A Question of Priorities

Two ostensibly very different books shine an illuminating light on debates surrounding Palestinian political goals and identity.

Amidst widespread discussion regarding the international advocacy movement for Palestinian rights, its remarkable heterogeneity is often missed. The current requirements of the BDS movement, and the Manichean rhetoric deployed by both its supporters and its detractors, depict a misleading uniformity. One of the most pressing questions facing the movement is whether the struggle against Israel should subordinate all other challenges faced by Palestinians, particularly when discussion of such issues shines an unflattering light on the Palestinian cause. That such negative images of Palestinians are often used to justify their continued statelessness makes this an even more loaded issue. In recent years, a group of radical purists insisting a narrow focus on—or definition of—the political have come to the fore, sometimes going so far as to publicly ostracize other Palestinians for stepping out of line.

These divisions are particularly pronounced in the movement for queer Palestinian solidarity, and the debate about whether the struggle against Zionism and Israel should take precedence over opposing homophobia in Palestinian society. Sa’ed Atshan—an anthropologist at Swarthmore College and a prominent queer Palestinian writer—was already a controversial figure in the BDS Movement before the 2020 publication of his book Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique. In an episode he recounts in the book, Atshan describes being roundly condemned for attending a private gathering at the home of Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia University, because Zionists were in attendance. His book is the culmination, at least for now, of his years-long effort to persuade his activist community to simultaneously oppose Israeli rule and Palestinian homophobia, and not privilege the one over the other.

It is impossible to adequately summarize the argument of this book without first clarifying the enduring legacies of two problematic concepts that the author addresses directly: the “Gay International” and “homonationalism.” The two provide the intellectual foundations for Atshan’s harshest opponents, whom he describes as “radical purists.” The first, developed and popularized by Joseph Massad, posits that a network of powerful rights organizations and activists in the West is trying to impose alien notions such as “homosexuality” onto a Middle Eastern context where they do not fit, creating the basis for a “white savior” intervention. Most pertinently in relation to Queer Palestine is Massad’s figure of the “native informant,” who adopts these Western categories and proceeds to engage in advocacy work based on them.

The second term follows a similar logic to that of the Gay International. The queer theorist Jasbir Puar coined the term “homonationalism” to describe how “lesbian and gay liberal rights discourses” have been deployed to judge a people’s “worthiness” and “capacity” for self-determination. In a 2012 article co-authored with Maya Mikdashi, Puar accused Palestinian gay rights activists of bolstering homonationalism in their resistance to what is known in the movement as “pinkwashing”— described by Atshan as “a discourse on Israeli LGBTQ rights aimed at distracting attention from violations of Palestinian human rights.” In non-academic language, what Puar and Mikdashi seem to be saying is that certain Palestinians are effectively agreeing to the terms of debate set out by their oppressors and the West. Instead of directly challenging the claims of pinkwashers, which could involve acknowledging homophobia in Palestine, they “should query the accusation of homophobia as a political whip.” The practical upshot of these ideas is that any discussion of queer life in Palestine that does not exclusively focus on the Israel and the occupation is illegitimate.

While Atshan takes strong issue with the behavior of some activists, Queer Palestine is overtly sympathetic to the goals of the international Palestine solidarity movement as a whole (Atshan is an anti-Zionist who supports a binational state). The book’s thesis contends that queer Palestinians are targeted by an “empire of critique” that elides their identity as anti-Zionist Palestinians (in the case of pinkwashing), and brands them as native informants when they speak out against homophobia in Palestine. Atshan seeks to start a reconsideration of attitudes among Palestinian activists, with whom he clearly identifies. He worries about the rise of a radical purism that deems any queer Palestinian opposition to homophobia a form of “informing,” if not outright pinkwashing, resulting in the LGBTQ+ movement’s general torpor in recent years.

