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Queers Resisting Zionism: On Authority and Accountability Beyond Homonationalism

[Iraq: Stop Killing Gays banner in the Castro District, San Francisco, CA.] [Iraq: Stop Killing Gays banner in the Castro District, San Francisco, CA.]

[This article was written as a response to a recently published article by Maya Mikdashi and Jasbir Puar on the intersections and impasses between US centered pinkwashing and pinkwatching activism.  Click here to read Mikdashi and Puar's rejoinder to this response. Clear here to read the original article by Mikdashi and Puar]

Jasbir Puar and Maya Mikdashi’s recent “Pinkwatching And Pinkwashing: Interpenetration and its Discontents” challenges those of us who work for Palestinian liberation to re-think our practices of solidarity and queer resistance.  The authors suggest that pinkwatching, as a form of political activism, fails to be sufficiently radical. That is, pinkwatching fails to get at the roots of pinkwashing, which lie in settler colonialism, Islamophobia, and homonationalism. Pinkwatching therefore reproduces the discourses and dynamics that enable pinkwashing, thereby perpetuating it. 

We fully appreciate the importance of self-critique, especially for activist movements.  However, we think Puar and Mikdashi lean rather too heavily on the conceptual framework of homonationalism in their analysis of pinkwatching, making it do more work than it can bear. This overreliance on homonationalism obscures specific, politically relevant features of pinkwatching activism that are particular to Palestine and Palestine solidarity work.  Moreover, we believe the authors’ self-exemptions from activist struggle pushes their criticisms dangerously close to a rehearsal of academic critique at the expense of contributing to movement building. Finally, the lack of a single example of the kind of work they critique renders their argument impossible to actually assess, leaving us grasping at straws – and, as we shall argue, straw caricatures of ourselves and our movement.

We write this response as activists, writers, and thinkers who are committed to justice for Palestinians.  Haneen is a queer Palestinian activist living in Jerusalem, while Heike is an American queer academic and activist located in Boston.  Both of us participate in and organize anti-pinkwashing activism. Haneen’s work in this area is much more extensive (as co-founder of alQaws and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [PQBDS], as well as a member of Pinkwatching Israel's coordinating team).  Heike has focused more generally on various BDS campaigns, but she has also incorporated Palestine and pinkwatching activism into her academic life as both teacher and researcher. Together, we have carefully considered Puar and Mikdashi’s claims. We have also engaged friends and comrades (activists and academics alike) in discussions about this piece. Our response, then, reflects our views as well as the views of activists and academics from our respective communities. We offer this piece, in part, as a response to Puar and Mikdashi. We hope, too, that it will serve as an invitation to further engagement, collaboration, and collective struggle for the liberation of Palestine. 


Homonationalism and Pinkwashing:  On Palestine and Solidarity

Puar and Mikdashi’s virtually exclusive reliance on homonationalism to evaluate pinkwatching leads to a number of difficulties. First, this framework obscures the specific manifestations of pinkwashing in the Palestinian context, rendering Palestine somehow beside the point. Second, the focus on homonationalism allows for easy—but misplaced—critiques of Palestinian “authenticity” and pinkwatcher solidarity.  Finally, the authors’ failure to cite a single example of the pinkwatching activism they critique further compounds the problems engendered by the narrow confines of this theoretical framework. The lack of concrete evidence raises not simply logical questions for their argument, but ethical and political questions as well. 

Pinkwashing is more than a branding campaign that queer Americans can congratulate themselves for opposing.  The conventional depiction of pinkwashing as an attempt to divert attention away from the occupation is simplistic and one-dimensional. In Palestine, pinkwashing is part of the ongoing Nakba. Both Zionism and pinkwashing depend on a notion of the prior destruction and continued negation of Palestine and Palestinian belonging. This is the case whether one interprets Zionism as homophobic, gay-friendly, or—in its popular narrative form—as having followed a historical trajectory from an originary homophobia toward ever-increasing tolerance. Zionism must be understood as a historically specific, racialized process through which different discourses of sexuality emerge that bolster, rather than undermine, Zionist ideology.  

