In the lead up to Pride 2012 and the decision by Toronto-based activist group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to return to this year’s parade, I am re-posting the following article that I put together back in April, 2011, before I started this blog. (This article originally appeared at Bilerico. Here I have updated the links, improved the formatting slightly and made a few edits for clarity regarding the timeline of events.) I’ll be returning to this issue over the next week or so.
On a humanitarian delegation tour of historic Palestine in the summer of 2005 I had the opportunity to visit the remains of Lifta— a Palestinian village on the outskirts of West Jerusalem whose inhabitants were driven out in 1948 by Israel’s proto-military forces. Our delegation was guided by Yacoub Odeh who was born in Lifta and whose family was forced to flee when he was still a young child. Like some 750,000 other Palestinians, Yacoub’s family was not allowed to return to their homes once hostilities ended, despite UN Resolution 194 that demands precisely that.
It was touching to observe Yacoub walking among the ruins of his childhood home; he showed us the house where his family had lived, the mosque where they prayed, the bakery where bread was made, places where he used to play with his friends. At one point he showed us a house in which there remained beautiful ceramic tiles along the floor, still mostly intact, although many had been taken by scavengers. He told us that through the years he had resisted the temptation to take one for himself; still holding on to hope that some day he would be permitted to return to his village he had not allowed himself a keepsake.
I remember it as a somber moment when, after he related this story, Yacoub bent down, reached out with aged hands and took one of the tiles, carefully wrapping it in a cloth he had obviously brought for the purpose. In this act, Yacoub acknowledged that he might never return to rebuild and live in the village of his childhood. These fears are only furthered by the Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee’s decision to destroy what remains of Lifta in favor of a Jewish-only luxury neighborhood.
Unfortunately recent events demonstrate that the disrespect for those like Yacoub who were driven from Lifta does not end with a denial of justice under International Law.
In late February 2011, New York City’s community-oriented LGBT Center canceled the “Party to End Apartheid,” a fundraiser planned for March 5th 2011 by the Siegebusters Working Group in conjunction with Israeli Apartheid Week. This cancellation followed a brief threat of boycott from a rightwing extremist and gay pornographer Michael Lucas—a man with a substantial history of inflammatory statements against Muslims including the following statement from his website: “I have a problem with people separating terrorists from the world that breeds them, from the world that they were derived from, which is the world of Islam,” essentially claiming that any Muslim should be considered a potential terrorist. The decision to cave in to Lucas’s threat resulted in a backlash from the NYC local queer and social justice activist communities; this included a protest by over 130 people at the LGBT Center on the night originally planned for the party.
It was during this backlash that Max Blumenthal called attention to the fact that Michael Lucas has previously shot pornography in Israel in a depopulated Palestinian village. Indeed, watching this video excerpt of a conversation between Lucas and one of his actors I couldn’t help but feel sick on my stomach when I recognized the village to be Lifta—the village that Yacoub’s family was driven out of is somehow the perfect scene for an on-camera sex romp for Lucas and his buddies. The damage is only furthered by Lucas’s promotional statements for the film [emphasis added]:
…we went to an abandoned village just north of Jerusalem. It was a beautiful ancient township that had been deserted centuries ago [sic.]…however, that did not stop our guys from mounting each other and trying to repopulate it. Biology may not be the lesson of the day but these men shot their seeds all over the village.
It is a strange thing to attempt to “repopulate” a village whose original inhabitants are simply prevented from returning under the threat of state force. Hence here we have perhaps the first example of what some have termed “desecration porn.”
At this point it’s difficult not to ask the obvious question—as others have—what if somebody made a sex tape on the location where an anti-Semitic pogrom had been carried out? Further, what if the videoed sex act happened to be queer in orientation? How fast would LGBT organizations act to condemn such a thing? I don’t think anyone would accept it for a moment, nor should they.
Yet here we are. A man who has filmed LGBT-themed porn on the site of an act of ethnic cleansing is not only given a voice in discussions of what social justice in LGBT spaces should look like, he is given absolute authority in this case to decide who is and who is not allowed to even participate in that conversation.
It is worth noting that the decision by the LGBT Center to ban Siegebusters is reminiscent of the 2009 and 2010 attempts to push Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) out of the Toronto Pride parade by banning the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” – a decision that was ultimately overturned. This attempt to ban followed a similar formula to that applied in NYC: a gay lawyer Martin Gladstone teamed up with heteronormative Israel lobby groups (including some with connections to queerbashers) who pressured the Pride board to kick QuAIA out. Fittingly, this failed attempt at censorship was given voice in the actual 2010 parade by a pro-Israel contingent that many in the local community noted to be hyper-nationalistic but didn’t seem to be particularly queer.
After a long bureaucratic process, the claim by the Israel lobby that the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” constitutes hate speech was directly refuted by Toronto’s city manager.
The events in New York City and Toronto mimic the larger issue of Israel’s attempt to pinkwash its human rights abuses against the Palestinians by changing the subject to the achievements that Israeli LGBT activists have achieved for themselves in recent years. These achievements are laudable but they do nothing to excuse or change the fact that a line can be drawn from Israel’s history of ethnic cleansing in Lifta to its modern-day policies of house demolitions and land confiscation in the Negev, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Nor do they excuse the fact that Palestinian queers themselves have stated that they often feel unwelcome in mainstream Israeli LGBT spaces.
Having boxed themselves in with their own pinkwashing politics, Israel’s allies and lobby groups in the Diaspora also seem to have set themselves at odds with the presence of Palestinian LGBT and allied voices in queer spaces. Indeed, a March 13th 2011 community consultation forum at New York’s LGBT Center, primarily attended by those in support of Siegebusters’ right to access the Center, merely served the director and board members an opportunity to reinforce the fact that the Palestinian narrative (and perhaps even Palestinian queers themselves, if they chose to project that narrative) would not be welcome. The consultation further provided Michael Lucas the opportunity to gloat over his ability to push those voices out.
Taken together, the events in NYC and Toronto leave pro-Israel forces in the dubious position of attempting to police the access of queer Palestinians and their allies to LGBT spaces in the Diaspora. Further it seems these forces should be granted absolute authority to discuss LGBT issues in the Middle East while Palestinian queers must be denied the right to respond.
I would propose that these developments in fact mirror Israeli state policy itself: while Israel occupies and colonizes Palestine, its allies colonize queer spaces and, indeed, even the queer liberation narrative itself, corrupting and twisting this narrative to the point that it is unrecognizable to many who are still fighting for their rights and freedoms in a homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic world.
Instead of allowing for the queer and trans community to be represented to the world in this manner, or, even worse, in association with the attempt to ‘repopulate’ an ethnically cleansed village through desecration porn, I would call on my queer and trans sisters and brothers to join the growing call for a queer Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, including the demand for the right of return that would allow Yacoub and his family to simply return to Lifta and rebuild their homes.
For more on Lifta Village and Yacoub Odeh visit here: