Feminism, Zionism & Intersectionality
Hi Everyone, welcome to JOFA's online panel conversation on Feminism, Zionism & Intersectionality. We've got a really great cohort to begin what I'm sure will prove to be a robust conversation. For those just tuning in, you can visit JOFA's website to find a full list of panelists and their bios.
Here's our first question for all the panelists: What are the values that inform your activism, whether it be religious, political, or social in nature? Do you experience these forms of activism in a way that is interconnected or independent of each other?
The values which inform my activism are justice/equity, concern and a sense of personal responsibility for the needier, disadvantaged members of society, human dignity, the sanctity of human life, freedom, honesty and a combination of respect for and challenge of traditional religious and social values and political systems.
All my activism is connected because it is all rooted in and motivated by the same values. When I weigh my actions on behalf of agunot, Original Women of the Wall (OWOW), the State of Israel, issues/groups here in the United States, I am always weighing whether my actions conform with and advance my values and whether I am allocating my time and resources to those causes which have the highest moral priority and most immediate urgency.
An activist is bound to be confronted, somewhere along the line, with a conflict of values and the necessity of weighing off the positive of some activity against the negative. One has to ask: Is the negative, the violation of a value, tolerable in the interest of the overall positive being accomplished, and are there ways to work toward eliminating the negative and correcting any damage done? Or is the violation of values so egregious and irreversible that one must separate entirely from that activism?
I don't consider myself an activist, but the chief values that guide my behaviour and the causes I support are those of classical liberalism: I believe that institutions should lift people up, not repress individual freedoms, and I believe in empowering people and nations through well-regulated capitalism. Religiously, I believe in the ethical and spiritual primacy of Jewish law, while also incorporating modern philosophies and perspectives into my outlook. My liberalism necessitates a "live and let live" mentality -- while I choose to follow Jewish law, it's my right or desire to expect others to do the same, or in the same way that I choose to do so. A Modern Orthodox lifestyle, especially for those of us active in progressive communities, necessitates this productive discomfort between and within our value systems.In terms of my "isms," they are certainly interconnected. I am a Zionist, feminist, and progressivist. These labels all stem from my belief in the importance of political, social, and economic self determination for all peoples, whether those people are Jews, women, or all human beings.
My values begin with the assertion that all human beings are created b'tzelem elohim--in the image of God.
This means both that we have infinite and equal worth, and also that we have the power and responsibility to ensure that others are treated in a way that befits creations b'tzelem elohim. Modern human rights law (much of it a response to the Holocaust) concretizes this concept of tzelem elohim into certain responsibilities that states have toward those within their boundaries.
As the leader of a rabbinic human rights organization, I work to ensure that the three countries for which our constituents feel responsibility--the US, Canada & Israel--uphold their responsibilities by protecting the human rights of all people under their authority.
It's a privilege to be joining all of you! Three thoughts:
1) My commitments to religious feminism and the state of Israel were organic, simply part of the air I breathed growing up in my home. But they are also deeply connected: religious feminism seeks not just women's political equality, but their right to full religious self-expression. Zionism represents something similar: the Jewish people's national right to self-expression, to manifest its identity in relation to history and eternity.
2) Political Zionism and feminism are also both distinctly modern movements. They reflect a reordering of traditional, and oppressive, social structures (patriarchy, Jewish powerlessness). Theologically, then, their justification requires an understanding of God's active role in history, and the belief that some disruptive modern developments in fact reflect God's will.
3) When values are articulated generally and abstractly, a million causes can be lumped together. For instance, if you are committed to "justice," this can mean pretty much anything (Socialist? Liberal? Something else?). So I think its useful to a) discuss causes and commitments in more particular terms (Zionism, feminism, free expression etc), and b) acknowledge that while there are connections between different causes, these connections are almost always contingent, rather than necessary. (i.e. Some feminists may not be Zionists. And like all non-Zionists, these people are morally mistaken, but they are not necessarily bad feminists.)
My Jewish and American values are deeply interconnected. "Liberty and justice for all" in rooted in our US constitution and the "pursuit of Justice" is rooted in our Torah. We are taught repeatedly in our Jewish texts and by our rabbis and scholars over many centuries that we must struggle to be righteous, do justice and walk humbly with the Lord. NCJW is rooted in values of K'vod Habriot, respect and dignity, B'tzelem Elohim, that every person is made in the image of God, that Talmud Torah (education) is at the core of all our beliefs and Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof, justice, justice we shall pursue. I have lived by these values my whole life and they sit at the core of NCJW's work. What is most important, however, is our ability to engage in CIVIL discourse with one another and to always be willing to put oneself in the place of another to understand their concerns.
I am a proud feminist and a proud Zionist and I see not conflict between the two. I also care deeply about the plight of women in both Israel and throughout the Middle East and their ability to live loves of dignity and wholeness.
I want to pick up on a distinction that Yishai made - that feminism focuses on the rights of the individual while Zionism focuses on the rights of a collective.First, would you agree with this distinction? Or would you characterize the difference between these two "isms" differently?Second, do you believe that there are there moments when these two values (caring for the rights of women and caring for the rights of the Jewish people) are at odds with each other? Or is the suggested incompatibility of these two "isms" a product of a political atmosphere where aligning yourself with one cause predetermines where you'll fall on any other political issue?
I see both Zionism and feminism as collective liberation movements--Zionism is the liberation movement of the Jewish people to live out the fullness of our Jewish selves in our homeland. Feminism is a liberation movement aimed at ensuring that women (and men) can live out the fullness of our potential--but feminism isn't just about advancing individual women. It's about advancing the collective, breaking down barriers and restrictions, and also transforming society as a whole.
To be intersectional, Zionism must also be feminist. That includes advancing the voices of women (not only having men talk about Israel), and bringing a feminist lens/critique to all areas of Israeli society, including militarization. And to be intersectional, feminism must allow for all people--including Jews, Palestinians, LGBTQ people, etc. to bring their full selves to the table.
The challenge for Zionism, though, is that it has, to a large extent, been co-opted by right wing voices that refuse to acknowledge the military occupation of the Palestinians, and that cast the liberation struggle of Jews as necessarily opposed to that of Palestinians. This framing allows for the counter framing--that the liberation struggle of Palestinians necessitates the rejection of Zionism. Instead, those of us who consider ourselves Zionists and feminists must be advocating for an end to occupation and a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel (this includes ending the expansion of settlements), and lifting up the voices of both Israeli and Palestinian women.
I am honored to be a part of this discussion, and I apologize for being Johnny-Come-Lately.
To the first point, I am not sure if I agree with the distinction, though I also didn't read that distinction into what Yishai wrote. I'm not sure that feminism is about the rights of individuals rather than a collective. I do believe that part of being a feminist is caring about women situations completely different from my own. I care about girls in Afghanistan who have acid thrown on them for trying to attend school. I care about Palestinian women who aren't able to access safe, affordable abortions from their government. I care about the 200 million in more than 30 countries who have faced female genital mutilation, according to the World Health Organization.
To the second, I do not believe caring about Jews and caring about women are in contrast to each other, but I also think it's a topic two intelligent people can disagree about in a rational way. For example, with the case of the ordination and recognition of female rabbis in Orthodox Judaism, one can argue supporting women and supporting Jews are in contrast here. However, I would counter that supporting Jewish women becoming rabbis and enriching the Jewish community does not put those two groups in contrast. It's just that I probably have a vision of what it means to care/support/enrich the Jewish community.
Caring about Zionism is different than caring about Jews, and I really don't see potential for how caring about Zionism and caring about feminism is in contrast. Well, that is until one applies an expanded, arbitrary, intersectional definition of feminism.
To Rabbi Jacobs' point, I would disagree that Zionism has been co-opted by right-wingers. I think there's a concerted problem that many prominent organizers in the 2017 intersectional feminist movement choose to build strawmen arguments against Zionism by selectively highlighting right-wing voices and ignoring all of the liberal and moderate ones. I have encountered this first-hand when Linda Sarsour referred to my views in an op-ed I wrote as representing right-wing Zionism, even though I said in it that I support a two-state solution. While Rabbi Jacobs points out "those of us who consider ourselves Zionists and feminists must be advocating for an end to occupation and a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel," I would love to see fellow feminists equally reaffirm Israel's right to exist — and I worry that I haven't seen that enough, as well.
Sorry to be the one who brings up the rear! Honored to be in conversation with all of you.
I consider myself an activist, both professionally and as a private citizen. I don't believe that caring about the welfare of women and the welfare of the Jewish People are at odds. I certainly don't see feminism as a movement to help the individual -- when women are raised up, given opportunities, valued -- everyone benefits.
I don't believe that Zionism has been co-opted by right wingers and it is disappointing to hear this narrative being bandied about. I don't understand how my strong beliefs in liberalism and progressivism are somehow not in sync with my deep belief in the Jewish State. Intersectionality is a powerful and effective tool to push social movements forward and I wait patiently for the day when it's not just the Zionists who are being asked to make sense of the two "competing" ideologies.
