- Lesbian novelist, historian, and playwright
- Advisory board member of Jewish Voice for Peace
- Is extremely critical of Israel and the Jewish people
Born in 1958 in New York City, Sarah Miriam Schulman is a novelist, historian and playwright who was active in the Women’s Union during her student days at the University of Chicago from 1976-78. She was also among the early chroniclers of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Though her only academic degree is a B.A. from Empire State College, Schulman currently bears the title of Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the City University of New York, and is a Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. Moreover, she has served on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace since 2011.
Schulman says that she grew up “surrounded by Holocaust survivors” who “yelled at each other for no reason and didn’t know how to be happy.” Her parents, she adds, distrusted and looked down on gentiles, hated homosexuals (they threw Sarah out of their home upon learning that she was a lesbian), and supported Israel reflexively.
Schulman’s reaction to this legacy is mixed: She makes it clear that she considers gentiles, or at least Christians, unintelligent (she uses, without irony, the term goyishe kopf, which literally means “a gentile head”), and that she views all Christian Americans and Christian Europeans as anti-Semites. In fact, Schulman regards herself not as an American but as a New Yorker, and identifies not with Israel and the Hebrew language but with the diaspora and Yiddish. (She approvingly quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel Prize for Literature speech in which he noted that Yiddish has “no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics.”)
Schulman describes the adult Jews of her childhood as uniformly tragic victims and members of a scattered minority. For her, this “was a normative, natural part of being a Jew.” She notes that Israelis, by contrast, have chosen “to be dominant”; to be “a colonial settler state in relation to Palestinians, and a semi-colonized project of the Christian West, the very people who caused the Jews’ suffering to begin with.” Schulman further contends that Israel “does not represent ‘the Jews,’ only some Jews”; that Israelis subscribe to a “supremacy ideology”; and that American Jews, by contrast, “see ourselves as separate from our state, as diasporic.” This is why Schulman likes living in New York City, where “[y]ou can be culturally normative without keeping other people down and still be a healthy remove from identifying with the army, the cops, or thinking you can win the presidency.” In short: “I am still emotionally diasporic, and they [Israelis] are emotionally nationalistic.”
This “emotionally diasporic” feeling—this sense of alienation from her own country—was at the root of the radical-left politics that Schulman and other queer activists pursued in the 1980s and 90s. Their goal was not to win a place for gays at the proverbial American table, but to anathematize America (and capitalism) while clinging to marginality.
The “emotionally diasporic” feeling is also the key to explaining why Schulman identifies not with Israelis, whom she views as gun-toting bullies, but with Palestinians, whom she perceives, romantically, as innocent, displaced victims. Not that this sense of identification came easily: She reports that she struggled to overcome a “visceral Jewish identification” with Israel, and to liberate herself from the “racism” that made her at first uneasy about supporting Palestinian leaders.
On November 22, 2011, Schulman penned a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing,’” which condemned “anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political forces in Western Europe and Israel” for their “depictions of immigrants” as “homophobic fanatics” who “opportunistically ignore the existence of Muslim gays and their allies within their communities.” In so writing, Schulman herself ignored the fact that gay Muslims in Western Europe tend to live in terror of being found out by their families and communities; that their very lives are at risk; and that so dire is their plight, that until recently there was not a single “out” gay Muslim in all of Norway.
To depict Muslims as anti-gay, Schulman maintains, is to “render invisible the role that fundamentalist Christians, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews play in perpetuating fear and even hatred of gays.” But Schulman’s assertion ignores the fact that unlike Christianity and Judaism, Sharia law clearly prescribes the death penalty for homosexuality—a punishment that has been carried out innumerable times by the governments of several Islamic countries as well as by countless Muslim families both in the Muslim world and in the West.
