For Jewish Feminists, New Set Of Minefields


The intersection of Zionism, feminism and other progressive causes is so fraught these days that young Jewish women are reaching back to middle school math class for the proper metaphor to capture their dilemma.

“It’s like a Venn diagram,” said Yael Reisman, 34, the director of outreach at a progressive Jewish women’s organization. “It’s harder and harder to find a place where the Zionist circle and the progressive circle overlap.”

Reisman’s comments come as Jewish feminists of all stripes, who are also Israel supporters, find themselves increasingly caught in the crosshairs of a culture war that seeks to isolate them both on campus and far beyond the quad. The bind they are in is a delicate one: jettison the progressive movement altogether, based on its harsh Israel positions, and not have a seat at the table, or agree to disagree on Israel but preserve a much-needed voice in the debate on a whole range of issues.

The new political volleys come in the wake of the controversial platform of last week’s International Women’s Strike, which called for the “decolonization of Palestine,” among other political goals. The Women’s Strike, or a “Day Without a Woman,” was intended to be the first major follow-up event to the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington, which attracted a record-breaking 500,000 participants and nearly 3 million worldwide.

For Jewish feminists — many of whom participated enthusiastically in the Women’s March — the March 8 strike’s decision to call for the liberation of Palestine in their official platform raised ambivalence, disappointment and questioning. (The platform includes the “decolonization of Palestine” as one of the seminal goals at the “beating heart of this new feminist movement.” “We want to dismantle all walls, from prison walls to border walls, from Mexico to Palestine,” it reads.)

Organizers of the Strike have not responded to requests for comment.

Further complicating the issue was a letter published in The Guardian on Feb. 6 announcing the Women’s Strike; it was signed by Rasmea Yousef Odeh, a Palestinian woman convicted and sentenced by an Israeli military court in 1970 to life in prison for two bombing attacks, including one in 1969 that killed two Israelis and injured nine others. (She was released by Israel in a prisoner exchange as part of an exchange for an Israeli soldier.) The involvement of Odeh infuriated and dismayed many Jewish feminists.

“Odeh’s participation is infuriating and appalling,” said Leah Sarna, 25, an Orthodox rabbinical student and passionate feminist. Despite observing the Sabbath, Sarna traveled to Washington, D.C., in January to participate in the Women’s March. “Now, I can’t participate in any part of the strike going forward.” She said that the Women’s Strike day platform, which “singled out Israel as the only example of colonization … smacks of anti-Semitism.

“If the only example of colonization you can come up with is Israel, you are out of your mind,” she said.

Adding to the controversy, Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-rights activist and BDS-supporter who was an organizer and featured speaker at the Women’s March, said in an interview this week that Zionism and feminism cannot coexist. “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it,” she told The Nation in an article published on Monday.

(In recent weeks, Sarsour helped spearhead a campaign titled “Muslims Unite to Repair Jewish Cemetery.” The fundraiser brought in $115,000 to the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo., which was vandalized last month.)

Sarsour’s interview was prompted in large part by an article penned by Emily Shire, a journalist and editor living in New York who covers feminism and politics. Last week, Shire, 27, who grew up in a Conservative household in a New York suburb, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about her conflicted Zionist and feminist identities. The article — headlined “Does Feminism Have Room for Zionists?” — was prompted by the controversial platform of the Women’s Strike and the involvement of Odeh.

Speaking to The Jewish Week the day after her piece was published, Shire said the “outrage and negative comments” she received in response to the article were “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

“I received my first-ever comment from someone wishing I would die,” she said. Though she received significant positive feedback to the article as well — many praised her for being “brave” — on Twitter, insults were aggressively lobbed her way; in the span of a few hours, she was called a “racist,” a “white supremacist” and a “dixiecrat.”

“Intersectionality sounds great in theory,” said Shire, who covers campus protests, among other things, where intersectional campus alliances are the topic du jour. Such alliances frequently leave Jewish students isolated. Groups that have no direct connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including LGBTQ groups and groups that work to prevent sexual assault, have refused to work with pro-Israel student groups in the past because of their stance. In one instance that garnered headlines in 2015, the Columbia University student advocacy group against sexual assault, No Red Tape, co-sponsored events connecting the experience of sexual assault survivors to that of Palestinians, and used its social media channels to promote anti-Zionist events.

But intersectionality and the rigid ideological camps the practice creates have spread far beyond the campus green, said Shire. “It’s a problem when it starts to alienate people.”