In this context, pinkwashing is a tactic of Zionism and an influential discourse of sexuality that has emerged within it.  As PQBDS/alQaws consistently point out, the disavowal and erasure of (queer) Palestinian bodies and subjectivities constitute pinkwashing. This invisibility of Palestinian bodies and images is matched only by a hypervisibility when they do appear. Palestinians are seen only as “backward” or “threatening,” while queer Palestinians only become legible as either “gay” or “victims of culture.”  Invisibility and hypervisibility are results of the ongoing erasure of Palestinian belonging.  

Pinkwatching, then, is neither a narrow rejoinder to pinkwashing nor a promotion of global queer solidarity. Pinkwatching reframes queerness as a politics by revealing the sexual politics inherent to contemporary Zionist ideology. Pinkwatching’s attention to the biopolitics of Zionism disrupts the latter’s regime of surveillance. Pink-watchers return the gaze; they disrupt the hierarchical positioning of subject and object. Initially, pinkwatching activism was based on the dismantling of Palestinian erasure, the reclamation of international queer spaces, and the promotion of new queer Palestinian bodies, images and voices.  Today, pinkwatching continues to uncover and make visible the racial, ethnic, and sexual violence that informs Zionist ideology.  

For these reasons, the authors’ focus on “authenticity” (sorry–at least one of us does not know how to articulate a non-authentic queer Palestinian voice) is limited by a critique of homonationalism that ignores the specificities of Palestine. This oversight may be read as slightly patronizing, suggesting that Palestinian queers are either too naïve or lacking in enough critical insight to discern between activist commitments that are appropriate and those that tokenize them. More problematic still are the ways in which an emphasis on authenticity ultimately overlooks queer Palestinians’ strategic uses of recognition and visibility.  Beyond simply “making our voices heard” or claiming "authenticity,” these tactics are intended as a direct and immediate challenge to the presumptions of pinkwashing’s Zionist logic.  Finally, such claims overlook the fact that Palestinian queers daily work against, and re-define, fixed notions of queerness as well as narratives of the closet, coming out, and rights typically associated with a politics of visibility and recognition. For example, in the face of repeated questioning by members of the first LGBTQ delegation to Palestine (in January 2012), local activists continually challenged the delegation by refusing to engage in discussion about “the situation of LGBTs in the West Bank.”  Instead, the work was repeatedly framed as solidarity with Palestine (the outcome of this work is evident in point two of the delegation’s solidarity statement). Similarly, in New York, SiegeBusters asked PQBDS to take part in their action protesting the LGBT Center’s ban of their event during Israeli Apartheid Week. PQBDS felt this was a clear example where such work is not the role or the responsibility of queer Palestinians. Participating in such actions, we felt, might have resulted in tokenizing us, despite the organizers' good intentions.

The authors’ homonationalist emphasis also misconstrues pinkwatching activist work.  The authors contend that pinkwatching activists myopically focus on Israel and neglect the larger, enabling frames of imperialism, racism, and Islamophobia.  But why does activist focus on Israeli pinkwashing entail a neglect of US pinkwashing, Islamophobia, neoliberalism, or the difficulties of rights discourse?  This is faulty logic. It is simply untrue that focusing on one struggle precludes concern for, or work towards, other struggles, much less does it entail a limited analysis of local or global politics.  Rhetorically, such an assertion is reminiscent of the oft-repeated Zionist objection “Why Israel?” or “Why don’t you protest X country’s human rights violations?” It is almost as if the authors view pinkwatching work as problematically “singling out” Israel.  Empirically, however, this claim is simply untrue.  Just as BDS activists resist the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, protest the United States’ hidden wars in Pakistan, Bahrain, Yemen, and Somalia (among others), and actively resist the impending US-Israeli war on Iran, so too are pinkwatchers vigilant regarding the United States and Europe’s deployment of their own Islamophobic versions of pinkwashing to justify war, imperialism, and discriminatory immigration policies. Indeed, the only example of supposedly neglected pinkwatching activism the authors cite in their article concerns a float in the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. Sponsored by Zionist front-group Iran180, the display featured a blow-up doll of Ahmadinejad being beaten and sodomized with a missile by a white dungeon master, ostensibly in protest of Iranian oppression of LGBT people and to manufacture American LGBT support for war on Iran.  This grotesque – and strangely homophobic – instance of pinkwashing was, however, systematically de-bunked by BDS and pinkwatching activists.  In other words, the single piece of evidence cited in Puar and Mikdashi’s article only confirms the opposite of what their argument contends.  

