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Race, Sexuality and Rights Workshop

I attended the Race, Sexuality and Rights Workshop at the University of Sydney yesterday, December 10. The event was organised by Dinesh Wadiwel and featured a talk by Jasbir Puar who was visiting Australia to attend the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association conference which starts in Adelaide today.

The participants were called upon to read two papers by Puar, one more theoretical which discusses the interrelationship between intersectionality and assemblage theory, and the second on pinkwashing and pinkwatching in relation to Israel-Palestine published in Jaddaliya. These papers and some wider issues around them were discussed in four fascinating interventions by Ihab Shalbak, Gilbert Caluya, Regrette Etcetera, and Angela Mitropoulos.The first part of the workshop focused on the article in Jaddaliya which makes interesting arguments about how queer activists opposed to Israel’s pinkwashing activities – its casting of itself as a safe haven for gay and lesbian people (rather than TQI) as opposed to Palestinian/Arab homophobia. The most interesting element of the argument is that pinkwatchers, as Puar calls them, are themselves reproducing homonationalist norms by thinking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exclusively in terms of queer issues, rather than an issue of social justice generally, and that they do so without being attentive to the US’s own position as a settler colonial society.

As Puar herself remarked during the workshop, the article, co-written with Jaddliya editor Maya Mikdashi, was not well received by many queer Palestinian activists who took it as a criticism of their work. In my readings of the debates that ensued online, and the authors’ response what emerged as the most salient criticism, and one which I too raise, is that the article does not give examples of the type of activism or activists that they critique. Various claims are made, but nowhere is it made clear who or what is being talked about. This remains a significant problem.

What was most interesting in the discussion emerged for me after what seemed to be an unintentional comment about Jewish anti-Zionists. In mentioning them perhaps Puar was singling anti-Zionist Jewish queers as the most problematic exponents of the pinkwatching she critiques. Sarah Schulman’s invocation of  the Queer International came up several times. This was taken up in an extremely thought-provoking way by Ihab Shalbak who proposed that the coordinates of the problematic being pointed to by Puar were not Gaza and Tel Aviv, but New York and San Francisco, the former being the major Jewish centre, and the latter the self-designated Queer capital of the western world. Shalbak, from his perspective as a Palestinian activist, questioned whether or not Palestine was a means for the working out of the conflictual dynamics between these two centres, rather than/in addition to unadulterated concern with justice for the Palestinians.

For me, the issue of what gets left out by the focus on Palestine was a very interesting one. It led me to ask should we not all examine our positionality in relation to this conflict and ask why, here too, seated on occupied Gadigal Land, we were discussing, not Australian settler colonialism and the resultant centuries of dispossession and discrimination, but Palestine. What local injustices are so many blind to while being able to cite the number of calories that Israel calculates is necessary for Palestinians to barely survive. My question was not to imply that we should not be attentive to Palestine, but that the question Why Palestine? forces us to consider – in depth – what is the cost of international solidarity, or what does it happen at the expense of?

This returns me to the aside about Jewish anti-Zionists: I proposed that the critique of queer (Jewish) pinkwatching mirrors the Zionist criticism of anti-Zionist Jews forever accused of ignoring Syria, Lebanon, or myriad injustices committed by Arab states against their own citizens, all the while extolling the comparative virtues of the ‘only democracy in the Middle East.’ The answer given by most Jewish and/or Israeli anti-Zionists is that the crimes of Zionism are being committed in one’s name, it is incumbent upon us to speak out against them. But, should that mean that Palestine should be accorded some other, more important perhaps, status than anywhere else, or any other people? Do Jews and Israelis have different responsibilities in this regard? Does being a purported member of the Queer International in addition to being Jewish frame the problem differently? In other words, I am asking whether Puar’s insightful noting of a problem with the reproduction of homonationalist frames within queer anti-Zionist activism, does not mirror a wider problem in which Palestine and the Palestinians come to play a bit role in the play of some other people’s life, Queer Americans, Left-wing Jews, Anti-Zionist Israelis, or some mix of all three? As she intimates in the article, but does not go far enough in analysing, these problems will not be resolved until the linkages between colonialities, past and present, and their impact on the structures of injustice and privilege in many locations, are enunciated in all of our activism.

Alana Lentin