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Na'amat: White feminism and its questionable agenda

Na’amat, a veteran organization purporting to advocate on behalf of women in Israel, recently hauled a community-based group to court. The group’s crime? Occupying an abandoned building to provide housing for families in need. A closer look at the incident reveals a group in the service of the Ashkenazi hegemony, promoting paternalistic notions of ‘help’ while contributing to the oppression of Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews.

By Inna Michaeli and Yasmeen Daher

Protest against Na’amat’s move to evict activists and families from a Jerusalem community center. Sign reads: ‘Equality for women; equal right to housing; equality can’t be divided’ (photo: Oren Ziv / Activestills)

On one page of the NA’AMAT-USA website, the word “help” appears at least eight times. A recent event involving the Zionist women’s organization reveals the limitations of “help” when it comes to the grassroots activism of women on the margins of Israeli society.

Ha’maabara (“The Transit Camp”) is a group of community-based activists who have taken over several abandoned buildings in Jerusalem, in order to provide immediate solutions for low-income families who are unable to provide for themselves in light of the absence of adequate public housing in Israel. The building that Ha’maabara presently occupies in the impoverished Katamonim neighborhood is owned by Na’amat, which used to operate a kindergarten there, charging more than most families in the neighbourhood could afford to pay. For the past four years, the building stood in ruins, collecting health hazards like used syringes and more. Upon their “invasion,” Ha’maabara activists invested immense time and effort into cleaning the building and operating diverse social activities for free.

Na’amat demanded that Ha’maabara evacuate the building, while admitting Na’amat itself did not have the resources to operate it for the benefit of the residents. Negotiations resulted in the following ultimatum: Ha’maabara could use the building on the condition that it would not serve as a headquarters for a public housing struggle. But as it happens, public housing is the priority for this neighborhood’s residents, many of whom are single mothers trapped in the vicious circle of poverty. The fact that the building was serving the needs of women in the neighborhood, empowering them and helping organize their community, did not stop Na’amat from resorting to the legal system, seeking a court ruling to remove the group from the building.

Make no mistake; we are still lingering in the same old district of white, elitist feminism and its dominance. Founded in 1921 by Zionist women who came to Palestine, Na’amat’s paternalistic notion of “help” is reserved for those who both abide by the rules of the game and submit to the limits of its discourse. “Help” is extended to those who don’t challenge this limited understanding of feminism. What is addressed here as “white” feminism does not indicate a racial group. It is rather a conceptual (mis)understanding of feminism. In short, it is a feminism that envisions a simplistic world divided between two genders, with men on one side and women on the other. In this heterosexist scheme, men are the oppressors and women are the oppressed, and the latter “need” progressive, enlightened and liberated women to help them. This old-fashioned but pervasive view of gender equality does not account for realities of class, racism, occupation and colonialism.

These other factors complicate the picture, making solidarity a quest unattainable without consideration of real social, economic and political inequalities. Na’amat must reflect on its own role in the oppression of the same women the group allegedly wants to help. Na’amat identifies as part and parcel of the Jewish-Zionist establishment. Its historical role and its current positions (from supporting the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem to encouraging U.S. economic and political support for Israel’s military endeavours) make Na’amat complicit in the continuous oppression of Palestinian women and men. Its leadership is comprised of mostly middle and upper-class Ashkenazi women. Yet Na’amat raises financial resources for all “women in Israel,” while the majority of women in Israel – Palestinian, Mizrahi and immigrant – are de facto excluded from its ideology and its decision-making circle. The struggle of these groups for equality and justice not only fall outside the scope of their agenda, they actually threaten the very foundations of this “white” feminism that is constituted on patronizing notions of “help,” always supported by “good intentions.”

