‘Feminist: The person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,” is probably the best-known definition of the term, thanks to author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s viral TEDx-talk-turned-book We Should All Be Feminists, made even more famous after being featured in the Beyoncé song “Flawless.”
With something like that definition in mind, many pro-Israel feminists looked at a series of recent developments in the world of feminism vis-a-vis Israel, which took place last week, with confusion and anger, since Israel has the most advanced women’s rights in the Middle East by far and is progressive by Western standards, as well.
The National Women’s Studies Association, thought to be the largest feminist academic organization in North America, decided to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
The motion reads: “In the spirit of this intersectional perspective, we cannot overlook the injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians and other Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, within Israel and on the Golan Heights, as well as the colonial displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba [an Arabic term meaning the ‘catastrophe’ of Israel’s establishment].”
At Columbia University in New York, No Red Tape, a group that fights sexual assault on campus, teamed up with the anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine.
Julia Crain, a sophomore at Columbia’s local sister school Barnard College and a former “core organizer” for NRT wrote in the Columbia Daily Spectator that the coalition was formed due to both groups identifying as victims of patriarchal Western society, and lamented that the union “effectively politicized anti-sexual violence work on this campus.”
Outside of the academic world, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who entered her position proclaiming that she will lead a feminist foreign policy, and continued to insist on it despite widespread derision in Sweden, singled out Israel for criticism in the Middle East. She accused Israel of “extrajudicial executions,” and last month, claimed the Israeli-Arab conflict was connected to the terrorist attacks in Paris.
MK Aliza Lavie, a former women’s studies and communications professor, reacted angrily to the events.
“They’re putting feminist sisterhood aside to come out against Israel,” she said. “As feminists, we’re supposed to work together, and put feminism ahead of other ideologies... to help women reach equality around the world. Instead they’re moving backwards and acting like men, shattering our feminist vision.”
The Yesh Atid MK decried “blindness” among feminist groups condemning Israel.
“These groups are supposed to be concerned about weak women, but they’re busy with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when the situation of Arab women here is much better than in neighboring countries. Look at the level of higher education, work, their place in the public. Is there any other country in which Arab Christian women can live safely?” she added.
When Wallström became foreign minister of Sweden in 2014, Lavie, then the chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women and Gender Equality, was so excited about the idea of feminist foreign policy, she even wrote a letter to Sweden’s ambassador to Israel and Israel’s ambassador to Sweden asking for more information on the subject.
“Because of my excitement, my disappointment in her was that much greater,” Lavie told The Jerusalem Post this week. “She stood up for her feminist foreign policy, saying it’s not about interests, it’s about human rights and global development, and in the end, she did the opposite.”
She wondered why Wallström is “obsessed” with Israel but not as vocal about areas where women are truly in danger: “Where is she while Yazidi women are killed, raped, sold as slaves? Rape is back as a tool of war, like it was hundreds of years ago.”
“How does what she says fit feminist values?” she asked.
Lavie penned a letter to the NWSA’s executive director Allison Kimmich, calling for cooperation instead of boycotts: “It is outrageous that you would cynically manipulate your own important cause – the status of women – just to attack Israel.
“Instead of making a decision to join our cause to achieve peace, by trying to work together, to strengthen our similarities as women, you have divided us,” she wrote. “I would call to you to help strengthen the communities here, especially the women’s organizations on both sides working tirelessly to help the weak parts of our societies. We must find things we share to help women, not increase those matters that divide us...
BDS only makes the crisis worse.”
Lavie expressed concern that BDS will torpedo the efforts she and others have made to turn Women’s Studies into a serious endeavor in Israel.
Shari Eshet, director of the Israel branch of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which opened Tel Aviv University’s Women’s Studies department, was also deeply worried about the implications of the NWSA boycott.
“Does this mean faculty at Women’s Studies programs in Israel will not be invited to conferences where they can discuss how Israeli society can deal with sexual harassment of all women, not just Palestinian women? I don’t know. Will they not have opportunities to meet with women of other countries? To what effect? What’s the purpose?” she wondered.
