Interview by Robyn Ochs
Robyn Ochs: Shiri, please tell us about yourself.
Shiri Eisner: I am a 27-year-old female gender queer. I am a feminist, anarchist, vegan, polyamorous, bisexual/ pansexual and a sex radical. I do a lot of stuff in general, such as grassroots organizing, academics, journalist writing, and art. I started (and currently organize) the second-ever and only currently active bisexual/pansexual organization in Israel, Panorama – a bi and pansexual feminist community. (The previous bi organization was Bisexuals in Israel, headed by Daniel Hoffman and Elad Livneh, which stopped its activity in 2007.)
I am the mixed-raced child of an Iraqi-heritage mother and a German-heritage father (one of many mixed-race second-generation children in Jewish-Israeli society). While acknowledging my mixed-race heritage, I draw primarily on the Mizrahi (Arabic-Jewish) cultural influences from my mother’s side of the family, as this side has been most dominant throughout my life. (Now that my paternal grandmother has passed away, all of my dad’s family is in Germany, and there aren’t many of them, either, courtesy of Hitler). My family on my mom’s side (by which I mean, my mother, my aunts, my grandmother and my cousins) is very matriarchal and is comprised of strong and dominant women – my grandmother is definitely the head of the family. I feel very lucky in that respect, though I should also mention that my family has some very conservative values regarding women, marriage, heteronormativity, etc. My family is also very right wing, which in Israel means supporting the occupation of Palestine and the war crimes performed by the IDF and the state of Israel on a constant basis. And so, ideological rebellion has also been an inherent part of my experience while growing up.
I am an atheist, though I was raised in a Jewish home. My grandparents on my mom’s side are religious, and we keep all of the holidays and traditions. These days, I mostly enjoy all these ceremonies in a wry way. They’re fun and often amusing, but I don’t believe in them.
RO: How did you come to identify as bi?
SE: I started identifying as bisexual when I was 13. Reading back on my diaries now, I’m not even sure how I knew what “bisexual” was, but there it was. Since I was six, I’ve always had crushes on little boys, and when I turned 12- 13, I started having romantic and erotic feelings towards girls as well. I wrote lesbian porn when I was 14, and then lesbian poetry when I was 16. When I was 17, I identified as lesbian for about 5 minutes – it wore away very quickly, as I had a boyfriend at the time…
These days I identify as both bisexual and pansexual. I think pansexuality is a wonderful word which allows us the opportunity to speak about non-binary genders and sexes, and in some contexts, to emphasize our inclusiveness of them. However, I still feel that “bisexual” is my word. It’s more personal for me, since I’ve had it for so long, and I don’t think it contradicts inclusiveness or non-binarism. (On the contrary, I sometimes feel that bisexuality is the more inclusive of the two, since bisexual discourse generally tends to accept pansexuality, but often, and ironically, not vice versa).
RO: How did you become interested in bi politics?
SE: This is a very interesting question – and an important one. For years, in respect of my BTLG activism, all I did was actually gay and lesbian activism, and I was not interested in bi politics. I identified as bisexual and had many conversations with my bi friends about bisexual invisibility, erasure and exclusion – but we never thought to do anything about it. All the while, we were busy working on activist projects such as the illegal pride parade in Jerusalem in 2006, and the weekly queer protest vigils which took place there for one year thereafter. It’s also ironic to note that the media that covered our illegal parade and our consequent arrest by the police, cited us as homosexual activists, even though all three organizers (me, Leehee Rothschild and Carmel Sivan) were bisexual.
The turn in my activist thought came about two years back, when Elad Livneh started organizing the bisexual social/support group at the Tel Aviv BTLG community center (the center itself actually calls itself “gay,” but I allow myself some liberty here). At this point, I’d already had considerable experience with grassroots organizing through my queer, feminist and anti-occupation activism. And suddenly I realized that I could do this as well – a topic which has been so important to me throughout the years, and yet I never thought to do any activism about it. All these years, I knew about Bisexuals in Israel, but never found a way of joining them. For years I’d been waiting for a group to start in Tel Aviv (at some point one was started in Jerusalem, but it was too far away for me to attend). With the founding of this new group, suddenly my brain pulled the switch to bring together my bisexuality and my political activism. So I started a bi/pansexual film club at the BTLG center (which I called the B-Movies), which is still running. I started a national mailing list for bis and pansexuals in Israel and I started organizing parties and community events. I organized the bisexual block at the pride parades in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and around that time also started Panorama, which is where I do most of my bi activism these days.
