By Susie Day
Nadav Schwartzman is a queer artist and graphic designer who was born thirty-two years ago on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Because he grew up and went to school on land that is no longer called Palestine; because of what was done – now widely recognized as settler colonization – to the Indigenous people of that land for it to become Israel, Nadav plans to renounce his Israeli citizenship.
Nadav now lives and works in New York City. He describes himself as white, Ashkenazi, “mostly cisgender – and mostly cis-Jewish. I’ve accepted my Jew curls, which makes my partner very happy.”
Nadav paints oil portraiture on wooden boards. One of his latest paintings is autobiographical: a naked male youth against a swirling red sky looks defiantly at the viewer as he pours from a small pitcher a dark liquid. This is “Ganymede,” based on the Greek myth of the young Trojan prince whom Zeus, king of the gods, swept off to Mount Olympus and took as his lover. Zeus gave Ganymede the exalted position of cupbearer to the gods, and eventually placed him in the heavens as the constellation Aquarius.
In most tellings, Zeus banishes Ganymede to protect him from Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera. But Nadav has painted Ganymede based on another version. Here, Ganymede looks down from Olympus onto the Trojan War and is horrified at the slaughter of his family and friends. He tries to avenge them by pouring out the nectar that gives the warmongering gods their immortality.
“There are no perfect victims,” Nadav writes, describing the painting. “Ganymede holds power too. Instead of [accepting] rape, Ganymede is doing what is within his power to protect his loved ones. It’s a futile action … but he still is willing to accept what punishment he would face.”
Power intertwines personally and geopolitically. Nadav tells me he comes from “an extremely Zionist household.” And an abusive one: “I grew up seeing my father berate my mother constantly.” His mother’s mother fled to Palestine from Czechoslovakia in the 1930s to escape the Holocaust; his father’s family traces its roots in the land back four generations. Nadav’s grandparents devoted their lives to the creation of Israel, settling into the neighborhood for Israeli Army personnel where Nadav grew up. And as he grew up, Nadav was only subliminally aware of the lethal caste system that Palestinians were never allowed to forget. Here is Nadav:
I didn’t understand what apartheid was; it took awhile because you’re not taught. In school, you learn about the War of Independence; you don’t learn about the Nakba and what happened to the Palestinians. Just like in the US, you’re not taught. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz talks about that false ideology: the land was empty; whoever was there was mismanaging it. I was taught that ideology. It’s basically a one-to-one comparison with Israel.
I grew up secluded from Palestinians. Maybe I was in the second grade or younger, I remember my mother telling me how there’s a country in the north that will never want peace. Why would she not even mention Lebanon by name? I remember I was super-young and outside my white grandfather’s house. There were Black people gardening there. I remember my father taking me to wash my hands after saying hello to them.
Apartheid works well in creating walls. I had no Palestinian friends; the second Intifada happened when I was in high school. You’re constantly told Palestinians are the enemy; they’re dangerous. But Israel is not only a white supremacist structure against Palestinians; it has within it a hierarchy where Ashkenazi Jews are at the pinnacle. Then you go down the ladder to the Mizrahi, Sephardic, Yemeni Jews, all the way to Ethiopian Jews. We can talk about how they were sterilized, forced to change their names…
Growing up there, I had a hard time with people calling me Jewish. I did not like that. I remember I was in seventh grade and just as I decided I’m an atheist, I was forced to do my bar mitzvah. Since leaving Israel, I’ve developed a more welcoming notion of Jewishness and how I define myself as Jewish.
When my father found out I was gay – by looking through my computer – he wanted me to go to a sex therapist because “one good fuck would cure me,” and to a therapist who could “cure away the gay.” I’m also the only member of my family not to serve in the Israeli military. At the time I was supposed to enlist, I was severely depressed – it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I wish I could say I took more of a stand, but military service was very important to my father, so being able to get out of it through mental health reasons was a way to stand up to him and the IDF.
I was reading an article on pinkwashing the other day that reminded me of this Israeli dating website I used to use. Profile after profile – like 80% of people – said basically that if you didn’t serve in the IDF, then I’m not interested in you.
Similarly, here in the States, people will say, “masc 4 masc.” Like, if you’re an effeminate gay, I’m not interested. That’s a lot of internalized homophobia.
I always resented, “Oh you’re from Tel Aviv, the Gay Haven!” That’s pinkwashing bullshit. I’ve also had experiences in the States, where I’ve been fetishized for being Israeli: “Israeli men are so hot.”
Apartheid turns you on? That’s interesting.
I’ve linked #SaveSheikJarrah to my Twitter handle, but
I am not the one to talk on Palestine. You need to listen to what Palestinians are saying now. Mohammed El-Kurd, this Palestinian poet whose family’s facing eviction in Sheik Jarrah, says that there’s more understanding now of what’s happening in Palestine, because there’s more understanding of how Black people are treated in the US. Angela Davis also makes the connections super-clear. But there are better people than me to talk about the Right of Return in Israel – also in the United States.
