U.S. LGBT group tours Palestine
by Heather Cassell
A group of U.S. LGBT human rights academics and activists are speaking out, calling for an end to Israel's occupation of Palestine after being the first openly queer delegation to tour Palestine last month.
The 16-member group toured the West Bank of Palestine January 7-13 in order to gain an up close and personal understanding of queer life in Palestine and the effects of the Israeli occupation.
"This was a very significant trip, this was the first LGBT delegation to Palestine," said Sarah Schulman, a 53-year-old Jewish lesbian, who organized the trip with LGBT Palestinian organizations Al Qaws, ASWAT, and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.
This was Schulman's second visit to Palestine; her experience and research will be published in the forthcoming book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International.
The delegates were a diverse group of LGBT advocates and scholars representing a variety of personal and professional backgrounds, said Schulman.
Schulman was inspired to create the trip after Jewish academics approached her and asked that she not speak at the Lesbian and Gay Studies conference at Tel Aviv University two years ago, she said.
After some research into the situation she declined the speaking invitation and began doing solidarity work on behalf of LGBT Palestinians. She went on her own tour of Palestine and spoke with anti-occupation leaders and queer rights leaders in Palestine. She then organized a tour of the U.S. with three Palestinian queer leaders in February 2011.
Since the group's return one of the delegates, Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, presented on a panel discussion "Why Palestine is an LBGT issue" at last month's Creating Change conference. The panel attracted more than 80 attendees, according to Park.
Park was also one of 12 delegates that signed onto a letter calling for LGBT activists to take action in support of the end of the occupation of Palestine circulated on international LGBT listserves in January.
Filmmaker Nadia Awad, a Palestinian-American documentarian, joined the group as a part of the documentary she is working on, said Schulman.
"The situation has become intolerable and also irrefutable," said Schulman, an academic who teaches at a couple of New York universities and sits on the advisory boards of the Center for Human Rights and Social Movements at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Many of the participants expected to see harsh conditions, but the physical reality deeply disturbed the members of the group.
"All of us were deeply, deeply moved and devastated by what we saw," said Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia Law School and a delegate on the trip.
Franke, who worked on human rights issues in Africa and the Middle East, including Palestine, likened the erosion of Palestine to South Africa before the end of apartheid.
"Since I was last there, the severity of the occupation has become much more palpable. The areas that had been left to the Palestinians for self-rule from the Oslo Accords have become almost entirely occupied now militarily by the Israelis. So, the military presence in the West Bank is much more shocking in a way and the apartheid aspect of the occupation is much more shocking," said Franke.
Park, one of three transgender individuals on the trip, described Israeli's treatment of Palestinians as "very prison-like" and "humiliating" and the occupation of Palestine "really brutal" and "profoundly immoral."
"I was not too surprised by what I saw, but I still found it shocking," said Park, who spent an additional week touring Israel speaking with Israeli and Palestinian activists to gain a better understanding of both sides of the conflict. "I came face to face with an occupation, which to my eyes seemed far more systematic, intrusive, and brutal than I had anticipated."
Palestine is wrought with poverty and Palestinians gave up armed resistance quite some time ago, said Park and Schulman.
"Palestine doesn't have any power. They don't have any currency. They don't have any money. They don't have any media presence. They have no sway and that's why this has been so distorted," said Schulman about the widespread censorship and the types of stories produced in the media that mainly focus on "religious fundamentalists and terrorism" and Israel's so-called pink washing campaign.
Activists have long accused Israel of co-opting the LGBT movement by waiving the rainbow flag and painting Palestine as homophobic and intolerant of its LGBT citizens as it courts the pink dollar.
"Most of the things that we are told about that situation are not true," said Schulman.
Israel's claims that the country provides asylum or a safe place for LGBT Palestinians is not true, Schulman said.
"There is no asylum for gay Palestinians in Israel, zero. This is absolutely false, there is no special privilege or right for gay Palestinians in Israel," said Schulman.
Park added that Palestinians couldn't travel between Palestine and Israel without a permit and applying and obtaining permits are very difficult and risky, especially for LGBT Palestinians.
"Ending the occupation would significantly help queer Palestinians," said Park.
Franke and Park agreed with Schulman that LGBT Americans need to grasp how their tax money is being used to subsidize Israel's occupation of Palestine.
"It's something that all Americans, especially, I think, queer-identified Americans, should be concerned about. We have a responsibility, whether we like it or not, to address the issue because the U.S. is the only country that has the ability to change the facts on the ground. It is the only country that Israel will listen to," said Park.
A request for comment from Ohad Salmon, the LGBT liaison to the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, garnered no response by press time.
There was no response to a similar request to ASWAT, Al Qaws, BDS Movement, and PQBDS.
To learn more, visit www.queersolidaritywithpalestine.com.
Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at 00+1-415-221-3541, Skype: heather.cassell, or firstname.lastname@example.org.