I grew up in a family that argued about everything from halacha (Jewish law) to Henry Wallace. This background taught me three principles: 1) certain issues are serious enough to fight about; 2) relationships between people can survive their differences; and 3) to be Jewish is to be disputatious. Jews argue because we care. Or as my father might have put it, “I yell, therefore I am.”
Despite my familiarity with argumentation, nothing prepared me for the controversies that dogged the First International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem this past December. Now that the conference is history and its positive fruits are well-known, I think we can learn from results that reached the general public.
For almost two years, members of the American Jewish Congress Commission on Women’s Equality, the World Jewish Congress and the Israel Women’s Network participated in the conference planning process. Strong differences emerged within the New York committees entrusted with program content and delegate selection, and harsh words were exchanged with our Israeli counterpart. We wrangled over which speakers to invite on what subjects from which countries and how to strike a balance between organizational and unaffiliated women, and between secular and Jewish issues. We almost came to blows about how to accommodate radical feminists and grass roots peace groups and the effect of the intifada on women.
We did manage to convene a remarkable array of some 300 women from more than 20 countries for a three-day meeting in Jerusalem. But new problems arose at once. The day before the conference a number of women objected to our participating in a demonstration at Prime Minister Shamir’s office organized by the American Jewish Congress to protest the proposed amendment to the Law of Return. Some thought women had no business mixing in Israeli affairs; others said we should leave “Who is a Jew” up to the rabbis; still others resented that the feminist agenda was being eclipsed by Israel’s political machinations.
Dear God, I thought, if we can’t stand in unity on the “Who is a Jew” issue what other grim surprises lie in wait? One answer came in the form of an open letter slipped under delegates’ doors objecting that intifada was not being addressed in the conference proceedings. That evening, at our opening session, peace activists carried in a banner proclaiming “Feminists Against the Occupation,” and distributed flyers detailing the discrimination and violence suffered by Oriental Jews and Arab women in occupied territories. Next Helen Suzman — a keynote speaker and veteran of a 40 year battle against apartheid — was booed by some for justifying Israel’s trade with South Africa, and for opposing divestment as a pressure strategy to influence the Botha government. Most of the audience gave Suzman a standing ovation. Then Bella Abzug put us back on course with a stirring review of the achievement of Jewish women throughout history and a reminder of what we were there to accomplish.
Like a swinging pendulum, the high points of the next three days were followed by rumblings of discontent: Some thought there was not enough on the schedule for religious feminists — others thought the conference was obsessed with Orthodox issues.
Some women were enraged at the neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while many found the conference “too political.”
The session on Women, War and Peace was everyone’s “whipping girl:” It should have included Likud women. It should have included the feminist peace camp. It should have included Palestinians. It should never have happened.
I heard there was not enough about lesbians and widows and single mothers and domestic violence — and that there was too much attention to what were called “fringe issues.”
I heard that issues of peace, the environment, Soviet Jewry, Sephardim and Ethiopians didn’t belong at the conference, and that theses issues had been shamefully shortchanged. We were too radical; no we were hopelessly mainstream.
Little by little, the cacophony of complaints dampened my enthusiasm and filled me with despair. On the last day I woke up feeling utterly defeated. That afternoon, I was to deliver the closing speech, “A Call To Action.” I couldn’t imagine how we would reconcile our differences, or how I could motivate so many warring factions to form an international activist network. I lingered in my room, depressed, then started interviewing delegates, taking readings of their mood and expectations. To my amazement, instead of a litany of complaints, what women told me was how meaningful the conference had been for them. Maybe the new positivism was inspired by the heady experience at the Wall at dawn. Or maybe it was the morning speakers who gave everything a new perspective — Renee Epelbaum describing the fascist terror in Argentina and the murder of her three children, Shulamit Aloni revealing her fears for Israel’s political and moral destiny, refusenik Ida Nudel being feisty in her freedom.
In any case, despite all that had divided us, the women I interviewed were now focusing on moments of intoxicating sisterhood. They had met brilliant women they never knew existed. They had crossed the boundaries of culture and nationality and found Jewish women’s commonalities awesome. They felt the contagion of courage. They had been moved by other women’s stories and therein found themselves.
A comment by Yolanda Cohen of Canada helped me understand our collective Sturm und Drang: “This is the first feminist conference I have ever attended at which the embrace of feminism has been so inclusive. Painful, but inclusive.”
I realized that inclusiveness is the hallmark of our struggle. Each of us wants to be accepted for the woman she is; she refuses to carve herself to fit any mold, even a feminist mold. She insists on her ethnic, religious and gender integrity as she sees it. This demand for multilayered inclusiveness is what makes Jewish feminists different from other Jews and other women. It requires our new network to confront the ongoing complications of a double agenda — an agenda that grapples with the external burdens of sexism and anti-Semitism while simultaneously clarifying what it means to each of us to be a woman and a Jew. It also requires great leaps of tolerance and empathy. Hearing one another and reflecting all points of view may not lead to consensus but it does lead to understanding and even grudging respect. Inclusiveness can be painful but it’s the only route to feminist democracy.
Instead of hiding our disputes, I believe we must air them. Instead of feminine conformity, I believe in passionate advocacy. Our arguments are not petty outbursts ruled by personality or ego, they are meaningful expressions of diverse values and strategies. They help us appreciate both the creativity of reconciliation and the dignity of a stand-off. They help us to see the world through our sisters’ eyes.
I think my family was right: certain issues are serious enough to fight about; relationships between people can survive their differences; and to be Jewish is to be disputatious. Jews argue because we care. And Jewish feminists argue even more because we have even more to care about.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of six books, most recently, Among Friends. She is currently at work on a personal meditation about Judaism and feminism.