Monday, June 07, 2004

Making Zionism Gay or Queering Israel into Post-Zionism?

There is a new battle in the Israel-Palestine conflict -- the battle over hearts and minds of queer communities in Israel and the rest of the world. Will GLBT activism only end up making Zionism gay or will it succeed in queering Israel into post-Zionism?

On one hand, there is no question that GLBT activists in Israel have won many victories in recent decades: e.g., the sodomy law was repealed in 1988; Israel's Equal Workplace Opportunities Law was amended to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1992; the Israeli military rescinded its discrimination against gays and lesbians in 1993; and the Israeli Supreme Court granted full spousal benefits regardless of sexual orientation in 1994. On the other hand, Lee Walzer, the author of Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through Today's Changing Israel (Columbia University Press, 2000), argues that the victories came at the cost of mainstreaming:
The reasons for gay and lesbian political success during this period from 1988 through the mid-1990s were many. Chief among them was the fact that gay activists pursued a very mainstream strategy, seeking to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex.

This strategy, pursued until recently, reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it. Embracing gay rights enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities. ("Queer in the Land of Sodom: Israel Is among the Leaders in Equality for Sexual Minorities," The Gully, February 21, 2002)
In other words, the price of acceptance for gay men and lesbians in Israel was that they had to play the role of "good patriotic citizens" of the Zionist state, the price that queer Palestinian citizens of Israel, for instance, were unable to pay, as they -- unlike Jewish gay men who could tackle homophobia in separation from the interlocking system of oppressions based on gender and nationality -- had to struggle against gender and national oppressions which absorbed much of activist energy. Rauda Morcos, the coordinator of a Palestinian lesbian group ASWAT who regards Israel as no democracy ("Sie betrachte Israel als kein demokratisches Land," [Lizzie Pricken, "Koalitionen auf Zeit: Über den Aufbruch palästinensischer Lesben," Gigi: Zeitschrift fuer sexuelle Emanzipation 31]), says:
"Wir sind Frauen, wir sind Palästinenserinnen, und wir sind lesbisch -- eine triple oppression, die wir bisher als zu überwältigend empfanden, um sie insgesamt anzugehen. Während viele von uns in feministischen Projekten aktiv waren und einige sich an Friedens- und Anti-Okkupations-Aktivitäten beteiligten, hatte keine von uns eine "Community", die den alltäglichen Kampf gegen die Diskriminierung als "Minderheit in einer Minderheit in einer Minderheit" stützen konnte. Als Frauen kämpfen wir für Gleichberechtigung in einer patriarchalen Gesellschaft, die die Rechte von Frauen nicht anerkennt. Als Teil der palästinensischen Minderheit in Israel müssen wir uns mit offenem und zunehmendem Rassismus und mit Diskriminierungen auseinandersetzen. Als Lesben in einer heterosexuellen und konservativen Gesellschaft, unternehmen wir den ersten Schritt aus dem "Closet", zuerst untereinander, und nehmen damit alle ein enormes Risiko auf uns."

["We are women, we are Palestinians, and we are lesbian -- a triple oppression, which we felt was too overwhelming to address at the same time. While many of us were active in feminist projects and some of us took part in peace and anti-occupation activities, none of us had a 'community,' which could support the everyday fight against discrimination as 'a minority in a minority in a minority.' As women we fight for equal rights in a patriarchal society, which does not recognize the rights of women. As part of the Palestinian minority in Israel, we must contend with open and increasing racism and discriminations. As lesbians in a heterosexual and conservative society, we take the first step out of the 'closet,' first among ourselves, taking on an enormous risk to us."] ("We Are Women, We Are Palestinians, and We Are Gay")
Recently, however, an increasing number of queer Jewish activists inside and outside Israel began to refuse to participate in the project of simply making Zionism look "gay" in both the old and new senses of the word:
Against the backdrop of clashes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the 2001 Tel Aviv's Pride Parade, typically a celebratory, hedonistic affair, got a dose of politics when a contingent called "Gays in Black" marched with a banner proclaiming, "There's No Pride In Occupation."

In recent months, a group called "Kvisa Sh'chora" (Dirty Laundry) has sprung up, linking the oppression of sexual minorities to what it sees as the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. It remains to be seen whether Israeli gays and lesbians can point the way toward a better relationship both with Israel's Arab minority and the neighboring Arab states. (Walzer, February 21, 2002)
"Kvisa Sh'chora" has served as a role model for queer Jewish anti-occupation activists in the United States as well: Orly Halpern, "Isn't That Queer," In These Times, August 16, 2002; and Sue Katz, "Israeli Queers Revolt," Z Magazine 15.12, December 2002. At the same time, more integration of GLBT Jews in Israel means more integration of GLBT Jews into the mechanism of enforcing the Israeli occupation. Hagai El-Ad suggests that GLBT Jews in Israel stand at crossroads:
Relatively speaking, Israel is an extraordinary example of great success in the rapid advancement of gay and lesbian rights. Some academics who have tried to explain the phenomenon argue that instead of being a case of extraordinary Israeli openness, it actually reflects the closing of ranks among the Jewish majority in the face of the common Arab enemy. In other words, "She has a (Jewish) girlfriend; it's not so bad, at least she's not sleeping with Arabs." The ultimate sexual taboo in Israel is sex between Jews and Arabs, not sex between those of the same sex (assuming they're both on the same side of the racial fence).

The meeting with the Prime Minister [Ariel Sharon] is a critical experiment for testing the above theory: Will gays and lesbians choose now to close ranks with the oppressive majority, or will we understand that a future of freedom is possible for us only if it's possible for everyone. Our ally in this struggle walks by foot today to school in the neighboring village, despite the roadblocks and the closure. He's the one we should meet, not the man currently sitting in the Prime Minister's Office. ("Gay Israel: No Pride In Occupation," The Gully, February 21, 2002)
Will queer Jews in Israel, as well as Jewish queers in diaspora, take the path of least resistance, serving as (literal and figurative) queer Zionist soldiers enjoying camaraderie with straight Zionist soldiers, making the occupation look sexy (cf. Calev Ben-David, "Showing Our Best (Gay) Face Abroad," The Jerusalem Post, October 8, 2003) in the eyes of queers worldwide, as a popular gay Israeli movie Yossi and Jaggar does, marginalizing dissents of anti-occupation queers (cf. QUIT! "Yossi and Jagger: Epilogue")?

Or will queer Jews, as well as other non-Palestinian queers, make a harder but more rewarding choice of building solidarity with their Palestinian counterparts? If they choose the latter, there is hope of one day establishing a secular democratic state in which all -- Jews or Palestinians, straights or queers -- enjoy equal rights in historic Palestine, a truly queer place with post-Zionist and post-Palestinian-nationalist culture that reinvents Jewish and Palestinian cultures and synthesizes them in equal gay measures.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hey i looked and looked and looked for an email address for Yoshie but found none so am leaving this as a comment - basically i ujust wanted to say i think this is a great essay and brings up an important part of the "whither the glbt movement" question. i have linked to it from my Free Palestine page at and also from my "Revolutionary Readings" page at
if you would like to link to either my site at or my other site at that'd be nice, but of course not necessary.
take care,