On the 50-year jubilee of the 1967 Six Day War, Queer Israeli solidarity in the struggle for Palestinian rights comes under scrutiny.
By David Sheen
Leading human rights activists in Israel have come under increasingly harsh criticism in recent years, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ministers heap scorn upon them, encouraging regular citizens to revile them as well. But this week, when Israelis and Palestinians mark – in radically different ways – the 50th anniversary of the Israeli army’s conquest of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, those aforementioned human rights activists are coming under fire not only for their organizing, but also for their orientation.
The proliferation of Queer Jews in the ranks of Israeli groups working in solidarity with Palestinian people under a half-century of military occupation has never been much of a secret. Exactly five years ago, a top Israeli diplomat recommended that the government delegitimize Jewish-Israeli critics of the occupation by claiming that their political positions actually stem from their sexuality.
But this week, a top Israeli right-wing social media personality, rapper Yoav “The Shadow” Eliasi, ramped up the incitement and made it personal. He circulated a photo-collage with the names and faces of some of the country’s leading left-wing activists – from groups like Peace Now, B’tselem, and Breaking the Silence – and asserted that they were all Queer. Eliasi, like other far-right figures across the US and Europe, wants to see LGBTQ folk adopt anti-Muslim positions.
Responding to Eliasi’s provocation, a few dozen Israeli citizens outed themselves as Queer social justice activists, declaring in a joint statement: “To all the right-wing bullies busy keeping score: You’re right. There are indeed many LGBTQ individuals within the human rights community and a great deal of LGBTQ leftists, and that’s no coincidence. We cannot but draw a connection between our own struggle for human rights, equality and freedom, and that of other communities.”
To gain a greater understanding of the challenges faced by Queer Israelis who oppose the actions of Israel’s sectarian government, The Seattle Lesbian spoke to two veteran Jewish-Israeli activists who have long fought at the intersection of Queer rights and the rights of other groups marginalized by Israeli society.
Sarit Michaeli is well-known in progressive circles as an International Advocacy Officer at B’Tselem, documenting human rights violations in the occupied territories. But not all know that she was also an important figure in Black Laundry, a group of radical queer women that insisted on protesting Israel’s military occupation at the Tel Aviv Pride Parade.
Michaeli recalls the circumstances that led to formation of the pioneering, now-defunct feminist group: “What they were rallying against, in a sense, was the real indifference in some cases – or hostility in other cases – to this idea, that these are two separate issues; that gay rights and Palestinian rights – LGBTQ rights and Palestinian rights – are not one struggle, but separate struggles.”
Michaeli also played a pivotal role in organizing the historic Queeruption festivals, an international gathering of radical faeries that came to Israel in 2006. Its unusual combination of protests and parties made for an accurate microcosm of the local scene, says Michaeli. Queeruption Tel Aviv was:
“a refection of the essence of the radical queer community in Israel. On the one hand, we live this drudge-filled life, it’s hot, and it’s not a very glamorous place to be, and it’s kind of depressing, constant wars, the occupation, obviously, and going to demos in the West Bank, and getting tear gassed, and all that. But then on the other hand, are all of these fantastic, really creative parties.”
If Michaeli’s memories serve as reminders of Tel Aviv’s radical Queer heyday, activist and author Shiri Eisner charts Israel’s political devolution, leading up to the current crises. Eisner, who wrote the influential text, “Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution”, and is a vocal advocate for Jewish communities of color and other oppressed groups, worries for the future of radical Israeli Queers and rest of the Israeli left in general.
Eisner acknowledges that the Israeli government now promotes itself as a gay haven, but she claims that it does this for its own reasons, and that its gay-friendly ad campaigns are divorced from its actions. “It’s a lot more about marketing Israel and creating a certain type of discourse around it, but it’s not about changing reality in any way, it’s not about trying to make this a better place for us to exist in. It’s a very cynical usage of our communities as poster people,” says Eisner.
While it uses LGBT folk as unwitting weapons in its effort to villainize Israel’s Muslim neighbors, the Netanyahu government continues to vote down any and all legislation that would actually improve the lot of Queer people in Israel. Despite this dismal state of affairs, many Israeli Queers still subscribe to the government’s expansionist political plans. Eisner laments: “In Israeli society, the easiest way into the heart of the mainstream and into social acceptance is through militarism. Hegemony is hegemony because when you adopt the dominant views, you get more resources.”
This upcoming Friday, LGBT leftists intend to hold a protest in Tel Aviv under the banner, “Resisting the Occupation with Pride”. As Israeli society continues to shift to the right, their efforts are likely to draw ire from Pride paraders who don’t want to be bothered about the suffering of Palestinian people, whatever their level of complicity in that suffering. But as long as some Queer folks see injustice anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere, their stubborn prophetic voices will continue to cry out, demanding freedom for all.