I also didn't necessarily mean to create a hard distinction between collective (Zionism) and individual (feminism) rights. Though perhaps it is useful: when we speak about collective rights, we generally focus on robust political and civic communities. It is, I think, unusual for women to organize themselves in this way. (Although I can imagine, for instance, that opposition to Harvard's policy against single-sex organizations might be framed as a collective feminist struggle.)
I would press Emily's response to Rabbi Jacobs even further. Certain voices have not just coopted feminism with arbitrary definitions and misrepresented Zionism; they have also coopted intersectionality. "Intersectionality" is an analytical tool that offers an insight: It suggests that the experience of (and discrimination experienced by) individuals cannot always be captured by a single "ism." The experience of Black women is inadequately described by a simple equation of "racism+sexism." What this insight has to do with Israel and the Palestinians remains something of a mystery to me.
Perhaps the experience of a Palestinian woman who suffers under both Israeli military occupation and Palestinian societal misogyny is not adequately described by "occupation+misogyny." This would be an interesting and important insight, but I haven't seen much discussion of this. Instead, I see the term "intersectionality" being deployed as an empty coalition-building tool, used to compel feminists to join an Israel-bashing bandwagon. The implicit logic of this position is that because "all suffering is similar," feminists ought to jump on board with whatever someone else who experiences suffering feels. This, of course is the opposite of the intersectional insight: that different sufferings are distinct, and they must be analyzed, evaluated and treated distinctly.
I agree with a lot of the concerns Yishai has raised about the way intersectionality is applied — and they are related to a number of progressive (or so-called progressive) movements. However, they may be clearest with the direction of feminism in 2017. The way many leaders of the most prominent feminist displays this year, especially with the International Women's Strike, used intersectionality, it created a false choices by claiming if you support one cause or if you worry about one form of suffering, you must care about what we (the organizers) deem the one, specific group suffering in a situation.
What has been frustrating about so much of the intersectional feminist discussion is not that there's an attitude that if you care about the suffering of women, you must care about the suffering of Palestinians but that if you care about the suffering of women, you must care about the suffering of Palestinians and oppose Israel — and it's by no means clear from the platforms and statements from top organizers that this opposition is just towards specific Israeli policies. I have not seen thorough distinctions between opposing Israeli policies and opposing Israel's existence.
The only way we will breakthrough stereotypes of left and right wingers will be to have 1:1 conversations with both and try to understand where they are comin from. Of course we have zealots on both sides but it is the vast middle we need to get to. Too many people on the left feel attacked as "self-hating Jews" and do not want to engage with people who have different opinions in israel. To many people on the right believe there is a clear "right and wrong" and those that do not agree are wrong. Those of us who are "centrists" feel attacked by both ends of the spectrum. Meanwhile, if we could just engage in civil discourse we could actually accomplish something. After all don't we all agree Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state and so do the Palestinians. It often seems like their own leaders stand in the way!!
Just to be clear about what I meant about intersectionality: yes, at its root, this is about two overlapping identities resulting in something beyond the sum of their parts, AND one of the ways in which intersectionality is being used now involves an insistence on bringing one's whole self to the table-- that is, for example, refusing to give a pass to sexism or homophobia in a racial justice movement because "we're working on race right now." It makes sense to me that Palestinian women should want to bring their whole selves to the table, AND that Jewish women should as well. Intersectionality has to have space for Jewish identity along with all the other identities--otherwise, it's not truly intersectional (& likely anti-Semitic as well).
That said, I do NOT agree that in order to work on one issue, you have to work on all of the others. Human rights work necessarily makes choices-- if I'm working on refugee issues in the US, should a fair criticism be "you can't work on US issues unless you're also working on refugee issues in Europe" or "you can't work on refugees unless you also work on housing?" If we all had to work on everything, the end result would be nobody doing anything. Insisting that one must work on Palestinian issues to be part of a feminist movement makes no more sense than any of these. (though I might add that responding to people who do work on Palestinian rights by asking why they're not working on genital mutilation in Africa or whatever is much the same.)
AND though this is not specifically about feminism, I do want to emphasize that those of us who consider ourselves Zionists do no favors to Israel, Jews, Palestinians, or anyone else when our response to criticism of the occupation is denial or deflection. That only reinforces the idea that support for Israel requires support for the occupation and for the current right wing government.
Wow, this is getting exciting!
To answer the question posed by the moderator, I think Zionism is certainly focused on the liberation of the Jewish people collectively -- it’s a national liberation movement to maintain a viable homeland for the Jewish people. Does this empower individual Jews? Certainly. But that’s not the main focus.
Feminism, to me, is just the opposite. Feminism champions individual rights: equal pay, equal access to healthcare, equal protection from sexual harassment or assault. Protecting these individual rights also empower women collectively and improve society at large, to be sure. But the struggle is for the equal rights, equal protections, and equal opportunity for individual women.
Feminism much more naturally lends itself to intersectionality because of this, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
To answer the moderator’s second question, I do not believe Zionism and feminism are at all in conflict. But I also don’t believe anti-Zionism and feminism are at all in conflict, either. The attempt at intersectionality between them is odd to me, especially in Western feminism, because the vast majority of Western feminists aren’t really impacted at all by Zionism one way or another. Intersectionality is at its core ( I agree wholeheartedly with Yishai here) an analytical tool for understanding what’s necessary to level the playing field. For example (and pardon my thinking like an economist!), to equalize the labor market opportunity for an otherwise equal black woman, white woman, and white male, one must take into account not just the difference in opportunity they each face because of their genders, but also that which they face because of their race. This is only useful, however, when working towards a specific and actionable goal -- here, equal opportunity to become gainfully employed.
We should be careful not to use the term intersectionality when we really mean coalition building. Just look to the current coalition government in Israel: coalition building combines disparate groups that are working towards a shared aim -- it doesn’t circumscribe all the goals and aims of one group within another. Within any movement, individuality matters only insomuch as it has to do with the shared goal the group is working towards.
Those who attempt to bring Zionism or anti-Zionism into the feminist movement are missing this point. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that to understand a Palestinian woman as an individual, we need to understand the extent to which the occupation has impacted her. But does this play a meaningful role in helping shape and advance the policies that the feminist movement in the U.S. are working on advancing? I’m not so sure.
Once again, I'm going to attempt making a distinction - this time between the different things we mean when we say "intersectionality." This is drawing on much of what was said above.There seems to be one 'version' of intersectionality where we mean considering the ways in which our various social identities converge to shape our experiences. And when we talk about needing our feminism or Zionism to be intersectional, we mean that you can't fight for one form of equality without fighting for the other. It's about empathy and caring that every has equal rights. (This sounds similar to the coalition building that Laura just described, but it's not the same. You're banding together on principle, not simply as a means to an end.)But I think there's another version of intersectionality, where we consider not only the convergence of those social identities, but how that convergence amplifies the forms of oppression an individual (or group of individuals) experiences. Thus, it's not only about fighting for everyone to have equal rights (irregardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.), it's about resisting the systems of power in the world that make oppression possible.The former is perhaps about empathy and the latter about resistance.I think implicit in the second version of intersectionality is the claim that all systems of power are interconnected, and therefore if you are supporting one system that is oppressive (in this case Zionism), then by definition you can't be a feminist. Your Zionism is counteracting your feminist efforts to achieve equality.Perhaps the debate is hinging on two points :1) Whether or not you believe that caring about the rights of others means resisting a fundamentally interconnected system of power, AND2) Whether or not you believe that being a Zionist means you're supporting an oppressive state.(PS - Certainly did not mean to have a mysterious guise! I, Shira, am using the JOFA account to moderate.)
To address our fearless moderator's points (thanks, Shira!), that breakdown of "intersectionality" really does get at the heart of what we're talking about here. I believe there is use in the former (empathy), and to a lesser degree, for the latter (resistance). What is the sense in using an analytical tool that implies that I, as a Zionist, am not an ally or a partner in a social movement? Which is to say, why would I stand in solidarity for a movement that in no uncertain terms calls for my demise?
I feel for Palestinian women who are being oppressed. Do I feel like I can be part of a movement that calls for action against their "oppressor?" No, I can't. To me, that doesn't make me less of a feminist.
In the interest of moving beyond those issues on which (to quote Nancy) "we all agree," a thought:
Lots of us don't like the Israel's ongoing military occupation of Palestinian communities. But I think we disagree rather strongly about who is to blame for it. I think the bulk of responsibility lies with Palestinians: diplomatic intransigence, territorial maximalism, incompetent governance, a culture of intolerance etc. These are the core of what will have to change for the creation of a diplomatic solution and the occupation to end.
A large subset of the modern Left, including many passionate feminists and human rights activists, focus instead on Israel. I would suggest this is because they have general tendency to focus on "power imbalances" rather than moral choices. It's clear that Israel has more power than the Palestinians, and so--according to a certain simplistic Leftist discourse--Israel must be to blame. I think that an obsession with "power" rather than looking carefully at the choices people make is a wrong way to look at the world. But it seems to me a way of looking at the world that is deeply connected to a strong strand of contemporary feminist discourse.
I suspect Rabbi Jacobs would disagree, and I'd be very interested in hearing both from her and others if/where they think I went wrong.
To Yishai's question-- the argument about who is to blame takes us down an extremely unproductive rabbit hole. We could spend the next fifty years (or more) arguing about who did or didn't reject which peace deal when (and trust me, there are many opinions on all of these), or we could figure out how to fix things. For me, that's what Zionism is about--taking history into our own hands, rather than letting others make our history. From this perspective, the line of "we would make peace if only the Palestinians would. . ." etc. is profoundly non-Zionist. And as for who has power, Israel is the one with more power as the occupier, and Israel has used this power to expand settlements. (for those who think settlements aren't an issue, why not call the Palestinians' bluff & stop expanding--including natural growth--and see whether there's a deal to be made). That doesn't absolve Palestinians of blame--there's no excuse for blowing up civilians--but again, blame is not a useful construct here.
Responding to Rabbi Jacobs:
Saying that "blame is not a useful construct here," and that instead we should analyze conflicts in terms of power relations ("Israel is the one with more power") is precisely the tendency that I was hoping to identify and criticize. When analyzing conflict or suffering or injustice, we have to look at culpability and blame, because we have to know who to muscle/criticize into changing their behavior. And if we pile on the stronger party simply because they are stronger (rather than because they are in the wrong), we are engaged in our own injustice.
I agree that this forum is probably not the best place to rehash Israeli-Palestinian failures. But if much of modern Leftist (and particularly feminist) criticism of Israel is founded on a predisposition to vindicate the "less powerful" (rather than on a genuine analysis of who has made the severely wrong moral choices), I think this is a good place to discuss whether such a predisposition is legitimate.
I also take issue with the the suggestion from Rabbi Jacobs that culpability takes us down an "extremely unproductive rabbit hole." I think responsibility and the history of previous leadership and actions taken on the different sides of any conflict — including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict —is a tremendous concern. I feel especially strong about knowing and appreciating this history because as someone who is deeply embedded in the modern feminist movement and witnesses an array of conversations about Zionism among my peers (both professionally and socially), I am shocked at how little knowledge or appreciation there is for history. Yes, we must analyze the reality of a conflict in this moment, but if you do not thoroughly take into account what led to this point, there will be no lasting solution. With Israel and Zionism, I think solely focusing on what the Israel and Palestine look like today has been used as an excuse to paint Israel as the "oppressor" in broad brush strokes, and that is deeply problematic (yet perpetuated by many intelligent people).
To address our lovely moderator's post (Hi, Shira!), my responses to your two issues:
1) I'm not sure I agree with the premise that there is a "fundamentally interconnected system of power." I don't think it's helpful to lump together, let's say, legislators in Texas who want to keep women from accessing safe abortions and Iranian leaders who ban women from watching sports (and, by the way, think feminism is a Zionist plot). Thus, I don't think caring about others means resisting some allegedly, single interconnected system.
2) I certainly do not think that being a Zionist means I'm supporting an oppressive state. Israeli has an imperfect government, and so does the United States, and I consider myself a proud American and patriot, too. You can support while critiquing and pushing for change — and this nuance is something that is often, I find, lost in the momentum of intersectionality.
To answer Shira’s first question, I am much more interested in practicality than philosophy. Perhaps a “fundamentally interconnected system of power” exists. But what does resisting that look like? In feminism, what does “resisting the patriarchy” look like? And if we are to dismantle this power system, what is to replace it? Camille Paglia, a very smart woman (with whom I have very deep disagreements), has discussed these questions at length over the last two decades and most recently in her book Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, which I highly recommend.
I do believe, as a few of my fellow participants have noted, that it is vital to identify what led to the status quo, for better for worse. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides have done unhelpful things. I agree with Rabbi Jill that what matters now is progress, but I also agree with Yishai and Emily that understanding the conflict requires understanding the nuanced and complex history of the actions and ideologies of both sides.
Rather than resisting a fundamental system, I believe progress most often comes from working within the framework -- just as JOFA advocates for female empowerment within the system of Orthodoxy rather than abandoning it and many of us choose to work within the system of Zionism to oppose the occupation rather than abandoning Zionism (which to many on the left would seem the natural conclusion if one believes the Jewish state is oppressing Palestinians).
There is plenty of "blame" to go around but I am not sure it is a useful construct. Sadly, we are where we are and it is not a useful or constructive place to be. Whether you support settlements or do not you must agree that the current situation is not viable and is an impediment to achieving a two state solution. If you also believe, as I do, that the alternative is one state and it will either not be a Jewish state or will not be a democratic state. That is not acceptable to me or to NCJW so we need a resolution and we need it soon or the time will run out and israel will find herself either ruling over another people or no longer having a Jewish state. Neither option is good for democracy, good for the Jews or good for women and minority groups!
I want to pull out a few threads from this conversation so that we can perhaps transition towards the conclusion.
I think one important voice we're hearing is that being a Zionist doesn't mean you're complicit in all the actions taken by the Israeli government. There's a value to advocating for change within the system, and therefore in continuing to work within a Zionist framework.
Another voice we're hearing is one that is more critical of the application of an intersectional framework. While intersectionality might be a useful lens to understand a particular individual's experiences, it should not then be used to group together all the systems that caused that individual to experience disadvantages. (Which is to say, it's useful for understanding the unique struggles of a Palestinian woman in Gaza, but it should not then group together the Israeli government and patriarchal societies.) Such an application of intersectionality works in broad strokes that generally identify which groups have power and which do not.
I'm interested in having everyone respond to those points, but I also want to pose one last question before moving on to final thoughts.
Forgive me if this seems a bit simplistic or is repeating points that were made early on. But it seems to me that there is a more specific argument one can make for why it is not possible to be a Zionist and a feminist. One could argue that Palestinians (whether in the territories or within the '67 borders) do not have the same rights as Israelis under Israeli law. And this runs contrary to feminist values, which advocate for equal rights for all men and women. Thus, it's not a problem with the military occupation as an abstract expression of oppressive power. It's a specific criticism of a byproduct of that occupation. (For a stronger articulation of this position you can read Mairav Zonszein's piece in 972: https://972mag.com/the-ques....)
Does this argument carry more weight than the sort of abstract banding together of liberal causes that many of you described earlier in this thread?
Per your last paragraph and Mairav's article-- first, we should just clarify that Palestinians living in the occupied territories live under a different legal system (military) than Israelis & don't have the same rights, as you said (it's not that one could argue this--it's a fact). Palestinian citizens of Israel de jure have equal rights, but de facto don't. East Jerusalem is its own special story that I won't go into here. But the criticism of occupation isn't just about noting the negative impact on women (Palestinian and Israeli, I'd say), but a more general human rights critique of the whole enterprise.
There's also a broader feminist critique of occupation/militarism that many feminist anti-occupation groups/thinkers in Israel have made, as well as a discussion to be had about the specific impact of the situation on women and families on both sides. But that's not about Zionism, per se--it's about the current political reality.
There's one more issue that I want to mention, and that's about the all-male discourse on Israel. Whether at Jewish conferences, DC think tank events, in the pages of newspapers, etc. the people who get to talk about Israel/Palestine are almost always men. At Jewish conferences, I've noticed that women get invited to speak about women's rights in Israel, education about Israel, etc. but men are invited to speak about security, politics, etc. (the serious issues). This cuts across the right and the left. This maleness of the Israeli discourse is also reflected in the responses that women who dare speak about Israel often get--condescending for sure, and often sexual in nature. It's as if (some) men are so offended that a woman dare raise her voice about a big serious topic like Israel that they have to cut her down to size by wishing some sexual humiliation on her.
All of this, as I've said, is more about feminism IN Zionism, rather than feminism or Zionism.
I hesitate to go too deeply into Mairav's piece, but because she made wrongful assumptions about my article and my own thought process, there are a few things I would like to clarify that I think relate to to the overall question that JOFA/Shira mentioned.
One is that Mairav wrote "Shire gives the impression that she hasn’t sat down to consider how Palestinian women’s rights, in Israel and in the occupied territories, are systematically affected by Israel’s very raison d’être." Believe me, I have a thought quite a lot about the rights and suffering of Palestinian women — and it is because I have that I reject the notion that Israel and/or Zionism deserves full, prime, or even majority culpability of their suffering. I find Mairav's entire pice deeply problematic because she never tackles a key concern of mine— why Israel is scrutinized and censured abocw all other countries. She attempts to brush off this issues, writing "The International Women’s Strike platform could have mentioned all forms of oppression against women — not just Israel; that only Israel was mentioned is part of the zeitgeist." Briskly citing presumed disproportionate, discriminatory behavior towards Israel "as part of the Zeitgeist" is not a solid justification for its place in the International Women's Strike platform, and it evades the larger question of why we accept that as part of the zeitgeist.
I’ve read the 972+ piece several times in the past week, and Emily can probably respond to this better than I can, but I don’t think saying, “Hey, can you please not explicitly exclude me from your brand of feminism just for being a Zionist?” is at all the same thing as “ironically subjecting women active in the movement to her own [sic] litmus test,” as Mairav claims. The piece tries to make the argument that supporting Zionism means that you support the most extreme potentiality: a Jewish religious ethno-state from the river to the sea and the disenfranchisement of any non-Jews. I find this tremendously unfair. It’s like saying that believing in Palestinian self-determination means, ipso facto, that you are pro intifada, pro Hamas, pro… well, an Islamic religious ethno-state from the river to the sea and the disenfranchisement of any non-Muslims.
I think the specific argument Shira brings up, that Palestinians do not have the same rights as Israelis under Israeli law, is tremendously complicated. Not to toot the Forward’s horn (and I’ll note again that I’m not representing them or their views in this forum), but we just published a tremendously fascinating interview with George Steiner (an intellectual giant and an anti-Zionist) in which he, among other things, notes that he’s an anti-Zionist because he’s “completely arrogant ethically,” and notes that today, with a state of their own, “Israel must behave like the rest of so-called normal humanity.” And I do think there’s a big double standard going on when we consider the treatment of Palestinians in a vacuum. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve watched the utter humiliation that Palestinian workers go through when crossing through security checkpoints just to get to work firsthand. I’ve gone on a Nakba walk through Tel Aviv with a Palestinian who showed me photos of all the Palestinian buildings that used to be there before the Jewish people came. I’ve seen the utter poverty that plagues Palestinian villages scant miles outside of thriving modern Israeli cities. But I’ve also crouched in a Tel Aviv bomb shelter while listening to the Iron Dome shoot down a barrage of rockets above my apartment. I’ve seen firsthand the way the man who runs the main humanitarian crossing into Gaza, who used to live in Gaza and speaks perfect Arabic, agonizes over ensuring as much aid as possible enters while also trying to ensure no weapons or explosives do. I’ve worked in a newsroom (during the 2014 Gaza conflict) where many of my fellow journalists had children risking their lives trying to find the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped by Hamas. I was in Ezra Schwartz’s home community in Boston the week of his shiva. There is plenty of pain and suffering to go around. And I truly believe that Zionists must fight for the equal treatment and rights of all Palestinians. But it’s not as easy as snapping one’s fingers. And I think acknowledging that is really important. But my Zionism fights for the equal rights of all men and women, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Druze, Atheist, or Pastafarian, just as fiercely as my feminism does.
On a lighter note, I can also happily report that I haven’t experienced nearly the level of othering of the female perspective in pro-Israel spaces as Rabbi Jill has. The lack of female voices in STEM fields is something I’ve personally witnessed, but the pro-Israel spaces in which I operate haven’t really felt that way -- but maybe I’ve just been extremely fortunate!
Re Rabbi Jacob's point about the overwhelming maleness of the political/military discourse around Israel: Initially I was thinking that this imbalance might be a product of who's in the field. But then I remembered this devastating article by the Brookings Institution's incomparable Tamara Wittes, pointing out the huge number of women who are qualified and experienced to talk about these issues. So I'm curious why they are so absent from the public debates. Is it the misogynist reactions that Rabbi Jacobs described? Intra-male chumminess resulting in a lack of invitations? Differences in professional/family balance choices? All of the above?
Relatedly, I've noticed that (even beyond Israel) there is a glaring gender disparity between the "national security" and "human rights" worlds. The former is overwhelmingly dominated by men; the second has much better representation of women. And part of what's so bizarre is that the two fields require broadly similar kinds of expertise.
This disparity highlights another theme which we've been circling around--and which I think Rabbi Jacobs drew out explicitly: The connection between security-mindedness/militarism and masculinity. I'm genuinely not sure what to make of this.
One can recognize another group's suffering without being a co-signer on a platform that explicitly demands something that calls for your demise. I appreciate the high-minded arguments but at the end of the day for me, it's really pretty simple.
I think this leaves us in a good place to wrap up with closing thoughts and a final question.
I'd like to end by asking that everyone identify productive work that can be done on either side of the divide. At the beginning of this conversation you all identified the values that inform your activism and/or political stances. Are there ways in which we are not being rigorous enough in applying those values to the work we do? Where is there room for growth within both Zionist and feminist camps?
Regardless of where we stand politically, what can we do to try and bridge what feels like an ever growing chasm between the left and the right? How can we foster meaningful dialogue with people that we disagree with? How do Jews (or anyone really) who identify as Zionist and feminist make space for themselves in a political climate that asks that you sacrifice one "ism" in order to have the other?
