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Beef in Berlin’s Queer Party Scene Is Solidarity with Israel Homonationalism?

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Pride in Tel Aviv: The largest queer demonstration in the Middle East
Pride in Tel Aviv: The largest queer demonstration in the Middle East (Quelle: picture alliance/Zumapress/Joel Goodman)

This article was originally published in German.

Some 3000 kilometres away from the Gaza Strip in the queer techno bubble of Berlin, a series of sharepics on social media is leading to fights, insults and hostility. It’s about the Middle East conflict, again. The queer international party series Buttons, which had been hosted at the left-wing club ://about blank for five years and whose organisers and DJs have been working with the venue for over a decade, wants to break up. Because of Israel. This isn’t just a one off, but rather the latest incident in a long series of positionings, polarisation and polemics around the Middle East conflict that is dividing the queer scene.

In a statement over ten images published on Instagram and Facebook June 22, the Buttons organisers announced that they had noticed a thing or two during the pandemic-induced dance break. Without the fever of the night, it had for example become clear that ://about blank doesn’t in fact oppose a Jewish state in the Middle East. Which was never a secret. Instead, the club has consistently taken a stance against all forms of antisemitism – including Israel-related antisemitism, which became painfully visible during the latest flare-up of the Middle East conflict in May 2021 through demo slogans calling for Israel’s destruction and attacks on synagogues. That was apparently a step too far for the Buttons crew. Other queer party collectives like Cocktail d’Amore were quick to applaud the decision.

“Queer liberation is fundamentally tied to the dreams of Palestinian liberation: self-determination, dignity, and the end of all systems of oppression”, the Buttons collective writes. An odd claim, considering the suboptimal situation of women and queer people in the Palestinian territories, not only in Gaza under the radical Islamists of Hamas, but also in the West Bank. Do Palestinians also dream of queer emancipation, of systematic equal rights for women? Of course some do – but this is likely to be a controversial, at times even life-threatening minority position.

It becomes apparent that Buttons sees the struggle for Palestinian self-determination through the lens of the post-colonial discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement: “White Germans” run a techno club, they claim, that supposedly supports an “apartheid state” and silences Arabs and people of colour in the process. What’s more, they accuse “anti-German” (antideutsch) spaces like ://about blank of being partly responsible for racist attacks against people of colour who speak out against Israel. Or even for antisemitic attacks against progressive, left-wing Jews whom they allegedly wish to silence. These are serious accusations for which Buttons provides no evidence. The fact that ://about blank has repeatedly emphasised that a techno club is not the right place to solve the Middle East conflict is ignored. The crew also fails to recognise that after thousands of years of persecution, pogroms and extermination, Israel is nothing less than a last life-insurance policy for many Jews worldwide. But in the battle of timelines and news feeds, nuance is drowned out by loud opinions on sharepics.

Party for Palestine

Button’s newly discovered solidarity with Palestine isn’t an isolated phenomenon: In 2018, ://about blank ended its cooperation with the queer-feminist party series Room 4 Resistance – also because of Israel. Room 4 Resistance insisted taking a stance on the the Middle East conflict, despite ://about blank’s clearly communicated position of not wanting to negotiate the explosive topic on the dance floor. Room 4 Resistance supported the BDS campaign #DJsForPalestine and called for a boycott of Israel. A no-go for the ://about blank team – because when criticism of Israel delegitimises the Jewish state, demonises it and applies double standards, as the BDS campaign does, it is antisemitic.

On the same day the Button’s statement was published, a new campaign against Israel was launched in the German party metropolis: “Berlin Nightlife Workers Against Apartheid”. The group wants to “to break the suffocating silence that looms over our city’s cultural scene”. In an open letter, they drop buzzwords like “ethnic cleansing”, “colonial campaign” and “racial supremacy” in reference to the Jewish state. A central point is German Guilt: Germans only show solidarity with Israel because of their “genocidal grandparents” and “weaponize” the Shoah in order to control the discourse around Palestine and censor pro-Palestinian voices and even “Jewish dissent”. The campaign calls on club workers to sign an open letter “against apartheid”. So far, 399 people have signed the petition – including “Ayatollah Khomeini” from Tehran, “Bernd Höcke” from the AfD and even a certain “Joseph Goebels”, to list just a few of the many dubious signatures.

From Buttons to Room 4 Resistance to the “Berlin Nightlife Workers Against Apartheid” – it’s striking that a queer milieu that sees itself as alternative and emancipatory takes on the “Palestinian cause” as its own and projects its own struggle onto a complex geopolitical conflict. A scene that otherwise hardly deals with international conflicts. Why is that?

