A victory for Palestine activism in NYC

February 26, 2013

Wesley House reports on a victory for Palestine solidarity activists in New York.

THE NEW York City LGBT Community Center announced in mid-February that it was ending its two-year moratorium against hosting events relating to Israel and Palestine. Pressure from queer activists and community members forced the center to reconsider its policies and open its doors to members wishing to organize around this cause.

About one month prior to the reversal, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) applied to rent a space in the New York City LGBT Center to host a reading with Sarah Schulman, author of Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. The event was scheduled to take place during Israel Apartheid Week, an annual series of university lectures, cultural performances and film screenings that aim to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system. QAIA's request was rejected because, according to the center, the event didn't abide by the room rental policy.

The ban was initially established in 2011 after Siege Busters Working Group, an organization supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, was prohibited from hosting its "Party to End Apartheid," despite having organized at the Center previously.

LGBT rights activists protest the center's former policy banning Palestine solidarity events
LGBT rights activists protest the center's former policy banning Palestine solidarity events

According to Glennda Testone, executive director of the LGBT Community Center, the "decision to cancel the room reservation was made with input from a range of stakeholders."

The most vociferous of these stakeholders was staunch Zionist and gay porn producer Michael Lucas, who threatened to withdraw all financial contributions to the Center should the Siege Buster event take place. Despite his open Islamophobia--Lucas says he "hates Muslims, absolutely," and claims the Koran is a modern-day Mein Kampf that encourages Muslims to kill gays and Jews--the Center caved under the pressure. Ironically, its statement declared that events or groups condoning hate speech and bigotry would not be allowed to organize in the center.

As a historic site of queer activism and organizing, the center's ban was inconsistent with its mission statement of fostering activist spirit within queer communities. The ban also highlighted institutionalized efforts to squelch anti-Zionist organizing and depoliticize queer communities by suggesting their opposition to the state of Israel has no room or relevance in the modern LGBT movement.

Activists within the LGBT movement and their supporters rejected this attitude as delegitimizing queer activist efforts and the Palestinian solidarity movement.

The significance of queer communities and their role in social movements should not be understated. Historically, radical queer activists were aligned itself with the antiwar, anti-racist and anti-colonial movements, recognizing that sexual liberation can be achieved under a racist and militaristic state. Given the racist ideology of Zionism, it should come as no surprise that queer communities organized against the state of Israel.

THE QAIA event featuring Sarah Schulman--now scheduled for March 11 at the center--will address the issue of "pinkwashing," a term used to describe how Israel invokes supposed LBGT rights to divert attention away from the atrocities committed against the Palestinians population.

According to the Jewish Daily Forward, in 2005, the Israeli prime minister's office and the Foreign Ministry agreed on a plan to try to improve the image of Israel abroad. The rebranding campaign launched by the Brand Israel Group, a coalition of marketing and communication executives, sought to achieve this by downplaying aspects of Israeli society that may lead people to associate it with apartheid and the military, such as its treatment towards Palestinians. Instead, the campaign would highlight aspects that could lead to tourism, such as food, art and nightlife.

Portraying Israel as a "gay haven"--despite the fact that nearly half of the Israeli population considers homosexuals to be "deviants"--was a major part of the rebranding campaign.

To the American eye, the inclusion of LGBT people in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) might seem "progressive" especially following the celebrations in the U.S. after the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But this attitude ignores the existence of queer Palestinians who suffer from the violence inflicted by the IDF as it carries out massacres and raids on an ongoing basis. Incorporation into a racist military project is in no way liberation for LGBT people in Israel--and obviously not for Palestinians.

Some proponents of Israel point to the existence of homophobia in Palestine and surrounding Arab countries. These claims not only selectively recognize homophobia only in Arab and Muslim communities, disregarding the history of Christian and Jewish communities, but they also mistakenly expect liberation to flourish under occupation and imperialism.

It is important to recognize that movements for sexual liberation must align themselves with Palestine. Solidarity with Palestine means taking a stand against settler-colonialism--a racist and sexist system that has historically subjugated and oppressed people of color, women and sexual minorities. Israel's deliberate use of pinkwashing exploits Israeli and Palestinian LGBT communities in order to justify continued illegal expansion and the oppression of Palestinians.

The reversal of the LGBT Center's moratorium is an important victory. As J.F. Mulligan, a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, said:

We continued to raise visibility by marching in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens Pride marches. We protested the Salute to Israel Parade, and we endorsed other BDS actions around the city to keep the LGBT Center fresh in people's mind as a violator of free speech, and an institution that lacked transparency and is becoming more corporatized and less of a "community" center.

However, activists are still concerned regarding Center guidelines that declare, "No group utilizing the Center shall engage in hate speech or bigotry of any kind." In a response to the Center statement, QAIA said, "We completely deplore bigotry of any kind, but we cannot help but wonder who will define 'hate speech' and or 'bigotry of any kind.'"

As demonstrated in last month's controversy surrounding Brooklyn College's BDS event with Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, criticism of Israel's unlawful policies and violent occupation of Palestinian territory are regularly painted as "anti-Semitic."

We should also reject attempts to depoliticize queer communities and their solidarity with Palestine by marking their efforts as "not LGBT-focused." As Mulligan said:

The idea of what is a "gay issue" is problematic because it suggests some hierarchy that makes decisions on our behalf. The LGBT Center should be stewards managing a resource of space, not dictating what queer is and who we are. Queer Palestinian groups such as Aswat, Alqaws and PQ BDS, not only exist but are connected to a worldwide queer community of queers fighting for justice.

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