Finally, the authors claim that pinkwatchers compromise on divisive questions “in the name of political expediency and coalition building.”  Again, the authors offer no examples of such compromise.  By rebuking imaginary activists for failing to broach subjects like the legitimacy of violent resistance, such criticisms simply appear untethered to the difficult and complex processes that face any developing movement, this one in particular. Two years ago, we collectively began to raise awareness about Palestine, colonialism, and Israeli apartheid through the example of pinkwashing and the politics of sexuality. To the audiences we addressed, Palestine was the divisive question. It continues to be the most challenging aspect of this movement.  In other words, divisive issues are far from avoided in pinkwatching work. The divisive issue is Palestine. Indeed, as Haneen argued in the “Queer Palestinians Talk Politics” speaking tour, LGBTQ communities should be divided over Palestine. Her claim entreated audiences to link organizing on justice in Palestine with the organizing of people of color, anti-war activists, HIV activists, and more.  In pinkwatching work, we bring Palestine and the relentless attempts to erase it to the foreground.  It is the very naming of this erasure, the calling out of Zionism, that “divides” people. Certainly, violent resistance, refugees, and “final status” issues are also divisive, but they are parasitic on the primary issue of Zionism itself, which pinkwatching, by its very character, is committed to uncovering. To pinkwatch is precisely to talk about Palestine, and to force the divisive issue of Zionism into the conversation.

A very concrete example of such inter-movement negotiation of Zionism is the writing of the LGBTQ Palestine delegation’s solidarity statement (with which Puar was involved). For Palestinian participants, a lot of compromising happened in this process, one of which was the group’s repeated assertions (throughout the text) that they support Israeli progressive activists. We understand activists’ fear of being labeled "anti-Semitic.” But for Palestinians, these comments put Israel and Israelis on an equal footing with Palestinians. They expressed a “coalition” interest that distorted the meaning of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Nevertheless, the announcement of “acknowledging and resisting US complicity and settler colonialism” was actually one of the crucial parts of the statement that was included and, moreover, added a new layer to the growing debate. It is worth noting that here, the “divisive issue” of Zionism was implicitly on the table, and what is evident in the statement is both an egalitarianizing of Israelis and Palestinians and a simultaneous critical acknowledgment of (US) settler colonialism.  Such compromise and negotiation is part and parcel of this work.  Such interactions allow us to develop a sharper discourse, expose its limitations, and construct a future vision together that is compatible with long-term movement building.   

We are well aware of the problematic hegemony of particular gay Western notions and strategies.  It is true that a significant challenge of pinkwatching activism has been to draw a line between queer involvement in the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the tendency to make pinkwatching about queers and sexuality in Palestine/Israel. But we find this to be a problem much more in Israel than in the US or Europe.  There are still many gay Israeli activists who insist that “Israel does have gay rights, and we as gay activists worked hard to make it happen,” doing what we call “pinkwashing in reverse” (see, for example, this interview with Hagai El-Ad and the writings of Aeyal Gross).  But careful examination of most of the pinkwatching materials, statements, and actions produced in the last three years reveals a movement committed to channeling all of our capacity and vision to expose Israel’s colonial project, occupation, and apartheid.  

