NERVOUS ABOUT NAIROBI
As preparations for the UN “end-decade” conference on women reach their final stages, Jewish women around the world are responding with a mixture of hopefulness, confusion and apprehension. The hopefulness comes, as it does for all women, from the sense that if we could divorce ourselves from male-dominated partisan politics long enough to address the crucial issues of women’s health, safety, education and economic opportunity we’d be steps closer to tikkun olam, the repair of the world that as Jews we believe is our task on earth. Confusion, because the United Nations, as of this writing, has not yet decided on the nature and functioning of the parallel conference for Nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) similar to those held in Copenhagen in 1980 and Mexico City in 1975, at which representatives of Jewish women’s organizations and independent Jewish women could appear and speak out. Apprehension, because both previous meetings saw unchecked expressions of anti-Semitism; in fact, their experiences at Copenhagen were for some of the Jewish women present their first encounter with the virulence of anti-Semitism and their first awareness of its presence in the worldwide women’s movement (see LILITH #8). The logistical uncertainty with regard to observers and procedures heightens the anxiety that there will be no way to combat the expression of anti-Jewish or anti-Israel views.
It should be pointed out, however, that almost five years have elapsed since the disaster at Copenhagen. The various Jewish women’s organizations might have utilized this time to evaluate what happened and why and to plan a direction and strategy for Nairobi. Instead, they have often fought among themselves and addressed themselves to superficial issues (such as learning how to grab a microphone) rather than substantive ones. No unified Jewish feminist strategy exists at present for combating the “anti-Zionism,” with less than half a year to go until the Nairobi conference.
There is no question, of course, that combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in such a crucial public arena is an important aspect of what Jewish women should be doing at the conference, but, it should be realized, this is a reactive role— a response to attacks by others—rather than an active one.
Moreover, with many of the Jewish women’s organizations taking guidance, instructions and/or inspiration from the male-dominated Jewish establishment on what to combat and how, these women are playing precisely the same role of spokesperson for the Jewish establishment “party line” that the government-appointed women on most national delegations are primed to play for their male-dominated governments. In both cases the “women’s agenda” should be the prime focus of their activities at the conference, which is—at least officially—dedicated to improving women’s lot worldwide. This deflection of purpose is not only wrong in principle; it is also very poor strategy. For if their purpose is to keep the conference focused on the women’s agenda (and prevent its being derailed onto an anti-Zionist track) the Jewish women’s organizations themselves should be prepared to concentrate on this agenda, and for the most part they aren’t.
This situation points up the acute lack of an organization representing and struggling for the goals thousands of Jewish feminists are committed to presently as individuals and as members of small local groups: from fighting anti-Semitism in the women’s movement to promoting the women’s agenda both within and outside of the Jewish community. The traditional instruments we’ve relied upon in the past are not working for our best interests right now.
Meanwhile, unaffiliated, independent American Jewish women who plan to attend the conference under feminist NGO auspices have devoted considerable energy to building coalitions with non-Jewish women trying to work on the issues that concern women rather than divide them. A petition along these lines has been prepared by novelist E.M. Broner and is being circulated by Ms. editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Please turn to page 44 for your copy; we encourage you to sign it, duplicate it, circulate and return it, and to do your part to keep women’s issues on the agenda in your local Jewish and general communities.
NEW WRITING BY JEWISH WOMEN
A recent essay in the New York Times Book Review predicted—and applauded—the ” death of the American Jewish novel.” The thesis was that such fiction drew heavily on an immigrant background which is rapidly fading; when it no longer exists, neither will the genre.
This dire but at the same time gleeful prophecy calls to mind Mark Twain’s rejoinder to his obit: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” For while the American Jewish novel of the kind written by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth may indeed be on the way out, this in no way means that the American Jewish novel is dead. Quite the opposite, in fact: fiction by Jewish women is burgeoning.
There was a time when we might have thought that novels of the kind written by Bellow and Roth accurately reflected the experience of men and women in Jewish America, despite our being disturbed by their portrayal of women in nasty stereotypical terms. We now understand that the world these men depicted—a world of male experience and male fantasy—was theirs alone. Rather than portraying Jewish women, it betrayed us.
The new writing by Jewish women showcased here is, we think, a good antidote to the images of Jewish women presented to us by these earlier writers. This special issue has had as its guest fiction editor Julia Wolf Mazow, editor of the collection of Jewish women’s fiction and autobiography The Woman Who Lost Her Names. From the hundreds of stories—and poems—considered for this issue—some sent by authors unknown to us, some sent in response to our request—we have selected what we think are fine representations of what Publishers Weekly called a few years ago “the genre of Jewish women’s liberation fiction.”