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Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique


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Contents and AbstractsIntroduction: "there is no hierarchy of oppressions" chapter abstract

This introductory chapter foregrounds Audre Lorde's words that "there is no hierarchy of oppressions." It extends this thesis to the central question at the heart of this book, which is how transnational progressive social movements are able (or not) to balance struggles for liberation along more than one axis at once. The focus here is on the global queer Palestinian solidarity movement, revealing its original aim to empower queer Palestinians to achieve national and sexual freedom. The chapter defines the critical concepts that help account for the rise of this movement in Palestine and globally. These concepts include the empire of critique, radical purists, discursive disenfranchisement, movement plateau, pinkwashing, pinkwatching, ethnocracy, homophobia, Zionism, ethnoheteronormativity, and the white gaze. This chapter also contextualizes this project within the intellectual genealogy of which it is a part.

Chapter 1: LGBTQ Palestinians and the Politics of the Ordinary chapter abstract

Chapter 1 traces the rise of the LGBTQ Palestinian movement in Israel/Palestine, also known as Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories or as historic Palestine. The first section delineates an ethnographic approach to social movement theory as the conceptual framework through which to understand this movement. The next section outlines the heterogeneity of queer Palestinian subjects, and the following section provides an overview of Palestinian homophobia. I then account for the emergence of the LGBTQ movement in Palestine and follow that with a discussion of queer Palestinian epistemologies and a section on the rise of radical purists in the movement. I conclude with examples of queer Palestinian subjectivities. I argue that queer Palestinian life and resistance derives its power from ordinary acts in extraordinary contexts under ethnoheteronormativity. This chapter furthers the case for attention to affect and more pluralism and inclusivity within the movement.

Chapter 2: Global Solidarity and the Politics of Pinkwashing chapter abstract

Chapter 2 applies conceptions of victims and saviors to the debates on pinkwashing and pinkwatching. It explicates four examples of pinkwashing. I then provide an overview of homophobia and LGBTQ rights in contemporary Israel, recognizing the elision of Israeli homophobia and elevation of Israeli queer empowerment in pinkwashing discourse. The final section of this chapter offers an analysis of hegemonic critiques of the use of the terms pinkwashing and pinkwatching in the contexts of (a) the charge of singling out Israel for criticism, (b) the invocation of the presence of queer Palestinians in Israel, and (c) debates surrounding the salience of the Israeli occupation. It is in the interplay between pinkwashing and pinkwatching that the queer Palestinian movement has catalyzed global solidarity.

Chapter 3: Transnational Activism and the Politics of Boycotts chapter abstract

The first section of chapter 3 traces how the conflict over boycotts maps onto successive Tel Aviv Pride parades. It examines queer Palestinian calls to boycott Tel Aviv Pride, decisions to participate in the parade by queer antioccupation activists, and the emergence of resistance to the Israeli state by mainstream LGBTQ organizations in Israel. The chapter then focuses on two cities that emerged as early epicenters of the pinkwatching and boycott debates. The next section examines the politics of boundary policing as they played out on multiple fronts. The chapter then turns to a critical moment in the summer of 2017 when conflict between pinkwashers and pinkwatchers came to a head and surged into the national media spotlight. This chapter demonstrates that we are equipped, from social theory and peace and conflict studies, with conceptual tools to transcend the present impasse animating boycotts in the context of queer Palestinian transnational activism.

Chapter 4: Media, Film, and the Politics of Representation chapter abstract

Chapter 4 examines the relationship between the global queer Palestinian solidarity movement, representations of queer Palestinians in film and journalism, and the significant mistrust of the global mainstream media that has arisen among movement leaders. The chapter opens with a description of how the mainstream Western press tends to prioritize the most sensational stories about queer Palestinians. The second half of the chapter outlines the movement's critique of pinkwashing films produced by Israelis and internationals and the movement's attendant calls to boycott those films. This chapter delineates examples of cinematic tropes that clearly reinforce pinkwashing as well as others that are more nuanced. It also analyzes films that feature queer love between Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, I discuss a number of queer Palestinian films, highlighting their importance and controversy. The chapter concludes with the story of an as-yet-unreleased documentary on the first US LGBTQ delegation to Palestine.

Chapter 5: Critique of Empire and the Politics of Academia chapter abstract

Chapter 5 examines two theoretical frameworks elaborated by Western-based scholars—the Gay International by Joseph Massad and homonationalism by Jasbir Puar—as they have been applied to the global queer Palestinian solidarity movement. I reveal the debilitating effects that these academic critiques have had on the Queer Palestine movement and the possibility for academics and activists to formulate a new mode of scholarly engagement aimed at supporting queer social movements in Palestine and across the Middle East. As in previous chapters, I compare contributions that are corrosive, placing activists in the cross-fire between left- and right-wing criticisms of their efforts, to those that raise difficult intellectual, ethical, and practical questions while protecting from paralysis those who struggle for justice.

Conclusion: "we were never meant to survive" chapter abstract

Just as the introduction foregrounded words of Audre Lorde, this concluding chapter does so as well, with attention to Lorde's call for racialized queer subjects to speak in the face of attempts to undermine their survival. The conclusion conceptualizes how scholars and activists can distinguish between critique and criticism. Drawing on Jose Muñoz's notions of queer futurity and utopia, I outline my vision and road map for the global queer Palestinian solidarity movement. This is done with an eye to transcending the empire of critique and the movement's current plateau so it can become a more democratic and pluralistic movement that can resume growing.

About the Author

Sa'ed Atshan is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He is the coauthor of The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians (2020).


