Sarah Schulman, Palestinian Activist
A glimpse into the psychopathology of Israel-hatred.
It’s been almost a year since I wrote here about Sarah Schulman’s inane New York Times op-ed on “pinkwashing.” Schulman, a longtime “queer” (gay-left) activist, argued that Israel cynically uses its positive record on gay rights to put a human face on its brutal treatment of Palestinians – who, moreover, she maintains, aren’t as intolerant of homosexuality as you’ve been led to believe. Now Duke University Press has published an entire book by Schulman celebrating her efforts, in collaboration with a group of “queer” Palestinians, to promote a boycott of Israel designed to force it to change its policy.
That book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International,is meant to be a stirring account of the growth of a social-justice campaign. But it’s most effective as a psychological self-portrait which illuminatingly answers the question: what kind of Jew, woman, or gay person (or, in Schulman’s case, all three) ends up colluding with the enemies of Israel and friends of Hamas?
Here’s the story. Schulman grew up, she tells us, “surrounded by Holocaust survivors” who “yelled at each other for no reason and didn’t know how to be happy.” Her parents distrusted and looked down on gentiles, hated gays (they kicked her out for being a lesbian), and supported Israel reflexively. Schulman’s reaction to this legacy is mixed: she makes it clear that she considers gentiles, or at least Christians, dumb (she uses, without irony, the term goyishe kopf) and that she views all Christian Americans and Christian Europeans as anti-Semites. She regards herself, in fact, not as an American but as a New Yorker, and identifies not with Israel and the Hebrew language but with the diaspora and Yiddish. (She approvingly quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel speech, in which he noted that Yiddish has “no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics.”) The adult Jews of her childhood were all tragic victims and members of a scattered minority, and for her this “was a normative, natural part of being a Jew”; Israelis, by contrast, have chosen “to be dominant,” to carry guns and be soldiers – chosen, more specifically, to be “a colonial settler state in relation to Palestinians, and a semicolonized project of the Christian West, the very people who caused the Jews’ suffering to begin with.” Israel, she insists, “does not represent ‘the Jews,’ only some Jews.” Israelis have “all served in the army, and they feel an ownership of their government, police, and military,” and they subscribe to a “supremacy ideology.” American Jews, by contrast, “see ourselves as separate from our state, as diasporic.” This is why she likes living in New York City, where “[y]ou can be culturally normative without keeping other people down and still be a healthy remove from identifying with the army, the cops, or thinking you can win the presidency.” In short: “I am still emotionally diasporic, and they [Israelis] are emotionally nationalistic.”
This “emotionally diasporic” feeling – this sense of alienation from her own country – was at the root of the radical-left politics that Schulman and other queer activists pursued in the 1980s and 90s. Her goal was not to win a place for gays at the American table (to borrow from the title of my own 1993 book on gay rights) but to anathematize America while clinging to marginality. This “emotionally diasporic” feeling is also the key to explaining why Schulman identifies not with Israelis, whom she perceives as gun-toting bullies, but with Palestinians, whom she perceives, romantically, as innocent, displaced victims. (That the IDF is committed to preventing another Holocaust, while all too many Palestinians are determined to perpetrate one, would appear to be thoroughly lost on her.) Not that this sense of identification came easily: she needed, she tells us, to overcome a “visceral Jewish identification” with Israel, and to liberate herself from the “racism” that made her at first uneasy about working with Palestinian leaders.
Schulman does her best to make her insane choice sound reasonable. She devotes most of a page to rationalizing her decision to march alongside members of Hamas in a protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza. After all, she says, “I have marched in the same gay pride parade with gay Republicans for decades.” Similarly, apropos of a Palestinian leader’s dim view of gays, she reflects: “He couldn’t be worse than a U.S. theater producer who refuses to do a lesbian play or a U.S. publisher who refuses to publish lesbian novels.” The naïveté here is through the roof.
So is the self-celebration: “rarely had I done something this bold when I was not sure of what I was doing….I have spent my life being simultaneously afraid and yet going forward anyway.” And as impressed as she is with herself, that’s just how impatient she is with those who aren’t as, um, “bold” as she is – such as the two gay men she meets in Berlin who are “so ‘concerned’ about the Muslims and how they don’t assimilate” and who complain “about women wearing the veil.” She dismisses their concerns as “crap,” saying that this “was the millionth conversation I had had with Christians who want me to bond with them around some unexamined assumption that their own culture is neutral and that Muslims are threatening. I am threatened by Christians so I will never feel this way.”
