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Ideological revolution in Zionism must include feminist values, rhetoric

By Zoe Jick

This week’s provocative NY Times op-ed by Peter Beinart is already the subject of much controversy among those engaged in public debate about Israel and Zionism. Coming from a prominent academic voice of liberal Zionism, Beinart’s message pushes the boundaries of pro-Israel activism by maintaining his “devotion to the Jewish people” while allowing for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) in the occupied territory, or “undemocratic Israel.” His statements will incite backlash from the American Jewish community, many of whom protest BDS across campuses, co-ops and institutions nationwide.

His call for locality-focused BDS aside, the op-ed’s most valuable lesson is Beinart’s appeal for a reevaluation of the language used in current discourse about the conflict. He argues that honing the precision of our terminology could be the most important catalyst for a counteroffensive to the current peace process standstill.

With this argument in mind, I would like to draw attention to a potentially overlooked sentence in Beinart’s article: “But what matters is not the likelihood that a settler will one day live in territory where all people enjoy the right to citizenship regardless of ethnicity, but the fact that she does not live there yet.”

When referring to “a settler,” Beinart employs the female third person pronoun “she.” This linguistic choice combats the prevalence of the third person pronoun “he,” which is most frequently written when the subject is gender-ambiguous. Beinart’s use of the pronoun “she” draws our attention to the patriarchal heritage of the English language. Feminist scholars argue that our use of male pronouns in daily parlance, while often left unnoticed or unexamined, eventually influences our social behavior and reinforces our male-dominant culture. Language shapes action.

Beinart’s demand for a rhetorical counteroffensive poignantly emerges in his work not only when referring to the language of the political occupation, but also when choosing female pronouns in reference to the human subjects involved. What is the power of this confluence? What subtle message is transmitted through the conjunction of the feminist language revolution and Beinart’s liberal Zionist argument?

Early Zionist rhetoric itself is notoriously male-centric. The powerful idea of empowering the “New Jew,” one who would emerge strong and defiant from the shtetl in order to plow his land and defend himself, is exclusively male. In fact, in early Zionism, women are entirely relegated to the home. Women’s sole purpose in early Zionist ideology is to produce new Zionist sons. The language of Zionism is often female— rebirth, fertilization, for example—but only when related to the narrative of the womb, the home, or the family. For a movement that so purposefully chose to distance itself from the Jewish religion, Zionism actually emphasized traditional roles for women. While the Zionist men grew out of their weak emasculating position, the women’s power was once again archaically directed and exclusively related to their wombs.

When discussing this troubling issue with my mother a few nights ago, she offered a simple analysis: “well, you can only fight one revolution at once.”

I empathize with this explanation. Our Zionist forefathers were busy with an ideological, political and military revolution, and most likely did not need to bother themselves by imbuing Zionism with feminism. And yet, this excuse leaves me troubled—not to mention, excluded. The glory of Zionism is its testament to revolutionary spirit. The Herzls, Ben Gurions, and Begins of our history pay tribute to the power of ideas, of language, of activism. Revolutions begin with words and we must, therefore, choose them carefully.

What Beinart’s word choices imply is that his Zionist revolution is guided by his many values. His Zionist values do not take precedence over his liberal values, his feminist values, or his Jewish values. This moment in Beinart’s piece reminds us not to let one ideology usurp other equally important philosophies. In current public discourse about Israel, I often see Zionist rhetoric flashing like a red blinking light – out of passion, out of fear, out of conviction, whatever the motivation – and this light can blind us, or at least blot out alternative beacons including, but not restricted to, democracy and liberalism. The tendency to allow one ideology to overpower equally important systems of belief is one of the most potent dangers for Zionism today.

As a Zionist, as a woman, as a liberal, in no particular order, I applaud Beinart’s courage in highlighting multiple rhetorical counteroffensives in his writing. The Zionist heritage teaches us that revolution is possible; now it falls on us to maintain the legacy of revolution in all spheres. This can start in our language, and will hopefully evolve into our actions.

Zoe Jick is the New York Regional Director for the World Zionist Organization- Department of Diaspora Activities. She recently returned to New York after living in Tel Aviv. 

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    1. “Our Zionist forefathers were busy with an ideological, political and military revolution, and most likely did not need to bother themselves by imbuing Zionism with feminism.”

      I mean…this seems a bit historically anachronistic. Early Zionists would not have thought of feminism in the terms that we do today. Max Nordau probably thought of himself as pretty radical for saying that women could, and should be muscle Jews, even if their physical fitness was ultimately so that they could be better mothers. It’s also contradictory to say that a group of “forefathers” can imbue something with feminism. Groups of men don’t get to sit around and decide to make their ideology feminist or not.

      Also, Peter Beinart seems to think that it’s American Jews who get to decide what the West Bank should be called, rather than the Palestinians who actually live there, and that American Jews get to tell Palestinians how to run the BDS movement. He doesn’t appear remotely interested in what Palestinians think. He is, in short, supremely arrogant.

      I wonder how much, say, the Palestinian women who were recently out protesting at Qalandia on International Women’s day would care that Peter Beinart uses “she” as a default pronoun, when he obviously doesn’t care in the least about their voices. You can go on about the pronoun “she” and democracy and liberal zionism and isn’t all of that so great, but you’re still supporting a state that privileges its Jewish citizens above all others. There’s nothing “liberal” about that.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Sinjim

      Remember to use gender-inclusive language as you dispossess a native people of their homeland and their rights. It’s the liberal thing to do.

      Reply to Comment
    3. JG

      Alyssa,

      Bear in mind that Beinart was writing this column to American Jews. Certainly, with his clumsy neologisms, he was not advocating that anybody change the maps just yet.

      Zoe wrote:
      “What subtle message is transmitted through the conjunction of the feminist language revolution and Beinart’s liberal Zionist argument?”

      Beinart named 3 Israeli authors — all men. (David Grossman, Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua)

      Reply to Comment
    4. JG: I’m well aware that Beinart was writing to American Jews. The fact that he was writing only to American Jews about things that primarily concern Palestinians is kind of the problem.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Steve

      As terrorists outside of Israel sit frustrated at their inability to wipe Israel out, Israel-haters from other countries support discrimination against Israeli Jews. Wild stuff.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Cortez

      “I’m well aware that Beinart was writing to American Jews. The fact that he was writing only to American Jews about things that primarily concern Palestinians is kind of the problem.”
      .
      But it is a problem created and largely still controlled by the Israeli government that has close ties American Jews and that relies on American Jews for support within their government. Americans Jews do have the power to influence this situation for the better, and its good Beinart realized that.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Philos

      “The powerful idea of empowering the “New Jew,” one who would emerge strong and defiant from the shtetl in order to plow his land and defend himself, is exclusively male. In fact, in early Zionism, women are entirely relegated to the home. Women’s sole purpose in early Zionist ideology is to produce new Zionist sons.”
      .
      If it looks like fascism, walks like fascism and quacks like fascism; what is it? What is it?! That’s right, that’s right, it’s fascism but this is a Zionist fascism.
      .
      🙂

      Reply to Comment
    8. sh

      I agree with your Mom, Zoe. Not being American, this he-she alternation business in a piece gets on my nerves no matter what it’s about (Zionism is old and outdated in many other respects too). But in general, why not use “s/he” or invent a new English word to deal with this problem? I either use the ungrammatical “they” or write “he or she”, which is no doubt in the wrong order, but this she here permits herself un-PC liberties from time to time.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Philos

      SH, I disagree with you. I think a technical fix would dull the English language. What I do is alternate. In one paragraph I will use “he” and in another “she”, and for the duration “one.”

      Reply to Comment