April 22, 2019

Zionism and Feminism 101: A Guide by Janet Freedman

By Amy Powell

Last year, sparked by two widely read articles in The New York Times and The Nation, a lively and contentious debate on the place of Zionism within feminism emerged with well known voices facing off on either side.

Is the controversy new? Prior to the publications of the articles that kicked off so much debate, the op-ed in The New York Times by Emily Shire, Bustle politics editor, Does Feminism Have Room for Zionists, and the rejoinder in The Nation, an interview with Palestinian-American feminist activist Linda Sarsour, Can You Be a Zionist Feminist? Linda Sarsour Says No, the issue bubbled up often in within the history of the application of intersectionality in both the women’s movement and the academy.

In an effort to understand the context, vocabulary and history, Janet Freedman, resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center and member of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s Academic Advisory Committee, published “Feminism and Zionism” a free, downloadable pamphlet published through the Academic Engagement Network’s Pamphlet Series.

The pamphlet outlines the issues and their history along with useful definitions, turning points and trends. Subheadings include The Linking of Women’s Rights and Anti-Zionism: The United Nations Women’s Conferences, Ms. Magazine Responds, The National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) and Its Jewish Caucus, Coming Home to a Changed Community, Coming Out as a Zionist, An Assault on Academic Freedom and Democracy, My Experience in 2015, A Surprise That Should Not Have Surprised Me, Suggestions for Action and Conclusion: What Has Worked for You?

Freedman also discusses basic questions like, “Should you stay or should you go?” when an organization feels anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic. She urges people to continue to march, to join, but with greater knowledge of the platforms and issues espoused by various organizations and activist responses. For example, Freedman remained a member of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) despite the adoption of a pro-BDS resolution and is now urging the association to provide a hospitable and open environment for Jewish members that goes beyond defining Judaism in the simplistic framework of one’s view of Israel and Palestine.

“When you walk away, you ensure that your views are not heard,” Freedman says, “so, it’s important to stay and try to have a meaningful conversation.”

Freedman began publishing on Zionism and feminism two years ago. Between November, 2015 and March, 2017, Freedman wrote a series of blogs on related topics for Fresh Ideas and The Sisterhood  including A Statement in Opposition to the NWSA Resolution on BDS, For the Women’s Studies Association, the BDS Vote Was Over Before It Began  and Unfinished Business: Remaining in the NWSA, Post BDS about her experiences as one of the lone voices speaking at the 2015 National Women’s Studies Association conference in opposition to a Boycott, Divestment and Sanction resolution against Israel before the membership.

The Academic Engagement Network (AEN), an organization of faculty members, administrators, and staff members from American college and university campuses across the United States committed to opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, affirming academic freedom and freedom of expression in the university community, and promoting robust discussion of Israel on campus, invited her to create the pamphlet after she wrote these blogs. Her work on the Zionism and Feminism pamphlet led to another response to Shire and Sarsour in Fresh Ideas, co-authored with colleague Ruth Nemzoff,  a resident scholar at the WSRC, entitled, Not My Feminism.

One of the most useful parts of Freedman’s pamphlet is the Suggestions for Action, ways that “faculty members can work toward fostering a more positive climate on campus and in academic associations.” The goal is to find “the words to say it and the ways to do it” including the challenge of finding words to clearly explain one’s views in an increasingly polarized political climate.

Although this work grew out of Freedman’s experience within an academic organization, she is eager to discuss and encourage discussion of the controversy of Zionism and feminism outside the academy and to learn from the experiences of others.

Says Freedman, “My greatest goal for this pamphlet is that it serves as an impetus for productive dialogue on these important topics.”

Download a free copy of Feminism and Zionism. 

Dr. Janet Freedman is a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, a member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice (McFarland, 2014). She has a grant from AEN to begin a study group on Zionism and feminism.

For the Women’s Studies Association, the BDS Vote Was Over Before It Began

By Janet Freedman –

This blog is published in partnership with The Sisterhood and is a follow up to an earlier blog posted by Janet Freedman in Fresh Ideas from HBI. –

The results of the vote on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution put forth by the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) came over email this past Friday. Of those voting, 88.4 percent or 653 people approved the BDS resolution; 86 opposed. Thirty five percent of the NWSA membership voted. As a longtime member of NWSA, who has observed the organizing strategies that led to the vote, I knew its passage was a foregone conclusion.

The NWSA resolution calls for the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” of economic, military and cultural entities and projects sponsored by the State of Israel. The leadership of the NWSA (without consultation with the association’s Jewish Caucus) sponsored official sessions in which speakers presented only one perspective in the BDS debate. These include a 2014 plenary on Israel/Palestine in which no Israeli was asked to speak and after which attendees who had heard a litany of remarks against Israel were asked to stand in support of “freedom and justice for/in Palestine.”

I have long been involved in the NWSA, and for a time served as chair of its Jewish Caucus. My commitment to working as a Jewish feminist includes directing the Women’s Studies program and co-directing the Center for Jewish Culture at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where I worked for twenty-five years before joining the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. While I can convey my progressive politics in Jewish groups, increasingly, I do not feel I can express my Jewish voice within the progressive community, including NWSA which has been one of my homes for many years. With just a few gaps, I have returned to conference after conference since the late 1970s because I want to engage in “difficult dialogues,”  the theme of not one but two recent conferences.

Since the NWSA had not offered occasions to present a legitimate discussion on pros and cons of the resolution, I felt it was important for me to accept an opportunity to speak at this year’s conference for five minutes on a BDS roundtable sponsored by the Jewish Caucus entitled “‘Two Jews, Three Opinions’: A Critical Query of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction Movement Against the Israeli Occupation” which offered a singular opportunity to present divergent viewpoints on the resolution. One other woman spoke against the resolution and two spoke in favor.

I used my time to demonstrate how the “Frequently Asked Questions” appended to the resolution and intended to allay concerns about its content instead provided the very reasons that it should be rejected.

The FAQ responding to apprehensions about whether the BDS resolution could be seen as anti-Semitic was addressed with this rejoinder: “(W)hat is really anti-Semitic is the attempt to identify all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.” I observed that such presumptive, condescending language reprises the ancient appeal to the “good” Jew, in this case one who sides with those who see Israel as a demonic entity. The tactic of seeking out the exceptional ones in a despised group is one that has long been used to reinforce despicable racism and anti-Semitism.

I also spoke against the egregious assault on academic freedom found in the explication in the FAQs of activities that would violate the boycott. Not only would a seminar talk in partnership with or sponsored by an Israeli institution not be allowed, but even telephone conversations are subject to the boycott. “By itself, a phone conversation with an Israeli academic does not constitute a violation of the boycott. However, institutional partnership is subject to boycott; therefore we urge academics, in exercising their own academic freedom, to refuse all collaboration with complicit institutions and their official representative.”

As the conference proceeded I became aware that the content of the resolution before the organization was irrelevant to most members. In fact, almost everyone with whom I spoke had not even read the resolution. In retrospect, I realize that support for both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and dignity and the encouragement of exchanges that respect all those involved are not goals of this resolution.

So what did I learn? I learned what I need to keep relearning:

The zeal with which many come to their position on BDS is often in contrast with an awareness of history or a respect for the accuracy of information brought to their advocacy.

  • The BDS movement is not aimed at resolving differences. Supporters at the conference excoriated Israel, including statements from some that Israel should not be allowed to exist. Palestinians were valorized and any criticism of egregious misdeeds on their part excused as a necessary response to Israeli aggression.
  • While professing the challenging of interlacing systems of oppression that must be addressed together, anti-Semitism is frequently unseen or excluded. The Jewish invisibility and anti-Semitism within NWSA that led to the formation of a Jewish Caucus in the 1980s continues to exist. In response to this, fewer Jewish women have sustained their commitment to the organization and there is a paucity of sessions on the varied histories, lives, issues and activism of Jewish women.
  • The voices of Jews and others whose positions are rooted in the right of Israel to exist as a state have been silenced. Following my remarks at the BDS round table, there was just one comment from the audience validating some of my points, but I received many private expressions of support and appreciation for my “courage.” Several people told me it would be damaging to their careers to openly express opposition to the resolution.

I have more work to do to resist trying to ingratiate myself with the left. Through many years of involvement in progressive politics I have observed in myself and others the struggle to be aligned with positions taken by other left-learning colleagues. Even with the experience I have had within NWSA, I initially thought, as have other, mostly Jewish, opponents to the excessive rhetoric of  BDS resolutions in other organizations, that there could  be an “acceptable” resolution that would acknowledge the multiple dimensions of the Palestine/Israel conflict. I need to disabuse myself and discourage others from seeking affirmation from those who, in reality, do not respect me and to relinquish the idea that it makes sense to invest time in trying to gain their approval by efforts to reshape resolutions intended to delegitimize Israel.

The BDS movement directs our energy away from ways to find a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians. It oversimplifies to the point of gross inaccuracies.

I described myself to the NWSA round table audience as a “progressive, feminist, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace Jew.” Having a thorough, thoughtful exchange of what each of those words mean to me and others might have been the basis for a constructive dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that has not occurred. Despite the passage of the BDS resolution I still want that dialogue and intend to continue to seek solutions to this struggle based upon deep reflection rather than simplistic, formulaic sound bites.

FreedmanDr. Janet Freedman is a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, a member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice (McFarland, 2014).

