Palestine is Queer: Anti-Zionism at NYC’s Queer Liberation March

Interview With Zenab Ahmed

June 26, 2021

On Sunday, June 27th there will be a Queers Against Israeli Apartheid contingent at New York City’s Queer Liberation March. Spectre editor Aaron Jaffe interviewed organizer Zenab Ahmed, who shows why Palestinian liberation is a queer issue, how we can think about Israel’s “pinkwashing”, and how to support a joint vision of freedom.

Zenab Ahmed is also a freelance writer, editor, and doctoral student at SOAS, University of London. She specializes in Islamic philosophy, economics, and military theory, particularly in reference to Southwest Asia and the Afghan-Pakistani borderland.

Would you start by telling us a bit about the context for the Free Palestine contingent of the Queer Liberation march, both in New York City, and in Palestine?

First, if you can, please join the contingent at 2pm this Sunday the 27th in Bryant Park at the corner of 41st Street and 6th Avenue.

More generally, I will explain the context in Palestine, and New York City, in that order. Back in April, during Ramadan, tensions began to once again boil over in the West Bank because Israeli police cut off the loudspeakers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque so that the muezzin’s call to prayer wouldn’t disturb Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s speech for Memorial Day at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Israeli police also closed the plaza outside Damascus Gate, which is a popular nighttime hangout, especially during Ramadan. That closure led to nighttime clashes, and though the barricades came down, sporadic violence started to gain momentum – a rabbi was beaten to death in Jaffa, the far-right group Lehava held a march through Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs,” and the IDF began striking Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from fringe militant groups.

Tensions ultimately exploded in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 6 when the members of the Kahanist and fiercely anti-Arab party Otzma Yehudit began tabling there. The provocation led to street violence that spread over the next few days to Al-Aqsa Mosque, communities across the West Bank, and Arab communities in Israel proper – which is unprecedented. Hamas issued an ultimatum and different militia groups in the Gaza Strip fired over a hundred rockets that triggered weeks of bombing by the Israeli Air Force. Protests mobilized all over the world, in response to the disproportionate violence, with a level of passion that was frankly shocking.

In New York City, the events unfolded on a background of increased leftist organizing and political agitation, with support from elected officials. Yet Palestine solidarity work has been taking a severe beating, with laws passing against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and censorship in universities and mass media. For organizers, while the events in Palestine were bloody, they triggered a sudden wave of badly needed support and energy. In New York, Palestine organizing is very divided, but the level of warmth between organizations has been refreshing – even if the cracks are showing. It is a good time for people to start recommitting themselves to the cause, which is why Queers Against Israeli Apartheid has reactivated with this march.

Why do you think Palestine is and needs to be recognized as a queer issue? And if you could, please also take a moment to provide some context for what’s been called “pinkwashing”. What role, if any, does “pinkwashing” by Israel play in pursuing queer and Palestinian liberation?

Firstly, I think Palestine is a queer issue because I understand being LGBTI+ and queer as being more about the stuff you do than your gender expression and sexual behavior. I have a personal rule against participating in Pride activities. I don’t have many friends who aren’t straight. I don’t date people. I don’t go to events. I feel very uncomfortable being called “queer” for a lot of different reasons. Yet I am willing to call myself “queer” in relation to the Palestinian revolution because I understand that Israel is opposed to Palestinian liberation and plays a specific role in maintaining and reinforcing world imperialism by engaging militarily in the region. For me, it’s a queer issue because it’s an imperialism issue. Israel is an aircraft carrier for imperial interests and needs to be resisted both on those terms, as well as its behavior in violently resettling Palestinian land.

Secondly, LGBTI+ and queer people need to be specifically aware that Zionist groups have been cynically exploiting gains for the community in Israel by marketing the country as an oasis in the region. This exploitation is what I understand by “pinkwashing.” Pinkwashing is a conscious attempt by media, government, and military interests to cast Israel in a positive light.

Much of this work has been done with European and North American marketing agencies as part of the Brand Israel campaign. Brand Israel advertises certain aspects of Israeli society that will appeal to foreign audiences through what the Foreign and Tourism Ministries have called “hasbara” (Hebrew for “explanation”). These have included photoshoots with Maxim Magazine showcasing model-like cis women in the Israeli Defense Forces. For the past decade, the Israeli government has been working with many companies to advertise the country as a ‘world gay destination.’ It needs to be resisted as a conscious effort to exploit LGBTI+ and queer people to hide violence and imperialism.

Is it accurate to say that pinkwashing is simply propaganda? What does pinkwashing say about the deeper gender and sexual politics of Zionism as part of the settlement of Palestinian land? How does it relate to overlapping movements like those of feminism and for the right and access to abortion?