Schulman derides Israel’s practice of actively marketing itself as a gay-friendly society and vacation destination. Such “pinkwashing,” she says, is a duplicitous tactic designed to conceal the Jewish state’s allegedly egregious and widespread “violations of Palestinians’ human rights.” Further, Schulman implies that “gay life” in Palestinian society is not substantively any worse than in Israel. “Homosexuality,” she writes, “has been decriminalized in the West Bank since the 1950s, when anti-sodomy laws imposed under British colonial influence were removed from the Jordanian penal code, which Palestinians follow.”
In 2012 Schulman published Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, a book celebrating the author’s own efforts, in collaboration with a group of “queer” Palestinians, to promote an economic boycott of Israel. In this book, Schulman rationalizes her decision to march alongside members of Hamas in a protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza: “I have marched in the same gay pride parade with gay Republicans for decades,” she writes. Similarly, apropos of a Palestinian leader’s dim view of gays, Schulman reflects: “He couldn’t be worse than a U.S. theater producer who refuses to do a lesbian play or a U.S. publisher who refuses to publish lesbian novels.”
Also in her 2012 book, Schulman disparages Christians who are “so ‘concerned’ about the Muslims and how they don’t assimilate,” and who complain “about women wearing the veil.” Dismissing their concerns as “crap,” she resents “Christians who want me to bond with them around some unexamined assumption that their own culture is neutral and that Muslims are threatening.” “I am threatened by Christians,” Schulman declares, “so I will never feel this way.”
In Schulman’s worldview, the U.S. and Israel are not beacons of democracy but rogue states of the first order: “As an American I have insight into the Israeli conundrum, as I have spent my life as a citizen of a country that consistently violates international law, defies standards of human rights, and financially supports oppressive regimes (including Israel) while regularly killing civilians in different places on earth without justification or reason…. If anyone should have practice understanding what it is like to be an Israeli, it would be an American.”
By contrast, Schulman turns a blind eye to the appalling human-rights records of Islamic regimes around the globe. When asked to comment about honor killings and the abuse of women in Muslim societies, she replies that “right now, that is not my job.”
Schulman has gained a measure of renown for condemning “homonationalism,” a term she coined to describe the mindset of Western gays who—after winning widespread social acceptance and legal rights—begin to identify with “the racial and religious hegemony of their countries” and eventually “construct the ‘other,’ often Muslims of Arab, South Asian, Turkish, or African origin, as ‘homophobic’ and fanatically heterosexual,” instead of identifying with them as fellow oppressed minorities.
To be sure, Schulman views herself as a member of an oppressed minority group. For example, when a publisher failed to reply promptly to one of her manuscript submissions, she complained that she had “experienced this kind of harassment all of my adult life for being out as a lesbian in my work and for articulating critiques of power.” “I had been censored, blacklisted, fired, demeaned, marginalized, and shunned,” Schulman added. “That’s the price we pay for asking for structural change of power.” Schulman contrasts her own situation to the “entrenched … entitlement and privilege” that she believes is enjoyed by all “American or European straight Christians.”
Over the course of her adult life, Schulman has been involved in numerous social-change movements, including the Committee For Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (from 1979-82); the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, now called MIX (which Schulman and filmmaker Jim Hubbard founded in 1987); ACT UP (where Schulman was a member from 1987-92); the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power; the Lesbian Avengers (which Schulman co-founded in 1992); and the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization.
Moreover, Schulman has won two American Library Association Book Awards (for fiction and nonfiction writing), a Fullbright Award (for Judaic Studies), a Guggenheim Award (for playwrighting), a Kessler Prize (for Sustained Contribution to LGBT Studies), and a Stonewall Award for Contributions Improving the Lives of Lesbians and Gays in the United States. She also has published ten novels, five nonfiction books, and two plays.
Portions of this profile are excerpted and adapted from “Sarah Schulman, Palestinian Activist,” by Bruce Bawer and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on October 17, 2012, and “The Self-Destructive Insanity of Pro-Palestinian Gay Activists,” by Bruce Bawer and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on November 25, 2011.