More than once she mentions people who have asked her why Israel should be judged by a higher standard than other countries. She rejects the premise: “Israel was not being judged by a higher standard. In fact, both Israel and the United States were judged constantly by a lower standard.” In her worldview, the U.S. and Israel are not beacons of democracy but rogue states of the first order: “As an American I have insight into the Israeli conundrum, as I have spent my life as a citizen of a country that consistently violates international law, defies standards of human rights, and financially supports oppressive regimes (including Israel) while regularly killing civilians in different places on earth without justification or reason….If anyone should have practice understanding what it is like to be an Israeli, it would be an American.” Gradually, the reader of Schulman’s book realizes that in some sense, the appalling human-rights offenses that are being committed right this very minute by dozens of horrific regimes around the globe just don’t exist for her, because they have no place in her personal psychohistory. Talk about denial: when an Israeli friend asks her “What about honor killing? What about women? What about feminism?” she replies that “right now, that is not my job.” She’s an expert at blocking out all those aspects of reality that might halt her advance on what she sees as her progressive journey.
And what a journey it is! Here she is entering Israel: “There is something about the sight of young Jewish people in these military, police, and security positions that repulses me. It makes me feel afraid, not secure. In fact, I realize perhaps again, that Jewish authority, Jewish police, Jews in uniforms, Jewish governments, all these things bothered me. I am truly an American Jew in this way. I prefer to be one of many.” No, Sarah, it’s not about being an American Jew. It’s about the fact that you’ve never grown up. It’s about the fact that your whole professional life has been a childish show of rebellion in the name of “queer” activism – a noisy, obnoxious, angry, pointless display that never helped anybody and that ended up on the ashheap of history because real activists came along and actually helped bring about things you despise, such as the right of gay Americans to serve openly and proudly in their country’s military. It’s about your terror of mature responsibility, Sarah – a terror awakened by the sight of courageous young members of the IDF, Jews much younger than you, taking with deadly seriousness the job of guaranteeing their country’s survival in the face of those who would annihilate it.
Schulman’s obtuseness about the world beyond her East Village walk-up leads to occasional inadvertent humor. For example, she’s surprised, and disquieted, to discover that Israeli gay groups receive government funding – she considers this compromising. “ACT UP never asked for government funding,” she complains. “This was just not my mind-set.” She seems not to realize what she’s witnessing is socialism in action – the very socialism she’s been agitating for all her adult life. Then there’s her rants about being oppressed. She’s published a dozen-odd books, bears the title of Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the City University of New York, and is a Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU – yet when a publisher doesn’t reply right away to a manuscript submission, she goes into a rant about how she’s “experienced this kind of harassment all of my adult life for being out as a lesbian in my work and for articulating critiques of power. I had been censored, blacklisted, fired, demeaned, marginalized, and shunned. That’s the price we pay for asking for structural change of power.” She contrasts her terrible situation to the “entrenched…entitlement and privilege” that she appears to imagine is enjoyed by all “American or European straight Christians.” All this over a publisher that didn’t get back to her fast enough – a situation that any professional writer can identify with. It’s staggering to see someone so utterly clueless about how much more power and privilege she enjoys than the average American – and who doesn’t seem to grasp that, with her résumé (her only degree is a B.A. from Empire State College), she’d never have been made a Distinguished Professor anywhere if she weren’t a big-name minority-group militant.
Full disclosure: Schulman mentions me in her book – repeating the charge, made in her Times op-ed and refuted here last year, that the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik claimed to be influenced by my writings on Islam. For Schulman, I’m an example of what she calls “homonationalism”: as she explains, when gays win widespread social acceptance and legal rights, some of them start to identify with “the racial and religious hegemony of their countries,” and end up “construct[ing] the ‘other,’ often Muslims of Arab, South Asian, Turkish, or African origin, as ‘homophobic’ and fanatically heterosexual,” instead of identifying with them as fellow minorities. Schulman seems sincerely unable to process the plain and simple fact that Islam is intrinsically anti-gay – not to mention anti-Jew and anti-woman. Reading this book, I kept wondering: has this woman ever so much as glanced at a Koran? There’s no evidence whatsoever that she has. And why should she? When you get right down to it, Schulman’s passion for her new cause has nothing to do with the larger realities of Islam and Israel; no, just like the impotent, narcissistic politics of “radical social transformation” that she pursued back in what she fondly remembers as “the heyday of ACT UP and Queer Nation,” her newfound enthusiasm for a boycott of Israel is all about satisfying her own deep-seated – and deeply disturbing – psychological needs. And this time around, like last time, it’s just plain bad news.
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