When the Right Is Right About the Left

Critics of Israel Should Be Open About Beliefs

Against War, or More? And once the occupation is ended, is there a next target for a protest?
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Against War, or More? And once the occupation is ended, is there a next target for a protest?

By Jay Michaelson

Published July 30, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
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Finally, many of Israel’s critics are guilty of massive oversimplification of both Israeli and Palestinian society. For its part, Israel is often defined solely in terms of the Occupation, as if it’s the only salient feature of Israeli life and culture. Any discussion of other topics — its environmental achievements, LGBT rights, even domestic social justice issues — is said to be a distraction, or propaganda, or worse. That is absurd. Israel, like anywhere else, is multifaceted and complex, and discourse about Israel is not a zero-sum game. Ads promoting “Gay Tel Aviv” are tourist advertising, not political propaganda. Hyperbolic public relations about Israelis inventing the cell phone is PR, not some attempt to justify the Occupation. Imagine if everything Americans said about themselves was seen as a smokescreen to obscure the oppression of Native Americans.

But the flattening of Palestinian society is even worse. Ironically, given the critics doing it, it’s Orientalist to depict the Palestinians — as Sarah Schulman did in the pages of The New York Times — as noble victims of European colonialism, free from blemish and fault. Such oversimplifications are no different from those of noble “Indians,” noble poor people, or noble savages in general and are offensive to Palestinians and Israelis alike.

For example, in one of the accounts of an LGBT trip to the Palestinian territories last year, one participant expressed dismay at being told not to be visibly affectionate with her female partner. This naiveté is revealing. Palestinian society is patriarchal, homophobic and conservative. The Palestinian Authority has done little to prosecute so-called “honor killings” (that is, murders of LGBT people or unmarried women suspected of sexual activity), and there are hundreds of LGBT Palestinians living, legally and illegally, in Israel as a result. That doesn’t mean that Palestinians shouldn’t have the right to self-determination, but it does mean that facile dichotomies of victim and oppressor are misplaced. I don’t know what queer paradise this particular individual expected to find in Ramallah, but the expectation says much about the naive propagandizing that takes place in my community. There’s pinkwashing on both sides of the political fence.

And I’ve not even touched the erasure of non-European Jews from this Orientalist, black-and-white rhetoric; the lack of economic analysis of Arab oppression; the shockingly naive statements about Islamist parties and their aims (from the likes of Judith Butler, no less); the shared responsibility for the collapse of the Oslo process at Camp David; the death toll in the second intifada that provoked the construction of the security barrier, and a dozen other complicating factors that undermine the attempts of literature professors and armchair activists to adequately assess this situation.

I remain committed to a two-state solution and a just resolution of this conflict. My sympathies are still with progressives, Jewish and Arab, who seek peace rather than victory. I oppose the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem (funded by a handful of American Jewish “philanthropists”), and the minimizing of Palestinian issues due to the threat of a nuclear Iran. But just as I wrote three years ago that I was losing my love for Israel, so, too, am I losing my affinity with Israel’s most vocal critics, especially in my own LGBT community, who seem unwilling to address those aspects of the conflict that do not comport with their theories, or to forthrightly state the assumptions that underlie their critiques. There is a place in public discourse for rigorous and radical critique of oppression, imperialism and politics. Yet the critical eye must be turned inward, as well.


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