LGBTQ activist denounces Israeli “pinkwashing”

By Jon Catlin

Activist author and professor Sarah Schulman (X ’80) spoke against the “pinkwashing” of the Israeli presence in the West Bank last Thursday in Ida Noyes.

In a talk sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine and Queers and Associates, Schulman discussed Israel’s relationship with the LGBTQ community and queer activism in the Palestinian resistance movement, the subject of her recent book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International.

Partly because the movement is made up of members in both Israel and Palestine, Schulman argued, “Queer Palestine has better international relationships than any other sector of Palestine.”

Born into a Jewish family and a granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, Schulman said that she had only come to see the Israeli presence as unjust late in life.

“I was raised by people who in their historic moment had been the most oppressed people on the earth,” she said. “But the lesson for me…is that who you are at one moment does not determine who you are forever, and that your ability to move from oppressed to oppressor in a matter of months is a fact of history.”

She became interested in Palestinian activism after her decision, in solidarity with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, to decline an offer to give a keynote address at a conference at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Schulman instead went on a so-called solidarity tour of Palestine. At one point in the tour she and other protesters were tear-gassed at a weekly protest in the village of Bil’in.

“I had always been raised with this thing that ‘we’ were the Jews,” she said. “But that kind of fell away, and I felt like this ‘we’ was more the people I was in this demonstration with, and these [Israeli] soldiers were not ‘we.’ Everything changed in that moment for me.”

Schulman is openly gay and supports gay rights, but she argued against what has come to be called “pinkwashing.”

“The Israeli government tries to use the fact that there’s gay pride in Tel Aviv, for example, to negate the violation of international law and of international human rights that is the occupation of Palestine. They try to whitewash the occupation, or as we call it, ‘pinkwash’ it,” she said.

She described this tactic as purely propagandistic. “There’s absolutely no relationship between having gay pride and the occupation. It’s a false equation,” she said. “We just have to refuse that. We have to say we will not be used to justify the occupation.”

But a third-year Ph.D. student in philosophy thought that Schulman failed to recognize the actual good that came from the strong LGBTQ rights in Israel.

“I worry about the paradigm in which everything that is great about Israel should not be mentioned because if we mention it we somehow normalize the occupation,” he said during the Q&A.

But Schulman was unmoved. “The problem is that Israel is an apartheid state, so even if something great is happening for someone Jewish in Israel, it’s not great. It’s not a democracy; it’s a selective democracy, because Jews have rights that non-Jews don’t have. You have an undemocratic, racist, apartheid state,” she said.

Schulman’s talk was given in conjunction with a screening the next day of United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, a documentary co-produced by Schulman and Jim Hubbard about the organization that began the HIV/AIDS activist movement in the late 1980s.