October 20, 2019

Unfinished Business: Remaining in the NWSA, Post BDS

By Janet Freedman –

Just about a year ago, I wrote two HBI blogs, A Statement in Opposition to the NWSA Resolution on BDS and For the Women’s Studies Association, the BDS Vote Was Over Before It Began about my 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 resolution passed by a large majority. This was not a surprise given the strategies employed by the leadership of the organization, which included plenary sessions on Israel/Palestine with no presentations in support of Israel and no speakers in opposition to BDS.  

Also not surprisingly, a number of the members of NWSA and its Jewish Caucus left the organization, a decision I respected and initially considered.  Upon reflection, however,  I decided to stay. I was not ready to cede the struggle to the BDS advocates. Their tactics, employed in the name of feminism, seemed to me to be a rejection of the social justice agenda of the feminist movement.

So, despite my dismay that the pro-BDS resolution passed, I returned to this year’s conference.  Here’s one reason why: I do not want NWSA  to become a space without voices in favor of Israel’s survival and development. I decided that staying and countering the anti-Israel perspectives would be more positive than resignation.  I believe that a majority of NWSA attendees know very little about the history of Israel/Palestine and many who adopted a pro-BDS position did so because it was presented as “progressive” and/or “feminist.” Though many fell in with the virulent pro-BDS rhetoric at NWSA, only 35 percent of the membership took enough interest to vote.  Providing accurate information on an extraordinarily complex issue and maintaining and enlarging a counter-narrative to the pervasive anti-Israel ideology is essential.

There are other reasons to stay as well. I want to work for a positive Jewish presence within NWSA that includes but goes beyond Israel/Palestine issues and  honors the diverse contributions of Jews and Jewish culture. That means expanding the recently revived but struggling Jewish Caucus that was founded in the 1980s in response to anti-Semitism within the organization and the larger feminist movement.

The BDS controversy has reduced Jewish presence in NWSA to which side we support on this particular issue. Jews who have worked for myriad social justice concerns now routinely face tests of their “left” credentials and Jewish personhood that are measured by their willingness to support BDS resolutions. This narrow focus has stifled presentations on Jewish history, life, literature, art, music, philosophy and other stimuli of scholarship, teaching and learning within the field of Women and Gender Studies.

I stayed because I also believe that removing oneself from organizations that are important to professional development will limit the presence of Jews within many  fields in which they have made and continue to make significant contributions.

For most of my career I worked as a librarian and benefited from membership in the national American Library Association (which has also been the target of BDS organizers) as well as state and local consortiums that provided support for increasing access to information for all. These were settings that helped me keep up and contribute to changes and challenges in the field, connect with like-minded people and advocate for issues that drew me to librarianship, including a commitment to intellectual freedom that is shattered by BDS resolutions.

I simultaneously participated in the NWSA for 30- plus years. As the Dean of Library Services at UMass Dartmouth with a joint appointment as a faculty member, I taught a Women’s Studies course each semester. NWSA provided a venue to meet with librarians and faculty who shared my commitment to feminism. I eventually became the Director of the Women’s Studies Program and the program directors’ gatherings were important to that assignment.

What gratified me most about NWSA was the Jewish Caucus, which brought Jewish members and their allies together to raise and address the ways in which Jews were included – and excluded – within the organization and the larger women’s movement. The Caucus held a Shabbat service at each conference, planned and presented sessions on the diversity of Jewish culture and perspectives, and advanced ways to integrate these into Women and Gender Studies programs. The issues raised were intended to assure that Jews were included within WGS curriculum and that this inclusion challenged essentialist stereotypes that undermined the recognition of the multiple backgrounds, identities and viewpoints of Jews.  

With these several reasons, I returned to the NWSA conference in November, 2016 to test my assumption that BDS can best be fought from a place of affirmation of the myriad aspects of Jewish identity. And I witnessed hopeful indications that there will be a revitalized  Jewish presence within NWSA.