Examples of the radical purity hamstringing the broader Palestinian LGBTQ+ movement, ranging from the distressing to the head-scratching, are discussed across the book. It is impossible for the broadminded not to empathize with the LGBTQ+ Palestinians whose lives and needs have been dismissed by the organizations and activists who ought to be fighting on their behalf. The “inward turn” encouraged by radical purists has resulted in boycotts and exclusions where Palestinians are both the initiator and the target. For example, Atshan tells the story of Khader Abu-Seif, a queer Palestinian writer and activist based in Tel Aviv. In 2015, his appearance in the documentary Oriented, alongside two friends, was targeted by boycott calls, for its alleged role in pinkwashing. Anyone who watches the film will immediately see the ridiculousness of this accusation, but the threshold for accusations of pinkwashing is shockingly low for radical purists. Merely broadcasting the unmediated and subjective experiences of queer Palestinian citizens of Israel is sufficient to elicit a charge of pinkwashing. It can hardly come as a surprise that such a movement has not been thriving—politically or otherwise.

Atshan does not purport to be an impartial observer of the radical purity phenomenon, with a marked tone of memoir and autobiography running through the text. The book is worthy of careful reflection by any non-Palestinian considering entering this fraught debate; that the purists are sometimes non-Palestinian Westerners clearly irritates Atshan, a fact that should not be lost on the reader. One particular bugbear are the academics who, Atshan feels, treat the lives of queer Palestinians with something verging on disdain. A galling anecdote in the book describes an academic emailing an LGBTQ+ delegation to Palestine, requesting permission to join them—at the delegation’s expense—in order to “critique” them. More amusing is the white American professor on a panel provocatively stating that “queer Palestinians do not exist,” to which one of his co-panelists, a queer Palestinian, replies: “If you have any doubts [that queer Palestinians exist], and you happen to be a woman, I’m staying at the Biltmore hotel, room 318.”

Queer Palestine is, ironically enough, a critique, the sensitivities around which Atshan is painfully conscious. I was struck by the number of times Atshan felt obliged to reassure the reader that he was not equating the forces of oppression faced by queer Palestinians from the Israeli state and those from Palestinian society. There were also times when I that wished Atshan had gone a bit deeper. For instance, while he is quite right to use Puar and Mikdashi’s polemical article in Jadaliyya to make his point about the use and abuses of homonationalism, he should have also addressed Puar’s 2013 note in the International Journal of Middle East Studies. There, she laments “reductive applications” of homonationalism by activists, of the kind that Atshan critiques. Citing this article would have strengthened his case against the radical purists using this term—but, perhaps, at the expense of granting Puar herself some distance from them.

Nevertheless, Atshan’s book is a trenchant clarion call, harnessed to the words of the iconic African American poet Audre Lorde: “there is no hierarchy of oppressions.” Putting this dictum in his own words, he concludes: “Queer liberation cannot be realized while colonial subjugation persists, but the movement toward dignity for queer people should not be expected to wait until the realization of national liberation. Decoupling these struggles is ultimately impossible; they are inextricably linked.”

**

Atshan’s experiences, so persuasively and movingly recounted in his book, could only have happened in our age of the Internet. In English-speaking countries, much activism in this space takes place online. It is no surprise, thus, that radical purists have gained the upper hand in a world where the private space needed for radical experimentation and dialogue is greatly limited if it still exists at all. Without directly contending with the needs and anxieties of the other side—a real, productive confrontation, not a saccharine exercise in “coexistence” that makes the liberals of the dominant group feel better about themselves—the intoxicating illusion of total victory is given critical room to grow. Its subsequent exhaustion is logically followed by despair, or worse.

