The Pulitzer prize-winning Wall Street Journal journalist Bret Stephens, in his public interview at Vassar College on September 20th, argued that we should “support Israel” because, among other things, “Israel is the only country in the Middle East that respects (gay and women’s) rights.” As a result, he said, Israel was the best place in the region to be gay. To “support Israel,” we gathered from his response to student questions, meant, among other things, rejecting the activism of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.
This is a cynical argument that demonstrates disregard for Palestinians, LGBTQ individuals, and especially those who fall into both groups. Yes, LGBTQ Israeli Jews are in a better place than they were a generation ago, and their efforts to secure acceptance and equal protection should be celebrated. But Israel has not expanded this protection to LGBTQ Palestinians. In fact, in their efforts to crush resistance to the occupation, Israeli security forces collect information on gay Palestinians, whom they threaten to “out” if they refuse to collaborate with them. Surely Stephens would agree this is not an example of “respect(ing) gay rights.”
If we took Stephens at his word, and assumed he was concerned about all LGBTQ individuals in the region (and not just Israeli ones), his argument would imply occupied Palestinians would gladly put up with land seizures, mass arrests, imprisonment, torture, mutilations, and killings… if only Palestinians were all gay. This is absurd. We must recall that Israel expelled 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 (and continues to refuse to readmit these refugees or their descendants), regardless of their sexual or gender identity.
What if we trained Stephens’ logic on our own country? Are the demonstrations, boycotts, and other forms of activism mobilized against racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration unfair to the US because the US respects women’s and LGBTQ rights? Would Stephens dismiss protests following the police killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, and so many more with a comment like “hey, don’t those people appreciate gay marriage?” I hope not.
Furthermore, Stephens’ consistent comparison of the status of LGBTQ Israeli Jews to that of LGBTQ individuals living elsewhere in the Middle East is deeply flawed. Of course, LGBTQ people in many places face real problems. After a period of increasing acceptance during the revolution, for example, the US-backed al-Sisi regime in Egypt has raided many of Cairo’s gay clubs, broken up parties, traced people on hook-up apps such as Grindr, and arrested hundreds. But it is nothing short of racist to build an argument that assumes this intolerance has always been, or always will be, the rule in Egypt.
The great Islamic modernist thinker Rifa’a Rafi al-Tahtawi provides an example of how attitudes change. Writing after a visit to Paris in the 1820s, Tahtawi praised the French for their intolerance of homosexuality. He implored his fellow Egyptians to embrace the French example by condemning such behaviors, and hoped Egyptian men would start speaking more of women in their erotic poetry. In France, he gushed, “one doesn’t even hear conversations about this subject.”
Times have clearly changed. Attitudes toward sexualities are not immutable cultural attributes, but rather rooted in specific historical circumstances.
I urge fellow members of the Vassar community to reject Stephens’ exploitation of genuine concern for LGBTQ rights to attack SJP or JVP and defend Israel’s racist policies. His argument is a cynical effort to link support for LGBTQ rights to support for an oppressive and racist regime. It is disingenuous and harmful to Palestinians, LGBTQ individuals, or anyone hoping for true equality.