RO: What is the legal and cultural status of BTLGQ people in Israel? Can you talk about bi and BTLGQ activism in your country?
SE: When I think about this issue, the first thing on my mind is the shooting at the GLBT Association’s youth club in Tel Aviv (Bar-No’ar). On August 1st, 2009, a masked person entered the youth club and started shooting the people who were there. Two people died (26-year-old Nir Katz, and 17-year-old Liz Troubishi) and many more were injured. The killer has not yet been caught by the police and still roams free.
And so, I don’t think we are doing well. Tel Aviv was supposed to be the BTLG haven of Israel, where we thought that we were safe and protected, or at least liked to think that we were. This incident showed us that we were never safe, that we cannot be safe and must not sink into complacency as we did before. However, ironically, the shooting sent us all so deep into trauma that we hardly managed to do anything at all in response. I’m a bit angry with myself (and with the whole community) in that respect – the community spent the whole week after the shooting licking its own wounds and busy with internal struggles. We should have gone out there and blocked a main road, we should have organized demonstrations at the house of the head of the police and at the Knesset. We should have been flooding the hospitals visiting the survivors. But instead, we just drew back into ourselves, leaving only a handful of rallies in our wake.
The other issue that comes to mind is that of the occupation. Israeli society is violent and militarist, and all other areas of public life are subordinated to the perpetuation of the occupation and the Zionist regime. And so, BTLG people are only accepted in Israeli society if they are Jewish and Zionist (preferably cisgender males), but not otherwise. In addition, Israel often tries to paint itself as the BTLG haven of the Middle East, but this is only true for a small group of (mostly male, Ashkenazi and middle class) Jewish BTLG’s. Needless to say, however, Palestinians BTLG’s under Israeli dominion are denied even the most basic human rights such as freedom of movement, education, medical care, etc. Whenever I hear talk of Israel presenting itself as a liberal BTLG haven, I always feel appalled, since this false presentation is in fact based on a regime of apartheid and oppression. In that, I am in complete solidarity with my Palestinian sisters and brothers in their struggle to raise awareness about their oppression under Israeli occupation, as well as their struggle for freedom.
And of course, we can’t separate these two things, either. In a society where it’s acceptable to oppress another people on a daily basis; where racism, hatred and militarism are commonplace, mainstream and even a requirement for good citizenship; in a society where the slaughter of over 1,000 people in Gaza was performed without a hitch and supported by most of the population, it’s going to be okay to go out and kill other people based on their difference and their deviance from the required mainstream. The shooting was done with a military rifle, and we must never forget that. Violence produces violence, and a violent, militarist society creates internal violence, hatred and murder.
RO: From what you can tell, what is unique about bi organizing in Israel?
SE: In relation to other countries, the bi/pan struggle in Israel is very new – just a few years old. And so, we are facing a lot of biphobia, lack of awareness, lack of resources, etc. The (absolutely wonderful, yet small) bisexual community itself has only been in existence as such for two years, and most of the broader BTLG community is still unaware of us – though we are starting to make some huge differences and to create some very positive changes. For example, the rally after the shooting was the first-ever large BTLG event to include a speaker representing the bisexual community. This is a huge achievement that I’m very proud of, seeing as half of my energy as a bi activist is spent on trying to explain to the people in charge that we do actually deserve representation. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we are definitely working on it.
Another thing that I find unique is that so far, we have set the agenda of the local bisexual/pansexual struggle as a radical one, rather than liberal as often seems to be the case with bi politics in other countries. Most of our community leaders are people not only involved with BTLG politics, but also with all kinds of radical politics such as radical-queer politics, feminism, radical left, crip struggle, animal rights, etc. – all theories that raise questions about the core values of society and seek to subvert them from the base. I think that our radical methods and tactics allow us to be more active, vocal and visible. The experience that many of us have gained through our activism in these other fields has contributed to our understanding of how power structures work and how to oppose them.
