28 April, 2009 – MRZine – Monthly Review
On January 28, little more than a week after Israel concluded its brutal military campaign against the Gaza Strip, James Kirchick published the latest installment in his growing corpus of articles about tolerant, gay-friendly Israel and homophobic, ‘Islamofascist’ Palestine. Although Kirchick has published essentially the same article under different titles — ‘Palestine and Gay Rights’ and ‘Palestinian Anti-Gay Atrocities Need Attention’ — and although he regurgitates the same flimsy, unsupported arguments in all of these articles, we do not write to question his intellectual prowess or journalistic qualifications. In fact, Kirchick’s diatribe against Palestinians and the ‘radical’ gay activists who support them would not warrant a response if it did not, in our view, represent something much bigger and more dangerous.
We are two people who come from very different places with very different histories: one of us, Haneen Maikey, is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the director of Al-Qaws (‘the rainbow’ in Arabic) for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society (alqaws.org), and the other, Jason Ritchie, is an American anthropologist whose research focuses on sexuality and nationalism in Israel-Palestine. Despite our differences, however, we share an interest in what is said about lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer Palestinians, and we are equally disturbed each time we read another article by another American, European, or Israeli writer who pretends to offer ‘the truth’ about gay Palestinians by telling simplistic, one-dimensional stories that are based more on racist stereotypes about Palestinians than the reality of life in Israel-Palestine.
We would like to start, then, by clearing up a few misconceptions about Israel, Palestine, and queers. As in most societies, homophobia is a problem in Palestinian society, but there is not some organized, widespread campaign of violence against gay and lesbian Palestinians. Of course, there are occasional acts of violence, much like there are occasional acts of violence against queers in Western societies; and the social norms and mores about gender and sexuality that give rise to such violence create a climate in which many queer Palestinians cannot live their lives openly and honestly. At the same time, however, there are many openly gay and lesbian Palestinians, and they are not, as James Kirchick implies, an insignificant group of a ‘few lucky Palestinians’ who are seeking asylum in Israel: they are actively engaged in changing the status quo in Palestinian society by promoting respect for sexual and gender diversity.
Those of us who know a thing or two about Israel know that seeking asylum in Israel is not an option anyway for Palestinians, who are specifically ineligible for asylum under Israeli law. It may be true, as Kirchick proudly states, that Israel ‘legally enshrines the rights of gay people,’ but it enshrines only some rights for some gay people. Restricted freedom of movement, routine human rights abuses, detentions, checkpoints, and bombing campaigns are among the legally enshrined ‘rights’ of Palestinians, whatever their sexual orientation, in the West Bank and Gaza. And while Palestinians in Israel and Jerusalem are granted some legal rights and their living conditions are significantly better than in the Palestinian Territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel, whatever their sexual orientation, are second-class citizens, who face legally sanctioned and everyday discrimination and racism in all areas of life, from courtrooms and boardrooms to hospitals and universities, from the streets of small villages to the streets of Jerusalem, from the floor of the Knesset to the floors of Tel Aviv’s hippest, gayest clubs.
Israel is not, in other words, ‘an oasis of liberal tolerance,’ and Palestine is not ‘a reactionary religious backwater.’ Kirchick’s article is built on the weak foundation of these two myths, and we could excuse such shortcomings as poor journalism — it’s based, after all, not on research or conversations with actual gay Palestinians, but the author’s assumptions and a seven-year-old article written by another journalist — if it did not entail such serious dangers.
In the first place, if we are to believe Kirchick, there are no queer Palestinians: they’ve all been murdered by Palestinian ‘Islamofascists,’ and the ‘lucky few’ who survived have fled to gay-friendly Israel. In fact, there is a vibrant, organized community of queer Palestinians who are working hard to create a just, democratic Palestinian society that respects the dignity of every person. Perhaps Kirchick would prefer to pretend that they don’t exist because, in his view, they might as well not exist. According to Kirchick, ‘Palestinian oppression of homosexuality isn’t merely a matter of state policy, it’s one firmly rooted in Palestinian society, where hatred of gays surpasses even that of Jews.’ If it were true — and we know it not to be true — that all Palestinians hate gays (and Jews), and their hatred has nothing to do with laws or stereotypes or other things in the world that can be changed, then there would be no point fighting for change. The truth is that homophobia is a problem among Palestinians, but racist arguments like Kirchick’s that explain it as a sort of sickness that’s ‘firmly rooted’ in Palestinian society do nothing to help those who are trying hard to change it.
Fortunately, though, the important work of queer Palestinian activists will continue, regardless of what James Kirchick does or does not write about them. What we find more problematic is that he fabricates a story of oppressed gay Palestinians, about whom he actually knows very little, to make an argument in support of a brutal military campaign that claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Palestinians, most of them innocent civilians. Kirchick, and anyone else, is free to blindly support Israeli repression of Palestinians, but we would like to suggest that he not do it by recycling unsubstantiated stories and false assumptions about queer Palestinians, whose suffering, like that of most Palestinians, stems more from Israeli policies than it does from ‘Palestinian homophobia.’
In the end, Kirchick’s real point of contention seems to be with those gay and lesbian activists in the West who were brave enough to oppose the Israeli war on Gaza. Their opposition, he argues, was akin to ‘stand[ing] alongside the enthusiasts of religious fascism.’ Although many of us have begun the slow process of recovering from eight years of George Bush and his ‘us versus them’ mentality, Kirchick apparently did not get the memo. He views the world — and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular — in simplistic, black-and-white terms: good Israelis/Americans/Europeans versus bad Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims. ‘But gays will never,’ to borrow Kirchick’s own words, ‘get anywhere as long as they view the world in this constrictive and counterproductive way.’
Where exactly ‘they’ want to go is an open question, and Kirchick proves his own point that not all gays will care about the rights and dignity of other people. But to those of us who do care, we would like to issue a call for a kind of queer solidarity based not on racist assumptions about ‘others’ who look different, speak different languages, or live in different places but on a willingness to listen to each other and stand together against violence and repression, even when some among us try to justify it in our name. That, we think, is what’s truly ‘obscene,’ and the only just antidote to it is a queer movement made up — not, as Kirchick argues, of ‘oppressed’ victims who identify with each other’s suffering — but of courageous queer activists, thinkers, artists, writers, and everyday people who identify with the common dream of a better world for us all.
Haneen Maikey, Jerusalem
Jason Ritchie, Champaign, Ill.