I am going to apologize for how cheesy my response is going to sound. My only (weak) defense for the schmaltziness is that I don't think there is a magic bullet for dealing with an increasingly polarized country, whether in discussions about feminism, Zionism, or any other topic. I think the best thing people can do is to swallow fear they have about sharing their views and talk; share in a calm, rationale measured way. I have been told by many female college students across the country that they have been afraid to publicly identify as Zionists and share support (even measured or critical support) for Israel. I am so disheartened that there is such stigma, and I think people, especially younger people, need role models for how to discuss tough issues in a calm, measured way so that they aren't shamed into silence.
At the same time, I think it is absolutely critical that we look for common ground with people were think are our ideological enemies, when possible. Listening has been especially critical for me when discussing feminism and Israel, because I realized how many people didn't know what Zionism was and there were clear misconceptions about what it means to be one. I think so much of the polarization comes from people not necessarily knowing what terms precisely mean (or how they are being used) when they are debating issues.
I'd say that the most important thing that we can do is to stand up for our values consistently. That means standing up BOTH for Israel's right to exist AND for ending the occupation that is destroying Palestinian & Israeli lives, AND bring our feminist commitments to every conversation and action, whether it's about ensuring that the voices of women get heard, or standing up for women's rights in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, or calling out misogyny when it emerges in any of these conversations or actions.
I am willing to have hard conversations with people who disagree with me - both in terms of women's issues and Zionism. I'm willing to consider the rights and lives of Palestinian women, certainly, but again, I am not willing to be part of a coalition that calls for the "decolonization" of Israel or lionizes a convicted murderer/terrorist. Some conversations are not worth having.
Thank you all for including me in this conversation.
I'd suggest that people try to recognize that values often clash, and that moral trade-offs are real. A commitment to Zionism necessarily means recognizing that maximalist Palestinian national aspirations can never be fully realized. A commitment to Palestinian nationalism means sacrificing a part of the Zionist dream. Occupation and militarism harden a culture, and perhaps entrench toxic notions of masculinity. But withdrawal or disarmament comes with its own set of physical dangers. The tragic reality is that sometimes rights are zero-sum: vindicating the rights or needs of some often involves causing suffering or insecurity to, and infringing on the rights of, others.
Many of us will ultimately disagree about which costs we are willing to bear (or demand that others bear). But the more we can be honest about what these costs and trade-offs are, the more we will realize that the positions--and the people--with whom we disagree are actually reasonable.
Thank you for including me in this conversation and, through me, National Council of Jewish Women. It is critical that we have "difficult conversations" not only with those with whom we agree but also with those with whom we disagree in our own families, our communities and beyond. I would urge us to engage Melissa Weintraub, director of "Resetting the Table" in facilitating a larger conversation among leaders
in the Jewish community. I believe she has support from UJA New York and, perhaps, we can expand our conversation to include representatives of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable AND the Conference of Presidents. I am a member of both organizations and would be happy to reach out to each of them. Noone should be asked to compromise their personal or institutional values, but as Jewish communal leaders each of us must be willing to listen and learn from those with whom we may not agree.
And let us say, AMEN!
I also want to express my appreciation to JOFA and my fellow panelists for this lively discussion.
Progress will come -- in our divided country, in feminism, in Zionism — only when people learn to practice radical empathy and internalize the fact that multiple truths can exist simultaneously.
In both feminism and Zionism, I think we should focus on tangible outcomes and measurable progress rather than trying to impose litmus tests on members. In Zionism, we must strive to understand Palestinian and Israeli suffering, and work towards peace while striving to understand what both sides must sacrifice to get there. We cannot focus on one obstacle in a vacuum — it’s not just about the Israeli occupation or just about terror attacks from Hamas.
Finally, I believe the most important thing to remember is that an “ism” that lives chiefly in an armchair is a very unhelpful ism indeed. If you are to practice Zionism, or anti-Zionism, you must go to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and listen to and learn from people of all walks of life who are currently living there. If you are to practice feminism, you must speak to and learn from women of all walks of life and strive to understand their needs. Only by living in the world itself, not our ivory (or digital) towers, can we ever hope to create lasting change.
And that brings our thread to a close.I want to thank all our panelists for making time this week to participate in this conversation, and for writing such thoughtful responses to my questions and to what your co-panelists wrote. There was a clear willingness to push each other in a dialogue, which allowed us to foster a rich, robust conversation.As many of you noted, this kind of sincerity and willingness to engage with people of different perspectives is what we need to see more of in public discourse. I hope we can all continue to lead by example and have those difficult conversations both within and beyond our peer networks.
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