B’nai B’rith Women Call off Split

B’nai B’rith Women (BBW) called off in May its decision to leave B’nai B’rith International (BBI). Instead, its top leadership has joined with their counterparts in BBI to “explore alternatives for a productive partnership.”

The decision came as a surprise move in the often bitter year-long struggle between the two organizations over BBI’s decision to open its membership to women—an action fiercely resisted by B’nai B’rith Women.

The conflict erupted in September 1984, with the passage of a BBI convention resolution calling for the development of a plan for “full and equal membership for women in B’nai B’rith,” for consideration at BBI’s 1986 convention. The resolution was based on the report of a B’nai B’rith Special Study Committee on Women appointed in 1982.

BBW leaders argued that such a move would threaten BBW’s hard-won autonomy as a separate women’s organization representing women’s special interests. “We felt that having women in B’nai B’rith would be in direct competition with us at the grassroots level, and we would be on a collision course,” said President Beverly Davis in a recent interview. “If they kept vying [with us] for the same woman member, this would have eventually diminished the strength of our organization. . . . We’re a women’s organization with a women’s agenda.”

Davis was referring to BBW’s evolution from lodge auxiliaries in the late 19th century to financial independence and autonomous status by the late 1950s. Today, claiming more than 120,000 members, BBW describes itself as a “Jewish women’s service and advocacy organization.”

In addition to its major service project—the Children’s Home and Group House in Jerusalem (a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed boys) and its support for the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Hillel, and the Anti-Defamation League, BBW has in recent years become an advocate for women’s issues.

Priding itself on being the first Jewish women’s organization to support ERA, BBW has also taken positions in favor of pro-choice legislation, the Economic Equity Act, greater political opportunities for women, greater availability of public and private day care, upgrading the legal status of homemakers, and Social Security and pension reform legislation. BBW also sponsors Operation Stork, a nationwide pre-natal care program aimed primarily at pregnant teenagers.

In the months following the passage of the BBI resolution on the admission of women, BBW’s leaders signed numerous petitions and organized 33 “town hall” meetings for members in cities throughout the country, to express their mounting opposition to the plan. On November 12, 1984, BBW’s Executive Board voted to call a special International BBW convention to determine the future course of the organization and its relationship with BBI.

In February 1985 BBI President Gerald Kraft told top-level leadership meetings that the admission of women to B’nai B’rith was “non-negotiable” and that BBI would fight separation of BBW by lawsuit, if necessary.

On March 30, 1985, BBW’s executive board members, meeting in Washington DC, voted 38-2 (with 2 abstentions) to develop a plan “to terminate its relationship with BBI.” The proposal had been scheduled to be presented at a special Delegate Assembly in Chicago June 30-July 1, 1985 and, if approved, presented in final form at BBW’s Biennial Convention in Las Vegas, March 1986.

Commenting on the vote, BBW President Beverly Davis told the Palm Beach Jewish World, “The idea of integration. . . is no longer the ultimate signpost of equality. The most important aspect of women’s rights today is the right of women to be themselves, to have their own identities, and to represent themselves. . . . By breaking away, we will preserve our identity.”

Some observers of the dispute expressed the view that the objection of the BBW leaders to the BBI integration plan was rooted in their concern that women entering BBI would not have the same leadership and policy-making opportunities that they currently enjoy in a separate organization. The controversy touches on the entire issue of what sociologist Dr. Rela Geffen Monson calls “The Counterpart System”—the sphere of women’s organizations marginal to the Jewish community.

Kraft reacted angrily to the BBW decision. In his speech to the March 30 BBW Board meeting he declared: “B’nai B’rith will reject and vigorously oppose any disaffiliation. It (separation) is not your decision. We own BBW. BBI has to make a decision whether it will let its organization leave the fold.”

Following the March meeting, the issue was discussed in BBW, and there was considerable difference of opinion as to whether separation was a good idea. Some members expressed concern as to whether, as a separate organization, BBW would be able to continue to support BBI programs, and whether separation would weaken B’nai B’rith, said Davis.

On Davis’ initiative, meetings of BBW and BBI leaders were held May 8-9 in Washington, resulting in a decision to hold joint negotiations on the organizations’ relationship. Negotiations will be conducted by a committee, which will present a preliminary report to the governing bodies of both organizations by December 1985. According to the joint statement, BBW’s Executive Board agreed to rescind its resolution favoring separation from BBI in the interim.