World

Why Feminists Should Care About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Rape is a war crime, but a "misunderstanding" on campuses.

Photo Credit: Saharuddin Adnan/Flickr Creative Commons

Dr. Simona Sharoni is a feminist scholar, researcher, and activist who has focused her career on the gendered nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Currently a Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Plattsburgh, Dr. Sharoni champions the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to exert economic and political pressure on Israel as a means of securing change. The goals of the boycott campaign are threefold: to compel Israel to end the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, provide Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel with equal rights, and respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

In her recent academic work, Dr. Sharoni has been exploring the relevancy of the BDS campaign to a praxis of transnational feminist solidarity. She has also been campaigning around the issue of campus sexual assault. Dr. Sharoni is the co-founder of Faculty Against Rape, “a volunteer-run collective and think tank, advocating for an increased role of faculty in the struggle to confront sexual assault on college campuses.” She is a vocal survivor and advocate; as a doctoral student, Dr. Sharoni was assaulted by an older faculty member, who she has described as an established scholar in her field.

A few weeks ago, Dr. Sharoni spoke at an event at Columbia University, co-hosted by both Palestine student activist groups and No Red Tape, the anti-sexual assault group launched in January 2014. No Red Tape’s vocal criticism of Israel and its willingness to collaborate with Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine has been deeply controversial on the school’s campus.

Dr. Sharoni asks questions like, “What do Israeli Apartheid and the campus sexual assault crisis have in common? How can a feminist intersectional analysis help us understand violence at the heart of both cases? How can we use this comparative analysis to advocate for survivors of violence and to demand accountability for perpetrators?”

The Establishment met up with Dr. Sharoni just before her talk at Columbia, to learn more about her recent work and the ever-evolving feminist and anti-Zionist landscape both here and abroad.

***

Aviva Stahl: Let’s start at the beginning. Why is BDS or what’s happening with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a feminist issue?

Dr. Simona Sharoni: Firstly, there is the fact that there is a direct connection between the violence of the occupation and sexual and gender based violence against Palestinian and Israeli Jewish women. The highly militarized conflict has gender dimensions.

For example, during my military service, we started raising the issue of the connection between the violence of the occupation and violence against women, because in Israel, men who serve, even after their mandatory military service, have their weapons in their home until they’re 55. There were many murders of women—intimate partner violence, which they used to call in Israel crimes of passion—that were actually done with weapons provided by the state.

And also, the conflict impacts the perpetrators of violence, in terms of the militarization of masculine identity. So feminists should care because this conflict, like any other conflict, has gender dimensions.

The other issue is because BDS is a movement that emerged in response to a call for solidarity. Palestinian women’s groups were part of that broad civil society group that called for solidarity. And the call came in 2005. So it took a decade for the international community to respond, including feminists. That’s too little too late.

For me, BDS is not an end to itself—it is a means to an end. And the end is to create a just and equal society on this land that is Israel and Palestine. So both by engaging in this discussion and being part of the movement, transnational feminists, feminists in Israel and Palestine, begin to articulate—what would a post-Apartheid Israel-Palestine look like? So we don’t end up with something written on paper, like the South African constitution, but with really unbelievably high rates of sexual violence, and no accountability.

Aviva: Can you talk a little bit about some of the parallels between Israeli Apartheid and the campus sexual assault crisis?

Power

Dr. Sharoni: Power is made invisible in the narration of both the Palestinian-Israel conflict and campus sexual assault. Focus is placed on the relationship, not on the system.

In other words, it’s not a conflict between two parties on an equal playing field, even when it’s a healthy relationship. For example when we talk about what’s happening on college campuses—sexism and rape culture, interfere with [that possibility for equality.]

As for Israelis and Palestinians—the discourse is that there’s a “cycle of violence.” And of course it’s not a cycle of violence. There’s a history of colonization, and a settler-colonial movement—that sowed the seeds for this conflict. So the violence stems from that, it doesn’t stem from, “this side did this to the other side.”  