Therefore, it might come as no surprise that the three lawyers hired by Na’amat to take the community activists and single mothers to court expressed serious concern about poor women organizing for radical change. They are worried about activities as dangerous as screening a film about the Black Panthers – a movement that dismantled the narrative of Israel as a safe haven and welfare state for all Jews. The movement succeeded in debunking the myth of the Israeli melting-pot for Jews from all over the world, exposing systematic social, economic and cultural oppression of Mizrahi Jews. A film that tells the story of Mizrahi revolt against the oppressive structures of a Ashkenazi-dominated establishment, of which Na’amat is a part, is a threat.

Disregarding decades of critique and growth in feminist theory and practice, Na’amat perpetuates an anti-feminist reality. It disregards the atrocities of privatization of public services, which have impoverished and marginalized entire communities, especially women on the margins of society. Instead of advocating for properties in marginalized neighborhoods to serve the public, rather than serving as an asset of an NGO, Na’amat protects and backs the disastrous anti-social economic agenda of the current and the preceding governments, enjoying private ownership over empty buildings designated for the benefit of the public.

It is also notable that a section unique to the organization’s American website is dedicated to “Arab Women,” claiming that the organization is “involved in promoting the Israeli Arab woman’s quality of life,” more than “any other organization in the country.” You don’t need be a feminist activist in Palestinian society in Israel to immediately recognize the fault in this claim, and its lack of respect for Palestinian feminist organizations, which have been, together with other Arab counterparts, active since the end of the 19th century (contrary to Na’amat’s claim that it is the “first feminist organization in Palestine”). Na’amat’s patronizing discourse of “helping” Arab women goes hand in hand with its disregard of Mizrahi feminism in general, and grassroots organizing in Katamonim in particular. As Gayatri Spivak’s described colonial relations: “White men are saving the brown women from brown men.” Here, white women claim to “help,” if not save, Arab and Mizrahi women, remaining unaccountable for their own complicity in national, ethnic and class oppression, and their own privileged position and access to resources.

Na’amat presents itself in Israel and abroad as “the largest and leading Women’s Movement in Israel.” However, their actions against Ha’maabara and use of state violence indicate an imagined and privileged construction of “women in Israel,” who have no nationality, no ethnicity and no socio-economic class. These actions clearly expose the line drawn by Na’amat between politics of “help” for marginalized women – as long as they don’t challenge the social, political and economic order of their own marginalization – and the politics of solidarity that must form the base of any feminist action and women’s movement.

Inna Michaeli is a feminist activist from Israel and a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Social Sciences, Humboldt University of Berlin. Yasmeen Daher is a Palestinian social activist and feminist, and doctoral candidate in the department of philosophy at the University of Montreal.
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    1. Kolumn9

      When did feminism stop being about advocating for the rights of women and mutate into this angry proxy for general critical theory?

      Let’s play a little game darlings. Which is more feminist – Na’amat or Hamas? One is fighting against the Ashkenazi patriarchy. Is that the feminist one?

      Reply to Comment
      • I think you’re missing the point (as men who start sighing after feminism’s lost glory days generally tend to do). Initially women’s lived experience, and not academic theory, was at the backbone of the women’s liberation movement. It was seen as the best compass and richest resource for tackling oppression (and by radical feminists at least, it still is). Unfortunately, the leaders of the early feminist movement (educated middle-class white women, by and large) all had a very particular kind of life experience, so when feminism went academic their experiences formed the basis for the textbooks and the theories. This is why so many women who don’t have that background feel alienated from mainstream feminism today. This is why they complain that it’s elitist and that they have been hermetically sealed out by ‘academic’ feminist theory that doesn’t feel relevant to them. I read Inna’s article as an argument for breaking open that seal so that women from all types of backgrounds can feel at home in this movement and take what they need from it. This is far from theoretical. It’s about as practical and focused as you can get.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          You are right. I don’t understand. It must be my being a man that get in the way of understanding such simple things like how a struggle for women’s rights has turned into a struggle against the ‘Ashkenazi Zionist establishment’. I don’t understand what an organization’s attempt to assert its property rights over buildings that have been turned into ‘public housing’ with no owner permission has to do with the organization’s supposed betrayal of ‘feminism’. Is feminism now a struggle against property rights as well? Then again, it must just be my penis that is making it so hard to think clearly.