Rifqa, Mohammed El-Kurd’s debut collection of poems (named after his late grandmother) serves as a vivid (if indirect) illustration of the tensions revealed by Atshan’s book. It is also vital reading for those who want to understand the prevailing mood among some Palestinian activists today. His family’s struggle against settlers seeking their eviction from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem encompasses the injustices engendered by the Nakba and the post-1967 occupation. Despite the varieties of Palestinian resistance and activism, this is as close to a universal experience for Palestinians as is possible to discern. El-Kurd is from a family of Palestinian refugees, forced into a state of occupation under Israel and now threatened with homelessness once again. If there is a young Palestinian voice competent to vocalize his people’s past and present grievances, it is his. The Western media has responded by giving the 23-year-old an immense platform. The placement of Mohammed and his twin sister Muna on Time Magazine’s annual 100 Most Influential People list in 2020 is testament to their achievement in bringing the world’s attention to Sheikh Jarrah. In September, he was named the first Palestine correspondent for The Nation.

El-Kurd’s poetry is poignant and direct, morally unambiguous in a “facts don’t care about your feelings” style. In the aptly titled afterword “Lest There Be Unclarity,” El-Kurd lays out his process. He identifies two common mistakes in writing about Palestine, which he aims to correct. First is the insertion of euphemistic language to describe Palestinian dispossession. “There’s this naïve belief that Palestinians will acquire credibility only once they’ve amassed respectability,” El-Kurd writes. “I did this to appear rational and unhostile. The truth, however, is very hostile.”

The second error is the insistence on “humanization,” the process by which Palestinians are forced to convince outsiders that they are suitable subjects for sympathy. El-Kurd is tired of “qualify[ing] our dead with reminders of their nonviolence, humane professions, and disabilities.” In relation to Israel, while there is little room in El-Kurd’s narrative to describe Palestinians as anything other than victims, there is an evident refusal to conform to certain images of victimhood: the harmless woman, child, elderly person, paraplegic, etc.

As can be expected, Rifqa is unconcerned with respectability politics and portraying Palestinians as victims lacking agency. The figure of Rifqa El-Kurd, known as Palestine’s Jasmine for having endured all of Palestine’s struggles in her century-plus life, is present in several, perhaps even most, of the entries. The title poem affectingly recalls her memory at length.

My grandmother—Rifqa—
was chased away from the city,
leaving behind
the vine of roses in the front yard.
Sometime when youth was
more than just yearning,
She left poetry.

She left behind clothes folded ready to be worn again;
her suitcases
did not declare departure.
Rifqa left Haifa to go to Haifa
to go to Haifa.
Rifqa walked solid.
“We’ll return once things cool down,”
and she believed,
wore her key
until her key her neck her memory
became the same color.

The poet’s experiences of living in the United States—the power center of the Global North, undergoing yet another domestic reckoning with its past—informs his approach. In a prose poem titled “Laugh,” El-Kurd writes of his time in Atlanta, where he attended college and participated in political protest.

“Atlanta taught me to postpone panic, command rooms. Taught me how to stuff my skull with peacocks. How to walk tall into an argument. Taught me that a dollar is three and a half shekels. That dollars smell amazing. Female rap is the highest form of poetry. White girls are the absolute best at shoplifting, for reasons Atlanta knows. I know shoplifting is gray. Atlanta showed me my first pig carriage in flames. I am learning how to pour gasoline on discourse. This city weds its martyrs, celebrates when they come home. Atlanta taught me that hallway-hellos are not the same as friendship. Jerusalem taught me resilience. Atlanta taught me a different kind.”

While El-Kurd’s lucidity may be a welcome break from much of contemporary political verse written in English, it also means a confrontation with his uncompromising vision of Palestinian liberation—one that does not forswear violence and, even more unfortunately, does not necessarily include Jewish Israelis. The glorified image of the rifle comes up repeatedly in the text, and the epilogue contains this ominous passage: “Above all, although this book isn’t an attempt to free Palestine, its central thesis is that Palestine, in its historical entirety, must be liberated by any means necessary [emphasis mine].”