Pinkwatching is not about gay rights; it is not about gay Israelis (progressive or not); it is not about the status of homosexuals in Palestine; it is not about self-congratulatory gay Americans or Europeans. Indeed, Queer BDS and Pinkwatching are part of a Palestinian-led campaign. Pinkwatching originated by promoting the Palestinian liberation struggle as relevant to worldwide queer movements by highlighting our responsibility to engage in and fight other struggles. From the beginning, BDS was a key practice that shaped pinkwatching activism. Rather than viewing pinkwatching as homonationalist, then, we understand it as an act of solidarity, akin to the BDS work of people of conscience all over the world. Pinkwatching activists  defer to the leadership of (queer) Palestinians in their work not as an exercise in homonationalism, but rather from a commitment to working in solidarity with those most affected by violence and domination, a central principle of anti-oppression organizing. This work is undertaken not “in the name of” Palestine, a Palestinian nation, or an exceptional Palestinian sexual subject (much less from a superficial celebration of identity politics). It does not commit one to any particular state or state formation whatsoever (just as BDS work does not commit one to a one state solution). It is instead a form of holding ourselves accountable to the needs and requests of those most affected by violence and oppression.  We see such acts of solidarity as, if anything, a deflection of US homonationalist practices.


Positionality and (Self-)Critique 

The authors’ acknowledgements of their positionality was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this article. Despite the fact that both authors are themselves part of pinkwatching efforts (through writing and by participating in the first queer delegation to Palestine), they nevertheless offer their article as a series of “observations.” Such a choice locates the authors outside the movement, a convenient position that relieves them of complicity or responsibility for the problems they point to, while explicitly dissociating themselves from the questions and complexities of activist struggle.  This disassociation is confirmed by their reference to “divergences between academic and activist concerns and strategies.”  What precisely are these divergences? As “observers” of pinkwatching, are the authors claiming a (solely?) academic perspective? Is academia (or are academics) outside of or beyond activism? Do the authors (or academics more generally) have an analytical framework that activists lack?  We are concerned that the authors are implicitly presenting activist work as less thoughtful or intellectually sophisticated than academic work, and thus needing to “learn from” the lessons being taught in this piece. 

The intended audience of this article is also unclear, as pinkwatchers have waged similar critiques. Haneen has written publicly about these issues. The compiled statements, writings, and activism of PQBDS and pinkwatchingisrael.com (including the latter’s new Pinkwashing Kit) offer vast resources for thinking through issues of pinkwashing and pinkwatching in ways that clearly resist homonationalism.  Both the recent LGBTQ and the Indigenous and Women of Color Feminists delegations to Palestine have offered anti-homonationalist opposition to pinkwashing. Globally, queer Palestinian groups succeeded in re-locating the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organization's (IGLYO) General Assembly that was planned to take place in Tel Aviv outside of Israel.  US-based queer theorist Judith Butler refused to accept the Civil Courage Award from Berlin’s Pride Committee in 2010 because of complicity with racist and homonationalist formations. Various Arab and Muslim queer organizations from around the world resisted and effectively shut down a panel on LGBTQI Liberation in the Middle East by Zionist front-group Stand With Us at the 2010 US Social Forum.  Meanwhile, within the United States, smaller pinkwatching actions have questioned homonationalist assumptions and fought pinkwashing in an anti-colonialist frame, whether through clever guerrilla art in the Bay Area or the ongoing efforts of Boston activists to get Israeli films out of the city’s LGBT Film Festival. 

