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HaMisrad - Khoury is on far left

The hit TV show The Office, is a franchise.  It originated in the U.K., then came over here to the U.S., then set up a beachhead in France, Germany, Canada (Quebec), Chile, and is now getting its own treatment in Israel, HaMisrad.  The Israeli version has been getting ample media and web attention for it’s gay character Abed (Jamil Khoury), an Israeli Arab.  Just imagine the wacky office high jinks that will ensue when Abed is caught by one of his co-workers kissing his boyfriend at the office.

Regular ol’ The Office-like hilarity is only one reason why Abed is part of the plot line.   The writers of the show have another, more serious, aim in including a gay Arab Israeli in the show: breaking down stereotypes.  He’s in the show not to raise the issue of how Israeli Arabs are treated as a minority in Israel, as you might suspect, (the show also has a character in a wheelchair, a zionist settler, a Russian and an Ethiopian immigrant), but rather for the purpose of “breaking down homophobia in the Arab world,” Khoury told CNN in an interview.  The Abed character is a plot device meant to play on common Israeli conceptions about how gay people are treated in Arab countries, not to illustrate something about how Arabs/Palestinians are treated by Israel.

It seems a curious coincidence that gay Arab Israeli Abed is appearing on Israeli TV just as the Israeli state is in the midst of its Brand Israel campaign.  The public relations initiative is designed to repair Israel’s negative reputation as an abridger of the rights of Palestinians by focusing attention on how well it treats gay men and lesbians, particularly when compared with its Arab and Muslim neighbors.  I’ve blogged about this recently, so won’t repeat the whole argument here.

Jamil Khoury, who plays Abed and whom I believe is not gay, told CNN in the recent interview that “People say shame on you, how can you do this?  Just for acting it.  It’s not so common.  I know there are a lot of Arab gays here but nobody knows about them; they stay closed.”

There’s so much wrong with this statement.

To make clear what has gone wrong here, I urge all readers to take a moment and read the current issue (16:4) of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies which has several articles addressing “Queer Politics and the Question of Palestine/Israel.”  For present purposes I would recommend reading Jason Richie’s How Do You Say “Come Out Of The Closet” In Arabic? Queer Activism and the Politics of Visibility in Israel-Palestine, and Gil Hochberg’s No Pride In Occupation: A Roundtable Discussion between three gay/lesbian/queer Palestinian activists who work for Al-Qaws (Rainbow), an independent Palestinian LGBTQ organization in Jerusalem that works in both Israel and the West Bank, and Aswat (Voices), an LBTQI organization for Palestinian women in Israel and the occupied territories.  Here are a few of the insights from these articles that help illuminate why Khoury’s comments to CNN were so problemmatic and why we ought to do something other than rejoice about the HaMisrad’s gay character:

– It’s just wrong to say that “no one knows about” Arab gays – as the roundtable participants make clear, there is an active political and social community of gays/lesbians and queers in Israel and Palestine.  The fact that Khoury doesn’t know about them doesn’t mean they don’t exist, indeed, comments like his have the effect of re-closeting them.

– Israel has some responsibility for the “Arab Closet”: That Palestinian gays and lesbians are closeted, or less visible than Jewish members of the lgbt community in Israel, (of course there are gay and lesbian people in the closet in every country), may have as much to do with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as it does with “Arab homophobia.”  State-run checkpoints make travel for all Arab Israeli’s both difficult and violent, and surely discourage non-Jewish lgbt Israelis from traveling to bars, meetings, and gatherings at lgbt community events where they could be as visible as their Jewish compatriots.  What is more, the gay community has its own form of checkpoint: bouncers at the door of many gay bars, even in tolerant Tel Aviv, hassle or refuse entrance to men and women whom they perceive to be Palestinian or Arab (Richie’s article discusses this issue).

– Homophobia is a symptom of Israeli/Palestinian politics: Occupation, discrimination, violence, and economic hardship have had much to do with the movement of Palestinian culture “backwards” “toward conservative, religious, and paranoid ways of being.”

– The oppression of Palestine has made it more tribal: Rima, who works for Aswat, a Palestinian lesbian organization, notes: “Palestinians are an indigenous minority in Israel. [We] have suffered and are still suffering from traumas of land expropriation, house demolition, occupation, discrimination, and threats of citizenship dismissal. For these reasons and others, the Palestinian society is very zealous about its traditions and culture. The majority of the society rejects behaviors and changes that “threaten” its culture.”

