Intersections and Intersectionality

From the very start, Lilith positioned itself at the place where feminism and Jewish life intersect, where the x and the y axes—the abscissa and the ordinate of our identity—meet. (Or is it the Scylla and the Charybdis?)

In 1994, for Lilith’s 18th anniversary issue, I outlined the magazine’s origin story:

“While our Jewish backgrounds ranged from Orthodox to assimilated, and our politics pretty much covered the map too, we all identified strongly as feminists and as Zionists.” We believed unwaveringly in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, while publishing writing unequivocally critical of some Israeli government policies.

This season, some have declared the intersection of feminism and Zionism unacceptable. Who has the right to confiscate either part of my identity?

The organizers of the March 8 International Women’s Strike (a follow-up to January’s marches) present as its credo that “the decolonization of Palestine” is at “the beating heart of this new feminist movement.” Beyond some version of “women’s rights are human rights,” the women’s movement has never had one particular set of principles to which all feminists were expected to swear fealty. “Intersectionality,” the term we’ve lived by, now sometimes feels like a trap to snare Jewish feminists who consider themselves Zionists.

Is “the decolonization of Palestine” really the most important women’s issue for feminists? Only this particular intersection—of feminism and “the decolonization of Palestine”— warrants a place on the list? This singularity, this solipsism, weakens the feminist movement.

Fidelity to feminism should not have as its litmus test a stipulation that one renounce Israel, nor any other country. To be a feminist does not mean one need renounce Judaism, Islam, Christianity or any faith—even while feminists correctly denounce, combat and correct faith-based misogyny and bigotry. Likewise, feminism should not require that one take a stance against Israel—even while debating or denouncing some of the state’s policies on the Occupation or on anything else.

The argument now is that to claim one part of your identity—feminist—you must, to be a proper feminist, turn away from another—Zionist. Emily Shire’s recent and much-shared New York Times opinion piece is entitled “Does Feminism Have Room for Zionism?”

These tensions are not new. At other times the two poles of my identity have felt they were being pulled apart in a Procrustean effort to re-shape a feminist Jew. When I saw the “beating heart of feminism” plank in the March 8 platform I recalled:

• The 1975 Mexico City International Women’s Conference, held the first year the U.N. declared March 8 as International Women’s Day. (Aside to reader: There is no Men’s Day. Men have the whole rest of the calendar.) In Mexico City, at this first-ever conference to focus exclusively on women’s issues around the world, a resolution declared “Zionism is a form of racism.” This stance did not make it onto the agenda at the next U.N. conference on women, in Nairobi in 1985, but after Mexico City plenty of feminist Jews asked themselves if they were being written out of the women’s movement. Had the movement been hijacked? 

• The 2008 incident in which Ms. Magazine, that avatar of mainstream feminism, rejected an ad saying “This Is Israel,” featuring photos of three Israeli women legislators. Because two of the three were from the same political party, the ad was deemed “partisan.”

• The National Women’s Studies Association’s vote, 18 months ago, to support the boycott of Israeli products and culture. 

Simona Sharoni, who supported the B.D.S. motion, was quoted as saying: “We’re basically redefining feminism and putting solidarity with Palestine into that definition of what it means to be a feminist.” The publication Inside Higher Ed quoted an academic who lauded N.W.S.A.’s stance and decried “Zionist influence in the women’s movement and women’s and feminist scholarship.” Huh? To my ears, in this last statement, “Zionist” sounds like a convenient proxy for “Jewish,” anti-Zionism a proxy for anti-Semitism.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy asked in March, on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, “How can feminism be “inclusive” if Jewish women who care about the Jewish state are unwelcome?”

I’d thought we were well past this split. I’d thought that January’s much-lauded women’s marches opened an umbrella so large that under its shelter feminists of all stripes could find new allies. There’s still hope for this, but only if those who identify as truth-seeking feminists and Zionists are willing to critique both of these allegiances while staunchly maintaining both. What would I place “at the beating heart” of the feminist movement? Broad-based respect for women’s lives, our bodies and minds, in all their glorious diversity. So keep your platform off my feminism, thank you.