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The question isn't whether feminism has room for Zionism

The question is whether Zionism can make room for a truly inclusive equality.

Hundreds take part in a Women's March protest outside the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

Hundreds take part in a Women’s March protest outside the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

In a recent New York Times op-ed “Does Feminism have Room for Zionists?” Emily Shire, who identifies as a feminist and a Zionist, argues that her belief in “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” should not be at odds with her feminism.

According to Shire, women who seek to be included in the women’s protests against the current U.S. administration should not have to face a “critical of Israel” litmus test. She takes issue with the Strike’s platform, which specifically calls for the “decolonization of Palestine,” but which doesn’t mention the myriad other injustices inflicted on women across the world.

But Shire herself brings up her own Zionism. She states her relationship to Israel shouldn’t be a factor for the women’s protest, while simultaneously demanding a space for it — Zionism being a giant, pertinent caveat. In doing so, Shire is ironically subjecting women active in the movement to her own litmus test.

Shire is asking the wrong question. It is not whether feminism has room for Zionists, but whether Zionism has room for equal rights. Zionism’s manifestation as a political system operating for almost 69 years now has thus far proven it does not have that room. The State of Israel was founded as a safe haven for Jews and is premised on privileging Jews over all others. It is not a country for all its citizens — over 20 percent of whom are not Jewish at all — but for all Jewish people (and increasingly, only certain kinds of Jews to boot).

Shire gives the impression that she hasn’t sat down to consider how Palestinian women’s rights, in Israel and in the occupied territories, are systematically affected by Israel’s very raison d’être. (The fact that they are also trampled within Palestinian society does not absolve Israel of responsibility). Instead she insists on Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish state.” But if one does not define what that should mean for Palestinians, one is evading the core issue. So far, it has de facto meant Israel has had the right to exist as a system of supremacy of one group over another.

Palestinian students chant slogans during a rally to show solidarity with Palestinians clashing with the Israeli troops in the West Bank and Jerusalem, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, October 14, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

Palestinian students chant slogans during a rally to show solidarity with Palestinians clashing with the Israeli troops in the West Bank and Jerusalem, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, October 14, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

I also support the right of Jews to self-determination. But as a Jewish ethno-nationalist state, Israel cannot uphold equal rights. That is a fact. So the question then, is, can a Jewish state exist that doesn’t systematically violate basic human rights?

I‘m not sure. With the right intentions, probably. It’s a worthy and challenging question — one that American and Israeli Jews were grappling with to an extent during the period surrounding Israel’s establishment. What should a Jewish state look like? How can it function as a democracy?

This is an important debate about nationalism and civic democracy, but it is primarily an intra-Jewish issue and has nothing to do with the current wave of feminism in the U.S. It is not the job of Palestinian-American feminist Linda Sarsour to make Zionist women feel more comfortable about the contradictions they are facing. If anything, considering Israel’s track record, it is up to Zionist women to take efforts to assure non-Zionist feminists of their commitment to equal rights.

All forms of violence and oppression against women should be opposed. The International Women’s Strike platform could have mentioned all forms of oppression against women — not just Israel; that only Israel was mentioned is part of the zeitgeist. It cannot be seen in isolation from the context in which Israel oversees the longest-standing military occupation in modern history, while simultaneously being the largest beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid, acting with near total impunity — and with no end in sight.

Linda Sarsour speaks at a panel on Islamophobia at the Festival of Faiths, Louisville, United States, May 19, 2016.

Linda Sarsour speaks at a panel on Islamophobia at the Festival of Faiths, Louisville, United States, May 19, 2016.

As an Israeli Jew who actively opposes Israel’s system of rule and supports Palestinian human rights, I may not agree with every tactic employed by the Palestinian resistance movement. But who am I to tell them how to resist their own oppression? As Linda Sarsour said in her interview in The Nation responding to Shire’s piece – “feminism is a movement and BDS is a tactic.” If you don’t support BDS, you can choose to not take part in it, but proactively opposing BDS because it is an alienating tactic for a Zionist is misguided.

In the age of Trump, in which the current feminist forces are operating, many liberal American Jews are finding themselves increasingly pushed into a corner, forced to choose between their liberalism and their support for Israel; between the motto “never again” to Jews and never again to anyone.

Jews, of course, have the right to equality, self-determination and dignity, like all other human beings. No one in the feminist movement has denied this. But as long as Israel, in its current construction, continues to be a fundamentally un-progressive entity that is incompatible with equality, Zionists in the feminist camp are going to continue to feel – rightly – uncomfortable.

