Katherine Franke Explains Why She is Boycotting the Equality Forum



hi I'm Katherine Frankie from Columbia Law School and I'm really sorry I can't join you today in person at the Equality forms panel on legal issues but I want to thank you for indulging my presence by video as you no doubt know the Equality forum has chosen Israel as it's featured nation this year and for that reason I thought this was a good opportunity to talk a little bit about the state of gay rights in Israel Palestine last January I was part of the first LGBTQ delegation to the West Bank 16 of us who were academics artists journalists community leaders a lesbian rabbi visited Palestine and Israel to get a first-hand sense of lesbian gay trans and queer politics in the region while we were there Tel Aviv was even voted in a poll to be the world's best gay city lesbians and gay men have been openly serving in the Israeli military for years same-sex couples marriages have been recognized by the state for some time and Israel has much better sexual orientation discrimination laws than we do the Israeli ambassador to the u.s. Michael Oren often notes that in his words Israel provides shelter to Palestinian homosexuals seeking safety from the Islamists of the West Bank given all of this I was really curious to hear what queer Palestinians had to say about the struggles they face I met with Israeli gay activists in Tel Aviv as well as the members of al cows the Palestinian LGBTQ group based in Ramallah and aswad an organization of Palestinian lesbians who are citizens of Israel and are located in Haifa what they told us and what I witnessed really complicated the story of gay rights in the region here's some highlights of what I learned while Tel Aviv may have a very hot and hunky gay bar scene the tolerance or acceptance of homosexuality there is not as common elsewhere in the country Israel like the u.s. is a complex place and like the u.s. is increasingly religiously conservative in fact when I was in Jerusalem I saw that many of the public buses public buses are now sex segregated men sitting in the front women in the back and in one Jerusalem neighborhood women are banned from walking on the Main streets entirely so as to avoid men having contact with them a recent report documented that almost half of the gay the out gays and lesbians serving in the Israeli military have been sexually harassed by other service members and a member of the Knesset who's also an education minister recently said to the media that gays are not people like everyone else that we're in abomination ambassador Oren in fact was mistaken when he said that Israel gives asylum to gay and lesbian Palestinians Israel does not grant asylum to any Palestinians regardless of their sexual orientation and in fact won't even let an Israeli who marries a Palestinian share their Israeli citizenship with their new spouse tel aviv may have a great gay scene but most palestinians will never see it regardless of their sexual orientation because they're not allowed to pass through the checkpoints and the wall that they need to go through to enter Israel from the West Bank what I learned from the queer Palestinians I met was that gay rights organizing in Palestine has to be understood within the context of the Israeli occupation the occupation is a totalizing experience permeating all parts of life for Palestinians it's impossible for them to isolate their gay or lesbian selves for special legal or political treatment rather the fight for sexual rights is part of a larger struggle for Palestinian self-determination and freedom let me give you a particularly salient example since 2000 Shin Bet the Israelis security and intelligence service has had a policy of blackmailing Palestinians who are gay or who are perceived to be gay by threatening to out them unless they become informants against their own people for this reason gay people in Palestine have a reputation as collaborators with Israel so some of the homophobia gays and lesbians in Palestine experience is a direct product of the occupation itself the Palestinian queers I may I met made clear that the last thing they want is to be rescued as gays and lesbians by the international human rights community in a region that's already so defined by identity based binaries such as Israeli Palestinian Jew Arab peaceful terrorist to introduce another form of identitarian politics gay straight is dangerous and does a kind of violence precisely to the people the gay rights movement wants to help they see their work as necessarily queer insofar as they're seeking to break down these binaries in favor of a kind of shared humanity and shared territory that isn't split up based on one's identity I found the wall to be an incredible metaphor for the way people and land are separated from one another based on their identities the last thing I want to say is to explain why I'm not attending the panel today you may or may not know that the Equality Forum has come under strong criticism for its selection of Israel as it's featured nation and particularly its selection of Michael Oren as the keynote speaker Palace Tony Palestinian queers for boycott divestment and sanctions of Israel or PQ BDS has urged the gay community in the u.s. to become more aware of how we have become an unwitting partner in Israel's efforts to improve it's much criticized human rights record especially with respect to the Palestinians through a policy of that some have called pinkwashing Israel has self-consciously sought to rebrand itself as less religious less militaristic and less hostile to its neighbors and in so doing wants to deflect attention from the International Court of Justice and UN Human Rights councils findings that many of Israel's policies with respect to the Palestinians violate international law through events such as the Equality Forum celebration of Israel this week they have been joined the u.s. gay rights community to become cheerleaders for Israel it's one thing to express our solidarity with gays and lesbians in another country such as Israel it's quite another to become pawns in that country's foreign policy strategies while it may seem natural for gazed for gays like us to side with Israel after all they have such good gay rights laws this support reflects a major weakness of so many humans right rights movements that tend to prioritize their own struggles without considering the ways in which all forms of discrimination are linked in Israel Palestine gay rights and human rights are broadly and necessarily connected to one another and treating one domestic minority well does not excuse or diminish the immorality of the states other rights of bridging policies at South Africa enacted good great gay rights laws during the apartheid area era no one would have seen that as excusing their treatment of black or colored people for this reason I have chosen to honor PQ BDS s request that we boycott the Equality forum to uncritically celebrate Israel at a conference organized around notions of equality and Liberty and have Michael Oren serve as the keynote speaker and an international equality dinner is taken as a slap in the face by our queer brothers and sisters in Palestine as well as by the queers within Israel who are actively seeking a just resolution to the israeli-palestinian conflict by avoiding any programming that offered a balanced view of the human rights record of its featured nation the Equality Forum has lost an important opportunity to be a leader in the International gay rights movement and instead has allowed itself to be used as a part of Israel's larger efforts to deflect criticisms of its human rights record I say these things mindful that when I have talked in other venues about our trip in January and have tried to paint a picture of the complexity of the gay rights movement in this region my comments have been met with some of the most intense criticisms in my career I have discovered how hard it is to express any criticism of Israeli state policy or express any sympathy toward the plight of the Palestinians with being called anti-semitic there must be some room in our community to have a mindful and critical conversation about the politics of this region that do not get immediately labeled racists or hateful while not all of you may want to join the BDS movement as I have I do hope that you'll take the time to learn more about al cows as what PQ BDS and attend the panel on LGBTQ rights in the region being held tomorrow at 3 o'clock at the William Way community center thank you so much