A necessary and productive debate has been going on in US feminist circles following the International Women’s Strike on March 8, with its openly anti-colonial, pro-Palestine platform. In an Op-Ed, writer Emily Shire questioned whether there was room for Zionists in the feminist movement, to which Linda Sarsour responded, in another OpEd, with a well-argued and highly-persuasive “No.” This exchange is the latest chapter in a long conversation in activist circles around Palestine as a feminist issue.
Some of us recall how US feminist icon Betty Friedan attempted to silence one of the Arab World’s foremost feminists, Nawal el-Saadawi, at the 1985 UN conference on the status of women in Nairobi, Kenya, patronizingly telling her not to bring up Palestine in her talk, because “this is a women’s conference, not a political conference.” Saadawi included that exchange in the preface to an article, “The Forgotten ‘Ism,’” published in 2001 by the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which documents Zionist muzzling of Western feminist solidarity with Arab women. The debate—or more correctly arguments—flared again with the publication, in 2002, of the anthology This Bridge We Call Home, when Zionist contributors accused the Arab American contributors, who include stellar feminists Nadine Naber, Rabab Abdulhadi, Lisa Suhair Majaj, (and myself), of such vile anti-Semitism that we belong with the KKK, (yes, really!) rather than in this volume. The radical, grassroots feminist organization INCITE! Women and Trans People of Color Against Violence early on included support for Palestine amongst its Points of Unity, and endorsed BDS in 2010. Multiple articles have been written about support for Palestine being a feminist issue, with special issues of academic journals devoted to that question. The National Women’s Studies Association, the largest mainstream feminist academic women’s association voted in favor of BDS in 2015, and there seems to be consensus amongst activists for various causes (except Israel advocacy) that Zionism, an ideology that hinges on privilege and inequality, is irreconcilable with progressive feminism.
I say “progressive feminism” intentionally, to distinguish between it and neo-liberal feminism as espoused by, say Hillary Clinton, who clearly cared, genuinely, about some “feminist” issues, such as the right to abortion, or gay marriage, but failed utterly at addressing most intersectional issues, such as the impact of her social policies on poor women of color in the US, or the impact of war on women in the countries her foreign policy devastated. And of course, “feminist” Clinton’s record on Palestine is atrocious, as is obvious from her unwavering support for Israel, coupled with her deeply racist views about Palestinians. Layali Awwad, a young Palestinian feminist, called Clinton upon her double-standards in a 2015 Open Letter when she reminded her that, as “First Lady, you famously declared, “Women’s rights are human rights.” However, Awwad points out to Clinton, “when you chose to speak about my homeland, not once did you mention Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinian women and children. Even worse, you described us as lurking terrorists motivated only by ‘incitement,’ as if the Israeli military occupation does not exist.”
But even beyond feminism, (as that term is generally understood, meaning in its restricted sense as concerned with gender issues, rather than in its more encompassing vision for a just world for everyone), one needs to understand that Sarsour’s resounding “No” applies to all movements for justice. In other words, there is no room for Zionism in any of the struggles anyone wages to end oppression of any sort.
As Zionism, once viewed by naïve but also basically racist Westerners as a “redemptive” vision, strips off its mask to reveal its true nature as a violent colonial system, it is no longer tenable for anyone to maintain any allegiance to that ideology, and work on anti-racism, anti-war, anti-colonialism, etc.
For example, Zionists cannot logically reconcile supporting Black Lives Matter, because Zionism does not question (or worse, it embraces) Israel’s racism, directed at Africans as well as Palestinians. Additionally, the impunity of Israeli soldiers executing Palestinian civilians makes the US criminal (in)justice system seem quasi-flawless.
Zionists do not belong in prison abolition work, when Israel notoriously abuses administrative detention to the point where going to Israeli jail is a rite of passage for Palestinian men and boys. Over 70 percent of the prison population in Israel are non-Jewish, and over 80 percent of Palestinian prisoners are not “serving time,” since they are not even accused of having committed a crime, they are merely in jail for unnamed “security reasons.”
Zionists do not belong in immigrant rights organizing, when Israel has been deporting immigrants for over a decade. They do not belong in anti-wall, anti-ban coalitions, when Israel has its own apartheid wall, and of course has banned Palestinian refugees since 1948, in violation of international law and United Nations Resolution 194, passed in 1948.
They do not belong in Standing Rock, when Israel expropriates Palestinian natural resources, regularly demolishes Palestinian homes, uproots orchards, and desecrates indigenous mosques, churches, cemeteries, and other sacred spaces…
The list is long.
Zionism, like white nationalism, is racism, and as the similarities between the US and Israel become more pronounced by the day, with two current leaders who have taken the masks off their administration’s policies, Zionists need to stop their mental gymnastics, that would somehow allow them to support apartheid in Israel, while fighting oppression in the rest of the world.
The question Shire should have asked is “Is there room for Zionists in any justice movement?”
The answer is No.