What do I feel when I talk about this? I feel shame. That’s part of my family legacy and complicity. And I feel rage – I’m not very articulate at the moment. But there’s protests, actions happening now. You just have to keep talking about it. Don’t let this disappear.
Sometimes I’ve had these crystal-clear, AH-HA moments. Like, a year ago, protesting George Floyd’s murder, I saw an NYPD cop car on fire. I thought: This is a painting. Deciding to give up my Israeli citizenship was another AH-HA moment. Part of settler colonialism is winning the demographics. That’s why they don’t allow Right of Return for Palestinians. Renouncing my Israeli citizenship is a way to get at that.
Yes, I’m renouncing it in the USA, capital of settler colonialism. I just got my US citizenship today, in fact. Nothing is perfect. I still have to file the paperwork and I’m not terribly excited about having to go talk to Israelis. But it just feels right, that simple action. No art. I don’t think I’m sacrificing much, so I don’t want to make much of it. It’s just for my soul.
© susie day, 2021
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States:
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States:
Twenty-four years ago, Pedal Miranda was born into a uniquely turbulent American family, designated female, and given the name Gabrielle. Today, Pedal chooses to be known by third-person pronouns and identifies as transgender and non-binary. A poet, artist, and prison abolitionist, they work for Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP, striving to envision a new world of “collective liberation,” where a carceral system is unthinkable.
Older generations (not unlike mine) habitually envision collective liberation as homogeneous, exulting masses, cheering universal freedoms newly won by some top-down Revolution. But Pedal believes that collective liberation starts within each self, then works its way out – something much harder to picture than happy, liberated multitudes. Maybe, at this stage, we shouldn’t even try. Instead, listen to Pedal.
What Makes a Person
My dad and mom couldn’t decide on a name for me the first week I was alive, but one of my dad’s names for me was Pebbles, because he thought I looked like Pebbles Flintstone. That’s where I got Pedal.
I grew up socialized as a girl. My mom’s a poet and a literature professor, and my dad’s super-smart, self-taught. He grew up in an orphanage in Cincinnati, ran away from home at 15. My dad’s white; my mom’s Puerto Rican. Most people think I’m part Asian. So the idea of passing for me has been a big theme.
I was born into a radicalizing context. Shit was always chaotic in my house. My parents and my brother fought often, a decent amount of domestic abuse. We moved so much and my dad didn’t always have a job. My mom provided for all of us. Puerto Rico’s a colony – my mom was always very loud about that, which has its own particular constructions of race and identity. I think all these identity factors politicized me.
But we also spent a lot of time reading together and talking. When I was 11, my mom put a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves on my bed. That’s how I learned what masturbation was. She schooled me on a lot of the things that people with vaginas face, in ways that were kind of traumatizing because I was so young.
As far as being socialized as a girl, I didn’t experience body dysphoria. I wore pink all day, I wore a dress. I was into princesses. But I was very competitive. In school, I would pick the smartest boy in my classes; that’s who I had to beat. I was often the only “girl” who would speak in class. I guess what I’m saying is – I’ve always felt gender queer. I’m also a switch. Like, I’m both a bottom and a top in sex, and my first sexual encounter was with a girl.
Sometimes people think I’m someone with a penis. In public I’ve been gendered as a man. So, all this stuff about what makes a person always felt in the forefront of my mind.
I have gender-neutral friends of all ages. For a lot of young people – younger than me – navigating this framework of sex and gender becomes fun and kind of playful. More exploratory. I think younger folks have an easier time, in some ways. It’s been interesting to talk to older lesbian and gay people who have had to learn to separate gender from sexual orientation. When for me, they can be very, very, integrated.
Sexuality feeds into this because I’ve had a number of different partners. Some cis men, some cis women, some trans women, some non-binary people. I feel a difference, being intimate with people of different gender identities. I feel like a different “they.”
I decided to start using they/them pronouns one night, out with my friend when I was in college. The college had jazz nights on Thursdays, with live musicians, the little club thing. We were dancing, and it just entered my brain: the beat of the music was “they-they-they-they.” I was so happy.
Afterwards – there’s a fountain in front of the main building – I put my head in the fountain to baptize myself with the new pronouns. Then I lay down in the roots of this tree in front of the library. This moment of coming into who I am and feeling happy about it, with the pronouns, was really good.
I say I’m trans, but trans as a marker is still related to this idea of what you’re assigned at birth. Being assigned anything at birth is part of the tools of oppression. I also identify as queer. And when I date cis men – I tell them, “You’re queer. I’m not a cis woman – you’re attracted to someone who isn’t a woman. So you’re queer.”