We have to highlight these structural power inequalities and the way that violence is embedded in them.

Dehumanizing the Victim

There is a real lack of compassion for Palestinian suffering. The compassion that some people have for the history of Jewish suffering is used as a means to not empathize with Palestinian suffering.

Similarly, rape is not viewed as serious crime when committed on college campuses. The lack of compassion is evident in the view that survivors are using “rape” to complain about bad sex.

Victim-blaming

This is the assumption that Palestinians basically bring the violence on themselves. It’s similar to telling the survivor that it’s what she was wearing, that she gave mixed messages.

For example, “they didn’t agree to the partition, they’ve rejected attempts to make peace, they elected for Hamas…” There’s no responsibility and no accountability for the perpetrator of violence, even though that perpetrator is breaking international law.

Now in the case of campus rape, for survivors there is a dominant view fortified by rape culture asserting that “she asked for it.” Rape on the battlefield is a crime against humanity. But the same act on the college campus is viewed as a misunderstanding, a miscommunication.

Disbelieving the Victim

In addition to blaming the victim, Palestinians are not believed, which is the same with survivors. “They’re exaggerating, it’s not that bad, because Israel is a democracy.”

It’s actually very similar to saying, “No, he’s actually a nice guy,” about a man accused of rape.   

Retaliation against victims

There is a tendency to discourage, discredit, and delegitimize activism, especially when it is directed at institutions and calling for accountability. Student activists are threatened with accusations that they violated campus codes of conduct and are often threatened with expulsion. The sanctions taken against Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) activists are even greater. Faculty are discouraged from getting involved as advocates in both movements and when they do they are reprimanded.

Aviva: How would you respond to women or survivors who say that signing onto BDS is divisive, like some did at Columbia?

Dr. Sharoni: The Israeli women’s movement and the mainstream feminist movement in the U.S., for years, has not taken a position on Palestine. It’s been the same thing as what was said at Columbia—“it’s divisive.”

To understand the Palestine-Israel crisis as a “single-issue” movement is an outmoded approach. Would a survivor feel the same way about No Red Tape taking a position against police brutality or racism?

It’s a feminist idea, based on intersectional feminist analysis that views gender oppression as systemic and intertwined with other forms of systemic oppression. Postcolonial feminism addresses specifically feminist critiques of settler colonialism. The problem is that for many liberal Jewish feminists, the idea of treating Zionism as a settler colonial project is new and challenges how they were brought up to view Israel.

If we re-conceptualize the injustice of Palestine, and reframe it by taking an intersectional look at multiple oppressions and multiple struggles, then it makes sense. If you build a movement that moves away from narrow identity politics to coalition politics, you’re going to have people who are not comfortable, because they still have this single issue, one-identity understanding of the struggle.

Aviva: What is the importance of broad-based solidarity movements?

Dr. Sharoni: I think strategically, making the connection between the two struggles [Israeli Apartheid and campus sexual assault] makes sense. We do need to move from this narrowly defined strategies of identity politics—the idea that the group that is most hurt, and most targeted, has the burden of organizing…

I’m hoping that the group from No Red Tape will learn more about Palestine, and that the students from SJP and JVP will learn more about how to support No Red Tape, which has come under a lot of attack at Columbia.

There is an anti-Zionist professor at UCLA, Gabby Piterberg, who’s done a lot of work with SJP. There’s a lawsuit with two of his graduate students accusing him of being a sexual predator. SJP at UCLA just published a public statement saying that he’s not welcome at their events.  

So I think that there is an opportunity to not just make statements, but make it clear that this type of violence is not going to be tolerated, that those movements that are organizing for change, like Palestine on campus, are also committed to thinking strategically and critically about how we organize, so that people that get involved in those movements, don’t find themselves in situations where they feel unsafe—and then have no recourse.

There has always been gender and sexual violence in the movement. And women have had nowhere to go because if you go and report [an assault], then you’re accused of undermining the movement itself.

 

Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about prisons, national security, and immigration detention.
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