A longer version of this article first appeared on March 19, 2017 in Haaretz

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    COMMENTS

    1. R5

      In Haaretz, Mairav suggested that Israeli Jews have no moral right to judge terrorists like Rasmea Odeh because once upon a time the Irgun existed. Shocking right? Not really, because Larry Derfner and others have for years chosen to sanctify their own moral egos over the lives of their friends and neighbors. What’s new is that these apologists for Jew-murder are now riding the bandwagon of the anti-Trumpian “resistance”, which has finally given them the confidence to disregard the pretense of non-violence and embrace fully the hegemony of Iran’s axis of resistance. Anything but America, they say. Anything but Israel. This is the new Weather Underground, the new Manson Family. The dregs of a radical protest movement pushing themselves into pure derangement. Failing to swiftly expel these wretched frauds from our community is the greatest moral failure of modern American Jewry.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @R5: Actually, I’m ok with two states. Or one state with equal rights for all.
        Choose.

        Reply to Comment
        • R5

          @Bruce Gould: Since you’re obviously an advocate of liberal democracy, why not make Jordan a democracy and annex the West Bank to Jordan after land swaps with Israel? You’re not thinking outside of the box!

          Reply to Comment
          • duh

            No, better yet, annex the whole of fmr British Mandate Palestine west of the river to Jordan.

            Reply to Comment
      • John

        it’s almost like yr commenting on another article

        Reply to Comment
      • duh

        The problem with arguments like Mairav Zonsein’s is that they don’t look at the big picture: The Zionist movement contemplated a military takeover of Palestine with the aid of European powers. Here’s a choice quote from Herzl:

        “In the first excitement I wanted to write to Eulenberg [German count who acted as intermediary between Herzl and the Kaiser] and make proposals in case it was true. Germany would have to welcome a Jewish settlement in Cyprus with delight. We would rally on Cyprus and one day go over to Eretz Israel and take it by force, as it was taken from us long ago.”
        [Complete Herzl Diary vol. III p. 1023, 6 Jan. 1901]

        Nevermind the usage of terrorism by the Labour Zionists and Revisionists during the 30’s and 40’s. I laugh in the face of anyone who believes Zionism started off peaceful and was forced into violence by the Arabs.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Let’s dispense with the vituperative nonsense about Iranian hegemony, the Weather Underground and the Manson Family and just look at this comment about Larry Derfner and others.

        “Not really, because Larry Derfner and others have for years chosen to sanctify their own moral egos over the lives of their friends and neighbors.”

        This is supposed to mean…what? That tribal loyalty trumps morality? Is that not an awkward, even tragic anachronism? I am thinking here of the quotation from Larry Derfner’s book that Bruce provided, that looks back to America in 1911:
        https://972mag.com/trumps-muslim-ban-is-eerily-similar-to-israels-refugee-policies/126006/

        And thinking as well about Tony Judt’s use of the word “anachronism”:
        “At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the twilight of the continental empires, Europe’s subject peoples dreamed of forming “nation-states,” territorial homelands where Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Armenians, and others might live free, masters of their own fate. When the Habsburg and Romanov empires collapsed after World War I, their leaders seized the opportunity. A flurry of new states emerged; and the first thing they did was set about privileging their national, “ethnic” majority — defined by language, or religion, or antiquity, or all three — at the expense of inconvenient local minorities, who were consigned to second-class status: permanently resident strangers in their own home.
        But one nationalist movement, Zionism, was frustrated in its ambitions. The dream of an appropriately sited Jewish national home in the middle of the defunct Turkish Empire had to wait upon the retreat of imperial Britain: a process that took three more decades and a second world war. And thus it was only in 1948 that a Jewish nation-state was established in formerly Ottoman Palestine. But the founders of the Jewish state had been influenced by the same concepts and categories as their fin-de-siècle contemporaries back in Warsaw, or Odessa, or Bucharest; not surprisingly, Israel’s ethno-religious self-definition, and its discrimination against internal “foreigners,” has always had more in common with, say, the practices of post-Habsburg Romania than either party might care to acknowledge.
        The problem with Israel, in short, is not — as is sometimes suggested — that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state” — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”
        —Tony Judt
        Israel: The Alternative (2003)

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      ‘Instead she insists on Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish state.” But if one does not define what that should mean for Palestinians, one is evading the core issue. So far, it has de facto meant Israel has had the right to exist as a system of supremacy of one group over another.”… But as long as Israel, in its current construction, continues to be a fundamentally un-progressive entity that is incompatible with equality, Zionists in the feminist camp are going to continue to feel – rightly – uncomfortable.’

