I’d been meaning to write something about activism in Israel-Palestine for a while, mainly because I knew nothing about it and writing is how I learn best. But it wasn’t until the end of 2015 that I finally had the time and motivation to get it done. This was largely because I’m privileged enough to be enrolled at an amazing research institution where I had the opportunity to take a course with Paul Amar, hear a talk from Jasbir Puar, and access the Davidson Library, where there is an impressive number of books on Israel-Palestine and queer feminism.
The following paper is the result of all my research. It is essentially a review of activism in Israel-Palestine from the 1960s to the early 2000s, with particular attention to lesbian Mizrahim and their work, so if you are already familiar with this topic you will likely find nothing new of interest. However, if you (like me last year) don’t know a lot about it, this could be a helpful introduction, and I encourage you to check out the sources I listed at the end of the post.
This piece is by no means perfect, and I should mention that most lesbian Mizrahim are not anti-Zionist activists, so this post does not in any way speak to the whole group. However, I did my best to examine and address the multifaceted identities (and humanity) of this particular segment of the people of Israel-Palestine, where all too often only one side of the story is told.
The Lesbian Mizrahi: Unlocking the Israeli Identity Crisis
In 1948, the state of Israel was founded on three core falsehoods: gender equality, homogeneous Judaism, and most fundamentally, the Zionist myth of “a land without people.” Although nearly seven decades have passed since, the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) still uphold these myths in public and foreign policy. A masculine, Islamophobic settler colonialist state, Israel continues to track, control, and colonize Palestinian bodies and resources and to marginalize its own Arab citizens. To distract from the occupation, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has spent millions on an ongoing “Brand Israel” pinkwashing media campaign that portrays Palestinians as “barbaric, homophobic, and uncivilized” (Puar, “Citation” 138). Despite all this, however, movements and organizations led by Palestinian and Israeli women in the past few decades, from the Women in Black to the Women’s Coalition for Peace, have initiated dynamic cross-cultural dialogues. And the participation of lesbian Mizrahi feminists specifically has been essential in destabilizing Israel-Palestine’s particular inequalities and the myths that uphold them. Because these women’s gender, sexuality, and race marginalize them in every realm of Israeli society, they are the only group that can authentically bridge the gap between the colonizing and the colonized; the future of effective activism in the region hinges on lesbian Mizrahim collaborating with, and stepping aside for, Palestinian feminists.
From its inception, the Israeli state has presented its citizens with a “persuasive myth of equality” by giving women the right to vote and requiring them to enlist in military service, but this equality is a charade at best (Dekel 154). Zionism and patriarchal Jewish custom dictate that a good Jewish woman is a “mother of the nation,” not an equal; ideally, she has children to sustain the Jewish people (Persico 116). To make matters worse, because there is no separation between church and state in Israel, the Bible is the law, and the Bible states that a wife is “the property of her husband, to be disposed of as he sees fit” (Persico 120). An Israeli woman is thus required to risk her life for a country whose laws can easily trap her in a marriage for years if her husband does not consent to a divorce. She has neither power nor agency.
The condition of Israel’s Arab citizens is just as disturbing. Many Jews “make absolutely no distinction between Israeli Arabs, who are loyal Israeli citizens, and Arabs on the West Bank” (Shipler 243), and so whether an Israeli Arab considers herself Palestinian, Israeli-Palestinian, or just Israeli (Shipler 558), she has an equal chance of being racially profiled on her way to work. Solely because of her race, the Israeli police can (and will) legally stop her “at random” at checkpoints from which Jews are exempt (Shipler 528). Economically, too, Arab Israelis are often left behind, with inferior education, overcrowded housing, and wages at “65 percent of the average for Jews,” according to 2011 data (Shipler 539). Jewish Arabs—that is, Mizrahi Jews—get similar treatment, particularly Mizrahi women, who must fight “against poverty and unemployment, for the right to obtain a basic education for their children [and] at least the legal minimum wage” (Dahan-Kalev). Post-Zionists often call Mizrahim the “Second Israel” and “Zionism’s ‘other’ victims” (Wurmser); they are Jews from Arab lands who migrated to Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, forced to choose between their “Arab” and “Jew” identities. Although the main tensions between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim are economic, with significant disparities in education and income (Walzer 49), racism and Islamophobia from Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European origin) often make Mizrahi Jewish citizenship contingent upon a denial of their race.