RO: What connections do you have with bi and/or TLG activists in other countries? Does your knowledge of or contacts with bi or BTLG activism in other countries influence your activism in Israel? Do you see value in transnational activism?
SE: I’m in contact with several American, Canadian and European queer activists (mostly bi activists). I find value in networking, first and foremost for solidarity, but also for exchanging information and receiving updates on various struggles in other countries. We can exchange ideas, viewpoints and methods with activists from other countries. I receive inspiration from other people’s stories and perspectives. Since our struggle in Israel is so very new, I feel that I have a lot to learn from other people’s experience. What worked, and what didn’t? What can I use for my local struggle? What would I do differently? It also feels really good to receive outside support and recognition. For example, Panorama recently received a small, yet very helpful, donation from Holland BiCon. Being in touch with the BiCon organizers has been great, and their solidarity and kindness are well-appreciated.
RO: You’re an academic in addition to being an activist. What are your interests? What are you studying/working on?
SE: I’m currently finishing my BA in interdisciplinary arts, which means that during my degree, I was pretty much all over the arts and humanities. This year, my last, I’ve been getting to focus more on my three majors: gender studies, film and art history. And it was only this year that I’ve finally gotten to research bisexual issues, which I’ve never gotten to do in the past. Now I feel like I found my true calling.
I am currently working on two research papers: one about the representation of bisexual women in mainstream and alternative porn, and the other about the repression of bisexuality in film. And I spoke about the latter in May at the Other Sex convention, Israel’s annual queer studies convention. So I’m very proud and happy about that.
I’m also starting to think about my MA. I know I want it to be about bisexuality and film, and I’ve had a few ideas so far. One is bisexual vampires (a long-beloved topic of mine), and the other is female bisexual spectatorship in lesbian movies. So maybe I’ll end up writing my thesis on female bisexual spectatorship in lesbian vampire movies…
RO: You started an international discussion group for bi academics. What prompted that? What is the purpose of this list? Who is it for, and how can interested parties join?
SE: I started the list a couple of months ago following a discussion on USA BiNet’s mailing list. During the discussion, I was surprised to find that there was no existing list devoted to bi/pan/fluid theory and bisexual studies. I also saw that many people seemed interested in opening such a list, and so I followed up and registered a list with Yahoo. The good people from USA BiNet helped me promote it. We now have close to 200 members from around the world, with some very interesting discussions.
The list is intended for anyone interested in queer and bisexual/ pansexual/fluid studies, and especially academics who wish to share knowledge and resources in the field. To join it, go to http://groupsyahoo.com/academic_bi/.
RO: And finally, the theme of the current issue is “Bodies,” so can you say something related to this topic?
SE: Here is the story of how I came to appreciate my own body. As a Mizrahi (racialized) woman raised in an Ashkenazi- (white-) dominated society, the beauty standards imposed on me have always been white. I am darkly colored, with mocha skin, brown eyes and long, rich dark brown hair. My body is hourglass-shaped, with large breasts, thin waist and large hips, all quite different from the well-trimmed, pale-colored standard of white beauty. I was never much given into weight or body image problems (or at least, not as much as the other women in my family), though I did have my share of dieting (age 12) and weighing myself (which always made me feel awful, and which, for that reason, I eventually stopped). I’d always considered parts of my body to be too big, too ample – my breasts, my nipples and my hips were always “too big,” my legs, arms and stomach were “too hairy.” All the while I never strayed from the ranges of normal weight, and always had people complimenting me on my appearance, whether family, friends or lovers.
Then in 2004, I went to hear a lecture in a course about Islamic art. The professor showed us pictures of statues of women in the palace at Khirbet al-Mafjar, and read us a poem from the period describing the ideal female beauty (which was depicted in the statues). To my surprise, the poem described a woman with the exact same body type as mine. It described her large hips, narrow waist, large breasts; her long, rich and dark hair. I was in awe. For the first time I realized that my body, in Arabic culture, was the ideal, had value of its own right. From feeling merely tolerant towards my body, I came to appreciate it for what it was: a different form of beauty. I don’t think my professor ever knew what a huge impact that lecture had on me.
Later on in life, I also stopped shaving my body hair. I have a lot to say about this, too. But perhaps another time…