Thursday, November 4, 2010

‘Nationalism and Homophobia go together’: A struggle for Human Rights in Israel and Palestine (A Film Review of Citizen Nawi)

Citizen Nawi, directed by Nissim Mossek, is a documentary film released in 2007 that outlines the struggle to end apartheid in Israel and Palestine, centered around the life of an Israeli Human Rights and anti-apartheid activist, Ezra Nawi. Not only are Ezra’s anti-zionist politics reason for the scrutiny of his Israeli peers, but also his homosexuality, and furthermore his homosexual relationships with Palestinian men. This paper will consist of a film review of the documentary Citizen Nawi; first remarking on the current homophobia in Israel, experienced by Ezra, secondly attempting to summarize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and then outline the current socio-political reality of Israel and Palestine, thirdly discussing Ezra’s homosexuality, anti-zionism, and the intersection of his political and personal sphere through his relationships with Palestinian men, and lastly, conclude by discussing the power of this film as an independent portrayal of the white homosexual man.

As with many religions, Judaism (the religion of Israel), is divided regarding it’s stance on homosexuality. However, the prevalent view among the varying denominations holds that homosexuality is sinful and that sexual acts between people of the same sex, is forbidden by the Torah. This division speaks true not only in Israeli society but down to their National Policy, which, since June 2009, recognizes same-sex marriages, only as a “state-recognized non-religious marriage”. When to be an Israeli, is to be Jewish, this exclusion from religious marriage is an exclusion from one’s society; most other citizen’s having non-religious marriages granted are non-nationals. Furthermore, “Queer uses of time and space develop in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality and reproduction and queer subcultures develop as alternatives to kinship-based notions of community”. As such, LGBT sexual identity can be seen as ‘anti-Israel’, and thus can be seen as a threat to Israel and it’s people’s hopeful ‘victory’.

Israeli homophobia is documented in Citizen Nawi, as Ezra is ridiculed and threatened by his fellow Jews. Specifically, the Israeli Gay-Pride parade depicted in Citizen Nawi, is portrayed as a form of protest and resistance, rather than a celebration of the LGBT community; many Israeli’s came out to protest instead of support. Yet, Ezra embodies the spirit of the gay pride parade in his every day life and fight for human rights and racial equality. As a result of Ezra’s ‘radical’ political thought, sexuality and inter-racial partnerships, he has become a police target. In reality, Ezra is an ‘at-risk’ target of the prevalent homophobic culture in Israel; a culture given international attention this past August (2009), when an Israeli gunman killed two Israelis, wounding ten others, at a gay support center in Tel Aviv

The Israeli-Palestinian apartheid is a religious centered battle, both claiming religious right to the holy land of Jerusalem. The use of the word apartheid, is controversially used to describe the situation in Israel and Palestine. However, as the word apartheid means separation, specifically racial segregation through public policy, I believe this word exemplifies the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. As Israel celebrated it’s creation and birth of a national identity in 1948, Palestine mourned it’s demise, as thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, suffering the Nakba (the catastrophe). Ezra and director Mossek show the extensive boarder checks and security measures to keep Palestinians out. Ezra states that “the root of the problem is racism”5, they justify it through religion and nationalism. In 2003, Israel even began the construction of a wall6 to act as a type a barrier along the West Bank dividing the occupied territories (Palestine) and Israel. The wall is also being built within the occupied territories diving the jewish settlements from Palestinian land.

These barriers and protection methods have been put in place as a form of protection from terrorism against the state of Israel, specifically from Hamas. Hamas is an Islamic Palestinian socio-political organization, with a Parliamentary sector that is currently the majority elected government of Palestine. Hamas are classified as a terrorist organization by countries such as Canada and the United States8, with their conception, a retaliation against the Israeli rule in Palestinian territories; It seems obvious that Israel should feel a need to protect itself. Cristina Gallach, the spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, said: “Hamas leaders know that if they reverse their position, renounce violence and enter the political process, they can come off the list.”. However, can we call this position justified when Israel has committed notable acts of ‘terrorism’ in the name of protectionism? A notable media case is that of Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian doctor who has worked for years at an Israeli Hospital in Gaza. While being interviewed live on Israel’s Channel 10 news network about the situation in Gaza, three of his daughters, of his eight children, were killed by an Israeli bomb that hit their home that evening, intended for an alleged sniper seen on the building. Although our history books teach us our side, our bias, in reality, a battle can only occur when it’s ‘justified’ on both sides.

