Rifts In The Jewish Sisterhood: Why Complaints About Zionism Vs. Feminism Are Beside The Point

Many of us saw the International Women’s Strike on March 8, 2017 — held on the historic International Women’s Day — as a day of unprecedented unity. By all evidence, the rallies, marches, walk-outs from workplaces, street theater and massive eruption of feminist protest on social media in hundreds of cities and countries across the globe bridged all kinds of differences — age, race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, geography, religion. But for some Jewish women the occasion raised more questions of rupture than solidarity.

In a March 7 New York Times opinion piece titled “Does Feminism Have Room for Zionists?,” Emily Shire proclaimed her identity as a Zionist and her support for “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” She worried “that my support for Israel will bar me from the feminist movement” and declared she should not “have to sacrifice my Zionism for the sake of my feminism.” In a March 8 blog post highly sympathetic to Shire, (“Zionist Feminist: Not an Oxymoron,” Mar. 8, 2017), the Forward’s Sisterhood editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy takes the more pragmatic view that Zionist feminists could endorse some parts of the strike while rejecting what she calls “explicitly anti-Zionist stances woven into mainstream feminist platforms.” This is a clear reference to a paragraph in the International Women’s Strike USA Platform that includes “the decolonization of Palestine” — along with support for Black Lives Matter, “the struggle against police brutality and mass incarceration, [and] the demand for open borders and immigrant rights” — as “the beating heart of this new feminist movement.”

Before even addressing the relation between “a Jewish state” and Palestine’s colonization, let’s talk about feminisms. Shire’s complaints and Bovy’s commiseration are based on a fundamentally flawed premise. There is no singular “feminism” with a single membership card, only multiple feminisms that change across time and place.

As Shire admits, the version of feminist politics embraced by the March 8 International Women’s Strike, initiated by activists in Poland and Argentina and erupting across the globe, adheres to the core ideas of inclusivity and intersectionality. This intersectional feminism has a rich genealogy: South African women who linked feminism to their fight to end passbooks and apartheid. Black feminists in the U.S. who showed that gender and sexuality, for them, were inseparable from the everyday realities of race, class, and poverty. And yes, Palestinian women who for decades have seen their struggle against Israeli occupation and colonization as the defining context of their struggle against patriarchy.

At the same time, there is nothing to prevent right-wing women, women who oppose abortion, neoliberal politicians like Hillary Clinton, or even members of the KKK from pronouncing themselves “feminists,” whatever that means to them. The whole point of the IWS Platform was simply to define certain broad principles that millions of us believe are more inclusive, more intersectional, and more expressive of social and gender justice in the 21st century. To signify a feminist resistance to racism, capitalism and heteropatriarchy, the US national organizing committee for #womenstrike have advanced a new hashtag: #feminism4the99.

What both Shire and Bovy seem to ignore is that, for many Jewish women — including thousands of us in Jewish Voice for Peace — standing with Palestinian and Muslim women, whether in Israel-Palestine or here in the United States, is not an “intersectional obstacle to feminist activism” (Bovy). Quite the contrary. For us, it is a moral calling intrinsic to our feminist activism.

Zionism, too, has multiple versions. Jewish intellectuals in the early-to-mid-20th century, such as Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, and Albert Einstein, argued for a “binational” Zionism that would be inclusive and pluralistic. Unfortunately, their more democratic vision succumbed to ethno-nationalist Zionism, with its expulsions, military occupation, land confiscations and walls.

Under this regime, Palestinians are subjected to a two-tier system where illegal settlements steadily expand with impunity; children as young as 12 are incarcerated for minor perceived infractions; and Palestinian women live in fear for their children and themselves in the face of systematic abuse, harassment, and denial of medical services, documented in two recent reports by UN Women. Both Shire and Bovy label Rasmea Yousef Odeh — a 70-year-old Palestinian working as a community organizer in Chicago since 1994 and fighting deportation — a “terrorist.” They accept on faith a decades-old conviction by the Israeli government, never mind that Odeh claims her “confession” was extracted after she was “tortured and sexually assaulted while in prison in Israel and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder” while in an Israeli prison.

Today, not only are millions of Muslims and Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) prohibited entry and free movement in Israel. All those, including Jewish feminists, who happen to support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, potentially are as well, thanks to a new Israeli travel ban. Many would argue that the real oxymoron here is the idea that a Jewish state where only Jews (and not even all Jews) have full civil and human rights can be a “democratic” state. Or the notion that being a good Zionist means blindly accepting whatever the Israeli state says or does.

So I ask you, Emily Shire and Phoebe Maltz Bovy, what kind of Zionists are you? What kind of feminists? Can your Zionist feminism live with my anti-racist, anti-Islamophobic, anti-Zionist feminism?

This story "Zionism Vs. Feminism Debate Misses The Point" was written by Rosalind Petchesky.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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