 

A Statement in Opposition to the NWSA Resolution on BDS

By Janet Freedman

The National Women’s Studies Association, at their annual conference beginning Nov. 14, will hear arguments for and against their proposed resolution, to support an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel, in support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement.

Dr. Janet Freedman, a longtime member of the NWSA as well as a member of the HBI’s Academic Advisory Board and a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, prepared these remarks in opposition.

FreedmanWhen I am determining how to work in solidarity with those who are seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians, I start with a question.

Do you think that the state of Israel should continue to exist?

My support for any action on the Israeli/Palestinian issue is predicated on knowing that those involved are committed to the continued existence of the state of Israel.

I am equally committed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The divide between the aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis has deepened to the point of despair on both sides and throughout the world.

When I read the BDS resolution proposed for endorsement by the NWSA, and the supporting FAQs, I am deeply offended. The material in support of the resolution states:

“What is really anti-Semitic is to define all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.”  

I am angry to have my Judaism defined for me and to be told by NWSA what is “really anti-Semitic.”

While I can convey my progressive politics in Jewish groups, increasingly, I do not feel I can express my Jewish voice within the progressive community, including NWSA, which has been one of my homes for many years. With just a few gaps, I have returned to conference after conference since the late 1970s because I want to engage in “difficult dialogues,” the theme of two recent conferences.

But, in spite of this proposed resolution, there has been little dialogue about Israel and Palestine. I am aware and saddened that the zeal with which many come to their position on BDS is often in contrast with an awareness of history, or a respect for the accuracy of the information brought to their advocacy.  Although I have read a good deal about Zionism and about the countries and political struggles in the Middle East, this has not yielded clarity, but an acknowledgement of myriad complexities and contradictions.

I feel it is important to bring knowledge, understanding and careful reflection to every action, and that it is particularly important to learn from people who are affected by the conflict every day – the Israelis and Palestinians whose familial, spiritual, economic and political pasts, presents and futures are involved. Tourists, and even those who regularly spend some periods of time living in the area cannot speak from the personal experience of Israelis or Palestinians.  From my relatively secure environment in the United States I can only imagine the terror that affects them.

The BDS movement directs our energy away from ways to find a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.  It oversimplifies to the point of gross inaccuracies. Terms such as “imperialism,” “colonizing” and other tropes distort actual history.  The rhetoric turns a complex issue into a two-sided one that erases many narratives. It equates supporting BDS resolutions with a pledge of solidarity with Palestine while placing those who question that strategy in the enemy camp, assumed to be opposed to justice and even made the objects of scorn and vitriol.  Organizing efforts have become ends in themselves, unintentionally – and sometimes intentionally – based on the spreading of rumors and misinformation to the detriment of the people who are actually involved in the daily struggle. It is anti-Semitic. I would ask those who villainize Israel while insisting they do not hate Jews to consider Audre Lorde’s words: “I urge each of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here.”

Jews recently celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the ending of the last reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle, and invites Jews to rejoice in the source of their religious identity. I remember the time as a young child when my father and other males in the synagogue marched around the sanctuary taking turns holding the holy scrolls close to their hearts. Israel had just become a state and much of the world – including the progressive community – rejoiced with our congregation. Last month I celebrated the holiday once again. We formed a circle; now women and children as well as men held the hand-lettered sacred scroll, slowly unfurled to reveal the ancient texts that underscore the Jewish values of Torah, avodah (prayer and service to the community) and gemilut chassidim (acts of loving kindness).

My granddaughter, soon to be a bat mitzvah, joined other children also marking that milestone this year. They stood before the portion they will read on their special day and summarized their parts of the stories that shaped my life and values, the Jewish commitment to social justice – and my granddaughter’s legacy. It is the story that took the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

I am inspired by my tradition, but know that a complex history followed the events recorded in the Torah that have brought us to the present, very difficult moment.

Like other religious and political communities, the Jewish community includes fundamentalists and extremists, but it is diverse and inclusive, too. It is not always easy, but I can bring a progressive voice to Jewish settings. I can find personal affirmation, a welcoming community with whom to pray in my own way, and to express and be respected for my efforts to be progressive, feminist, pro Israel/pro Palestine/pro peace and to acknowledge and explore commitments and contradictions with other Jews.

I cannot allow the words of this resolution and these FAQs to tell me whether a “good” Jew is one who sides with those who see Israel as a demonic entity or to imply that if I do not, I do not deserve to be heard, to be seen, perhaps even to live.

I am not among those who feel that they can be Jewish without supporting the existence of the state of Israel. I know too many people who would have no home without that home.

I am shocked and offended that an academic organization that prides itself on “difficult dialogue” would adopt any sort of boycott of ideas.

We can do better than this. We must do better than this. If we do not the search for justice will devolve into a call for vengeance.

I hope you will join me in opposing the endorsement of the BDS resolution.

Dr. Janet Freedman is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center and author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice.

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