Zionism, Meet Feminism

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Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a board member and past president of Americans for Peace Now.  (originally published in Peter Beinart's ZION SQUARE blog on The Daily Beast, February 14, 2012).

In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf wrote, "As a woman my country is the whole world."  I used to believe this; I thought divisions of nation, race, class, and faith could be trumped by a universalist vision of gender equality, justice, and peace.

Then came the UN's Decade for Women. In 1975, its first international conference famously produced the "Zionism is racism" resolution.  Five years later, when the second conference saw virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric, threats, and violence, I asked myself, why am I working to liberate women if they're going to turn around and  attack Jews?
Enough with the universalist dream. That global feminism could be the proxy for anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aroused my curiosity about what similar sentiments might exist among American feminists.  I investigated and documented anti-Semitism in the women's movement in a 1982 article in Ms. magazine that inspired considerable soul-searching within the organized feminist community--and attempts by some in the organized Jewish community to scare Jewish women away from feminism.

Since then, I've felt split at the root, one side of me struggling against the hijacking of feminism for anti-Israel aims (with an occasional dash of Jew-hating thrown in), the other side resisting the institutionalized patriarchy and entrenched sexism of Jewish institutions, including those of the Zionist left.

Much has complicated the picture over the years--feminism's fractured identity politics, especially some unfortunate black-Jewish enmity, and the polarized left/right politics of the Jewish world, especially around the Lebanon war, the first intifada, the Oslo Accords, the Gaza incursion, and the Turkish flotilla.  Accordingly, a woman like me, who answers to both worlds, finds it increasingly difficult to be a feminist among Zionists and a Zionist among feminists.

Still, I keep trying, both as a political activist and an advocacy journalist. I carry the agendas of both movements with me as I move between them with the objective of raising each constituency's consciousness of the needs of the other, sometimes to marshal feminist support for a two-state solution, sometimes to impress upon Zionists, liberal or otherwise, the importance of including women in political decision-making and peace-making.  On both fronts, I'm still struggling to reconcile my feminism and my Zionism.

Wearing my Zionist hat, I deplore those feminists whose knee-jerk affinity with "the oppressed" leads them to deny Israel's right to exist, to excuse Palestinian terrorists, or, without parsing the consequences, to disavow the two-state solution in favor of a secular bi-national state.

I lose patience with feminists who fiercely condemn Israel's treatment of Palestinians but fall silent when it comes to the treatment of women in Arab countries; who critique Jewish fundamentalism but are so hobbled by cultural relativism or the fear of being seen as Islamophobic, that they hesitate to condemn Muslim gender apartheid, honor killings, female genital mutilation, child marriages or the stoning of women.

I've faulted women on the left for their deafening silence when Israeli doctors were barred from a breast cancer conference in Cairo; for supporting boycotts of Israeli artists and academics, many of whom are feminists and peace activists; and for endorsing every brand of feminist identity politics--black, Asian, Latina, Arab, lesbian, disabled, environmentalist, PETA--except the one that labels itself Jewish and Zionist.

Then, donning my feminist hat, I shudder when any American Jew makes common cause with politicians because of their strong support of Israel and despite their flaccid or nonexistent support of women's issues. It especially rankles when the liberal wing of Zionism fails to shine a spotlight on the anti-women behavior of "pro-Israel" Americans, and I don't just mean Conservative Republicans and Evangelical Christians.

I cringe when a Zionist responds to feminist critiques of Israel by calling the critic a "self hating Jew." The fact is, the Zionist dream has not delivered for women.

Israeli women make seventy agorot for each shekel earned by men with the same qualifications. Married women are interrogated by an "abortion panel" before they can exercise their right to control their fertility. Images of women in the media are frequently erased or vandalized and women's voices silenced. Gender segregation exists in the public sphere, on some buses, sidewalks, beaches, and in grocery stores.  Orthodox men harass non-Orthodox women and girls with impunity. Women are consigned to second class roles in the IDF, hampering their future success in a society that blatantly privileges those with top military experience. Rates of domestic violence and rape have risen. Women in the Jewish State are still being trafficked and kept as sex slaves.

While paying lip service to feminism, many liberal Zionists fail to protest such inequities. They make scant room for women on their panels, in their official delegations, and as spokespersons and writers for the cause.  They see women as victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but not as agents or partners in the effort to resolve it.

People who care about Israel's destiny ought to worry not just about the nation's security but about its character. To my mind, Zionism is to Jews what feminism is to women--an ongoing struggle for self-determination, dignity, and justice.  Yet all too often, depending on where I stand, whether as a feminist in Zionism or a Zionist in feminism, one or another essential part of me is likely to feel displaced, denigrated, unseen, or unheard.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a board member and past president of Americans for Peace Now, co-founder of the (now-defunct) International Center for Peace in the Middle East, and co-founder of several Palestinian/Jewish dialogue groups, one of which has been ongoing for three years. She is a founding editor of Ms. magazine, is the author of nine books, including Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America.

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