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Women and Power, B’nai Brith Style

In a process that has been described as “the equivalent of a hostile takeover” B’nai B’rith International (BBI) is trying to expel the B’nai B’rith Women (BBW) from its “family” of organizations. This follows BBI’s decision in 1988 to admit women to its previously all-male chapters.

Hyla Lipsky, president of 120,000-member BBW, claims that “B’nai B’rith International’s decision-makers now seek total control over their empire. They will brook no independence”

The women’s organization, autonomous by constitutional decree since 1962, has been engaged in a struggle with B’nai B’rith International for about eighteen months — a struggle, essentially, over who will attract and then speak for those Jewish women who want to affiliate with B’nai B’rith. In a period when, according to BBW Executive Director Elaine Binder, B’nai B’rith itself is “suffering from membership decline and financial restraints the umbrella organization sees BBW members as a “captive potential population”, whose numbers and membership dollars could be added to the BBI ranks.

In September 1988, the “men’s biennial” concerned over declining enrollment, decided that B’nai B’rith International should admit women (see LILITH’s report, Spring 1989). Following the BBI decision, BBW passed a resolution of its own reaffirming the organization’s status as a separate legal entity, thus pitting the two groups against each other.

“There have been no negotiations, but there has been warfare in local communities’,’ says Binder. “They got our mailing list — although it was never released to them officially — and sent mail to every member of B’nai B’rith Women soliciting them to stay a part of B’nai B’rith by joining B’nai B’rith International. They even discounted their membership price — something they’ve never done before”

In December 1989, apparently in reaction to BBW’s refusal to rescind its assertion of autonomy, the BBI Board of Governors decided to begin proceedings to terminate the relationship between the two groups. It has even threatened to take legal action against BBW and individual members of its executive board, according to Lipsky.

“We also have a right to exist as an organization’,’ declares Binder, emphasizing that the decision of BBW to “reaffirm” the organization’s historical automony means the continuation of a strong women’s voice speaking out on “women’s and family issues — keeping them in the forefront. BBW has a mission that can’t be achieved without a separate identity”

The question of whether these issues are better mainstreamed into the concerns of general Jewish organizations cuts, of course, right to the heart of the matter: will these general organizations, still largely led by men even after two decades of Jewish feminist activism, ever take these issues as seriously as women must?