הוצג בכנס בלונדון “WITHOUT BORDERS” Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections 2016
Some weeks ago, on the occasion of the LGBT pride parade and the festivities that followed, we celebrated a new anthology published recently in Hebrew. Celebrating the publication of a new book about the LGBT community in Israel is still an important event not only because the publication of a new book is always a celebration but because the library of LGBT and queer books in Hebrew is still very small. When I grew up in the 50s and 60s there was not even a single book to be found in Hebrew. As we all know, the emergence of LGBT literature is not the only aspect of the cultural scene that has changed. As older LGBT people we have, of course, seen a major change in the culture and politics of our societies in the last 40 years.
Israel has been part of this change, whilst at the same time it has had to create its own culture in different languages, thus creating a different trajectory. One of the great changes that I was able to witness first hand was the growing lesbian and gay literature both in Hebrew and Arabic. The main instigators of this change have been two groups of lesbians, one Jewish group named “Klaf” (literally meaning card in Hebrew and also an acronym for Lesbian feminist community) which became active in the late 1980’s, and the other is the queer group of “Aswat” (voices in Arabic) which started to organize in 2003 and which had the vision to publish stories and articles in Arabic and translations from Arabic to English of lesbian stories from the Arab world. Working together, Jewish and Palestinian women inside Israel have been part of my feminist and peace activism since the late 80’s. It is a source of pride that women can offer a different model from the bloodshed and hatred surrounding us. I come from a radical movement, which connects the source of oppression of women and lesbians to the oppression of Palestinians, and thus support their struggle for freedom.
This paper will offer a perspective of activism from an older woman such as myself. Shifting perspectives in a changing world impact our activism. I will argue that the growing interest in archives and the concept of archiving in the LGBT communities is in itself a result of 40 years of activism and a community growing older.
My first experience at the archive was here in London, in 1975, when I left Israel to spend some time abroad. I have come a long way since my days as a student assistant at the Archive of the Gaster papers (the chief Sephardic Rabbi of England) at University College. Returning to Israel and becoming an activist in the peace, feminist and lesbian movements, I discovered that as a feminist activist and as a lesbian, I too have an archive and histories of my own communities. In recent years we came, as a community, to realize that it is not only the history of activism that we want to preserve and protect but also we have came to understand that the State and its institutions, exercise power over our archives and the knowledge they hold. That is, an archive is by itself a source of power for those who decide what should be kept and how we should use this source of power for our own communities.
To the dismay of many activists like me, Israel has been using the achievements of LGBT communities in order to promote itself as a liberal democracy in stark contrast to Arab countries in the Middle-East. This is what we call ‘pinkwashing’. I am opposed to any State appropriation of our struggles and our achievements in the service of promoting Israel’s public relations, because what it is really doing, is promoting racism and homophobia. Israel prides itself on being a progressive state for LGBT rights, whilst the reality is that the community had to fight the State in the courts for each and every right. This process of ‘pinkwashing’, which Israel has maintained in recent years, gives us another motivation to keep our archive work going. We have the proof, the actual documents, the photos, the stories, the names, the protocols of how difficult the struggle against the state has been. We have the knowledge to stand up and say “the struggle has not yet ended”. There is homophobia; people have been murdered because they are gays and lesbians and because they are our supportive friends. Palestinians from the occupied territories are not allowed to stay inside Israel with their partners whether they are gay or not; non-Jewish refugees from Russia’s homophobic laws are not allowed to stay in the country with their Jewish partners, who are automatically granted the right to citizenship.
I want to talk about the feminist and lesbian archive in Haifa, the only one in Israel, and examine the emerging enthusiasm around the work of the archive from a generational point of view. The actual work of keeping records of all kind and from all sources, making them available to the community and making sure that no one appropriates our struggles, is of utmost importance. This is why I want to discuss the work of the archive itself, not only as a symbol for knowledge or keeping history alive. The archive is also a physical space where we can leave behind the story of ordinary women, of our own life stories, of those of us who were not necessarily heroes, or had not made a special impact on society. In our archive we have a rather large collection that emerged without preconceived ideas or plans. We have accumulated documents throughout the years and have realized that when organizations closed down and their papers were about to perish someone had to appear and salvage them, otherwise they would be thrown away and lost forever. Not planned for preservation, these day-to-day activities – when there was an office or an organization – are left behind in the chaos of that particular organization. We, of course, can only know what has been saved and not what has been lost. But this is no doubt the fate of all human activities.
Our archive is a real one. It has boxes and papers, journals and protocols; it includes invitations, programs, pamphlets and letters. We call on women, lesbians and queer people to think about everything they did and are still doing, with an eye to the future. On Mondays, we meet, in this archive, four elderly women, to bring order and organization to incredible amount of paper left over when activism itself has ceased.
