Zionism split the women’s movement in the ’70s. Will it do the same to BLM?

From second-wave feminism in the 1970s and '80s to the BLM movement today, liberal American Jews have long struggled to shield their Zionism from their universal values.

The Women’s March on New York, January 21, 2017. (Gili Getz)
The Women’s March on New York, January 21, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Three months after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, thousands are still marching in American cities to decry police brutality and racial injustice. Asymmetric confrontations between heavily armed police officers in protective gear and unarmed civilians — particularly Black people and people of color — have become an almost daily occurrence.

Even as these protests have become a feature of American life in 2020, the images coming out of them invoke another asymmetric conflict — that between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite their different histories, the Palestinian and Black American predicaments have some common features: both groups lack full political rights and adequate representation, are subjected to daily state-sponsored violence, and have been physically segregated by a host of legal and illegal techniques. These affinities have long been recognized by Black activists, scholars, and politicians — from Angela Davis to Marc Lamont Hill, Michelle Alexander to Jamaal Bowman.

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Yet pointing out these connections at Black Lives Matter protests has brought out a tension for liberal Zionists and mainstream American Jewish groups — including those who identify as feminist. Caught between their universal ideals of social justice and their affinity with Zionism, feminists within the American-Jewish establishment are grappling with moral contradictions that the current political moment has laid bare.

This is not the first time that American-Jewish progressives have found themselves struggling to reconcile their conflicting values. The 1967 Six-Day War and the newly imposed occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and the Sinai forced a similar moral quandary among American-Jewish feminists of the 1970s and 1980s, just as second-wave feminism was at its peak.

At the UN’s First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, a group of feminists passed a declaration recognizing the experience of women in dealing with unequal treatment. They expressed hope that the declaration would allow them to “become natural allies in the struggle against any form of oppression” — in which they included Zionism, racial discrimination, and apartheid. Jewish feminists felt betrayed: Betty Friedan, co-founder of the National Organization of Women, complained that the conference had turned into a debate over geopolitics, while founding editor of Ms. magazine Letty Cottin Pogrebin said the declaration “cynically co-opted a feminist event for anti-Israel activity.”

Inauguration ceremony of the World Conference of the International Women's Year at the Juan de la Barrera Gymnasium, Mexico City, 19 June 1975. (UN Photo/B Lane)
Inauguration ceremony of the World Conference of the International Women’s Year at the Juan de la Barrera Gymnasium, Mexico City, 19 June 1975. (UN Photo/B Lane)

As Palestinian women shared first-hand accounts of their experience under occupation at women’s conferences during the late 1970s and early 1980s, feminists started to see Palestine through a broader historical lens and began to recognize the similarities with other anti-colonial struggles. But it was Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon that forced Jewish feminists to reckon with the tension between the ethno-national ethos of Zionism and the universalist spirit of the women’s movement.

While some feminists of Jewish background (Nira Yuval-Davis and Ellen Cantarow) struggled with Zionism’s colonial aspects, more visible Jewish feminists such as Friedan and Pogrebin dogmatically asserted the compatibility of their feminism and their Zionism. In a 1982 Ms. magazine article, “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement,” for example, Pogrebin argued that “Zionism is simply an affirmative action plan on a national scale.”

Betty Friedan photographed in her home, Washington, D.C., 1978. (Lynn Gilbert/CC A-SA 4.0 International)
Betty Friedan photographed in her home, Washington, D.C., 1978. (Lynn Gilbert/CC A-SA 4.0 International)

Friedan, meanwhile, linked the struggle for women’s liberation to those in South Africa and Vietnam, but refused to extend this to Palestinian liberation. Egyptian feminist Nawal al-Saadawi wrote about the humiliation she experienced when Friedan approached her as she was about to speak at the 1985 World Conference on Women: “Please do not bring up Palestine in your speech,” Friedan whispered in al-Saadawi’s ear, “this is a women’s conference not a political conference.”

Jewish feminists further decried anti-Zionist sentiment among their sisters as a crisis of antisemitism in the women’s movement. In that same Ms. magazine piece, Pogrebin wrote that she had “no tolerance for anti-Zionists even if they are feminists,” and called anti-Zionism “tantamount to anti-Semitism because the political reality is that its bottom line is an end to the Jews.” Pogrebin did not explain this equivalence, nor did she explain why anti-Zionism is genocidal.

Between Jewish nationalism and universal values

The Jewish feminists of the 1970s and 1980s admirably advocated for the reproductive and economic rights of women. But they also set a precedent for avoiding the genuine tension between committing to inclusive causes such as equality, justice, and democracy, and to exclusive Jewish nationalism. They instead went on the defense, dismissing criticism of Israel and its policies against Palestinians as an affront to their Jewish identity.

At the time, the future of Israel-Palestine was still an open question for Jewish feminists. The assumption — strongly reiterated by the Israeli government — was that the newly-imposed occupation would be short-lived. More than 50 years and over 200 settlements later, that assumption of impermanence no longer holds.

