Omar [Barghouti] is, you know, there’s a lot of people who are occupying that space in the margins, but there’s nobody in the mainstream media. You know like 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.
ITF: What about Palestinians who are living in America now, is there less resistance in that community to having a spokesperson?
SS: I don’t know, I mean, like some people in Students for Justice in Palestine, there’s some Palestinian students who are visible there who are really great and smart. You know there are people who will be speaking publicly at our conference who are living in the United States or who are both American and Palestinian. But it’s a very big risk for them. Because you know, I hear all the crap, but I’m not Palestinian. To have to sit there and listen to that? It’s so ignorant and abusive, the rabidness and viciousness of the things people say. You know, and people feel endangered.
ITF: It’s a lot . It’s a lot to ask of someone. So, what can New York Queers do to get more involved?
SS: Somebody has to do something about the LGBT Center.
ITF: Yeah I was just gonna say, I know that when this first happened there was a lot of opposition to it.
SS: It needs to be revived and somebody needs to take that on, who, this is their thing. Like you know, somebody needs to do the work, like to call every gay group that meets there, have them all sign statements, get the employees to sign statements and keep it up. And get coverage in the gay press and go to funders and run a campaign. Pauline Park, do you know her?
SS: She’s a phenomenal person, she was on the LGBT delegation to Palestine and she’s a trans woman who’s the head of the [New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy] the gender lobbying group. And she’s the head of QuAIA [Queers Against Israeli Apartheid]. For a while she called meetings of QuAIA in the lobby of the Center which was illegal, and held meetings in their lobby, but they couldn’t sustain. It just was too taxing and they didn’t have the base and there wasn’t anybody doing the real organizing. She was just doing it. But that’s something really concrete that’s winnable. But it needs a real campaign. The other thing is divestment. Students for Justice in Palestine is growing. There’s more and more of them on more and more campuses and they need to start running divestment campaigns. The CUNY faculty, we have a pension plan with TIAA CREF and Jewish Voice for Peace is trying to get our pension plan to divest from companies like Caterpillar [whose bulldozers have been used to demolish countless homes, trees and roads on Palestinian land]. So workplace divestment, university divestment, those kinds of campaigns are really helpful. It’s hardcore organizing.
ITF: 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?
SS: Because it’s totally winnable. This is winnable. You know, compared to the AIDS crisis, this is winnable because, okay, first of all Israel is self-destructing so 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. And once you start doing things that are not gonna work, you are in trouble strategically. The alternative view is a reasonable view. The idea of a 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 US 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 and that vote on Palestinian statehood that was the US, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands and Palau, versus the rest of the world [laughter], is really gross and it’s not justifiable. And it’s changeable. So these are the basic principles of organizing, right, you have to have a goal that’s winnable, and do-able and reasonable, and you have to have a way of winning it you know, and 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 stategy. 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.
ITF: I think maybe the one concern about, when I talk to people about this, they’re like, well what about HAMAS, what do we do if we have this one-state solution and HAMAS is still there and you know—
SS: Well you know HAMAS is like the Republican party. HAMAS is a government, it’s a political party that is in power. Like Likkud, like the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. They have all killed civilians. We are killing civilians right now, with Obama, who I voted for, is killing civilians right now. HAMAS is no worse than any other political party in power.
ITF: Right, right.
SS: Now, if Israel and Palestine were—you know that Palestinians do not agree with—
ITF: Yes, I understand, but I think… say you have the one state solution, and each party has representation—
SS: It’s not like all Palestinians are going to vote for a religious party.
ITF: No, no, no. I don’t think that. But what happens with—how do you keep the pressure up, after Boycott Divestment Sanctions, with these very conservative parties whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian?
SS: But I don’t think that HAMAS is the problem, I think Likkud is the problem. I mean the way that we view HAMAS in this country is being fed to us by the media. Okay, Gaza is under siege, they don’t have anything. They don’t have schools, they don’t have hospitals, they have no economy. It’s like Diana Buttu, who’s this really great Palestinian leader, she was part of the peace talks for Fatah. She’s like “The difference between HAMAS and Fatah is like the difference between two bald men fighting over a comb.” And she’s right. They are not the problem. The problem is Israel and US military funding. It’s like homosexuality is not the problem, homophobia is the problem. HAMAS is not the problem.
ITF: Yes. I agree with you, but I… when you look at other countries where there has been some kind of anti-colonial movement, for example, Iran. You had all kinds of different progressive people coming together to overthrow the Shah. And then you had a very extremist group that overpowered the secular, radical, progressive group that had gathered together. I just think it’s a question to—
SS: Well I mean Iran’s not a good example because that was a CIA fronted state that used torture and was not democratic. Secular Iran was an oppressive regime. So that’s not a good example. But let’s say Israel/Palestine becomes a country and everyone has a vote where there’re all these political parties. HAMAS is not getting elected president of Israel/Palestine, okay, that’s not what’s going to happen.
ITF: I see. That the government is already structured differently.
SS: Yeah, there’s multitudes of Palestinian parties and multitudes of Jewish parties that range from Communist to ultra-religious, and it becomes a parliamentary government where you have different kinds of representations and different kinds of coalitions. Right? And if, for some reason, Israel decides to elect HAMAS as their government then that’s their government. I mean we are in no position to criticize. We had a theocratic government under George Bush who was a Christian Zionist, and we made war against Muslims and we’re still doing it. So we’re the problem. It’s not like we’re neutral and objective, that’s how the media positions everything.
ITF: Have you heard much about Ayaan Hirsi Ali?
SS: No. Oh, she wrote that book about Muslim women.
ITF: Infadel. This seems to me to be a really difficult thing to come up against in America because here you have this Ethiopian woman, born Muslim, who at first, her first book, I thought was actually kind of interesting and complex and called for a critique inside Islam. But then she just got totally right wing, she now works for a conservative think tank in the US, she’s Christian now, and she’s on Fox all the time—
SS: Yeah. First of all, those people are having a legitimate personal experience and they’re explaining it. They’re constantly elevated and amplified by the right wing. And the other side isn’t. They’re excluded. So these people, it looks like they emerge naturally but it’s just about marketing and branding.
ITF: So I’m just wondering how you fight back?
SS: You don’t fight it, they should be part… they’re saying their thing. You know it’s not about stopping people from talking. It’s about making sure other things are heard as well, so that there’s a discussion.
ITF: Well, I think we’ve just about covered it. Do you have anything else you want to say?
SS: It’s an opportunity. This is an opportunity for people to open their minds and to be part of a global movement that’s really progressive, as queer people.
ITF: I think that’s a good place to end.
SS: Okay, thank you.
ITF: Thank you, Sarah.
[…] 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. […]
A refreshing, easy to digest and even hopeful take. That’s progress already. Thank you!!