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Renaissance queer “credible” Sarah Schulman’s new memoir Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke University Press) is part manual, part testament on how to learn from one’s ignorance. As the late, great lesbian literary critic Barbara Johnson explains,
If I perceive my ignorance as a gap in knowledge instead of an imperative that changes the very nature of what I think I know, then I do not truly experience my ignorance. The surprise of otherness is that moment when a new form of ignorance is suddenly activated as an imperative.
—Barbara Johnson, “Nothing Fails Like Success”
Schulman’s “willful ignorance regarding Israel and Palestine” is both acknowledged and interrogated through her own self-questioning and activism in this concise yet powerful activist-roman. The “queer international” — “a worldwide movement that brings queer liberation and feminism to the principles of international autonomy from occupation, colonialism, and globalized capital”—is established as a counterpoint to the many layers and machinations of homonationalism (a term appropriated from Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times), such as pinkwashing, that Schulman identifies and experiences during the course of the book’s narrative, specifically the years 2009-2011.
Schulman’s decades of queer activism, and her Jewish “background…soaked in blood, trauma, and dislocation,” did not prepare her for the sequence of events—beginning with a seemingly innocent invitation to give the keynote address at a LGBT Studies Conference at Tel Aviv University in 2010—that revealed not only her own ignorance about the complexities of the Israel/Palestine conflict but also how the LGBT community has become implicated in, and even complicit with, it. After a series of conversations with her friends and colleagues (who she refers to as queer “credibles”), Schulman declines the invitation because Tel Aviv University was under the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI, and instead ventures on a solidarity visit to meet with both Palestinian queers and “queerim” and “queerite” (“Israeli queers who do not identify with the nationalist and assimilationist Israeli LGBT movement”) at alternative venues in both Israeli and Palestinian territories. In the touching, sometimes humorous details of her solidarity visit, Schulman comes to understand that the LGBT community’s implication and/or complicity is a product of homonationalism, which she, citing Puar, defines as the nationalist tendencies of assimilationist LGBTers:
Through marriage, parenthood, and family, [LGBs and some Ts] become accepted and realigned with patriotic or nationalist ideologies of their countries. Instead of being feared as the threat to family and nation that they were once seen to be, this new integration under the most normative of terms is held up as a symbol of that country’s commitment to progress and modernity…. They construct the ‘other,’ often Muslims of Arab, South Asian, Turkish, or African origin, as ‘homophobic’ and fanatically heterosexual.
Homonationalism is manifested culturally through pinkwashing, or acts that ironically expose, via their intentional covering, alliances with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories:
While homonationalism is a product of white culture and emerges unconsciously whenever white gay people (and their admirers) assimilate into racist power structures, it is not deliberate government policy. However, nowhere has homonationalism been more consciously harnessed by governments than in Israel, where the maneuvering of gay rights to support racist agendas evolved strategically from marketing impulses.
Homonationalism, Schulman is loath to discover, is alive and well in North America (perhaps not surprising given the U.S.’s investment in Israel); she chronicles a handful of recent incidents in both the U.S. and Canada that document the extent to which the LGBT community has participated in the exclusion and marginalization of Palestinian queers and its continual “willful ignorance” of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In one of her more disturbing accounts, Schulman describes how the NYC’s Gay Center banned Siege Busters, an activist group dedicated to breaking the siege of Gaza, from using the Center as a meeting space. Schulman, and other concerned queers, attempt to solicit answers from the Center’s staff, including director Glennda Testone (described as a “corporate femme in four-inch heels”), but to no avail. Why? Fear of “Jews unknown and unseen,” as Schulman describes it; or, fear of potential money contributions lost.
Schulman then comes to realize that the LGBT community has reached a schism: assimilationist LGBTers on one side, anti-assimilationist queers on the other: “the real story is that while some gay people are adopting nationalist anti-immigration attitudes and joining imperialist militaries, others are working together across national boundaries to break down racial and gender exclusion. The activism of LGBT people on the questions of border, citizenship, and occupation is producing an international dynamic that has consequences for world politics.”
The LGBT movement is, in some ways, no more—it is certainly no longer a localized movement fighting to walk down the glorified church aisle. Schulman’s memoir shows us how we are all implicated in and even complicit with larger, global conflicts. Is homonationalism the activist’s cry of the 21st century? Are you ready to interrogate your privilege? It is this call to acknowledge and interrogate our privilege and our ignorance that concludes Schulman’s fine work: “It is only in our most honest, sincere recognition of each other’s humanity that the great potential of life…can be understood and truly tasted. And it is with this enrichment of knowledge and experience that we are able to envision and then create a just future.”
Israel/Palestine and the Queer International
By Sarah Schulman
Duke University Press
Hardcover, 9780822353737, 208 pp.