Mr. Brenner’s recent letter in response to my opinion piece two weeks ago touches on a number of issues dealing with campus activism, the hazards of what he calls “post-colonial political correctness,” the “intensive international campaign to demonize (Israel’s) people,” and what he implies is poor behavior on the part of some in the Vassar community. I will follow Mr. Brenner’s lead in organizing this response around his seven “comments.”
Brenner’s first (and seventh) point criticizes of my use of Rifa’at Rafi al-Tahtawi’s well-known discussion about Paris in the 19th century. I used it not to condone or deflect from human rights abuses in Middle-Eastern countries, but rather to illustrate how there was nothing eternal, nor specifically “Arab” or “Muslim” about the terrible situation facing many LGBTQ individuals in the countries Stephens’s singled out for criticism. I saw it as relevant because, for a number of reasons, criticizing other Middle-Eastern regimes seems to stand in as a defense of Israeli policies. For example, Stephens did not mention that terrible situations for LGBTQ individuals also exist in Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, Honduras, Jamaica and elsewhere, because this would not serve the same rhetorical purpose.
Of course, this is no reason to ignore official or unofficial persecution in the Muslim Middle East. The real problem is that Stephens did not come to Vassar to speak as an ally of persecuted Arab or Muslim LGBTQ people. He is not a scholar, activist or journalist seriously engaged with issues facing Palestinian or Egyptian or Iranian LGBTQ people, nor did he try to broaden our understanding of the form or extent of persecution in one or several of these Middle-Eastern countries. As far as we know, he is not working with, say, Palestinian LGBTQ (or any other progressive) groups or individuals, here or in Palestine. Although Stephens uses Arab persecution of LGBTQ people to champion Israel and condemn BDS, he did not claim that many Palestinian LGBTQ individuals actually oppose BDS. This is because he is not working in solidarity with Muslim or Arab LGBTQ people, but rather as a conservative American journalist using the very real marginalization and violence experienced by LGBTQ individuals in Middle-Eastern countries as a way to condemn BDS activism and support the regime in Israel. This is problematic.
Brenner’s second comment criticizes singling out of Israel when other countries act far worse.
Frankly, I agree—some countries are acting worse than Israel. Syria, with Russia’s help, is currently bombing hospitals and is massacring men, women and children by the thousands. Saudi Arabia just slaughtered over 100 attendees of a funeral in Yemen. This being said, the United States did not just agree to give Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin 38 billion dollars in military aid over the next decade. Even American aid for Saudi Arabia, which similarly deserves criticism, does not come close to this. Much of the “singling out” of Israel is done not by its critics, but by its so-called friends. Politicians frequently remind us of America’s “special relationship” with Israel. Indeed, it bears repeating that this letter is a follow-up to an event entitled “Why I Support Israel, and Why You Should, Too.” It should not be surprising that responses to such an event remain on-topic and “single out” Israel. I don’t predict Vassar will soon host an event entitled “Why I Support the Syrian regime, and Why You Should, Too.”
Brenner’s third point is largely a critique of The Miscellany News’ coverage of the event, but also a condemnation of those who do not embrace “dialogue” and a “two-state solution.” Dialogue is great (I am currently participating in one) and if a truly just, widely agreed-upon, two-state situation is ever reached, I will join the celebrations. But dialogue is not an end in itself, and to arrive at a just two-state (or one-state, or any other) solution, a great deal of nonviolent activism is probably necessary.
Brenner’s fourth comment is really aimed at SJP chapters “across the country,” some of which have shouted down speakers and stormed stages. As for Vassar’s SJP “preemptively” accusing Stephens of espousing racist views, I am not entirely sure it was pre-emptive: his past columns have discussed “the disease of the Arab mind” and fret about Western Civilization’s slow death in the face of petulant Muslim leaders and waves of non-European immigrants. Vassar students can hardly be accused of jumping recklessly to conclusions.
The fifth comment accuses me personally of not engaging Stephens or speaking at the event. Mea culpa. I had no questions at the time (his talk covered material that was reasonably familiar to me), and the moderator asked us to limit our responses to questions.
Brenner characterizes the student-organized “talk-back” to which he was not invited as a “whine-fest” uniquely for BDS supporters. Actually, it was open to all students and faculty. Indeed, a number of questions came from people I would guess were not supporters of the organizers of the event. Some really good questions came from a decidedly anti-BDS perspective. In this openness, it was similar to past JVP/SJP as well as J-Street U events I have participated in recently. Alumni, it is true, were not invited, but students organizing meetings or events aimed at other students is hardly unusual.
The sixth point criticizes the Palestinian authority, which certainly deserves criticism. But it also assumes the PA functions as a sovereign state and thus Palestine’s laws are easily comparable to the laws of Israel. This is not true, as the occupation has not ended. I would also question the implication that Israel’s LGBTQ protections are as available to Palestinians as they are to Israeli Jews. This is not true either. Gay Palestinians cannot easily migrate to Israel and enjoy equal rights or protection. But even if they could, there would still be a good argument to be made for pressing Israel to extend such rights to the several million Palestinians who are not gay.
In his seventh comment, Brenner is absolutely right in noting that many LGBTQ individuals in the Muslim Middle East often live with “fear and repression.” He would be right if he extended this point further, and insisted that things have actually been going in the wrong direction in some countries. I also agree that both Jews and Israelis are often subject to the same sort of reductive demonization that is directed at Arabs and/or Muslims (sometimes by the same people). But support for the dignity and basic rights of all, be they LGBTQ individuals, Jews, Israelis, Arabs, Muslims or some combination thereof, should be universal.
The suffering of LGBTQ people in, say, Egypt, should not be used to condemn Egypt as a whole, but rather certain practices and policies, and fueling such calls must be a belief in the humanity and dignity of Egyptians themselves. Criticism of Israeli policies ought to be just that—and not a denunciation of Israelis as an undifferentiated group. Most relevant to this discussion, the horrors recently experienced by LGBTQ people in the Middle East should not be used to mask the horrors of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.