So I’m trans but cis-passing, which is a weird concept. I’m not going for looking like a man or a girl. That’s a different experience from someone who is identifying as a woman but was assigned male at birth.
I’ve had people mis-gender me on purpose, people I’ve dated; people I’ve worked for. Mostly cis, het, white men who are just angry that I’m myself. They’re people who, I can tell, have a basic disrespect for me being the author of my own identity.
I say I’m not a woman. But the truth is, in moments when I’ve needed to fight back or be strong or defend myself, I’ve embodied what it means to be a woman. What I fall back on is a woman-self. But I’m gender fluid. I think I also could say I’m gender-queer but my identification is not really grounded in one gender, it’s multiple.
In the Taíno culture, there’s Two-Spirit, a kind of sacred identity. I went to a Taíno Two-Spirit meet-up a couple of years ago; there were little kids introducing themselves with different pronouns. But I don’t think I can say I’m Two-Spirit – I’m not able to connect to my Taíno ancestry without co-opting that Indigenous identity.
My queer family, if I have one, is two trans girls who are dating. I relate to them as my moms; they call me their son. They take care of me, especially this past summer. We got arrested together, protesting the police after the murder of George Floyd. We were handled very aggressively and held in precinct in the Bronx.
One of my moms got put into a boy’s cell, and I was on the other side with these girls. I remember there was a trans woman in my cell, though I wondered where I would place myself in terms of the girls’ and the boys’ cells. In that moment, I thought, What if I’m the wall?
This is about the destruction of prisons and policing, and the creation of new ways of relating to each other. So if I’m the wall, then I have to turn myself into a window, to make those divisions not exist. I have to be a portal, not a solid structure, because where I place myself in the binary is the dividing line itself. In order to do away with this binary culture, do I have to destroy myself – or is my existence a window?
Trans, Non-Binary People Are Living Acts of Resistance
I grew up with some relatively close connections to people in prison. My brother spent time in jail. I never liked the police. I didn’t like when they were called on my family. Yeah, neighbors not liking us, domestic abuse, random shit. I had bad feelings about the police. All of that, in some way, contributed to who I am.
I’m so grateful I found this prison reading group, where I was exposed to the abolitionist framework: building a new world, getting rid of policing. But lately I’ve been thinking I want to use the term abolition less, because it’s lost its specificity. I was reading the mission statement of Critical Resistance [national organization dedicated to ending “prison-industrial complex”] with one of my friends. Unlike most people I know, she was like, “That’s scary, we don’t know what they mean by ‘the world they want to see.’”
Different people have different visions… Honestly, I think it’s a kind of privilege to assume we’re all on the same page. To tie it back to my trans identity, in order to understand our path to collective liberation, you have to start from the self and work outward. I don’t think that looks the same for every single person.
Self-care and self-knowledge are revolutionary. I think trans, non-binary people are living acts of resistance. But any person, even a straight, cis, white guy – maybe he has a disability; maybe he’s poor – has been harmed somehow. I think there’s much more to gain from considering how we treat ourselves, as a form of resistance, than creating a hierarchy of oppression.
Here’s a tiny anecdote. Someone I know is a cis-man. He’s bisexual or gay; he works for a vaginal health company that makes homeopathy things. When I’m at the OB-GYN, I certainly experience dysphoria, but talking to him about medical issues of my vagina felt much better than talking to a woman. It’s the fact that I’m attracted to men but also identify as a boy. Sometimes identify, believe it or not, as a gay man.
What would I tell people to do when they meet someone new? It’s complicated; an individual, case-by-case situation. But it’s also simple. It comes down to respect. Respect for someone’s right to define who they are. That outweighs making someone uncomfortable about identity. Not prioritizing your own assumptions over someone else’s assertion of who they are.
In terms of protocol, I think the best thing when people are being introduced is to give pronouns in addition to your name. Don’t assume, “You’re transgender, so I know your pronouns.” Because someone could use they/them pronouns but not want to be identified as trans.
Thankfully, I have a community where I feel affirmed most of the time. Given my privilege as a mostly white-passing, able-bodied, mixed person with a U.S. citizenship – I don’t really need to be pushing an agenda. But I do owe it to my trans community to raise consciousness around what being trans can mean.
At the end of the day, I’m just one person and sometimes I think I get a little too mystified with my own story. It’s not really the cross I want to die on. But I also have grown to love telling people who I am. It’s fun. I just get nervous about containing it in something that makes sense – because I don’t think the way the world works makes sense. This is about being able to tell the truth – which is limited by existing frameworks and language.
Basically, how we consider and relate to ourselves and “the other” is up for a change.
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© susie day, 2021
Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), where Pedal is NYC Regional Organizer
Abolition Action, Pedal is founding member: