Last week, the storied New York LGBT Center refused award-winning queer writer and activist Sarah Schulman a chance to read from her new book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. In doing so, the organization cited the Center’s “moratorium” on using the center to "organize around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” in place since early 2011 purportedly to maintain the Center as a "safe space" for both Jews and Arabs. On Monday, they relaxed the moratorium, though it remains unclear whether Schulman will be allowed to read. Quasi-reversals notwithstanding, the existence of the moratorium in the first place is the height of hypocrisy—one would think that a queer organization of all places would understand, as the ACT UP slogan goes, that silence equals death.
Is there any hotter third rail in U.S. politics than an unflattering opinion of Israel’s policy on Palestine? Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel is still being haunted by one he let slip years ago, and last fall’s foreign-policy debate found Obama and Romney so eager to avoid even the appearance of nuance that they could do nothing but one-up each other over who loved the state more passionately, like Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney in a bizarre-world version of “The Girl is Mine.” Brooklyn College is still trying to weather a firestorm over a panel it held on February 7 that included speakers who support the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement.
It’s also true that, within some quarters of the left, the slightest criticism of the Palestinian leadership or suggestion of compromise with the Israelis will get you called a right-wing racist stooge.
The recent and dramatic reversal of fortune of the National Rifle Association can teach us something about how to deal with hypocrisy on Israel. Gun control has transformed, almost overnight, from something “We Just Don’t Talk About” into something most right-thinking citizens—and even many politicians—agree we must. What changed, in large part, was that the horror of the Sandy Hook killings somehow pierced what sociologists call our “pluralistic ignorance”—a dynamic in which most of us privately reject a cultural norm, but none of us speak up because we erroneously assume that everyone else accepts it. In other words: Once we were shocked out of our complacency by Sandy Hook, we discovered that most of the country wants gun restrictions, and a conversation about the specifics became possible.
It’s time to make that shift on Israel, though given the number of children who have already been killed in the conflict, it’s hard to imagine what would be shocking enough to get us there. The difference, of course, is that they aren’t “our” children—not rich white American kids in a “safe neighborhood.” The other difference is that in the Middle East, it's as if the U.S. government bought Adam Lanza all the weapons he could ever want.
In truth, piercing the haze of pluralistic ignorance doesn’t require a crisis. It just requires that, one at a time, we become brave enough to say what we think, even if we fear there’ll be backlash. Perhaps we could start by rejecting the idea that criticizing Israel, or even trying to influence Israel's policy decisions, is always an attempt to "delegitimize" the state. Was South Africa delegitimized by action against apartheid? I'd argue that it's a much more legitimate state now that it's abandoned that oppressive system, much as Israel would be if it reversed course on its ever-growing occupation of Palestinian land. (That's not just my opinion. Six living former leaders of Shin Bet—the Israeli secret service—say the same thing in much greater detail in the recent documentary The Gatekeepers. Are all six of them out to delegitimize Israel, too?)
Nor is calling for action on Israel's military policies “hate speech” or “anti-Semitism.” There are racists on all sides of the conflict who like to cloak their bigotry in a patriotic flag, but those of us who understand logic know that hardly makes everyone with a stance on the issue a hate-monger.
I love Israel. As an American Jew, the dream of Israel has held me in thrall since I was a small child. The day I wept at the Wailing Wall was one of the most transcendent and emotional of my life. But loving someone doesn’t mean helping them do whatever destructive thing they want. Call that enabling or co-dependence, but it’s not love. I love Israel like I’d love a drunk friend who wants their car keys.
Maybe you don’t love Israel, or think I don’t love it enough. But as Americans whose tax dollars fund the Israeli military, I care that you have an opinion about what it’s doing in our name, and that you are free to express that opinion in public.
I’ll go first. I think that boycott, divestment and sanctions can and should be used as tactics to force Israel to end the occupation, but I think they should be targeted at the systems that support the occupation—many Israelis want and work for peace, and a blanket boycott hurts them, too. I believe that there are no good actors currently in power: Hamas, Fatah, and Likud all derive their power from the conflict, and all of them benefit from maintaining fear. I believe it’s important not to confuse a people with their current leaders. I believe that trying to come to agreement about who’s suffered more in the past keeps us from building a better future. I believe that “both sides” have committed atrocities, but that the current balance of power is so lopsided that the word “apartheid” is appropriate. (I didn’t believe that last part until I saw it with my own eyes.) I believe that most people in both Israel and Palestine want peace, and that therefore, peace is possible if people who will actually benefit from peace can be seated at the negotiation table. I believe that any treaty or two-state solution, even if it held for real, would only be the beginning of building peace in the region, and that a profound and complex reconciliation process would be urgently called for. I believe that none of this will happen if American thinkers like Sarah Schulman—and like you and me—are barred from expressing our own beliefs in own communities, and being exposed to the beliefs of others.
See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Disagree with me or don’t: Now it’s your turn.