      I am glad that Mairav Zonszein articulates this, because it comes up so often here. People throw around “Jewish state” as if it were self evident and has a precise and uncontested and non-troublesome meaning, and act indignant that the Palestinians can’t sign on to “recognizing” it, but evade the core issue of what exactly in practice that has meant and would, if the past is any predictor of the future, mean for Palestinians. At the very least, a final status accord would have to spell out in many, many words, with lawyerly precision, what that entails and does not entail. It is not self-evident. If you don’t get this, you misunderstand a lot. It is not something anyone can simply trust Israel to get right. Noam Sheizaf has argued the following:
      http://972mag.com/why-i-oppose-recognizing-israel-as-a-jewish-state/78751/
      “…Because a “Jewish” state – as opposed to a state whose culture is Jewish or is “a national homeland” for Jews – will always be a racist, discriminatory state….”

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Ben

        I think the definition is pretty clear. Over time Judaism will cease to exist primarily as a diaspora religion and culture and instead will be the national religion and compose part of the culture of a group of people called Israelis. This religion will be integrated into the culture, and may additionally have direct state support. These Israelis will mostly (or entirely) be the descendants of Jewish diaspora immigrants to Israel.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          JeffB, that you think that that response suffices as an adequate “definition” underlines my point, and that you don’t get my point at all. That you think you could put forth even that without one mention of the non-Jews in the land and what it means for them doubly underlines my point. And Zonszein’s of course. To me your reply is a study in obtuseness. A study in solipsism.

          Reply to Comment
    3. If Israel — which was initially and even later said to have been created and which is still sometimes said to exist as a haven for all Jews — is behaving instead as a selective haven, a haven ONLY for Jews who accept this-or-that political statement or other loyalty-oath, then one sees that “the Zionist impulse” (to create a haven for all Jews) has been transmogrified (under the weight of the administrative state of Israel) into something else — “an Israeli impulse” (to create a state for, and only for, those who will agree to take the pro-Israel-oath).

      And Jews have less and less to do with it. A haven for some Jews? Some haven!

      Suppose someone created a country, passed a law to ease immigration for a selected group (let us say for Jews) and then changed the immigration law to ease immigration only for another group (let us say for Socialists). If it was a Zionist state to begin with, what had it become? Was it still Zionist? Suppose its official propaganda called it “the State of The Jewish People” but it still excluded Jews who would not take the oath? Excluded Jews who were not Socialists? Does that make it a “Zionist State”? Or is it just yet-another-administrative-state like Mexico or Uganda?

      If Jewish Israelis take the “democratic and Jewish” (presumably meaning “democratic for Jewish citizens”) slogan seriously, they should at least allow for the possibility that Jewish Israelis might, in perfectly democratic fashion, decide to get rid of the oath, perhaps even to get rid of other trappings of modern Israel. Israeli Jews, acting democratically, should have the power to alter the law of return to allow return of Palestinians. If they do not have that power, then Israel is not even democratic for its Jewish citizens.

      If Jewish Israelis do have that power, but continue to elect not to use it, then loyalty to THIS Jewish and democratic state seems a bit at odds with any universalistic humanism such as, perhaps, some brand of feminism might be.

      Reply to Comment
    4. JeffB

      @Mairav

      — Jews, of course, have the right to equality, self-determination and dignity, like all other human beings. No one in the feminist movement has denied this.

      Actually the Arab position has denied this and the left in embracing it has denied it. The Arab position is that Jews are a religious minority and that no non-Arabic nationalism whether it be Jewish, Coptic or Kurdish is legitimate. The left, embracing the racism in anti-colonialsm has agreed.

      You may not like that the left is racist but that doesn’t make it any less so.

      Reply to Comment
      • duh

        JeffB, here’s a little history lesson for you, so we can dispense with the notion that “Jewish nationalism” (really European settler colonialism selling itself that way) is a natural ally of non-Arab Middle Eastern minorities. (p. 18 of the pdf)

        “The 1948 war brought to an end an important period of Armenian history in Palestine. Major dislocations followed: The Armenian communities of Jaffa and Haifa and other areas that became Israel were reduced to insignificance. West Jerusalem—including the wealthy Arab neighborhoods of the New City where several hundred Armenian families had lived—was occupied by Israeli forces and almost the entire non-Jewish population was expelled; losing their homes and businesses, the Armenian residents left the country entirely.79”

        http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1121&context=historyfacpub

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Duh

          There exists particular situations in which Zionism opposed particular non-Arab minorities and Israel is in general an opponent of non-Arab minorities are not remotely similar statements.

          Reply to Comment
          • duh

            Zionism is by definition an opponent of anything that threatens its demographic dominance of Palestine. Of course Israel will pose as an ally of non-Arab minorities across the region, provided they’re not on Israeli-held territory or too minuscule to matter.

            Reply to Comment