Representatives from Jewish women’s organizations were more non-committal about how feminism’s recent embrace of Palestinian rights would affect their involvement moving forward.

Nancy Kaufman, chief executive office of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), said that “while I truly hope women leading change doesn’t turn into a cover for Israel bashing … everyone is entitled to freedom of speech.” In terms of future participation, NCJW will “navigate as we go along.”

“We will continue to have our voices be heard — we’re not going to tell anyone else that they can’t have their voices be heard,” she said.

Kaufman pointed out that while Sarsour’s participation in the Women’s March raised some discomfort among Jewish participants, the event maintained a tenor of inclusivity. She also pointed out that the Women’s Strike platform decries anti-Semitism in the same paragraph that it singles out Palestine.

“We understand that the organizers do not want Israel criticism to be associated with anti-Semitism,” she said.

The involvement of Odeh made the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism particularly difficult to navigate, said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).

“Linda Sarsour’s involvement pales in comparison to this,” she said, referring to Odeh’s involvement. “There is a spectrum, and we understand that not everyone is a lover of Israel. But when you have a convicted terrorist as part of the leadership, most are hard pressed to participate, no matter how much you support feminism.”

The decision to add the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the movement’s agenda is not only troubling, but also not strategic, added Weiss-Greenberg. “It hurts our case dramatically. We lost people who were on board with the feminist mission.”

Seffi Kogen, 25, a Conservative Jew and feminist “thought leader” among his peers, said Odeh is the “precisely wrong person to be leading the charge on these issues.” (Kogen is also the assistant director of campus affairs at the American Jewish Committee, though he was not speaking in that capacity.)

“There is no easier way for supporters of Donald Trump to raise concerns about refugees and get behind travel bans and restrictions than to simply point to an actual terrorist and say ‘this is who is representing the left,’” he said. Odeh emigrated to the United States in 1995 and lied about her criminal record (she denied having one). She repeated the same falsehoods when applying for U.S. citizenship in 2004 and was arrested in 2013 for lying to the federal government. She served 18 months in prison. She is currently free on bail and awaiting trial.

“It’s self-marginalization,” said Kogen. “Having a terrorist murderer as a face to this new feminist movement only adds ammo to those who already seek to marginalize feminists. This is bad for the progressive movement as a whole.”

Reisman said she felt the same disappointment when the Black Lives Matter movement released a platform in August 2016 which accuses Israel of perpetrating “genocide” against the Palestinian people and describes Israel as an “apartheid state.” The movement’s polarizing platform blindsided many enthusiastic Jewish supporters, and gave ammunition to the already skeptical right wing.

“I felt so strongly about the Black Lives Matter platform,” said Reisman, who described herself as an ally. She called the controversial platform a “bait-and-switch.” “I care deeply about racial equality in this country,” she said, “but there was no place in this movement left for me.”

Still, others refused to back away from the new energy of the feminist movement, despite the controversy.

“We can’t let others dictate whether or not we sit around the table,” said Rabbi Marla Feldman, executive director of Women of Reform Judaism. “We won’t let them push us out.”

While collaborating with those who have different beliefs is always “a dance,” Rabbi Feldman said agreeing to disagree is essential. “We’ll disagree where we must, agree where we can, and continue working towards the common good.”

Rabbi Iris Richman, a Conservative rabbi who runs a Facebook group for Jewish feminists, said that she intends to “stay involved at all levels.”

“We need to be well-represented so that we continue to be heard,” said Richman, who helped a cohort of Sabbath-observant participants travel to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March. “If we have the opportunity to get involved, our default has to be to get involved.”

Focusing on the “big picture” is key, Richman said. “We need to accept allies who we don’t agree with on everything,” she said. “The focus needs to be on changing things and not wallowing in criticism of other groups. Effective organizing 101 is building alliances, something the Jewish community will need even more in years to come.”

Lori Weinstein, the CEO of Jewish Women International (JWI), a leading women’s organization that seeks to empower women and girls by fighting sexual violence and domestic abuse, encouraged young feminists to see beyond the moment, despite the platform’s language.

“My advice to any young woman – be brave and bold in your political commitments and your activism,” she wrote in an email, “You can certainly be both a feminist and an advocate for Israel – but if you don’t feel welcome or you feel marginalized or discredited because you are a Jewish woman, in whatever group, then encourage dialogue and conversation – and if that doesn’t work, step away. There is too much work to do and too little time.”