The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2013

All Issues
MAR 2013 Issue
Express In Conversation

Israel/Palestine and the Re-education of Sarah Schulman

Ever since her trailblazing work in the ’80s chronicling the AIDS crisis, Sarah Schulman has covered a lot of ground. She’s published 10 novels, five nonfiction books, four plays, and countless articles on social issues; she’s been the recipient of a Guggenheim, a Fulbright, a Kessler Award, and a Distinguished Professorship at CUNY. In addition, she co-founded the Lesbian Avengers, MIX: NY LGBT Experimental Film and Video Festival (now in its 24th year), and the ACT UP Oral History Project, and she was one of the organizers of the first-ever Dyke March in the early 1990s.

Despite the fact that Schulman has already developed an expertise in more fields than most people would ever dream of, in her new book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, Schulman makes clear that she is not done exploring new political terrain. In this brave nonfiction work, now out from Duke University Press, Schulman takes up the occupation, and the BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) movement. The book follows Schulman as she dissects her own complicated relationship to the Middle East, immerses herself in an intensive re-education process, and embarks on a unique, eye-opening Solidarity Tour of Israel/Palestine.

Bec Zajac caught up with Sarah Schulman to talk about the book, Schulman’s own personal transformation, and the queer anti-occupation movement’s plans for the future.

Bec Zajac (Rail): The book opens with a conversation you’re having with a good friend of yours. He talks about how most of his friends in the U.S. are Jewish and how politically they agree on almost everything, but when it comes to issues to do with Israel, there’s nearly always a disagreement. These friends are, it seems, PEP, a term you learn in the book, “progressive except for Palestine.” When you reflect on his comment, you start to notice this tendency in yourself—what you call a kind of “willful ignorance” regarding Israel/Palestine. Can you talk about the experience of noticing this “willful ignorance” in yourself?

Sarah Schulman: Well, I think that it was simultaneously conscious and unconscious. I avoided becoming a truly informed person about Israel/Palestine because I already knew the truth—that all human beings deserve equal rights. And that if I started to actually find out what was really going on in Israel/Palestine I would find grotesque systemic violations of human rights. Everything I had been raised with would have to change.

Now, of course, I had already had that experience with homosexuality, so I had some idea of how dramatic a transformation that real information would provoke. I wish I could say that I just woke up one morning and decided to deal with it. But the reality is that in November 2009, I received an invitation to give a keynote address at a Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference in Tel Aviv University. And my Jewish colleague said to me “Tel Aviv University is included in the Boycott.”  So, I was forced by circumstance to find out what “the Boycott” was. And I found out that in 2005 an organization called Palestine Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) asked internationals to not collaborate with institutions that were funded by the Israeli government; this included universities, which are all run by the government and are key to Israeli normalization of the occupation.

After a few months of intensive research, I realized that this economic and cultural boycott was the most effective nonviolent strategy for change in the Middle East. Whenever anyone tells me not to boycott, I ask them what their strategy is. Do they have a concrete strategy that could be as nonviolent and as effective as sanctions? And they don’t. So, repeatedly, it is reinforced by my experience that if I believe in equal rights for all people, which I do, then I need to support Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, which is known as BDS.

Rail: To understand where this “willful ignorance” comes from, you take us back to your upbringing. You were the child of migrants who lost entire families in the camps and were completely influenced by the Holocaust. Your background, you write, was “typical of my Jewish generation: soaked in blood, trauma, and dislocation.” Can you elaborate on why understanding your parents’ trauma is crucial to understanding the modern Jewish relationship to Israel?

Schulman: In my particular case, my grandmother’s two sisters and two brothers—Odellah, Mendeh, Shmul, and Solomon Leibling—were exterminated in Poland. My grandfather’s sister, Anna Fuchs, was murdered by Nazis at Baba Yar in Russia. So these are my mother’s cousins, aunts, and uncles. I was born in 1958, which was only 13 years after these events, which is not very much.

“If I believe in equal rights for all people, which I do, then I need to support Boycott Divestment and Sanctions.”

Rail: The question for those of us with this history is: what is the lesson of the Holocaust? 

Schulman: I believe that the lesson of the Holocaust is that theories and practice of racial or religious supremacy lead to fascism and genocide. I do not agree that the Holocaust leads us to create a Jewish state in which Jews have legal supremacy over non-Jews. I feel the opposite. For me, the legacy of the Holocaust is that we must resist all ideologies of racial and religious supremacy. 

Even if you don’t care about humanity, and only want what is best for the Jews, I think it is crystal clear that the policies of the Israeli government: separation, segregation, settlements, consistent violation of international law, etc. are not good for the Jews. It is my view that nationalism is not good for the Jews. The violation of the human rights of non-Jews is not good for the Jews. And the racial prejudices by European Jews, like myself, against Arab Jews is equally disgraceful and destructive. By virtue of being born, all human beings deserve equal rights, self-determination, and equal access to opportunity. That is my bottom line.