In my experience, locally, this is a “coming of age” for feminist, peace and lesbian organizations. Some of these organizations do not exist anymore and their memory of their activism remains only in the archive. It is no doubt also a matter of age: when you can’t run away from tear gas and police batons in demonstrations, and when hope is on low energy level, sitting in the archive can be a great source of hope. It can show that even in dark times change is possible, we can look back on our achievements, documented in the archive and realize that our activism did matter and change has happened, even if only incrementally.
Two characteristics of women and lesbians who were activists in the last 30 years come to mind. One type of activist will be responsible for the here and now; the other will always remember to keep the records. The first type of person exists in plentiful numbers, the others are only a few. I belong to the first type although I had a house full of ephemera collected while being an activist. As I was part of the core activists in the feminist-lesbian-peace movements, I was always busy organizing, participating, and taking care of actions and their impact on society. I never took the time to reflect and think about how our activities would be judged in the future. With time my friends and I came to realize the importance of documenting. Getting older helped us to realize that activism is not enough. It is important to keep and collect the records. We began to be active in different ways and we moved to memory activism.
Many feminist and lesbian organizations or activities were started by volunteers, and were often based on direct action. Most of our activism was home based and operated on a low budget, only later did we have the resources to rent an office and employ staff. With records being passed to and fro between private homes and offices and responsibilities between women being rotated, there was immense potential for records to be dispersed, or someone to simply decide that it was not worth keeping all this stuff, to be shifted along every few years, or just to forget to pass along bundles of old records. Indeed, the main bulk of the archive of the lesbian-feminist community (Klaf) was left in a private home of one of the activists when the organization closed down. It was only by chance that she heard about the archive and was able to connect with us and make sure we would get the collection. Now we will not leave these treasures anymore to chance or luck. This is our history and what remains is no less important than what has actually happened, it allows us to remember clearly how we helped create a different history that became our present life.
Unlike the famous New York Lesbian Herstory Archives, we began to have a sense of the importance of our history and stories only in recent years. Our community was mostly the feminist movement with its myriad of organizations. As lesbians we were often active either in the women’s peace movement, the feminist movement, or in both. We were mobilized first as feminists and or peace activists and only later as lesbians. It coincided with the time period of the late 80’s, throughout the 90’s and early 2000, when the campaigns of the LGBT community were at its height. We had some successes as Israeli society changed and had, at least on the surface, moved away from homophobia. As the lesbian – feminist community in Israel grew and became an organized community; questions of keeping our history and memory activism were not on the agenda.
I believe in what Joan Nestle taught us, that every lesbian deserves a place in history. If, Nestle said, you are brave enough to touch another woman; you are already famous (1994, Not Just Passing Through). We, however, in the feminist and lesbian-feminist movements did not feel famous and had to learn to be strong enough and vocal enough to get through layers of oppression. We were involved at what we had perceived as the most daring activism available. Combining the struggle for lesbian rights with the struggle against the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel became the core activism of many lesbian feminists at that time. We were so busy organizing and campaigning that it did not occur to us that we are actually making history and thus we should document our actions and keep our records.
But paradigms change and growing older provides a different point of view. What seemed in the past a matter of urgency might now look as of lesser importance. The long struggle for human rights in our society needs patience and an ability to sustain the struggle. For these reasons an archive is a tool for making a community robust in its dreams. If we can offer our archives as a place to tell a different story from heteronormative spaces than this is a place of power. If we are not acknowledged in public spaces, such as schools and workplaces, as often is the case in Israel where Jewish religious tradition prevents women even from singing in public, we will insist that we are everywhere. If within liberal acceptance we, and our struggles, are supposed to remain silent, we will offer the archive as a source of power and visibility. When the venues for resistance are narrow, our lesbian and queer archives provide us a venue for resistance and promise, a continuation of the never-ending struggles.
Thus the importance of the archive can be related to the question of power and empowerment. While being an activist, the energy dedicated to activism was enormous. It filled my life as well as the lives of many lesbians. We were dedicated to a cause and we had a feeling that our success is wholly depended on the amount of energy and enthusiasm that we are able to invest in public performances, such as organizing demonstrations, writing pamphlets, advocating for legislative changes and more. This bedrock of optimism has changed completely with the changing winds of post modernism, the growth of militarism and neo-liberalism, and not least by ourselves growing older. In spite of our endless struggles the world has become more violent, poorer and more divided. The occupation of the Palestinian lands has become more aggressive and more destructive. We are at a loss to know what should be done. Thus memory becomes essential and the need to keep the history of what we have done becomes central to our lives. It permits us to look back at our achievements, whilst at the same time realizing that the road ahead is long. Those of us who are not yet old need the memory of bygone struggles in order to be empowered and remain in the ‘doing’ side of life.
Observing the younger generation of LGBT activists from the perspective of an activist and an archivist I can only wonder what will the future of our archive will be, as if keeping our records wasn’t challenging enough in the age of paper poster, pamphlet and hand written protocol notes, what will be left of Facebook groups, mass emails and digital communication? The task is never ending, the struggles continue but at least we have an archive to take our histories into the future and give us hope that change is possible.