Eshet pointed out that Omar Barghouti, the founder of the BDS movement, lives in Israel and has a PhD from Tel Aviv University. He received a master’s degree from Columbia University.
She also recounted that Judith Butler, who Eshet called “the mother of feminist studies and very active in BDS” once spoke at Tel Aviv University.
“Yes, she spoke about the Palestinians. That’s what academic freedom is about,” she said. “For a feminist organization to boycott other academics is counter productive and ignorant of the facts.”
She lamented that ignorance: “I give a lot of speeches about women’s rights in Israel. People have no idea that abortion is free and legal through your HMO.
They have no idea that Israeli women get 14 paid weeks of maternity leave. These are things they’re still fighting for in the US.”
Prof. Shulamit Reinharz, director of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, wrote in an email that she believes the people in the NWSA “are not interested in knowing specifically what Israel does re abortions or maternity leave. They judge Israel not for what it does for its women (Jewish, Bedouin, Christian, Druse, Arab, etc.) but for being a colonial oppressor of people with whom it is fighting. Therefore, giving these people facts never helps.”
Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has written extensively about contemporary feminism, wrote in an email: “It’s dismaying to find Western feminists singling out Israel, of all places, for censure. Why not everywhere else in the Middle East first?... An effective, reality-based American women’s movement should be praising Israel for its progress on women’s and gay rights and supporting Muslim women and gays around the world who are working to bring basic reforms...
to their societies. Unfortunately, tragically really, we don’t have such a movement right now.”
Sommers described in an email two styles of feminism: Equity feminism and gender feminism.
“Equity feminism... wants for women what it wants for everyone: freedom, dignity and equal opportunity. Today, most Americans, Europeans and Israelis are equity feminists. Gender feminism, by contrast... views society as a vast patriarchal network, and its job is to expose, destabilize and eventually bring down this system,” she wrote.
The concept of intersectionality, which means that the different elements of a woman’s identity – female and black, underprivileged, lesbian, etc. – cannot be separated, is central to what she calls gender feminism.
Elana Maryles Sztokman, an author and lecturer on gender issues and former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, explained that “today, feminism is about intersectionality, meaning that you can’t just be a woman.... Women have multiple political forces keeping them marginalized.”
Therefore, the feminist criticism of Israel is part of a general focus on “unpacked social inequalities and [attempts] to alleviate oppression of groups that are marginalized and invisible in society,” she said.
Or, as Sommers, who said she is a registered Democrat, presented it: “Ideologues in our universities have worked out elaborate theories about the interconnected global system of sexism, racism, colonialism and capitalism. Logic, rules of evidence and consistency are not their strong points. According to this odd worldview, American college women – arguably among the most empowered, privileged and self-determining people in human history – are oppressed. And Israel, a vibrant democracy fighting for its survival against relentless enemies bent on its destruction – is the oppressor.”
Reinharz said that feminists have adopted a stance of moral relativism – “we value other people’s culture and have no right to change what they do” – and not universal values – “girl children should not be tortured by their kin in a ritual to cut their clitorises” – which she finds to be “morally reprehensible.”
“They basically also assumed – from a colonialism perspective, a la Edward Said – that all white people are oppressors and all people of color (except Chinese) are oppressed. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict... then became easy for these people to define,” she wrote.
Sztokman described a growing trend over the past decade for feminists to “have an automatic knee-jerk identification with Palestinians over Zionists.”
“To identify as a Zionist in feminist circles has become almost risky.... You are labeling yourself as an outside, as not a ‘real’ feminist.... Zionism is seen as part of the enemy, part of the colonialist enterprise....
Israel becomes the symbol of the ultimate patriarchal oppressor,” she said, adding that she is unafraid to identify as a Zionist.
In that vein, Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women and Gender Equality chairwoman Aida Touma- Sliman (Joint List), former leader of the Israeli-Arab group Women Against Violence, followed the path of intersectionality.
