Queens Pride House in Jackson Heights hosted its first-ever forum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Tuesday night, attracting an audience of about 30 individuals, most of whom identified themselves as members of one or more Palestinian-sympathizer organizations. The event was free and open to the public.
Many in attendance indicated they were drawn to the gathering by the presence of the evening’s guest speaker, Sarah Schulman, a CUNY professor and supporter of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
Presided over by Pauline Park, the Pride House president and acting executive director, the forum also included a slide presentation of her 2012 trip to the region, and a question-and-answer session. Palestinian-American documentarian Nadia Awad, who filmed the trip, was an announced participant but did not appear.
The forum, to a large extent, focused on why the ongoing conflict in the Middle East is an issue for the LGBT community and the work the participants have been doing to challenge Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Schulman said her interest in the subject was piqued four years ago upon learning of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, an economic and cultural-based movement seeking the end of collaboration with any institutions funded by the Israeli government.
She spoke of “pink-washing,” defined as the promotion of the gay friendliness of a political entity in an attempt to downplay aspects of it that are considered negative, on the part of the Israeli government. The practice, she said, “Gives a phony image of Israel.”
In 2012, she helped organize the first LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine and invited Park to be one of the 16 participants. Delegations are a “crucial tactic” for Palestine, Schulman said. “Palestine relies on delegations.”
Park said it was “the most important trip I ever made,” other than the one which brought her here from her native Korea.
“We all agreed it was important to see for ourselves what the Israeli occupation was all about,” Park said.
The slides she showed included images of the separation barrier along the West Bank and refugee camps.
According to Park, the wall, which Israel claims is necessary to protect its civilians against acts of Palestinian terrorism, is “really about land. It makes no sense. Pieces of the wall are disconnected.”
“The term ‘settlement’ is quite a misnomer,” too, she said, indicating that many of the new buildings are quite elaborate, unlike the “Little House on the Prairie” image she suggested Israel is trying to portray.
“Israeli settlers have seized 80 percent of the water” along the West Bank, she said.
According to Park, there is “very significant discrimination against the transgendered in Israel,” suggesting that some areas of the country are safer for members of the LGBT community than others.
Speaking after the forum, she said, “Those who support Israel and engage in pink-washing claim that Israel is a paradise for LGBT people. If it’s a paradise for anyone, it would be for gay white Jewish men who are Israeli citizens living in Tel Aviv with money. For anyone else, it is far from a paradise. There is a lot of discrimination, especially against transgendered people, even in Tel Aviv.”
Asked to compare the treatment of the LGBT population in Israel with other countries in the region, she said, “It’s perfectly okay to talk about homophobia in Arabic-Muslim countries,” but suggested that “pink-washing is a ploy designed to divert our attention from the reality of Israel’s occupation which LGBT Palestinians in occupied territories have to live under. A comparison between Israel and the neighboring countries is a false comparison.”
To the audience at the forum she said, “The Israeli political system is stuck. The majority of Israelis are frustrated. Folks in this room have the power to change the situation.”
Among those on hand was Nicholas Maniace, a member of the Queens College Students Without Borders organization, who said, “The only way change will come will be by resistance against Israel. A state like Israel, the only way they listen is by opposing force.”
Sarah Wolf, a member of the International Socialist Organization, said, “It’s going to be the people on the ground that will change things. Getting the United States to withdraw support for Israel is incredibly difficult. The U.S. has a huge stake in Israel and has used Israel as a solid go-to point from which it could control that region of the world.”
Schulman suggested, “It is easier to change the U.S. than to change Israel. As Americans, we’re funding the occupation.”
To effect change, Park suggested, “people have to become aware and educate themselves on this issue,” adding that there has been “very little discussion” about it in the LGBT community. It is important, she said, for people to get the “real story,” not the “propaganda.”
She also stressed her belief that it is important to “make your views known to government officials, especially here in the United States, at the federal, state and local levels.
“The LGBT community ends up being one of the key communities in this issue,” she said, suggesting that while gay tourism is important to Israel, most LGBT people “face some degree of harassment” there.
While the Pride House sponsored the event, Park made it clear afterwards that “Queens Pride House takes no position on the issue because we want to make sure everyone feels welcome. Sponsorship is different from taking a position on an issue.”
She explained the absence of pro-Israel participants on the panel by saying, “There are forums every week of the year sponsored by pro-Israel groups, but very few where voices critical of Israel are given a chance to speak. I’m not opposed to dialogue or debate. We thought the most effective way to educate members of the LGBT community was a forum with us talking about our experiences and the conclusions we came to because of those experiences.”
The event was co-sponsored by several other groups including Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, New York City Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and Queerocracy.
This article was corrected to reflect the proper name of one of the event's cosponsors: New York City Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. We regret the error.