Homonationalism

The narrative that the struggle for LGBTQ* rights and the Palestinian cause are closely intertwined has existed for some time. Again and again, the perceived enemy is Israel.

This idea can be traced back to “homonationalism”, a concept developed by gender researcher Jasbir Puar in 2007. Puar describes a form of double standards, according to which Western states use homophobia as a justification for racism and a hatred of Muslims. By attributing rejection or hostility towards LGBTQ* people to migrants or Muslims, they direct attention away from their own shortcomings. Supposed homophobia in these communities is used as an excuse to limit migration. At the same time, the West claims to be LGBTQ*-friendly, but in reality fails to practice the tolerance and acceptance it preaches. Equality is then constrained within a heteronormative corset, so the argument goes, for example through “marriage for all”, which merely imitates heterosexual concepts and doesn’t represent the plurality of LGBTQ* relationships – thus becoming merely symbolic. Some of the points that arise from this concept are understandable. For example, it is problematic when Muslim migrants in Germany are accused of homophobia while the victims of §175 of the German criminal code, which outlawed homosexuality, were never really compensated and a re-examination of homophobic legislation only took place after many of those who suffered were long dead.

However, the theory quickly overshoots the mark and adopts a bizarre form of instrumentalisation. The attack on the LGBTQ* club Pulse in Orlando in 2016, for instance: The shooting is considered the worst terrorist attack against the LGBTQ* community in the USA and the deadliest attack since September 11. 49 people were murdered and 53 wounded. The perpetrator identified with the so-called “Islamic State”, a fanatical terrorist organisation. To name and describe the severity of the act is racist for advocates of homonationalism, because this ignores the violence that originates or has historically originated in the USA.

“Describing the Pulse shooting as the worst mass shooting obscures state violence, protects the image of the state, and minimizes or erases the oppression of indigenous people and racial minorities”, the queer theorist Gaetano Venezia III writes. Jasbir Puar goes even further and equates “sexual deviance” with terrorism. Both terrorists and the LGBTQ* community are understood by society as “the other”. However, by professing their allegiance to the state and the West, sexual minorities supposedly have a chance of being accepted. The theory of homonationalism makes it impossible to criticise real homophobia among Muslims or in Muslim countries.

From theory to practice

No matter how abstract this concept may seem at first glance, it becomes particularly concrete with regard to Israel. Pinkwashing is the term through which homonationalism has made the jump from the academic ivory tower into the queer bubble. Israel is considered a liberal country and Tel Aviv has a large queer scene. Although same-sex marriages still aren’t possible, marriages from other countries are recognised, and there are also registered civil partnerships. Same-sex couples are allowed to adopt children and LGBTQ* people can serve openly in the army. But it’s not all roses: for example, large parts of the ultra-Orthodox community reject queer people, as do many Arab Israelis.

In 2005 and 2015, the same man, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, attacked the Pride parade in Jerusalem, injuring several people with a knife and killing a 16-year-old. The perpetrator served ten years in prison after the first attack in 2005 and was released three weeks before the Pride parade in 2015. After the murder of the 16-year-old, he was sentenced to 31 years in prison. There are always massive protests against the parade in Jerusalem in particular, which are supported by representatives of all religions in Jerusalem. But despite all this opposition, the country remains the only one in the region where the LGBTQ* community can live practically free of fear and with equal rights.

Critics of Israel, however, consider this precisely this to be pinkwashing. Similar to the ideas of homonationalism, they accuse the Israeli government of trying to distract from the allegedly inhumane treatment of Palestinians by supporting the queer community. The argument that Israel is the only country in the region where LGBTQ* rights exist at all is then turned on its head. According to this line of thinking, Israel only accepts the community in order to be able to point the finger at its neighbours and present itself as a modern, Western state. “The Jews” are apparently capable of anything. This creates the bizarre situation that queer pro-Palestine activists can dismiss the fact that human rights for queer people simply don’t exist in Gaza and the West Bank as whataboutism or even racism.

For many queer party goers from the West, their own biography most likely also plays a role in their solidarity with Palestine: As a defence mechanism in response to their own imperialist history, as a rejection, for example, of a US-American right that stands politically and militarily by Israel’s side. Or simply out of antisemitism. It’s precisely this antisemitism that must be addressed and fought – and that includes in the party scene. But whether a meaningful solution to the Middle East conflict can be found on the dance floors of Berlin remains highly doubtful.

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