These developments have not prevented many present-day liberal Zionists from agonizing over the integration of Palestine into the progressive movement. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, Friedan and Pogrebin could plead ignorance as an excuse for their benevolent view of Israel’s intentions. But in the intervening decades, liberal Zionists and mainstream Jewish groups have continued to resist Palestine’s connections to the most urgent struggles of the day — including the Black Lives Matter movement, which the majority of these groups support.

Police officers fire tear gas in St.Paul and Minneapolis during protests following the killing of George Floyd, May 28, 2020. (Hungryogrephotos/Wikimedia)
Police officers fire tear gas in St.Paul and Minneapolis during protests following the killing of George Floyd, May 28, 2020. (Hungryogrephotos/Wikimedia)

In an effort to adjust their messaging to the tide of public opinion, some liberal Zionist groups have coopted or made space for the BLM movement as a key cause for progressive Jews, but in the process have misrepresented the movement and translated its lessons in a fashion that does not fully challenge Israel’s oppression. This avoidance has necessitated a variety of strategies to distance the Palestinians from BLM — from a Union for Reform Judaism leader calling BLM “a Jewish value” while asserting that “harsh anti-Israel views” were unrepresentative of the movement, to the Anti-Defamation League’s insistence that it is antisemitic to note the similarities between American and Israeli violence against people of color.

This latter approach by the ADL is mirrored by Zioness, a self-proclaimed feminist group that describes itself as “unabashedly progressive” and “unapologetically Zionist.” Launched by the far-right Lawfare Project in 2017 in response to accusations of antisemitism at the Chicago Dyke March and on the part of the Women’s March leaders, Zioness effectively levies its supposed feminist credentials to squash criticism of Israel.

Thus in its recent “activist’s guide,” released at the height of the George Floyd protests, Zioness treats the comparison between the plights of Palestinians and Black Americans as an “anti-Semitic trope.” In an accompanying op-ed, Zioness head Amanda Berman, a former Lawfare Project employee, calls the comparison “deeply troubling” and argues that “messaging about Zionism and Jews” in BLM protests is “clearly designed to push us out of our organic political home on the left” — essentially invoking the reactions of Friedan and Pogrebin decades before.

Even J Street, the liberal counterpoint to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which centers opposition to the occupation in its pro-Israel agenda, has struggled in its response to some of the progressive movement’s criticisms of Israel. In the wake of the 2016 Movement for Black Lives platform, which characterized Israel as an apartheid state and accused it of committing “genocide” against Palestinians, J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami called the section “misleading and unhelpful” and suggested the platform’s authors were misusing an “ill-fitting framework of a different conflict from a different time and place.” The pressure from Jewish institutions may have made its mark: the 2020 Movement for Black Lives is rumored to have been purged of any mention of the Palestinians.

J Street’s anodyne support for the most basic Palestinian demands is not itself wholehearted. The key policy issue that divides liberal Zionists today is whether the United States should continue to provide Israel with military aid to the tune of nearly 4 billion dollars a year — and J Street is wavering on the matter. Frustrated members of the organization’s youth wing have already issued two letters since last year imploring the group to throw its support behind attaching tangible consequences to Israel’s occupation.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks at the 2019 J Street National Conference, October 28, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks at the 2019 J Street National Conference, October 28, 2019. (Courtesy of J Street)

But these attempts to keep J Street relevant have failed, even as the threat of annexation gave the lobby the opportunity to make its most consequential intervention yet. In the end, all that Ben-Ami had to offer was a sternly worded condemnation of Israel’s annexation plans, warning that it would hurt the U.S.-Israel relationship and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Shielding Zionism

Like Jewish feminists four decades ago, liberal Zionists and mainstream Jewish institutions in America today fail to reckon with their inherently conflicting values. That does not mean that a humane and democratic vision of Jewish nationalism is impossible: Peter Beinart, who recently spoke out in support of a binational version of the one-state solution, takes the moral analogy between Black and Palestinian lives as a given. He draws on a common theme in African-American writing to make a point about Israel-Palestine: just as white people who hurt Black people end up hurting themselves, so do Jewish people corrupt themselves when they deny Palestinians their freedom and humanity.

The binational pillar of Beinart’s vision raises many questions, however: Why force citizens of this state to choose between two separate nationalities? Why not let different groups retain their identities and institutions within a multicultural society? Nonetheless, Beinart makes an intellectually honest and critical attempt to grapple with the tension between both his Jewish and progressive values. In doing so, he has become an exception among many of his fellow liberal Zionists, whose overwhelmingly alarmist response has presented his views as an existential threat to the Jewish people. In the end, the burning issue for most liberal Zionists is not the tragedy of Israel’s occupation or its treatment of Palestinians, but the Sisyphean task of shielding their Zionism from the consistent application of their other, universal values.