It ‘s not a good time to be a Zionist. The Hadassah forum on the “tensions” between Zionism and Feminism, held on Thursday night in New York’s Town and Village Synagogue (and posted on Facebook), was evidence of how much the U.S. discourse has moved on the Palestine question. The panel of Zionist feminists were with one exception defensive and angry about the fact that they even need to counter accusations against Zionism from progressives — “as if they were being bullied, disempowered, for their views,” as Nada Elia wrote here.
The panelists seemed especially agitated about the degree to which Jews are no longer regarded as an oppressed group. The word Holocaust was often mentioned, the speakers seeking to remind the audience about Jewish insecurity in the west, and the role of Zionism as a liberation movement, as an answer to the stinging accusation that even to be a liberal Zionist is to be a “Zionist ho” or a “white supremacist.”
Pro-Palestinian activists fail to “recognize the Jewish experience,” writer Marisa Kabas said. “They only see what’s in front of them right now, which is the occupation. I don’t blame them, but it’s worth going a little further back, to see why people still support the state of Israel.”
I want to focus on one aspect of the forum: the tension between “intersectionality” and “orientalism,” and the role of the New York Times in mediating that divide.
Several panelists objected to assertions of “intersectionality” by the feminist movement. As I understand it, intersectionality is the idea that social injustices cannot be addressed singly without considering issues of class, race, gender, and identity. The “pledge of liberation” for the Women’s March links police violence to sexual violence to immigrant rights to economic justice to the need to end aggressive wars; and in this way women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the struggles of people of color are bound to one another. The rise of this paradigm shows how Trump has served to radicalize the left; thus, Linda Sarsour was very prominent in the Women’s March in Washington, notwithstanding her support of BDS and Palestinian rights, which would have gotten her barred from a rally if mainstream liberals were calling the shots.
“Why is Israel being singled out? I see the roots of that in intersectionality,” said the panel’s moderator Bari Weiss, an opinion editor at the New York Times. Weiss argued that intersectionality creates a “hierarchy” of victimhood in which Zionist feminists fall on the wrong side of the line.
Maybe she is right about the hierarchy of identity politics; but intersectionality is obviously the reigning Mood of the Left right now, and if you want to be in the left you must at the very least respect this political culture and appreciate the ways that it empowers people who were once exiled by elites– who have their own hierarchies.
This is the panel’s core anguish. They like to see themselves as progressive. But they don’t know if they can handle the company. “I felt this tiny shift to the right,” Marisa Kabas said, when she realized that something she’s never been that vocal about, her Zionism, was being called out by leftwing feminists. Libby Lenkinski, the Israeli liberal on the panel, said the upsetting thing about the Black Lives Matter platform published last summer citing Israeli “genocide” against Palestinians was that the black activists didn’t check that language ahead of time with their pro-Israel allies and then change the language, as traditional coalitions would have done. And that’s because being pro-Israel is just not considered progressive anymore– even if you support Palestinian women, as Lenkinski insists she does, working with the New Israel Fund.
Panelist Emily Shire went much further in expressing her discomfort with the left– into orientalism. As a feminist, she cares about the empowerment and protection of women. But if people are only speaking of Israel as an occupier and they don’t talk about “domestic violence, the lack of pro-choice, and honor killings” in the Palestinian community– “if they’re just talking about Israel’s fault”– then she finds their intentions “a little fishy.” She said rates of domestic violence approach 40 percent in Palestinian households in the occupation.
As someone who tried to do this myself when I first got into this movement, talk about Palestinian cultural practices I disapproved of (for instance, girls being covered at a young age and not being able to participate in athletic events), my advice to Shire is, If you really are progressive, drop it. Palestinians are living under occupation. You cannot support a society that has its boot on all these people’s necks, and then lecture them about domestic abuse. That’s extremely condescending and is today seen as racist or orientalist, for good reason. If you actually get to know Palestinians, you will find that the educated (a remarkably high percentage) of that society recognize these problems, and want to address them, and often do, but that freedom is actually a more pressing matter for them: basic rights, which they are denied under apartheid. Humbly I’d suggest that liberal American Jews respect what the Palestinian community is telling them before they start telling them how to be enlightened. That’s the best part of intersectionality: giving communities that were shut out a voice.
But as Nada Elia made clear, the panel had its own idea of hierarchy: It excluded anti-Zionist voices, and there was barely a word about Palestinian conditions.
As for the New York Times, the panel was moderated by Bari Weiss, an editor on the op-ed page. It was obvious that she is a conservative Zionist on these matters. “You have to check your Zionism and Jewish identity at the door if you want to be a part of this rising feminist movement,” Weiss said witheringly. Later she offered a recommendation to the audience of those they should listen to for guidance: the organization Encounter (which seems like a good undertaking by the Jewish community) and the writers Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christina Hoff Sommers. Those two writers are about as rightwing as you can get in polite society. Ali has said that Islam is the root of the problem between Muslim societies and the west, while Christina Hoff Sommers – a non-intersectionalist feminist, Weiss said approvingly – is a rightwing Israel-supporter at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.
We often wonder about the support for Israel at the New York Times. Why does the newspaper have no anti-Zionist columnists? Why are three of the columnists so avowedly pro-Israel, including new hire Bret Stephens, who has said that the “Arab mind” is diseased? Why does Shmuel Rosner get a platform at the Times to call out a brave newspaper, Haaretz, as disloyal to the Jewish state? Bari Weiss is part of this problem; on Thursday night, she deemed it intellectually honest to conduct an all-Zionist-Jewish discussion on a matter that affects a great number of communities. I don’t think young Jews will see that kind of entitlement as part of their Jewish identity.