Without a final conclusion to the Palestinian Israeli conflict, it is difficult not to question Ezra’s actions. However, at the base of this fight, lies human rights. The lives of thousands of Palestinians have been irreparably changed, and today, as a population of refugees, they struggle to maintain a livelihood.

Ezra and Mossek draw attention to Israel’s current participation and perpetuation of this societal dichotomy. By capturing the humanity and the cross-cultural commonalities such as children, life, family, surviving, and love, the documentary creates a feeling of senselessness in the audience, regarding the continual suffering. As the old saying goes, ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’. Since Israel holds more political, militaristic and economic power than Palestine, Ezra and Mossek are demanding for the state of Israel to take responsibility.

Ezra reminisces about his adolescence, longing to be part of the youth today, wishing he could have been an active conscientious objector (an Israeli that refuses mandatory conscription based on personal pacifist morality. “Selective refusal” on the other hand is punishable by law). Popular academic discourse discusses the transition of youth from victims to apt abdicators, because from ‘queer experience’ one is more likely to have a holistic view of an argument; as such, “when youth claim multiple subject positions, they are better able to identify, name and work against oppression.” as a result of Queer subcultures producing alternative temporalities, “ by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of the conventional forward-moving narrative of birth, marriage, reproduction and death”. It is no doubt, given Ezra’s current ‘radical’ actions and ‘subculture’ lifestyle, that he sees this ‘greener pasture’ in youth activism; “Precisely because many queers refuse and resist the heteronormative imperative of home and family, they also prolong the periods of their life devoted to subcultural participation.”

The documentary encapsulates the intersection of two marginalized communities in Israel, the Palestinian and homosexual, and aligns them through Ezra. As such this film brings into question the ‘gay international’ (or ‘global gay’ defined in Things which aren’t to be Given Names by Shana L. Calixte); the ‘gay international’, a term used to describe the hegemonic and neo-colonial international gay-rights (and human-rights) movement being forced upon the non-western world, specifically the Middle East. While Ezra is not western, European Jews formed the state of Israel, and the Israeli government has a strong political alliance with the United States; there is no doubting the western influence on Israeli society. Like the gay international seeks to “liberate Arab and Muslin ‘gays and lesbians’ from the oppression under which they allegedly live by transforming them from practitioners of same-sex contact into subjects who identify as homosexual and gay”, Ezra can be said to seek to liberate the Palestinian community in more ways than one.

Although the documentary is a short glimpse into the life of Ezra Nawi, he may maintain non-Palestinian gay-male friends, he only had relationships with Palestinian ones; there is a major intersection of his political and personal spheres. However, Western notions of sexuality do not resonate for Middle Eastern peoples because of inherent societal differences. “In the Muslim world male-male sexuality plays an important role. But in these societies there are no ‘homosexuals’ -- there is no word for homosexuality -- the concept is completely unfamiliar. There are no heterosexuals either.”

As Ezra judges his ex-partner, Fuad Mussa, saying ‘I pity him’, one can see this as a lack of understanding; Fuad left Ezra to return to Palestine and marry a woman. He cannot recognize the importance of his partner’s acceptance by his own Palestinian community and it outweighed his love for Ezra. “Those adult men who do not fit readily into prevailing notions of true manhood... are often looked down upon and despised”, referring to lifestyles of homosexuality. However, in this situation one must recognize the deep emotional upset that Ezra was experiencing at the time the comment was made. Ezra’s pride and commitment to what he believes, including being homosexual, is a huge part of Ezra’s character but is not necessarily the nature of his ex-partner.

With such inherent cultural differences, why does Ezra continue to pursue relationships with Palestinian men? “Sexual relations in Middle Eastern societies have historically articulated social hierarchies, that is, dominant and subordinate social positions: adult men on top; women, boys and slaves below” . However, it seems as those Ezra is portrayed in a more dominant, masculine role as the savior and protector of his submissive lovers. With the dominant presence of the Israeli state in the lives of Palestinians, another level exists in the hierarchy chain above the Arab man: the Israeli people; One could even question how he attracts such young and handsome partners.