One form of equality Mizrahi Jews do enjoy is within the Israeli Defense Forces; they are required to enlist like any other Jewish citizens, unlike non-Jewish Israeli Arabs. Serving in the IDF is a kind of indoctrination for Israeli citizenship; as ex-soldier Shahar Levi describes it in the Al Jazeera documentary The Pain Inside, “there are certain points that you need to go through in your life as an Israeli citizen…one of them is serving in the army.” Employment is also harder to find without military experience, so there are Israeli Arabs (some of them Palestinians) who volunteer to be part of the ongoing Zionist colonization of Arab lands. For those who choose not to volunteer, the Jewish enlistment privileges are another form of hegemony, widening the economic and social gap between Arabs and Jews within Israel (Scott 184). Moreover, because the IDF is an emblem of Jewish nationalism and Israeli masculinity, Palestinian women are often objects of sexual harassment at IDF checkpoints (Mayer 79)—and ironically, critical literature on the IDF hardly addresses this issue, focusing more on male-male soldier interactions and their implications for masculinity and hegemony (Hochberg, “CHECK” 580). Lesbian IDF soldiers who speak out also tend to choose “to fight the army as feminists rather than as lesbians” (Walzer 132), because whereas their lesbian identities are by all rights invisible, their womanhood is on full display, aversive to a masculine state.
Lesbians are invisible in the IDF largely because of Israel’s pro-gay pinkwashing campaign, meant to distract from Israeli human rights violations. All restrictions on homosexuality in the Israeli military were removed in 1993, when President Bill Clinton was campaigning to institute “don’t ask, don’t tell” (Scott 186), and in 2005 the Israeli Foreign Ministry launched “Brand Israel,” a campaign to “rebrand” the country’s image as “relevant and modern” instead of “militaristic and religious” (Schulman 179). Hundreds of millions of shekels (tens of millions of American dollars) were and continue to be allocated to branding and marketing campaigns whose goal, according to a Foreign Ministry official, is to emphasize “human rights” and “diversity” in a nation often judged “solely on its treatment of Palestinians” (Schulman 180, 183). Puar termed this façade homonationalism, explaining that “it denies Israeli homophobic oppression of its own gays and lesbians, and it recruits, often unwittingly, gays and lesbians of other countries into collusion with Israeli violence towards Palestine” (“Citation” 138). The homonationalist pinkwashing campaign in Israel is an Islamophobic defense of occupation at its core, because any defense of Israel as liberal and cosmopolitan hinges upon the stereotype of a sexually backward, homophobic Palestine. Unfortunately, it seems that the Brand Israel Group has largely succeeded in pushing this message, because quite a few world powers continue to support the Zionist military operations, including the United States government.
But no matter how many lies the Brand Israel Group spreads about LGBTQ Palestinians, it will never succeed in silencing them. For starters, Queers against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) stands in direct opposition to Israel branding in its very articulate mission statement:
“Homophobia exists in Israel, Palestine and across all borders. But queer Palestinians face the additional challenge of living under occupation, subject to Israeli state violence and control. Israel’s apartheid system extends gay rights only to some, based on race.” (Schulman 117)
Palestinians and Jews alike have also consistently raised their voices against events promoting Israel as a “world gay destination” (Schulman 181). For instance, queer Jewish and Palestinian activists lobbied against World Pride 2006 because it was held in Jerusalem, where Palestinian pride is criminalized, and they succeeded in greatly reducing attendance (Puar, Terrorist 17). In 2010, too, protests by Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and other anti-Zionist groups led to the cancellation of a Stand With Us event “that sought to promote images of Israel as a gay mecca at the expense of Palestinian liberation” (Puar, “Citation” 138–39).
It is important to note, though, that these are small victories. As a result of the “Brand Israel” campaign, many queer Israeli activists have taken a more “missionary” approach to queer Palestinians than ever, viewing them as essentially Arab and Other based on the “presumed absence of openly gay Palestinians” (Ritchie, “Come Out” 566). But this presumed absence is arguably a rejection of the “language of visibility” that dominates Western and Israeli queer activism, a revolt against more forms of control in an Israel where Jews already have the power to “admit or deny queer Palestinians entry into the space of (Israeli) gayness” at queer “checkpoints” like gay bars (Ritchie, “Come Out” 568–71). Of course, not all activists are so demeaning and prejudiced, but that does not change the fact that Palestinian queers are under occupation with no legitimate freedom of movement—and the solution is certainly not mainstream Israeli queer activism.