I think that it is tempting to call the marketing fake on this. However, something more complicated is going on, especially given that supporting non-straight people often means taking on the Israeli religious far-right. Settlers, especially in Jerusalem, are hardly known for being progressive on these issues. Zionism is in a process of remapping the gender and sexual politics that it pairs with violence and exploitation. This is likely to cause a lot of conflict between expansionist and militarist forces in Israel. The sincerity of the country’s support for many non-straight people is partly what makes that strife complicated. Similar to debates about identity politics in the Anglosphere, there are multiple imperial positions at play here, and critics need to bear that in mind when challenging Zionism as a whole. It may be tempting to simplify the issue, but it is incorrect, and audiences can often feel that.

And what connections do you see between pinkwashing and the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement? What events and institutions should be boycotted?

The BDS Movement is explicit about opposing pinkwashing and encourages organizers to challenge Brand Israel worldwide. Activists have organized pro-Palestine blocs at radical queer marches, disrupted marketing events, and boycotted everything from film festivals to the Eurovision 2019 broadcast in Tel Aviv. BDS organizers recommend that people raise awareness about pinkwashing, respect and promote Palestinian guidelines for ethical tourism, monitor events that market Israel as a destination for LGBTI+ and queer people, and join the boycott of the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival known as “TLVFest.” Please get in touch with me at pakistanarchy@gmail.com if you want to talk about organizing in your community.

Back to the march for a second. What did organizing it look like for you? Earlier you mentioned cracks. Would you feel comfortable sharing any roadblocks you initially encountered, and how you were able to organize beyond them?

Frankly, the main issue was that we needed more people. We also should have started earlier. However we were able to do quite a lot on time constraints with the assistance of experienced organizers willing to make use of their impressive connections. I am proud of how much we were able to achieve in so little time. It would not have been possible without dedicated people with excellent ideas who are willing to follow through on their commitments. I am hoping that organizing around Pride will get more people involved, and generate some positive momentum in the long term.

How does the tension between Islamist and secularist groups affect queer politics in the Palestine struggle? For example, I have in mind the death of Mahmoud Ishtiwi in Hamas for alleged homosexuality.

There are definitely tensions between Islamist and secularist groups in Palestine, but at the moment, they are mainly driven by politics around armed resistance and the fact that secularist groups like Fatah joined the weak and unpopular Palestinian Authority in large numbers. Fatah has become a party complicit in the occupation and leaders like President Mahmoud Abbas and Finance Minister Shukri Bishara are widely resented for conservative politics, quashing dissent, and failing to take firmer stances against Israel. Hamas is also unpopular, but it is still respected for being willing to maintain the armed resistance. Debates between Palestinians about how exactly to confront Israel, especially given its unwillingness to respond to non-violent resistance, international pressure, and build on the Oslo Accords, lead to rich political differences that run deeper than ‘secularism vs. Islamism.’

That being said, it is definitely true that Mahmoud Ishtiwi was killed for alleged homosexuality. It is also true that over the last couple of years, Palestinian police in the West Bank have moved against organizations like Al-Qaws that encourage gender and sexual diversity. Fatah, which I remind you once again is a secularist party, controls the West Bank. Clearly, then, the issue is more complex than secularism and Islamism. It is more about the degree to which conservative family politics holds sway in major societal institutions. That could radically change in Palestinian society, and given that Naftali Bennett is now the Israeli Prime Minister, homophobic, transphobic, and queerphobic politics could also return to dominate the Israeli mainstream.

Beyond the international dimensions of solidarity you’re working on and which are so important given the U.S.’ baseline of violent Zionism, what other international solidarities do you see either developing or important to work towards in the struggle for queer and Palestinian liberation.

I have been very impressed by how the Black Lives Matter uprising following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has impacted the way that people are willing to talk about the nature and role of policing. We cannot forget that deeply racist police forces in the U.S. participate in joint U.S.-Israel police and law enforcement training. Given the hazy lines between the police and military in Israeli society itself, particularly in the occupied territories, slogans like “Abolish The Police” can make for interesting analysis and new political coalitions.

This also extends beyond the police. The IDF has helped to shape the regional order in terms that favor the United States and its junior partners like Germany, Turkey, France, and the United Kingdom. If a slogan like “Abolish The Police” is possible, then why not “Abolish The Military”? If it is possible to talk about policing as a tool for managing populations, then why not the IDF as a tool for managing the region for greater imperial interests? If it is possible to talk about how money that goes into policing can be used for other things, then why not money for weapons exports to Israel? I think people should be bold and imaginative.

Finally, an you suggest some Palestinian organizations our readers should follow?

I suggest following Aswat, the Palestinian Feminist Center for Gender and Sexual Freedoms, and the civil society organization Al-Qaws. They have worked with us on the messaging and visuals for the march contingent. I also suggest keeping up with organizing news in East Jerusalem, where a lot of younger organizers have great queer and feminist politics, and paying attention to other groups like Youth Against Settlements.

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Aaron Jaffe is a Spectre editor and author of Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon: Work, Power, and Political Strategy (Pluto Press). He teaches philosophy and liberal arts at The Juilliard School in New York.

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