"This utterly brilliant book will be a classic. Sa'ed Atshan's comprehensive study of queer Palestinian activism provides a rich understanding of the complex intersections of selfhood, activism, and belonging. By demonstrating the limits of binarisms of East/West and self/other through detailed empirical analysis and powerful theoretical interventions, Atshan has given us a landmark work valuable to Middle East studies, queer studies, and anthropology in the broadest sense."—Tom Boellstorff, University of California, Irvine, author of The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia "Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique is a breath of fresh air! In the academic climate in which 'radical' has become synonymous with crude schisms between West and East, authentic and inauthentic, pure and sellout, this book provides a much-needed nuanced account of Queer Palestine. Sa'ed Atshan carefully historicizes the local terrain and rightly problematizes how US-based scholarship has turned the critique of empire into an empire of critique. This is a brilliant call for academic self-reflection and a brave rejection of so-called radical myths of cultural authenticity."—Gil Z. Hochberg, Columbia University "Sa'ed Atshan brilliantly weaves together ethnography and personal experience in the most thoughtful, engaging, and emotionally captivating ways. His sophisticated work captures the nexus of a scholar-activist, offering an authoritative account of the challenges and trajectory of the Palestinian LGBTQ movement. A tour de force and a remarkable book for both its theoretical and empirical contributions."—Amaney A. Jamal, Princeton University "This powerful and prophetic book shows that the struggle for justice and freedom against empire and homophobia are indivisible. Sa'ed Atshan's text is a major intellectual force for good."—Cornel West, Harvard University "In Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique, Sa'ed Atshan provides a brilliant theorization of an excessive mode of political critique that strives for the high ground yet contributes to the calcification of social justice movements. Through a nuanced ethnography that foregrounds the plurality of queer experience in Israel and Palestine and the enormous complexity of the global Palestinian solidarity movement, Atshan demonstrates how an intellectual stance that combines a conviction of the moral superiority of one's political judgments with deep suspicion concerning others' complicity in relations of domination and the likely oppressive consequences of prescriptions for social transformation engenders discursive disenfranchisement, loss of key intellectual distinctions, neglect of pragmatic constraints, demoralization of activists, and the truncation of transnational queer solidarity. This deeply insightful book makes vital contributions to Queer Studies, Middle East Studies, Social Movement Studies, and an understanding of the dynamics of social justice praxis."—Mary Hawkesworth, Rutgers University "Atshan's book, an autoethnography of queer Palestine, is methodologically impeccable, incorporating academic work and personal positioning. He advances a philosophy of critique centered on the everyday material lives of people, that is both complex and masterfully written. He makes a bold and thought-provoking argument—one that speaks to social justice activists as well as academics."—2020 Lee Ann Fujii Book Award Committee, International Studies Association "[A] timely and urgent account....Along with a succinct presentation of the immense challenges faced by the LGBTQ-identifying Palestinians, Atshan highlights Palestinian agency, ingenuity, and resilience."—Joshua Donova, New Books Network "[Atshan] immaculately illustrates the development of movements along with the challenges they face by both conservative Palestinians and Arabs at large and by the repressive occupation. This work is pioneering and fills a significant gap within Middle East Studies."—Lana Shehadeh, Arab Studies Quarterly "The goal of Atshan's sensitive 'critique of critique' is fostering a 'transforming activism with loving energy' that helps the Palestinian LGBTQ movement start to grow again and reach its full potential. His long-term hope is 'that Israelis and Palestinians, straight and queer, can all live together as equals.' My hope is that all Friends will seek to find ways to help achieve this healing vision."—Steve Chase, Friends Journal "Atshan's work, in describing the empire of critique surrounding the queer Palestinian experience, demonstrates the highly politicised nature of certain rights and their potential to be weaponised in order to subvert the gaze from other issues. Furthermore, through his analysis of the heterogeneity of narratives surrounding this liberation movement, he reminds us that the voices of those that exist at these intersections of oppressions should and must be the loudest."—Iona Cable, Human Rights Pulse "Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique is a much-needed contribution to queer studies, Middle East studies, and scholarship on social movements and a must-read for those who are committed to the difficult politics of solidarity."—Evren Savci, Journal of Middle East Women's Studies "This is a most timely and admirably courageous book that challenges the seeming gap between queer activism and anthropology...Atshan shows that anthropology has the potential to support local activist struggles against homophobia and imperialism by rigorously engaging with, rather than dismissing, the experiences and views of these activists—their simultaneous engagement with multiple axes of oppression."—2021 Ruth Benedict Book Prize Committee, Association for Queer Anthropology "Atshan makes a major contribution to the study of social movements generally and the queer Palestinian movement specifically. Atshan conceptually explores resistance and identity in the context of Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He offers an empirically rich and compelling account, where readers are let into the everyday life of the global queer Palestinian solidarity movement."—Sara Salman, Contemporary Sociology "The nature of life under colonisation and occupation, in Atshan's view, means that no one, not even 'the most radical activists and academics', can lay claim to the moral high ground. Everyone is implicated in some way. It's better to edge forward in modest ways."—Tareq Baconi, London Review of Books "[Atshan's] work fills gaps and addresses the silences and deliberate erasures in Palestine studies, Middle East studies, Middle East anthropology, queer theories, and peace and conflict studies, showing how 'queer liberation cannot be realized while colonial subjugation persists,' because these struggles are 'inextricably linked' (p. 222). Scholars and students engaged in Israel/Palestine and settler colonial struggles will benefit from this auto/ethnographic text of subjectivities on the ground."—Bernardita M. Yunis (Varas), International Journal of Communication "Atshan's work is candid, self-critical, and unexpectedly inspiring."—Lisa Anderson, Foreign Affairs "[Atshan's] 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... 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.'"—Abe Silberstein, The Tel Aviv Review of Books

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