Book 145: Israel/Palestine and the Queer International – Sarah Schulman

My third book for The Literary Others reading event, and the final ARC of this month was Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. I requested this book via NetGalley and the below response is my honest opinion and I did not receive any compensation. I requested the book as I’m well aware that my knowledge on what is going on and what has happened in the region is woefully lacking and I thought this would be a great perspective for an introduction and boy was I right.

Like most readers, at least on Goodreads it seems, I expected this to be heavier on academics, what with being a publication of Duke University Press (Go Heels! – sorry couldn’t help it 😀 It’s a gut reaction…), but I found it incredibly approachable, well-reasoned and well written. This work clearly shows that Schulman is first and foremost a writer, her eloquent language, pertinent anecdotes and a great mixture of academia and activism really opened this book to a wider audience than I expected it to be able to reach. Previously, I have read two of her novels, After Delores and People in Trouble, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and am definitely interested in reading more of her more recent work, as well as her more biographical works.

It may be a cop-out, but I am not going to weigh in on the Israel/Palestine issue because I think that’s something every person has to decide on their own and as I mentioned above, I’m woefully ignorant. However, reading this book made me realize that this does need to change. If this book does one thing better than anything else, it forces you to think. It doesn’t beat you over the head with it and it definitely doesn’t force Schulman’s evolving views on to you, I felt.

As this is the documenting of Schulman’s personal journey on this topic, I found it inspiring that in what seemed like a very short time period she went from having a negligible opinion on the entire situation to having a solid, reasoned, well stated and explainable stance. And even more gratifying, for me at least, was her decision to explain all of this through the lens of the LGBT/queer liberation movements. I have never been able to fully understand/show interest in the conflict based on religious/national issues, but adding the LGBT/queer lens really helped me to connect the struggle to something I’ve studied and lived and am interested in.

Where I think Schulman is strongest is in her honesty. She frequently explains her thought process as well as her upbringing and why she thinks/thought what she does/did. But where this is most interesting is when she is giving a walk through of who’s who in LGBT/queer liberation. Let’s face it – I would give quite lot to meet any number of the people she encounters on this journey, let alone to have the opportunity to sit in and listen on any number of the conversations that happened within the scope of this work.

The Literary Others Synthesis
As I mentioned above, the LGBT/queer liberation lens was something I desperately needed to even begin to understand the issue. In providing historical references to the US LGBT liberation movement and other broader social and anti-apartheid movements Schulman grounded her overall arguments in the politics of liberation and oppression. She discusses many things which are pertinent to liberation, but that which struck a chord with me was the following,

“As the LGBT movement unites across racial and ethnic borders, the need to both acknowledge queers and not contain them in one method of acknowledgment is ever under discussion.” (Loc. 1287)

Although I identify with and have my label, I feel that often times activists and even academics overstep their roles and force labels on people. I have a very distinct memory of getting into a verbal spat with Peter Tatchell, an influential British LGBT campaigner, about the forced labeling of non-heterosexual Africans at a presentation he gave at Leeds University. My biggest issue is that identity politics does not require a person to adopt into a label to believe in it. We are so concerned with categorical terms and identities that when someone comes along who doesn’t fit within one of them we have to try and push them into it and that’s just not okay, especially within identity politics. However, Schulman has a tangentially related answer to that as well,

“Once the LGBT community allowed itself to become so dependent on state funding that it couldn’t imagine going forward without it, it was doomed.” (Loc. 2015)

Don’t get me wrong, I think some of the big organizations (like HRC, IGLHRC, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Stonewall UK, and others) are necessary evils, but what they have done is co-opted the LGBT liberation movement by categorizing, quantifying and prioritizing what was important to some, but not all. Schulman provides multiple examples of this so I won’t, but suffice to say that the more often it happened the more it pissed me off and reminded me of how petty politics can become within an organization, especially when it comes to funding/perceived funding sources.

Recommendation: Everyone should read this book. It doesn’t matter your sexuality or your political preferences. I think this book shows the intricacies of nation building, LGBT politics, the politics of exploitation and feminism, and a lot of other fascinating components as well.

I didn’t even begin to discuss everything that is pertinent or interesting in this book. I will definitely need to re-read it again to take more in, but it was well worth the read. But this book did get me excited about academics again. I even went so far as finding Schulman’s New York Times OpEd piece, Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’ which was an interesting almost summary of this book.

Opening Line: “It was about two weeks after the July 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon.”

Closing Line: “And now I know that there is a significant and growing sector of the LGBT community in the United States that recognizes queer Palestine as part of us, something inseparable and organic. We’ve done something of value, and we’ve done it together.” (Whited out.)

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12 thoughts on “Book 145: Israel/Palestine and the Queer International – Sarah Schulman

  1. I read the NYT op-ed you linked to and found it quite thought provoking. It’s not clear to me why it makes sense to hold gay people to a different standard than everyone else on their opinions about immigration as she seems to at the beginning of the article, but the reporting about Israel’s actions and motivations is very interesting.

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    • I think she was going for the reverse – it’s much more explicit in the longer book. She’s saying that many extremist organizations (when it comes to Islama-phobia and immigration) are now seeing gay members or establishing gay ‘wings’ with which they can say, see we’re progressive, we’re not anti-everything. It’s the broader idea of pinkwashing she uses specifically with Israel where they spend billions on gay tourism to show they’re different from the middle east because they’re gay friendly, but at the same time are committing egregious human rights violations. I guess I just took it for granted having read the book first. Let me know if that makes sense at all.

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  2. Sorry if I was not clear at Leeds. Agree with you. I don’t support the forced labelling of non-heterosexual Africans – or anyone else. People should be free to adopt their own identities or lack of them. I reject the idea of imposing or transposing western identities on non-western people. We should listen to these people and how they articulate themselves.

    BTW: Schulman is great and I mostly agree with her “pinkwashing” analysis.

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    • Hey Peter, Thanks for stopping by and for the clarification! I was incredibly put off by your response a few years ago and was confused because I know I’d read you’d believed otherwise at some point. I was impressed with how Schulman laid out her arguments and am definitely planning on doing more research into them in this particular case. I found it incredibly pertinent with the article I read about the South African pride parade altercation today. – Geoff

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