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Anti-Semitism In The Feminist Movement Is Nothing New

When people claim that feminism and Zionism are incompatible, as Linda Sarsour and others have, they are committing an act of erasure and profound ignorance. Erasure, because they silence the countless Jewish women who have fought for both the collective rights of the Jewish people and equality for women. Profound ignorance, because, in the words of journalist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, “Zionism is to Jews what feminism is to women — an ongoing struggle for self-determination, dignity, and justice.”

Many towering figures of the feminist movement were Jewish and deeply Zionist. Clara Lemlich, who led a strike in 1909 that inspired the one held on International Women’s Day, adapted Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Bible into Yiddish as a pledge for her supporters: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” The original Psalm is about the Jewish people’s exile from and yearning to return to Israel, while living in the Diaspora. Rose Schneiderman, another leader of the 1909 strike, was both a feminist and active in the Zionist movement. So was Emma Lazarus –- the list goes on. As the century marched on, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Leah Rabin, and numerous other giants in the feminist movement all subscribed to some form or another of Zionism — because they were Jews and because of the explicit anti-Semitism they experienced in feminist circles. Their Jewish identity was a major reason for their activism -– they sought dignity and freedom for themselves as Jews and as women.

Unfortunately, the use of the women’s movement to further anti-Semitism and anti-Israel extremism is not a new phenomenon. Professor Judith Plaskow wrote in 1980 about a disturbing new line of thought which blamed the patriarchy on Jewish tradition, and by extension on the Jewish state. In 2010, researcher Jennifer Roskies released a working paper concluding that, “one need not scratch very deeply below the surface to behold an undercurrent which can prove unsettling to Jewish women. Expressions of anti-Zionism and of outright anti-Semitism raise the question of how Jewish women experience an apparent attack which calls their feminist allegiance into question…”, echoing the very conversation that has erupted in the past few weeks.

I find Pogrebin’s 1982 article “Anti-Semitism in The Women’s Movement” to be one of the most pointed reminders that the modern feminist movement has never been totally at ease with Jews or Zionism. This article goes point by point through ugly accusations of dual loyalty and responsibility for introducing the patriarchy, as well as tensions with the African American community over anti-blackness and anti-Semitism. As Pogrebin notes, “Somehow leftists who espouse one world transnationalism make exceptions for “national liberation” struggles and independent nation states in Latin America, Africa, or anywhere but Israel”.

A major event that fueled divisions between Zionism and feminism was the 1975 Mexico City Women’s Conference. This was one of the most visible and vicious attempts to wield institutions against Jews, to the point where Jewish women who attended flat out refused to speak about their experiences in the aftermath. In a rhetorical attack that continues to this day, conference delegates conflated Zionism with imperialism, neocolonialism, and racism.

The problem then, as now, is that associating Israel with colonialism erases the identity, history, and rights of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland of 3,000 years. There is incontrovertible archaeological, historical, and scientific proof that Jews descended from, and never completely left the land of Israel. Zionism and the modern State of Israel exist because of these indigenous roots, and as a form of liberation from the 1,900 years of oppression Jews experienced across Europe and the Middle East.

Another part of the problem is that Sarsour and her supporters are as un-nuanced about Zionism as they claim Zionists are about Israel. This is purposeful. They want to sell the idea that Zionism is monolithic – as if Zionists do not constantly criticize and debate Israeli government policy and what peace with the Palestinians should look like. In effect, they are saying that to be “respectable,” Jews must support the Palestinian cause at the expense of their own people’s rights. But Palestinian self-determination and Jewish self-determination are not a zero-sum game – one need not come at the expense of the other.

Intersectional feminism is hugely important for marginalized groups, which makes it particularly disappointing when leaders in feminist movements use the concept to attack Israelis, Jews, and their supporters. We must understand how different forms of oppression relate to each other to effectively fight and overcome them. But insisting that Jews need not apply if they subscribe to the belief in a Jewish homeland in Israel is an anti-Semitic double standard. Too many leftists already ignore anti-Semitism unless it’s rhetorically convenient, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that Sarsour’s brand of feminism demands that we give up our liberation movement for some nebulous greater good. In 1984 bell hooks wrote that “feminism has its party line and women who feel a need for a different strategy, a different foundation, often found themselves ostracized or silenced”. The emerging party line that feminists cannot be Zionist should not be tolerated.

In short, you are neither an intersectional feminist nor a good leader for the feminist movement if you disrespect women who helped build the foundation you are standing on, selectively choose which groups of people are worthy of self-determination, and seek to exclude women who support the existence of Israel. To be clear, I strongly disagree with those who attack Sarsour’s feminist credentials because she is Muslim. The fact she is a Palestinian American Muslim who wears a hijab should not be the focus of criticism. Her promotion of ideas that are effectively anti-Semitic and her refusal to stop to working with Rasmeah Odeh — a convicted terrorist — are examples of what make her unpalatable as a leader for a feminist movement.

At their core, Zionism and feminism are both liberation movements which are entirely compatible with one another. The insistence that Zionists cannot be feminists is part of a larger reactionary campaign against Jewish rights. This essentially amounts to a demand that we act like “good Jews” to gain acceptance in civil society – echoing the racism that we have experienced many times throughout our history. This should be resisted with determination and resolve. Because as intersectional feminism teaches us, it is possible to be many different things at the same time— feminist, Zionist, pro-Palestinian, and much more.

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