This has certainly been a season where women feel torn. But Clinton vs. Obama is only part of it. In the world of Jewish women — or in the universe I live in, at least — there was another rending going on too, as the keystone magazine of American feminism acted foolishly in rejecting an ad touting Israeli women.
By now you’ve likely heard all about it, the advertisement American Jewish Congress tried to place in Ms. magazine, picturing three Israeli women legislative leaders — President of the Supreme Court Dorit Beinish, Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni and Knesset Speaker Dahlia Itzik — over bold type announcing “This Is Israel.”
Running the ad would have unleashed “a firestorm” of criticism against the magazine, Ms. publisher Eleanor Smeal told me. Ms. added a whole host of disingenuous reasons, among them — in the words of the damage-control press release Ms. editor Kathy Spillar sent out — that “Ms. magazine’s policy is to only accept mission-driven advertisements from primarily nonprofit, non-partisan organizations that promote women’s equality, social justice, sustainable environment, and non-violence.“ Apparently Ms. had no idea what American Jewish Congress was, nor that it defines itself as a human rights champion. Both Smeal and Spillar added the puzzling comment that “With two of the women featured in the ad from one political party in Israel, Ms. could be viewed as supporting one political party over another in the internal domestic politics of a country.” Huh?
Ms. was, naively, surprised that American Jewish Congress launched a full-barreled press campaign reviling Ms. and offering on its website a petition demanding that Ms. apologize “On behalf of all the Jewish people.” I felt both outrage and anguish, defending the ad and its intent to Smeal while at the same time denouncing Jewish blogs railing against “those feminazis.” What grim — and unnecessary — roles and choices.
From the moment I read the first AJCongress press release on the rejected ad — headlined “Here’s the ad Ms. didn’t want you to see” — I was chilled. I could imagine the well of ignorance about Israel that had fueled the rejection. But the online petition also seemed to me bizarre, forfeiting as it did an opportunity to educate the readers of Ms. — and its editors. Instead, naiveté combined with anxiety, both from AJCongress about how to inform a readership of largely non-Jewish feminist women, and from Ms., having no idea about how uncomfortable many Jewish women would be over their stance. Why was my email in box flooded almost instantly with messages asking “What should we do?” Because pitting a venerable Jewish organization against a feminist icon felt like a body blow, especially to Jewish women. When an admittedly simplistic ad touting the achievements of three women in Israel gets rejected by a magazine whose mission is to encourage just such achievements, we react with horror because we are Jews who may “look safe, but we don’t feel safe,” explains Letty Cottin Pogrebin. And Ms. missed this.
Maybe positive mention of Israel makes some people uncomfortable, as if saying anything good about the Jewish state were anathema. There’s certainly much to be improved upon for women in the State of Israel, ranging from unbearably sexist religious constraints on marriage and Jewish identity to gender inequities in pay at every level in the workplace. Part of Lilith’s beat has been to cover those stories. But one of the things that is not wrong is the presence of women in the corridors of power, like the three whose photos appear in that ad.
It’s time to look at Israel through a different lens — seeing politics, power, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and global animus toward Israel refracted through arts, culture, and the intimate lives of Israelis. Starting with this issue, and in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary in May, Lilith launches a year of coverage of women’s public and private roles in Israel, in all their diverse cultural, spiritual, intellectual energy. In these pages and in coverage to come, watch for how our writers and artists notice and report on nuance and complexity in Israel women’s lives today.
And for a personal take on my own connection to Israel, you can visit Lilith.org to see how I reacted to finding my great grandparents graves in Jerusalem.