Mohammed El-Kurd’s poetry will not “advance peace.” He, above all, will be pleased to hear this assessment from a Zionist writer—or, even worse, a progressive Zionist writer. But perhaps he would be surprised to learn that I do not lack historical awareness. I understand that a people facing injustice and colonization—let’s not bother with the arrogant thought that Arab Palestinians should have experienced Zionist settlement as anything else—will naturally resist. The settlement enterprise in the occupied territories, Israel’s cruelest transgression, has ensured that humiliation and colonial dispossession are the defining Palestinian national experience. Yet we also know that violence produces, at best, momentary victories—with devastating long-term implications for Palestinians and Israelis alike. Talk of liberation “by any means necessary” will no doubt brings elusive satisfaction to someone whose home has been invaded by force. In practice, however, it ultimately amounts to pure harm.

I will leave it to professional literary critics to rank El-Kurd’s poems in the grand pantheon of Palestinian poets and writers. Personally, I found the experience of reading Rifqa invigorating. El-Kurd may be an absolutist, but he is not hollow and humorless like most such men. Nevertheless, what he is advancing with his talents is an illusion, no less damaging for the fact that Israel clearly does not intend to allow a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state to emerge in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Even if we do not fault El-Kurd for keeping the possibility of violent resistance open—the African National Congress, after all, did not renounce violence until the 1990s—the lack of a vision for a shared society in his work is not something that can be so easily set aside. If there is any indication that El-Kurd views Israeli Jews as anything other than colonialists and usurpers, then it is not easily recognizable in the text. The ANC ultimately included whites as equal citizens in their conception of a free South Africa. One could protest until out of breath that the onus of realism should not be on the oppressed; but if Mandela was forced to confront the question of how to include his former jailers in a new society—an internationally isolated 10 percent minority, unlike Israeli Jews—it is unimaginable that Palestinians will be able to bypass this question. Imagining otherwise is not resisting hegemonic limitations on what is possible but succumbing to a tragic form of despair. In fact, if we have truly reached the point of no return for a two-state solution, then what will be required for a new vision is a bi-national alliance of Palestinians and Israelis, unwilling to yet again go down the predictable road of domination followed by resistance, interspersed with the ordinary and the miserable.

Edward Said, to whom El-Kurd pays tribute in one of his poems, dedicated his final published work, Freud and the Non-European, to the search for a formula for “a bi-national state in which Israel and Palestine are parts, rather than antagonists of each other’s history and underlying reality.” Until he came to the conclusion that it had been rendered impossible by Israeli settlements, Said was a supporter of the two-state solution. His conversion to the one-state model was, in my reading, somewhat less than enthusiastic. Unlike some leftist academics, Said was a student of the postcolonial world. Like Isaac Deutscher before him, he believed that the nation state for an oppressed people could serve as a critical emancipatory step. The realization that this victory would not come for the Palestinians, not even in the truncated form of a state on 22 percent of historic Palestine, was no doubt difficult for him to process. But Said understood that if Israelis and Palestinians are condemned to a single polity, then it behooves them to find a way to live together as equals. As the leading Palestinian intellectual in the diaspora, Said pointedly did not exclude himself from this work. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he founded with Daniel Barenboim—sadly and predictably denounced by the BDS movement as a normalization project—is a tangible legacy of this effort.

The rigid anti-normalization of radical purists stands in staunch opposition to the binational idea. For the sake of my family and friends in the region, I hope El-Kurd and the next generation of Palestinian leaders ultimately choose to discard this hopeless and bleak view despite its evident emotional appeal, as manifested in El-Kurd’s poetry and in the reaction to Atshan’s truly radical activity. I am hardly convinced of the viability of a binational state myself, but it is the only version of the one-state solution that acknowledges the reality of two irremovable national movements. In contrast to the Algeria chimera, the belief that the world of one’s grandparents and great-grandparents can be restored through driving the “settler” population out, the binational idea is not a road to absolutely nowhere. Neither Palestinians nor the vast majority of Israeli Jews have a mother country to which they can plausibly return. It is only from this understanding that something new, and maybe even better, can be born.

* Sa’ed Atshan, Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique, Stanford University Press 2020, pp. 296.

* Mohammed El-Kurd, Rifqa, Haymarket Books 2021, pp. 100

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