Rail: How did you come to the decision to embark on the Solidarity Tour? 

Schulman: Once I made the decision not to violate the boycott, an Israeli academic, Dalit Baum, suggested that I come to Israel on a “Solidarity Tour” and meet with people in anti-occupation venues. This appealed to me because I could not imagine doing nothing, and interestingly, the Boycott is constructed in such a way that we can go to Israel and can meet and speak with Israelis, just not in state sponsored institutions. So, I wanted the communication.

The tour was set up by anti-occupation queer Israelis. I spoke at the Rogatka Cafe (that means “slingshot” as in David and Goliath), which is an anarchist vegan cafe in Tel Aviv. We had about 60 people, including the organizers of the conference that I had declined to attend. They were not angry at all and entirely understood my decision. I also spoke at a very cool space, The Haifa Women’s Center, which is shared by three groups: Aswat, Palestinian Gay Women, Kayan, which is the Palestinian Feminist Coalition of which Aswat is an open member, and Isha L’Isha, which means women to women in Hebrew, an amazing feminist peace organization. The women from Aswat were my first contacts with the Palestinian Queer Movement.

Rail: In the book you write about your experience meeting young Palestinian queer activists and the solidarity you find with them. One particularly moving part in the book is where you write about having “that” queer conversation with them, the “one I have had my whole life in every queer place I’ve ever visited: the conversation about coming out to parents, the cruelty of families, the lack of comprehension, the disappointment, the pain, the fear of one’s own parents.” How did your experience meeting with young Palestinian queer activists on your trip and finding solidarity with them work to shift your consciousness on issues around the occupation?

Schulman: In Ramallah, in the West Bank, I met with a second Palestinian queer organization alQaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. Haneen Maikay is their founding director. This is an amazing organization because it may be the only Palestinian group that exists on both sides of the wall of separation.

You see that the wall really affects how people think. It lives inside people’s brains. But Haneen, being one of the most talented political leaders I have ever encountered, has managed to create a queer community that transcends the wall. Because of this, alQaws represents queer Palestinians in their diversity of experience; some are in Palestine, some are refugees, some are in the diaspora, some are from families who were not forced out after 1948.

I would say that the main lesson I learned from my exposure and ongoing relationships with this community is that there are three number one goals of the Palestinian Queer Movement and none can be prioritized over another. They are: 1) End the Occupation 2) Queer Liberation and 3) Feminism.

It was emphasized to me over and over, wherever I went and with whomever I had discussions with, that the occupation is intimately interwoven with the obstacles facing Palestinian queers. And that their movement is an anti-occupation, queer, feminist movement. alQaws also throws queer Palestinian dance parties that have hundreds of people, so there is a of course a social side to it all. It’s notable that the third Palestinian queer organization is PQBDS (Palestinian Queers for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions), which is based in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

Rail: In the book, you write that during your research you read a lot of work by Judith Butler on the issue. Butler discusses “Jewish ethics under pressure” and says that, “as a Jew, she was taught it was ethically imperative to speak up,” that “Jewish values are social justice values,” and that “as a Jew one is under obligation to criticize excessive state violence and state racism.”

There is great fear in mainstream Jewish communities about the consequences of criticizing Israel. You write in your book that “any Jew who criticizes Israel is labeled a self-hating Jew and anti-Semitic.” However, what is rarely talked about are the consequences of destroying the Jewish moral values that Butler discusses.

Schulman: This is something I grapple with every day, because, being a classic New York Jew born in the 1950s, I was raised in the shadow of the Rosenbergs, of Scottsboro, of labor unions. I was raised with the ideology that Jews have a commitment and a responsibility to social justice for all. 

However, now that I am starting to learn about the history of non-Zionist Jews (I’m currently reading Judith Butler’s new book Parting Ways, and revisiting Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem), it seems that we lost these values in 1948 when we created a state on land where other people lived. We drove them out of their homes, subjugated them, destroyed their villages, and created a nation where rights and power were based on race/religion. 

At this point, I think it would be impossible to claim that Jews are a force for social justice. As painful as it is to admit, it is so. We still voted for Obama, but basically everyone except for white men, and white women married to white men, voted for Obama. The idea of Jewish exceptionalism, really, is not helpful to me at this point. 

Rail: There’s an incredible moment in the book where you talk about hearing the speech given by Isaac Bashevis Singer when he won the Nobel Prize for his writing in Yiddish. In his speech, Singer says that Yiddish is a “language of exile, a language without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language, which possesses no word for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics.” And on hearing the speech, you think, “this is the kind of Jew I was, a Diasporic Jew. I didn’t need a word for weapons. I sneak by.”