          Reply to Comment
          • I.P

            The answer is very simple- it has EVERYTHING to do with it. Naamat initialy received this building from Amidar (governmental public housing company) in order to answer the needs of women in the neighborhood which were not met for patriarchal traditional reasons (men traditionally didn’t establish institutes that assured the rights of women- like being able to work by putting your child into daycare)
            i want to remind you that Naamat present themselves as an NGO and not a business company that aspires to make money and gain assets.
            as a matter of fact Naamat itself used to illegally occupy empty buildings in order to establish daycare for women.
            but Naamat have abused their mandate and right to hold this building for the sake of the public: first they rented it out to a private kindergarden that costed alot more than most women in the neighborhood could pay. and then they just left it empty.

            single moms are one the most needy part of society when it comes to public housing in israel. the strict criteria to be eligible for public housing todays leaves most single moms out of the system. with out a stable rooftop these women cannot maintain their basic rights and provide basic needs for their children- such as the right for a decent job, for a decent rooftop, education, health etc’. thats is why the struggle for public housing is first and foremost a feminist struggle. the struggle for gender equality also means that women get to own their future, to be part of the decision making of their future, the fact that a grassroots group of woman are owning their fate and taking responsibility in a place where there is a need for that- that makes it a feminist struggle.
            Naamat instead of embracing and supporting this group of women is fighting them.
            Naamat receive money and property in the name of “helping” women whilst they are doing exactly the opposite.
            and if your still wondering what the connection is to mizrachi women,(in this case and arab women in other cases) the plain answer is that they are the population that is most disadvantaged in cases like these, they are the most in need for public housing in Katamonim and they are the ones that took responsibility for their future after realizing that the governmental system- including women organizations like Naamat is constantly leaving them out and disempowering them.

            Reply to Comment
          • Feminists have varied views on property, just like everyone else, but they do recognise that economically disadvantaged women (especially single mothers, as mentioned in this article) are hit particularly hard by weaknesses in public housing policy. It is a feminist issue. Consequently it requires a considered political feminist response, which shouldn’t rest on the charity model of benevolent white women helping the needy.

            Zionism isn’t really discussed in the article and I wouldn’t like to speculate on the writer’s views on it, but you should remember that there is a strong anti-militarist current in feminism, predating the First World War. Feminist women saw militaristic attitudes as perpetuating misogyny and at odds with their interests. (If you’re interested in this aspect, the anthology ‘Women, War, and Militarism’ has some good short essays, and Cynthia Enloe has written a nice book called ‘Manoeuvres’.) Political Zionism today is very militaristic in tone, so it will naturally come in for feminist criticism. Often when people hear ‘women’s rights’ they think only of equal work for equal pay and getting the vote, things like that. They don’t think of the less overt but also serious ways in which misogyny affects women, and this usually is because their penises are getting in the way.

            Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      A stale rehashing of old Marxist-Leninist “class struggle” – dividing society into supposedly hostile camps that are at each other’s throats while waiting for the supposed “proletarian” revolution , or in this case, the revolution that is going to be carried out by Palestinian women and so-called ‘Mizrachi’ women who are supposed to have common interests which anyone talking to Palestinian women about what they thought about Mizrachi-Jewish women would realize is nonsense.

      I was fascinated to learn that Palestinian society had activist feminist groups already in the 19th century. It doesn’t look like they left any sort of lasting legacy, though.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Lauren

      Thank you for this relevant and well-written article.

      Reply to Comment
    4. nikki

      nice article

      Reply to Comment
    5. Inna, have you read ‘Our Sisters’ Promised Land’ by Ayala Emmett? It looks at peace and justice activism in a feminist context, and in one chapter it discusses the marginalization experienced by Mizrahi and orthodox Jewish women in feminist activism. You’ve probably come across it already, but on the off-chance you haven’t it’s worth a read.