– Agenda Setting: The urgency of the occupation has made otherwise progressive Palestinians feel that they need to address it first before they can take on other struggles, such as the fight for women’s or lgbt rights.  Similarly, some lgbt Palestinians feel that their oppression as Palestinians is more pressing, or simply more oppressive, than their experience of homophobia.  Thus, their primary identification, as an oppressed minority, is with their Palestinian identity.

There’s much more to say on this, but suffice it for now to note that a gay, Arab, Israeli character on the Israeli version of The Office, written into the script for the explicit purpose of addressing Arab homophobia, is not necessarily something for which we ought to fly the rainbow flag in celebration.  It is, like much else in Israel/Palestine, inextricably tied to and complicated by the politics and violence of the region.

7 comments

  1. […] in Israel and Palestine. The fact that Khoury doesn’t … Originally posted here: Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Let's Pause Before We … Share and […]

  2. No doubt that Israel’s policies towards Palestinians in the occupied territories are harmful.
    Please try to understand that that does *not* mean that there are no problems within Palestinian society when it comes to Homosexuality (and treatment of women, for that matter). I find it disturbing – and a very weak argument – that you seem to imply that there is no room for criticism of Palestinian treatment of Homosexuals, because of the Israeli checkpoints, etc. (Incidentally far as Israeli-Palestinians are concerned, the whole point about the checkpoints is completely irrelevant. )
    The apologies and defense of Ahmedinijhad’s ridiculous statement re the non-existance of Homosexuality in Iran are no better.
    Two wrongs do not make a right. Israel’s wrongs do not in any way legitimate the persecution of Palestinian gay people *within* Palestine and Palestinian society, and particularly in Gaza, where Hamas is in power. It is also a fact that there is a growing number of gay Palestinians who seek asylum in Israel. *The fact that Israel uses this for propaganda purposes does not mean that the persecution is somehow not real!*
    I completely agree with the point about Israel using the gay issue for branding purposes, and at the same time completely reject the cultural relativist view that persecution of gay people in some societies should be tolerated. It should not be tolerated any more than FGM in Africa (which I guess some people think should be tolerated as well).
    The question is not whether the dichotomy between hetero and homo is a western construction, but whether an individual who *does* have a distinct sexual orientation should be persecuted or discriminated or not. My view is that they shouldn’t.

  3. This post is a bit imprecise. First of all, there is absolutely no checkpoint that prevents Arab citizens of Israel to be “seen” anywhere. Moreover, Jamil Khoury is himself Arab, so I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss his point of view regarding his own society.
    To more substantive issues: the claim that somehow Palestinian society has become more “tribal” on counts of the occupation is not much more than an apologetic assumption. Palestinian society is not more tribal than any other society in the Arab world, with the occupation or without. Even if it would have been especially “tribal” (which it is not), an equally valid argument would be that it is becoming so due the conflict with modernity in Israel – part of it being gay rights – than of occupation. And last, regarding religious fundamentalism: this is a worldwide trend, and cannot be looked upon out of context. It is not happening only in the OPT. It is happening everywhere, and not only in Islam (tea party, anyone?)
    Other than that, I completely agree with Eran’s comments.

  4. What checkpoints are you talking about? Have you ever been to Israel? Israeli Arabs can move freely and go to whatever gay clubs they want.

  5. It’s so interesting that the issue of checkpoints w/in Israel has garnered the most push-back to this post. Just as “the closet” isn’t a “real” place, its disciplinary power constitutes the terrain on which gay and lesbian identity and “freedom” have been worked out in the West, so too “the checkpoint” is not necessarily a “real” place Israel-Palestine. Jason Ritchie’s piece in GLQ develops a very interesting notion that for Palestinian gays and lesbians we ought to think about substituting the “checkpoint” for the “closet.” He writes: “While the dream of ‘coming out of the closet’ into full citizenship and national belonging drives the activism of many queer Israelis, the violence of the checkpoint — and countless other reminders of the impossibility of belonging (not to mention ‘citizenship’) — shapes the strategies of queer Palestinian activists.”

    He continues: “I read the checkpoint, then, not just as a literal site on the border where agents of the state ‘inspect … what goes in and out’ of the nation but simply as a ubiquitous subjective process where citizens and noncitizens alike check themselves — and others — against ‘the field of signs and practices’ in which the nation-state is represented.”

    Richie develops the argument fully in “Queer Activism and the Politics of Visibility in Israel-Palestine” in the most recent issue of GLQ. It’s worth a read.

  6. Let’s Pause Before We Celebrate The Gay Character On Israel’s Version of “The Office” http://bit.ly/c33LcX

  7. Thanks for the info

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