The Israeli-Palestine conflict is undoubtedly one of the most controversial, most complicated and least understood political and human rights issue of our time. During Peace, not Apartheid week here at Boston College, the Student's for Justice in Palestine teamed up with Allies and brought Sa'ed Atshan to speak about sexuality and LGBT rights in the Middle East, in talk called Tel Aviv Nightclubs and West Bank Checkpoints: The Politics of Being Fabulous in the Holy Land. Atshan is a PhD candidate at Harvard University and has lectured both at Harvard and Tufts University.
A topic that many people in the room, including myself, knew little about left an uncomfortable air in the room before the lecture started. But by the end, students and professors alike were laughing, smiling and engaging in meaningful conservation.
Atshan spent a large part of his talk focusing on pinkwashing, a term used to describe how Israel has whitewashed the western world and changed the very nature of how outsiders perceive human rights issues. What really drove this idea home was his comparison to apartheid in South Africa. That occupation was never met with gay rights issues. Those that had lived on the land for generations and identified as South African were not persecuted for being homophobic as a mechanism to justify occupation or paint the victims as the criminals. The short of it is, if you don't support Israel, then you do support homophobia and you don't support gay rights, according to Atshan.
Atshan expressed great concern in this because it seemed counter-intuitive. "You have to pass a certain threshold of gay friendliness in order to have basic human rights," he said. This makes the conflict even more complex.
"If you were a LGBT Palestinian, you were targeted by Israeli forces," he said of the hypocrisy of pinkwashing. They were given two options: become an informant for Israel or be outed to everyone they know. The idea that being a gay Palestinian makes you better off than others is false, according to Atshan. This campaign of entrapment in the late 1980s trapped many Palestinians, making them chose between their right to basic privacy and right to basic freedom.
He said he has faced many misconceptions among his peers concerning gay rights for Palestinians in Israel. In concise, informative and often humorous ways, he spelled out not only what make these ideas false, but how to start a meaningful conversation that integrates the facts but delves deeper into the truth.
This video, used to attract tourism to Israel, paints the country as a modern, sexually accepting and open society.
Hard facts that Atshan used such as Israeli control of aquifers and fertile land show blatant human rights violations. Misconceptions such as the idea that Palestinian gays can find haven in Tel Aviv when in reality most are forced to work as prostitutes stand in stark contrast to the safe refuge that Israel promotes itself to be. Only chuckles of contempt were heard when one student asked if gay marriage was legal in Israel, to which Atshan quickly responded, "No."
The effort put forth by the Israeli government and media to portray themselves as accepting of LGBT rights includes things like sponsoring The Equality Forum and having the Israeli Ambassador to the United States deliver the keynote address at the event, and promoting Michael Lucas, a gay porn star that uses his platform to promote Israel in the gay community world wide.
Looking ahead, one central idea that the SJP discussed after the lecture was divestment. The University of California's Irvine, San Diego and Riverside all passed divestment measures very recently. This means that the schools will pull money out of investments that are tied to Israel and the schools will stand in solidarity with the free-Palestine movement. The SJP are looking to do this in the coming years here at BC.
BC SJP's last event this week today, March 21st will feature Josh Ruebner as the speaker. Ruebner will provide a unique perspective as advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, a Jewish-Israeli and witness of the horrid fruits of occupation. Ale Rodriguez, A&S '14 and vice president of SJP, said, "He is coming to talk about how our tax dollars as Americans are funding the Israeli occupation and how [President Barack Obama] has failed to step up to the plate to do something to stop [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]".
Kelsey Wasserman, A&S'13 and co-president of SJP said, "We're really excited about the turnout at all of our events. We got unprecedented numbers". Wasserman also said, "We want to stress that we are not anti-Jewish or anti-Israel, we are pro-Palestinian," and that these events serve to meet their goals of providing information to students that mainstream media does not provide.
Just like many people, BC students at large are not pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine. "They just don't know that much and are intimidated by the conflict because it is very polarizing and complex," said Kyla Longman, A&S'15 and treasurer of SJP, citing this as the reason why students are reluctant to learn about the conflict.
By hosting these events, Rodriguez said SJP simply hopes to "give a voice to the voiceless" in Palestine. "Going to a Jesuit school and in trying to be men and women for others, we really want to shed light on the conflict," Wasserman said. Today's event will be held in Gasson 205 at 6:30 PM.
All photos courtesy of the Boston College Students for Justice in Palestine.