“It’s a logical connection between real feminist organizations and BDS, because the feminist stance is holistic. It looks at the balance of power and tries to change it to one of more justice, more peace. Feminist organizations usually oppose occupation and policies of oppression in a way that is not militaristic or violent...
like BDS,” she said, claiming that the boycott movement is not anti-Israel, it is only against the “occupation.”
According to Touma-Sliman, Palestinian women suffer doubly: “In situations of armed conflict, the status of women is low on the list of priorities of the society, and that is additional harm. [Conflict] could even cause increased tension within the nation, making women even more oppressed. And there’s a gender element in national harm, like women giving birth at checkpoints, women who can’t be in touch with their children after divorce because one side lives under the occupation.”
When asked about the relatively advanced status of women and gender equality in Israel, she said she did not understand the relevance.
“Supporting women’s rights is not always feminist,” she stated.
Sztokman recounted participating in a feminist roundtable of about 50 Israeli and Palestinian groups talking about gender equality. The Palestinian groups refused to draft a joint resolution if it did not condemn the “occupation,” making many of the Jewish groups uncomfortable, as their agenda was focused on gender issues and not other political matters.
This attitude, and use of BDS is “unfeminist” in Sztokman’s eyes.
“We should be able to talk about our feminist ideologies without preconditions,” she stated. “It’s sad that women’s studies groups adopted the most violent language. It’s unfeminist to take a unilateral, violent stance.”
Similarly, Lavie said she attended conferences in Israel in which “radical left-wing feminists” said that anyone who lives over the Green Line is not a feminist.
“What does that have to do with anything?... When there’s an agreement [with the Palestinians] things can change, but what kind of argument is that now?” she said, theorizing that “pathetic people” and Israeli leftwing organizations may encouraged American feminists to make anti-Israel decisions.
She took issue with the concept of Israel being on the wrong side of intersectionality, saying that the conflict is not a David vs. Goliath situation.
“When someone threatens someone else with a knife, who’s the weak one here? There’s a minimum of morality. How are we the strong ones?” she asked.
“They’re terrorists murdering us, and our citizens are showing responsibility. We have rule of law.”
“In many ways, feminism does not succeed, because it bends over before other ideologies,” Lavie sighed.
WHAT CAN Israelis do to remedy the situation? Some say the solution is to talk.
“What I believe, and what is already happening, is there should be coalitions between Israeli-Jewish and Arab-Palestinian [feminist] groups, real coalitions, with real listening and collaboration to bring about understanding,” Sztokman suggested.
“When I get together with [Arab] women, sometimes I feel we have a lot in common with them, because we speak a common language.... The Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams are all male, the armies are run by all men, so we continue to feel marginalized.
That’s how women connect to each other. If we can unpack that, we can change the paradigm and violence in language itself,” she said.
Eshet said that making sure people know the facts will help: “We have a very vibrant group of feminist and human rights activists in Israel who made [women’s rights] happen. We do a lot of work on the ground legislating, going to court.... It happened because of the kind of civil society we have here.”
The NCJW also sent a letter on Thursday to the NWSA, with other organizations signed on, expressing concern about the BDS move.
“If they want to deal with intersectionality, they should be encouraging building bridges and allowing free movement between academic institutions, to talk about the plight of Palestinian women and other women. We find that to be more productive than boycotting,” she said.
Lavie said sympathetic American Jews can lend a hand: “They speak the language and know the culture.
They can go on social media and start reacting. The war is on Facebook, in public opinions.
“It’s not just helping us,” she added. “If hatred of Jews increases, it won’t just be against Israel, it will be by you [in the US], too.”
Perhaps, action is not even necessary.
Sommers argues that “the views of the NWSA and other hard-line leftist groups are a minority opinion – even among liberal academics.”
“So far, it has been primarily conservatives outside the academy who have criticized the hardliners. But the recent attacks on free speech and due process in our colleges have shocked a lot of scholars,” Sommers, who has been subject to attempts to censor her lectures on campuses, said. “The success of the morally bankrupt BDS movement with groups like the NWSA will alarm them as well. The silent majority of reasonable liberals in the academy has been silent for too long. But it may be about to find its voice.”