So what is the solution? A review of Palestinian and Israeli activism in the past few decades shows that it probably has something to do with women. The Israeli occupation in 1967 led to a reunion between Palestinians in Israel and those in the West Bank and Gaza, and although the Palestinian organizations created at that time were led by men, Palestinian women were very much involved on the ground during the insurrection in Gaza: “some were killed, imprisoned, and deported” (Sharoni 63). Women played an even more active role in the 1970s; with the establishment of the Women’s Work Committee in 1978, grassroots projects took precedence over upper middle class activism, and women in Palestinian villages and refugee camps began talking about the “relationship between…women’s liberation and national liberation” (Sharoni 66–68). Motherhood became increasingly political, with Palestinian women in the streets more than men most days, “confronting and sometimes negotiating with soldiers as a way of protecting their children” (Mayer 78). Collaboration between these women and Israelis only truly began during the First Intifada in 1988, when Israeli women from the radical left formed the Women in Black “to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people” (Mayer 90). By 1990, Jewish and Palestinian women would wear black and demonstrate against Israeli occupation together every Friday. Other groups formed as well, such as Shani, which gave Israeli Jewish and Palestinian women a chance to meet up and have political discussions (Mayer 91). The first women’s organization in Palestine was called Al-Zahraa and established in 1997, based on communication and empowerment (Durán 193, 197); they declared that they faced “the same problems as Arab women in other Arab countries” (Durán 198). By voicing their concerns as female activists and human beings, these women blatantly defied the homogeneous Israeli narrative of so-called “terrorist” inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank.
It was not just gender, though, that positioned these women so perfectly to subvert Israeli norms and expectations. About 30% of the demonstrators who showed up were lesbian women who felt safe in the all-female space, a “negation of the hegemonic discourse of Israeli society, which is masculine, military, and nationalist” (Frankfort-Nachmias 192, 199). Sadly, the Women in Black ignore distinctions for fear of disrupting their unity, and scholars have largely erased evidence of lesbian participation (Frankfort-Nachmias 194, 200). Had those lesbians been acknowledged as a discrete group, the movement could only have improved and covered more ground. This is made very clear if the Women in Black and the First Intifada are compared to other feminist groups around the same time that allowed for internal differentiation. As the 1990s began and Israeli society became more affected by globalization, Mizrahi women and Palestinians, both queer and straight, were under heavy economic burdens, and they felt that the Ashkenazi women who ran most feminist conferences were not acknowledging their concerns (Dahan-Kalev). Vicky Shiran came up with the idea of representing more branches of feminism, and at the 1992 conference, Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, Palestinians and lesbian women were all represented equally, as “quarters” (Durán 200, 203). After this, the intersectional feminist community in Israel-Palestine exploded rapidly, with conference after conference in the 1990s. CLAF, or the Community of Lesbian Feminists, had already been established in 1987, but lesbian Mizrahim did not feel welcome there (Walzer 44), so they created Achoti (“My Sister”) for underprivileged women in Israel in 1996 (Dekel 175). These developments empowered other gay Mizrahi women “to come out as lesbians in public while promoting their own Mizrahi women’s community” (Durán 206), and it encouraged non-Mizrahi women as well; Palestinian lesbian women later founded Aswat in 2002, and religious Jewish lesbians founded “Bat-Kol” in 2005 (Dekel 175).
These changes did not all progress completely smoothly, of course. Heterosexual Ashkenazi women initially felt threatened by the idea of equal representation (Durán 203), and at a 1993 conference Mizrahi and Palestinian women debated their differing levels of oppression because neither the Palestinian women nor the Ashkenazi lesbians saw much difference between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews (204). (This frustrated Mizrahi women, who were fighting against poverty and unemployment while their privileged Ashkenazi counterparts fought for reproductive rights and political representation (Dahan-Kalev)). But these conversations were inevitably enlightening; they helped these women to reconcile their differences and to accept their own often-multifaceted identities—for instance, Palestinian lesbians are more than just “Arabs who have given up their Arabness in favor of queerness” (Hochberg, “Introduction” 507–508).