It seems that a place where you personally gain great power is in the richness of your diasporic Jewish experience, your experience with Yiddish theater, and New York’s Jewish intellectual scene. Perhaps if progressive Jews were to get further in touch with the richness of that Diasporic experience and develop a Judaism not entirely focused on Israel, it may help them to move forward on this issue. Do you agree? And how do you think progressive Jews, particularly those living outside New York, could go about doing that?

Schulman: Well, you could interpret the Yiddish revival, which is now about 25 – 30 years old, as a response against Zionism by a younger generation. A look back at a more radical Jewish culture in Europe. I am just starting to learn more about Arab Jews and their diverse cultures and historical trajectories, which are quite different. Visionaries like Ella Shohat have opened this up for me immensely. Also filmmakers like Kathy Wazana and b.h. Yael, or Sephardics studies scholars like Dalia Kandiyoti—they are correcting the Ashkenazi dominance of Jewish representation that is essential to Jews finding a more honest and complex awareness.

The movement of Arab Jews is very politically significant as well as culturally. And Ella Shohat is really important is this regard. Last year, I attended a One State conference at Harvard in which Palestinians, Israelis, American Jews, and Arabs from other backgrounds met to discuss the idea of Israel/Palestine as one democratic state, in which each person would be an equal citizen. A number of Palestinians and Jews agreed that the Arab Jews are key to this concept. 

Arab Jews were an integrated, natural part of the Arab world for thousands of years. It was only after the founding of the state of Israel that Arab Jews started to be separated from the Arab people. New immigrants had their names changed, were told to stop speaking Arabic, were told that Arab and Jew were two separate identities. That Arabs were the enemy. And Arab Jews were considered second-class citizens to Ashkenazis. Now, Arab Jews are quite conservative in Israel. It’s much like white working-class people in the U.S. who vote for Romney. It’s a complex separation from one’s self.

However, if Arab Jews could—spiritually and culturally—be reunited with the Arab World of which they were always an organic part, and I don’t mean literally move back to Iraq (Baghdad was once 40 percent Jewish), but be allowed to be both Arab and Jewish wherever they are—well then they are the key to the new one democratic state. Because, if Arab Jews were allowed to be themselves—both Arab and Jewish—then Israel/Palestine is an Arab country of Jews, Druze, Muslims, and Christians with a European Jewish minority.

Most people reading this have never heard this idea before and may think that, because they have never heard this, it is impossible. But the tearing away of Arab Jews from the Arab world only took place 60 years ago. And remember that Zionism itself was once three guys sitting around a table. Anything that can be imagined can come to be. If the goal is that all human beings have equality, then there has to be a way that Israel/Palestine can become one democratic state—perhaps with two rights of return: The Palestinian Right of Return and the Jewish Right of Return.  

What I found most interesting about this One State Conference at Harvard was the realization that under one democratic state, where everyone was equal—Palestinians would not vote in a block, and Jews would not vote in a block. The communities are too diverse. Secular progressive Palestinians and Jews would probably vote together. Extreme religious Jews would vote for their party, extreme religious Muslims would vote for their party, etc. 

Rail: Many progressive Jews acknowledge there is much work to be done, but say it is not something they personally need to confront. Why do you think it is very much the responsibility of Jews to challenge current Israeli policies and what else do you think needs to happen for there to be a shift in Jewish consciousness on this issue?

Schulman: Look, change is made by a small group of people. The vast majority never do anything substantial. I recently co-produced Jim Hubbard’s film UNITED IN ANGER: A History of ACT UP, where we show how the AIDS activist movement (whose largest demonstration was only 7,000 people) changed the world. You don’t need a majority for paradigm shifts; you need a critical mass.  The responsibility of people like myself is to make it easier for those who could potentially participate in social change to get access to information and ideas that can propel them to follow their conscience.

Rail: How do you suggest people in the progressive community could work to create stronger connections with the Palestinian community, given all the censorship around the issue and the fact that, as you write, “We don’t have even the most basic information about Palestinian society?”

Schulman: There are a number of ways.

1) Read accurate news sources for example The Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss, Al Jazeera, articles by Amira Hass in Haaretz, and The Guardian.

2) Join Jewish Voice for Peace, one of a handful of organizations working for divestment of companies profiting from the occupation from a Jewish perspective. The advisory board includes myself, Judith Butler, Wallace Shawn, Eve Ensler, and other interesting people.

3) Go on a delegation to Palestine. Palestinians want visitors to come witness the conditions and to meet and discuss. If you have a community group or professional group or can pull together a group committed to going, it is a life-changing experience. 


Bec Zajac

BEC ZAJAC is currently residing between Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn and Melbourne, Australia. She is a part-time student, book publicist, writer, reader, and then some.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2013

All Issues