This proliferation of existing critical theory and activism raises the bar for arguments like Puar and Mikdashi’s, challenging all of us not simply to re-hash familiar critical terrain, but to begin to speak the language of complicity, contradiction, and, crucially, strategy. In other words, what now? Indeed, the article left us wondering, “how can this criticism help to advance our work?”  Part of the reason we believe we can find no answer to this question is because the critique of “they” and “them” unfolds in a moralizing manner that would otherwise have been impossible if the authors had included themselves within the movement.  Our fellow activists felt blamed, humiliated, or singled out by this piece. Some were unsure if they were the target of critique, given that the authors did not cite any examples. The authors may have been legitimately cautious about naming specific people or organizations in an already small movement.  However, the lack of concrete evidence for their claims leaves us wondering just where the finger is pointing. And it is clear that finger-pointing is going on.  Although the authors are careful to specify that their argument about the homonationalist structure of pinkwatching is not a normative one, by the end of the article, pinkwatchers’ alleged complicity with homonationalism emerges as an egregious intellectual, political, and strategic error. This error needs to be called out, but apparently lacks any solution or productive mode of address (or at least none the authors care to offer).  Such finger-pointing is, we believe, very different from invitation or constructive critique.  

Unfortunately, this dynamic is nothing new in solidarity work.  Many of us may recall working under the powerful shadow of Joseph Massad’s work on the Gay International.  For many, Massad’s work effectively produced a straw image of the “Gay Arab” who is, by definition, complicit with cultural imperialism and an agent of international gay organizations. Massad's discourse reinforced an academic/activist hierarchy that obscures the ways in which academics' privileged position can force activists to spend their time measuring and assessing themselves according to the academic’s discursive rubric, putting themselves on trial before one another and the academy. However, Massad’s critique did not by any means promote a new discourse, more aware communities or better queer activism in Arab societies. This came from within activist fields of experience, through activists’ efforts to analyze their own needs and explore their internal and external working dynamics.

We want to suggest that the “homonationalism” and “normalization of settler colonialism” of Puar and Mikdashi’s article have the potential to operate in much the same way. To praise the piece for its properly critical perspective (i.e., for its willingness to provoke disagreement and divisiveness) is a familiar academic positioning that we ought to be cautious about reproducing. As well, the claim that homonationalism is not only a contemporary critical model but, moreover, the state of things today might be understood as a form of bolstering one’s own academic brand.  Puar and Mikdashi’s vague generalizations, academic authority, and general lack of evidence have the potential to produce a new set of straw caricatures—not the Gay Imperialist and Gay Arab this time, but the Homonationalist Pinkwatcher and Token Palestinian Queer.  Moreover, these new characters seem to be offered not in the spirit of furthering a movement, but rather from a position of academic observation, analysis, and judgment. It is almost as if the task has become to differentiate the “proper” pinkwatcher from the “improper,” homonationalist pinkwatcher (much less the “proper” Palestinian queer from the patsy for homonationalist gay American activists). 

We appreciate Puar and Mikdashi’s vigilance in holding us accountable to our principles in our activist work. However, we are troubled by the ways in which they fold pinkwatching into a homonationalist framework. While they offer a worthy critique of pinkwatching activism, because of the implicit valorization of academic theorizing and analysis and the gaping lack of specific examples of homonationalist pinkwatching, we end up wondering not only to whom, but about whom, this article was written.  We worry that a set of straw caricatures is being erected, and entreat the authors to specify in greater detail to what (or whom) they are referring.  Such vague, critical musings seem less productive to us than an engaged critique that implicates its authors even as it prods a movement to look more closely at its own workings and motivations.  The relationship between academia and activism is potentially a positive and interactive one, wherein both sides can inspire and sustain one another organically, with the ultimate goal of pushing our movement(s) forward together. We hope that this exchange can initiate precisely such a constructive and self-reflective process regarding pinkwashing, pinkwatching, and homonationalism within our movement.

[The authors are grateful to Stasha Lampert for her incisive editorial work on this piece and to their respective activist communities for their ideas, comments, criticisms, contributions to, and feedback on this article.]

[Click here to read the original post that this article is in response to. Click here to read the rejoinder by Jasbir Puar and Maya Mikdashi to this response.]

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