Those conferences also paved the way for many lesbian feminist groups that came into being during the Second Intifada. Because lesbian feminism in Israel can only exist in defiance of “heterosexual Jewish/Israeli masculinity,” it allows women to “reject their national role as mothers and wives in need of protection” (Frankfort-Nachmias 233). It also nearly always necessitates intersectionality within feminist organizations. Since homosexuality is so marginalized within each nationalism and ethnicity, it is only natural that it promotes cross-cultural ties like those made at feminist conferences; “Gay Jews and Palestinians in Israel are prisoners of the same stereotypes” (Walzer 239). Thus the Women’s Coalition for Peace was led by lesbians with the aim of reaching out to all women’s groups, “straight and lesbian, maternalist and socioeconomic, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, revolutionary and reformist, integrated and nationalistic” (Frankfort-Nachmias 186); and Dirty Laundry was founded as Israel’s “first queer direct action group” to link lesbian identity to oppression “in all directions,” whether that meant immigrants, sex workers, or Palestinians (Frankfort-Nachmias 187). These two groups, like many others, are able to transcend nationalisms and races in ways that heterosexual feminist organizations often cannot.
In her piece on lesbianism in the Israel-Palestine woman’s peace movement, Su Schachter claims that lesbians identify most easily with the Palestinians “in terms of oppression and negative mythologizing” (Frankfor-Nachmias 188). But given the fact that the Zionist state is founded on Arab subjugation and a fantasy that Israel is a white Western nation—a fantasy that former IDF soldier Gabriel S. Moses calls Israel’s “identity crisis” (The Pain Inside)—this claim is far too broad to have any practical meaning. The Ashkenazi Israeli lesbian community, being in a position of relative privilege, “fails to construct a safe space for self-reflexivity and to contemplate the interconnection between lesbianism, feminism, and the oppression of the Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews” (Frankfort-Nachmias 11). On the other hand, the Mizrahi Israeli lesbian community kick-started the feminist conversation in the 1990s, and today they view themselves as relevant to “every group of women subject to patriarchal repression—including those within Palestinian and Bedoin societies” (Dekel 171). This is based on experience, not just on their claims; after all, hate crimes against LGBTQ people and against Arabs are rationalized the same way, as “the expression of ‘a socially appropriate emotion in socially inappropriate ways’” (Puar, Terrorist 45). No matter their intentions, Ashkenazi activists will inevitably fail to address racial issues if they act as leaders in feminist movements (Furuhashi). As the most marginalized group within the Jewish community, Mizrahi lesbians are undoubtedly best positioned to rally the Jewish people to the cause of Palestine’s and women’s liberations and to connect to Palestinian activists, who share the same “Arab patriarchal structure of taboo” (Lavie 79). By making connections between their oppressions, Mizrahi and Palestinian lesbian feminist groups are able to propose solutions “that the whole society would benefit from” (Schulman 124).
This sentiment of intersectionality is not unique to Israel-Palestine; in fact, as the Mizrahi feminist movement in Israel was taking off, it was inspired by “the black feminism that emerged in the United States as women of colour began developing an awareness of their three-fold disadvantage: gender, ethnicity, and class” (Dekel 170). Just as Ashkenazi feminists in Israel hold prejudices against the poorer, darker-skinned Mizrahim, white feminists in America have traditionally excluded black women and other women of color from their initiatives (e.g. Margaret Sanger’s cooperation with eugenicists during the birth control movement). This kind of internal discrimination sets back equality for all women. And given the fact that Israel and the United States were (and continue to be) built on settler colonialism and institutionalized racism, activists in both nations could learn a lot from these comparisons. For instance, homonationalism in Israel paints over the fact that Israeli-Palestinian intermarriage is illegal, not a far cry from Jim Crow miscegenation laws (Puar, “Pinkwatching”). And American police officers have the authority to track, control, and destroy black bodies in historically segregated communities, much like the IDF practice of monitoring and killing Palestinians who are relegated to camps and small villages.
Can it be a coincidence, then, that a movement as resonant and intersectional as #BlackLivesMatter began with three queer women of color?
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