“Women Against Racism:” A Personal Account

“Parallels and Intersections: A Conference on Racism and Other Forms of Oppression” held in Iowa City in April was the first conference I’ve attended of progressives and radicals — including feminist conferences — where Jewish issues felt truly present, raised not only by Jews and talked about not only in specifically Jewish workshops, but also mentioned and talked about by non-Jews. Anti-Semitism was included in the analysis of oppression presented in a series of core workshops. Kosher food was an option on the registration form, along with meat and vegetarian. Friday at sundown, a substantial group — mostly but not entirely Jewish — gathered to celebrate Shabbat.

Jews were well-represented in the daily plenary sessions, which were organized by theme. In the opening session, on myths and misinformation, Bernice Mennis, who teaches at Vermont College, spoke eloquently about the difference between myths-as-misinformation and myths-as-models, between illusions and visions, partly focusing on specific myths about Jews and about lesbians. In the final plenary session, on “Re-Thinking Alliance-Building,” I described how deepening my Jewish identity had led me to connect with Israeli feminists and peace activists and, finally, with Palestinian feminists and activists.

There were not many specifically Jewish workshops, and credit for two which took place goes to New Jewish Agenda, particularly Tom Rawson, Ellen Stone and Laurie White. Laurie and Ellen — who also organized the Shabbat event — led a workshop called, “From the Margins to the Center: Jewish, Feminist, Progressive,” which examined issues of identity, comfort, and inclusion. I led a workshop, “A Progressive Jewish Approach to Israel and the Middle East Conflict.” My goal was to share information without polarizing and — miracle — it was accomplished.

One real pleasure of this conference: because Jewish issues were included in the conference fabric, and a Jewish caucus met each day, I did not feel the pressure or impetus I often feel to pursue Jewish themes exclusively.

The Women Against Racism Committee, organizers of this conference, have run smaller conferences for several years. This conference, which took more than two years to plan, was envisioned as broader-reaching, including all forms of oppression and extending to men as well as women. Women Against Racism is a remarkable group: multiracial, multi-cultural, including both American and foreign students, faculty, staff and community people, lesbians and heterosexuals. The Committee’s work is shaped by the “Unlearning Racism” model of Ricky Shereover-Marcuse, a Jewish woman who had died just a few months before this conference. Marcuse’s model was to encourage small and large groups of people to work together to uncover and abandon their past learning of racism.