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Anti-Semitism a Hot Issue at Women’ s Studies Meet

Anti-Semitism within the American women’s movement and worldwide was a major concern of this year’s National Women’s Studies Association Conference, held June 26-30, 1983 in Columbus, OH.

The conference’s path breaking plenary session on “Racism and Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement”, held Tuesday, June 27th and attended by some 1,500 people, reflected the growing recognition within the NWSA that anti-Semitism is a serious issue, to be included with racism as a major form of oppression.

Stressing the need to expose anti-Semitism as “an invisible and insidious oppression in American society” was Evelyn Torton Beck, teacher of women’s studies courses and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin and editor of Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (see excerpt and author interview, LILITH #10). In a paper entitled, “No More Masks: Anti-Semitism as Jew-Hating,” Beck discussed her sense of vulnerability as a Jew in American society.

She said that “Jew-hating” manifests itself in many ways, the most obvious of which are extermination, forced assimilation and the persistence of anti-Jewish stereotypes (including the “Jewish Mother” and “Jewish American Princess”) in speech, print, jokes and grafitti. More subtle forms of anti-Semitism include, according to Beck: the definition of Zionism only as the worst kind of fanaticism and unchecked expansionism rather than the belief in Israel’s right to exist; use of the Holocaust as the measure of all oppression (i.e. anything less is not considered oppressive); discomfort with the idea of separate “Jewish interests”; “anti-Semitism by omission,” such as the exclusion of material on Jewish women in women’s studies courses and curricula; and use of the “double standard”, i.e. the argument that, because some Jews have achieved prominent positions in American society, they are not oppressed.

Beck also discussed strategies for combatting anti-Semitism, primarily through education of the American public regarding Jews and Judaism. While she acknowledged that all oppressions are interlinked, and that one cannot oppose anti-Semitism without also opposing racism and homophobia, she stressed that “anti-Semitism is different from racism, and must be studied in its specificity.”

The plenary, moderated by Clare Bright, included presentations on “Unveiling the Hidden Face of Racism: The Plight of Arab-Americans,” by Azizah al-Hibri, Editor, Hypatia: A journal of Feminist Philosophy; “Identity: Skin Blood Heart,” by Minnie Bruce Pratt, Editor, Feminary Magazine; “Racism from Imperialist to Industrialist: Power, Profit and Product,” by Carol Lee Sanchez, San Francisco State University; and “A Rock and a Hard Place: Relationships Between Black and Jewish Women,” by Barbara Smith, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Beck’s emphasis on the need for a broader and more accurate definition of Zionism was reiterated at a later session on Arab women which, Beck reported, established a “good dialogue” between Jewish and Arab women. Among the other issues discussed at the session were the need to oppose anti-Arab stereotypes; difficulties faced by Arab women in the U.S., some of whom are uneducated and abused by their husbands; plight of Palestinian women prisoners; and networking between Arab and other women.

Following the “Racism and Anti-Semitism” plenary, some 50 women met to establish a Task Force on Jewish Issues which intends to form a NWSA Jewish Women’s Caucus (one of many caucuses representing minority and other special-interest groups within the Coordinating Council, the NWSA’s major decision-making body). The Caucus will continue the ongoing discussion of anti-Semitism, and will work to incorporate material on Jewish women in women’s studies courses across the country, and in the programs of future conferences.

This year’s conference, characterized by Beck as the “most successful” yet in terms of its large number of academic panels and cultural events on Jewish women, included sessions on: “A Weave of Broner: Jew, Feminist, and Writer”; “Jewish Women’s History: Reclaiming the Invisible American Woman”; “Jewish Women, Anti-Semitism and Feminist Education”; Women and Suffrage” (including a paper by Linda Gordon Kuzmack, of George Washington University, on The Jewish League for Woman Suffrage in England), “Transforming Tradition: Feminism and Judaism”; and “The Immigrant Jewish Woman Writer.”

Those interested in more information on the NWSA Jewish Women’s Caucus should contact:

Judith Arcana (one of the four Caucus Coordinators) 564 Roscoe Chicago, IL 60657