June 5, 2023

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).


Good Morning Heartache: International Law and the Global Challenges Facing Women

By Amy Sessler Powell

In the torch song, Good Morning Heartache, Billie Holiday sings, “Good morning heartache thought we said goodbye last night,
I turned and tossed ’til it seemed you had gone, But here you are with the dawn.”

Some say the lyrics refer to a lover and others believe they relate to her struggle with heroin addiction, but Law Professor Fareda Banda sees the lyrics as a metaphor for the “two steps forward – one step back” pace of the global struggle for women’s rights.

“You think things are getting settled. Huge progress is being made. Then you wake up, hear the news and learn that 493 million women still can’t read,” she said.

Prof. Banda studies the role that international human rights law can play in reducing discrimination against women around the world. She is the author of “Women, Law and Human Rights: An African Perspective,” the leading text on the struggle for gender equality in Africa. She will address the tug-of-war that represents global women’s rights when she delivers Good Morning Heartache: International Law and the Global Challenges Facing Women, the Fifth Annual Diane Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights, Sunday, November 9 at 7:30 p.m., Rapaporte Treasure Hall, Goldfarb Library, Brandeis University.

Fareda Banda

Fareda Banda

Uniquely qualified to speak on these topics, Banda is a leading international scholar on human rights and a professor of law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Currently a Hauser Global visiting professor at New York University School of Law, she has consulted to the United Nations and taught on three continents.

“There is no region in world where women enjoy de facto equality, but in most they do have de jure equality,” Banda said.

What actually happens in every region of the world is quite a bit different than what the law promises. The gulf between the two relates in part to gender stereotyping and in part to a need to move toward transformative equality, to look beyond the law and focus on attitudinal change.

“What happens now is that people think we need law, but in most jurisdictions we have enough law guaranteeing women rights. On some issues, we need to stop making law and start practicing, enforcing and implementing laws we have,” Banda said.

The laws give a starting point so women can make complaints, but law is not the only answer. Her lecture will look at normative gains – the body of important international legal work done in the last 20 years that protects women’s rights and equates women’s rights with human rights. But, she will also detail egregious violations in every region of the world. For example, the World Health Organization, in the 2013 report, noted that one in three women would experience violence in her lifetime.

The lecture will offer a “balance sheet, a state-of-the-union” showing examples such as progress in violence prevention and in greater participation by women in education, but areas where women are still being held back such as reproductive rights.

Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, director of the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law said, “Professor Banda brings to bear a deep understanding of the operation of domestic and international law and the practical challenges in implementing these rights. She also has a complex understanding, based on her study of law reform efforts across Africa, of the ways in which culture and tradition can be involved, to enable as well as to impede, legal change that will benefit women.”

The Markowicz Lecture Series was created by the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law by Project Founder Sylvia Neil and her husband Dan Fischel in memory of Sylvia’s late sister, Diane, to honor her commitment to gender, equality and social justice. The series features internationally renowned scholars, judges, and activists discussing ways of negotiating the tensions between gender, equality and religious or cultural norms.

Amy Powell is the HBI Communications Director.

RSVP to attend The 5th Annual Diane Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights, “Good Morning Heartache: International Law and the Global Challenges Facing Women” presentation by Prof. Fareda Banda, SOAS London.

Free and open to the public, dessert reception.
Sunday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Rapaporte Treasure Hall, Goldfarb Library, Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham, MA 02454

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