Even as the situation on the ground in Palestine remains dire, and will, according to analyst Nadia Hijab, become even worse before it gets better, Palestine rights activists can celebrate one significant accomplishment: the discursive change that has slowly but surely eroded the credibility of the Zionist narrative over the past few years.
Within feminist communities, this became most obvious during the mass protests in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, especially when the January 20 Women’s March in Washington DC featured Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour as one of the speakers, and the March 8 International Women’s Strike platform named the decolonization of Palestine as central to their vision. An alarmed Emily Shire, editor at Bustle, published an essay “Does Feminism Have Room for Feminists?” which opened up much discussion, (and which I responded to with a resounding “No, there is no room for Zionism in any movement for justice.”)
On Thursday, June 8, Hadassah picked up the conversation again as they hosted “Feminism and Zionism: Exploring Recent Tensions,” a panel discussion between Shire, Sharon Weiss-Greenberg (Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), Marisa Kabas (a New York-based writer), and Libby Kenkinski (New Israel Fund), moderated by Bari Weiss, an editor at the New York Times. In typical Zionist fashion, Hadassah did not feature an anti-Zionist (Jew or non-Jew), and certainly no Palestinian speaker.
Did the panel organizers try, but could not find anyone naïve enough to do this in the hope that they could sway the rest of the panelists, or did they not even bother, because what’s Zionism got to do with Palestine anyway? Prior to the event, I emailed the Facebook administrator asking if they had tried to include a dissenting voice, or had reached out to an anti-Zionist and/or Palestinian speaker. I received no response, and my comment is still showing as “under review” by the administrator as I write this. Another friend, Maureen Silverman, also wrote: “I wish you invited an anti-Zionist on the panel. To me Zionist oppression, racism, domination, settler colonialism, nationalism, white Jewish supremacy do not coincide with feminism!!!! It would be useful to hear from Palestinians on this.” And while her comment was approved for posting by the administrator, she did not receive a response either.
I watched the event online. Hadassah President Ellen Hershkin greeted the audience, and introduced the speakers and moderator, stating that “there is no such thing as a one-size fits all Zionism.” And indeed, the speakers did not sound like reverberating echoes of each other, but rather like variations on a theme, that theme being that Israel is misunderstood, that it is a land that empowers women, and that it is being “singled out” for criticism. With the possible exception of Lenkinski, (the only Israeli panelist, the four others being American) the speakers expressed a sense of defensiveness, as if they were being bullied, disempowered, for their views. As Kabas put it, at the Women’s March, “the rhetoric wasn’t just pro-Palestine, it was anti-Israel.” She explained that, as a woman, she had expected to feel empowered, but could not, because of the overall tone of the march. Weiss-Greenberg jumped in, adding that she too, felt the march was “deeply disappointing.” Shire reminded the audience that one of the organizers of the march was a “convicted terrorist,” a choice that reveals an “unnuanced” understanding of foreign policy on the part of the rest of the organizers. Shire was obviously referring to Rasmea Odeh, the Palestinian grassroots organizer who as a young woman was subjected to physical, sexual, and psychological torture in Israeli jail.
“Why is being a Zionist a focal issue of the current feminist discussion,” Kabas asked. “There are other issues. Israel is being singled out.”
In the absence of a panelist who would answer Marisa’s question, let me point her to the statement of the International Women’s Strike, which lists multiple issues of concern to feminists, and certainly does not “single out” Israel, even though it calls it out as an oppressor which must be held accountable for its many crimes.
The panelists were not only critical of the Women’s March, but also of the Black Lives Matter statement, that also calls out Israel’s genocidal practices. “Who wrote that statement? Who did they talk to?” asked Lenkinski. She went on to explain that she could not sign on to it, even though she agreed with much of its contents, because of the negative references to Israel.
The rest of the panelists agreed, saying they felt they could not join coalitions, “movements that call themselves progressive,” because of the pervasive criticism of Israel. “It’s really hard to have a conversation when the other side is not educated” about why there is Jewish support for Israel, despite some disapproval of some Israeli policies, Kabas jumped in. It feels like “a binary, a good vs bad, black and white issue,” Shire interjected, and Israel is viewed as the oppressor.
Again, a non-Zionist voice would have possibly interjected here, explaining that it is precisely because “the other side” is educated about the reality of Israel, that they are so critical of it. If anything, the discursive change that puts some Zionists on the defensive today is a direct result of the long-overdue shattering of the censorship about Israel.
So what would you tell a college freshman about Israel, the moderator asked, giving panelists a final chance to defend their Zionism.
“Israel was founded by men and women, side by side,” Weiss-Greenberg answered. “it’s a place where women can fight, and vote, side by side.” (“Yes. Some women. And they vote for apartheid, and fight and kill other women. Side by side,” said the little unwelcome anti-Zionist voice).
“Feminism is also about equality for Jews and non-Jews. Israel is a place where Jews are safe and where we can celebrate, a place we call our own,” said Kabas. (“OK, I’d love some equality,” said the unfeatured anti-Zionist voice).
Shire volunteered: “We have Golda Meir. We have women who serve. We have protection for women.”
Oh dear, I so wish someone could have brought up Palestinian women. Maybe even protection for Palestinian women. And “serving” in a brutally murderous military as not exactly a feminist accomplishment. But for these American Zionists, Palestinians do not exist. Indeed, Golda Meir said so.
Again, Libby, the Israeli, had a slightly more nuanced response: “True Zionism is only possible when we have peace with Palestine. Building bridges, coming together, as Zionists, as Israelis who care about Israel.”
Oh wait, I guess it is all about Israel after all. Because Zionism, an exclusionary ideology, has no room for others.