Jewish feminist involvement in NWSA has been dwindling for a number of years, but about 20 people attended the Shabbat service and it proved to be healing around issues such as the recent U.S. presidential election. Following the hour scheduled for observance, about a dozen people stayed another hour and a half to talk. Along with one session on Israel/Palestine that was less polarizing than previous such panels, there were two additional sessions of Jewish interest. This made me optimistic that, as had occurred in the past, Jewish issues and culture can and will be woven into women and gender studies programs. Finally, two young Ph.D candidates agreed to co-chair the Jewish Caucus. I am confident that their energy and ideas will rejuvenate this constituency group, expand  “Jewish” beyond a single focus, and model a commitment to dialogue and intellectual exchange that is at the heart of teaching and scholarship. 

I’m proud to be associated with Hadassah-Brandeis Institute which played a valuable role  in supporting the development of Jewish women’s studies courses by funding The Status of Jewish Women’s Studies in the United States and Canada, published in 1999. At that point, researcher Tobin Belzer reported there were 188 courses on Jewish women taught by 143 professors at 85 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. I wonder what a similar study would reveal about Jewish Women’s Studies today? My observations suggest that Jewish feminist scholars are facing a more challenging academic environment. It would be useful to corroborate this by repeating this survey. Meanwhile I hope scholars will continue to create courses that recognize the ethnic, racial and gender diversity of Jews and their contributions to knowledge and social justice.

It is clear that there is a lot more unfinished business that needs to be undertaken. Here’s to  a new generation who will continue to create a space for Jewish scholars within NWSA.  L’dor va d’or.

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)

Comments

  1. Shulamit Reinharz says:

    Hi Janet, Thanks for writing this. By staying involved with the NWSA you are taking an action that is opposite to what BDS does, i.e. boycotting. I hope that his blog is forwarded far and wide so that others will think about what organizations they will stick with. Warmly, Shula

  2. Beth Girioni says:

    I am in complete agreement with this approach and commend you for your deep thinking and processing of this difficult issue.

    I especially connected with your statement: “I want to work for a positive Jewish presence within NWSA that includes but goes beyond Israel/Palestine issues and honors the diverse contributions of Jews and Jewish culture.” The idea of pegging the Israel/Palestine issue as a definition of Judaism and Jewish culture is limiting and confining.

  3. Naomi Myrvaagnes says:

    Janet,
    Your steadfast, quiet leadership is of the highest order. Thanks for the report. The hope in it is due to people like you.

  4. Meri-Jane Rochelson says:

    Janet, thank you for this principled discussion and for your important decision to remain as a voice of diversity in the NWSA. I am getting ready to livestream the Israel/Palestine discussion at the MLA convention and, as with earlier votes, I intend to maintain my membership regardless of the outcome. Our voices need to be heard, and our scholarship in Jewish studies–in every field–needs to be valued.

  5. Rosie Rosenzweig says:

    Janet thanks for your reasoned approach to a heated topic. Please keep up your good work here.

  6. Phyllis Holman Weisbard says:

    For many years I was a member of NWSA and active in the Jewish Caucus and was sad to see it dwindle in recent years. I am heartened by Janet’s report on the 2016 turn-out for the Shabbat service. I hope it is the start of a rebirth.

    It’s very hard to be a supporter of Israel within NWSA — however much I disagree with current Israeli government policies, I support Israel’s right to exist and oppose BDS. I admire Janet for sticking with NWSA. I didn’t.

    I want to second Janet’s call for a new survey of Jewish Women’s Studies. If HBI takes up the call, I suggest that the survey reach deeper and look for units or topics including Jewish women on syllabi in more general courses on women and gender. It’s important to have courses entirely on Jewish women, but it also is important to survey the validation of the distinctiveness of Jewish women’s experiences by examining their presence in courses on women’s history, women writers, gender and sexuality, etc.

  7. Tobin Belzer says:

    I’m honored that my study from so long ago was mentioned. Thanks Janet.
    A small and totally inconsequential editorial note: it’s Tobin Belzer, not Beltzer.

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