      XYZ, the exclusion felt by non-white women in the feminist community is nothing new and it’s certainly not unique to Israel. Feminists have been voicing concerns about this for years, going right back to Sojourner Truth’s memorable cry of ‘Ain’t I a woman?’. One of the Mizrahi women quoted in Emmett’s book puts it like this: “[T]he women’s movement deals with only one dimension [of our lives], women’s oppression by men. The women’s movement in Israel was established by Ashkenazi women, who shaped it, and I think that they never had a serious discussion of their relationship to Mizrahim.” Judith Plaskow, who wrote the first full-length work on Jewish feminism, hoped that such a discussion would take place. She noted in her introduction that the book was going to be rooted in personal experience, because as yet she didn’t have a plurality of Jewish feminist voices with which she could be in dialogue. She specifically noted that she couldn’t speak for either the Orthodox woman in her own city, or the Mizrahi woman in Israel.

      But as with feminism everywhere, Israeli Jewish feminism ended up being dominated by one particular kind of voice. Feminism needs the depth and texture and richness that multiple voices give it, which means acknowledging that women’s experiences of liberation and discrimination will vary depending on many factors. (As a disabled woman, for example, I have concerns and experiences that non-disabled feminists would perhaps not think about if I didn’t bring them up.) Pointing this out does not mean that we’re dividing ourselves into hostile camps. An orchestra has got different sections but they still play as a whole. If a major feminist organisation doesn’t have the time of day for the concerns of women from different ethnic and economic backgrounds, then it isn’t whole and it’s our loss.

      Reply to Comment
      • Inna

        Hi Vicky, I came across the book, and I of course agree that this unfortunate phenomena repeats itself in different contexts and is not unique to Israel. However, I wouldn’t give Na’amat the credit of being the dominant voice of feminism in Israel, although they present themselves as the leading movement. At least on the grassroots level, they are far from setting the tone. My impression is that Palestinian and Mizrahi activists are actually quite central, and in general there’s a tendency towards awareness and honest critical reflection on accountability and power structures.

        I very much agree that we should not divide ourselves into hostile camps, and this is precisely why I found the actions of Na’amat so outrageous: involving the police and the courts against marginalized women creates this precise divide and hostility.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          I see you are studying at Humboldt University. If I remember correctly, that was in formerly Communist East Berlin-East Germany. Totalitarian Marxist-Leninist ideology distorted studies in the humanities in the Communist bloc while it existed. Do you feel that your university has liberated itself from this?

          Reply to Comment
    6. Piotr Berman

      I am not sure if earliest feminists were primarily white middle and upper class women. Some where. I read about life of Emma Goldman, who started as a seamstress working 10 hours a day before the concept of the minimum wage. She was a feminist but primarily, a radical.

      Over the years, radicals were eliminated from American life except for the tiniest margin, and probably the same happened in Israel which suffers from another problem — cliquishness of those who “were first” and perhaps inferiority complex of Misrahim.

      Why I suspect inferiority complex? Two data points. One is that Likud is supposedly political champion of the Mizrahim, and where are Mizahim among political leaders of Likud? The second is the deference that Mizrahi rabbis give to “Lithuanians”.

      But apart from that, the constant pressure from the society at large to marginalize the radicals, and to accommodate donors, plus the fact that more financially secure volunteers have more time and self-assurance creates a drift toward “gentrification”.

      There was a nice story about a labor union that represents and supports female Palestinian workers in northern Israel. That sounds like a thing that even a “well-meaning” elitist movement would not be able to do even if they wanted.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Dave Boxthorn

      Maybe you want to look at that photo again. The super-white woman holding the sign is clearly the whitest person there. Its like looking at snow.

      Reply to Comment