As such, while this movie differs on many levels via race, culture, and even substance, Black Looks (specifically Chapter 9: Paris is Burning?) by Bell Hooks, contains a review of the documentary Paris is Burning directed by Jennie Livingston, offers loose insights and parallels that are noteworthy regarding the sexuality of Palestinian men. This is because the societies in both films (being American versus Israeli-Palestinian) are experiencing forms of white-supremacist, patriarchal cultural-hegemony. Being so, is it possible to attribute dressing up in drag, and taking on the role of a white-women, and Ezra’s young Palestinian men, taking a submissive, feminine role with him? As his partner, leaves him in the middle of the film to return to Palestine occupied territories and marry a woman, these parallels are potentially not so far fetched. Hooks also states, “if the class, race and gender aspirations expressed by the drag queens who share their deepest dreams is always the longing to be in the position of the ruling-class women then that means there is also the desire to act in partnership with the ruling-class white male”. “Many heterosexual black men in white supremacist patriarchal culture have acted as though the primary “evil” of racism has been the refusal of the dominant culture to allow them full access to patriarchal power, so that in sexist terms they are compelled to inhabit a sphere of powerlessness, deemed “feminine,” hence they have perceived themselves as emasculated”21. While to generalize cross-culturally based on similar levels of the communities’ marginalization is unfounded, it does pose questions of Ezra’s neo-colonial privilege.

While this movie offers an unseen (anti-Zionist and homosexual) perspective on the Israel and Palestine, one could question if the movie would have been as well received if Ezra were a Lesbian. This is another example of “Lesbian subcultures almost never appear at all... women’s involvement... has been left out of theoretical accounts and subcultural histories.”. That this movie is further removing society from being able to “address sexuality without fixed categories of lesbian and gay”, and be more accessible to a Queer community.

To even portray the ‘homosexual’ and ‘Palestinian’, in an Israeli independent documentary form is controversial. As such, this raises the question, ‘how would this film be received in Hollywood?’ As Hollywood’s primary audience is the American people, Ezra’s white-male background, despite his homosexuality, aids the film in being more relatable to the general public. As discussed previously, this stems from prevailing social hierarchies stemming from colonial influences. However these colonial influences could also create animosity, because of Ezra’s inter-racial relationships.

As surprising as it may sound, I believe this movie would be too controversial for Hollywood, not necessarily because of its portrayal of inter-racial homosexuality, but because of its portrayal of the political conflict. With a longstanding alliance with Israel, it is foreseeable that the majority of the American population would question the legitimacy of such an anti-Zionist outlook. It is still a struggle to have this opinion voiced (being that the Israeli conflict is an apartheid, as discussed previously) in ‘the land of freedoms’, where documents like the SHIT-list ( a list of ‘self-hating Israel-threatening’ Jews) are made, to protest and degrade all Jews who are anti-apartheid, and scold them for their hatred of their own people. American President Barack Obama is the first president to ever criticize the Israel government by saying there have been “ ‘years of distrust’ and said both sides needed to make a ‘sustained effort... to respect one another and seek common ground’… describing Palestinians' plight as ‘intolerable’ .”24. Yet, Obama’s actions, or more appropriately his lack of action, speaks louder than his words; Israel continues to receive aid while, as Hamas are still in power, no governments will lend their support; only NGO (Non-Government Organization) support is available.

I believe this film is a powerful portrayal of the struggle to end apartheid in Israel and Palestine. While Citizen Nawi raises concern regarding the narrow portrayal of ‘the homosexual’, in my opinion the director’s intention was to ‘normalize’ homosexuality. While Ezra is ostracized through the movie for his homosexuality, his role as an anti-Zionist takes the forefront. His homosexuality, and relationships with Palestinian men set a ‘human’ backdrop, allowing the audience to connect with the basic emotions of love and heartbreak themselves. In a sense, his homosexuality humanized Ezra, allowing the audience to empathize and relate.

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