When Feminists Were Zionists
A new generation of women is being misled into assuming an ideological tension between feminism and Zionism
Yet many feminists, Jewish and not, felt that solidarity with international women’s conferences was more important to the movement than the fate of the Jews. Pogrebin confronted feminist anti-Zionism in her controversial June 1982 Ms. Magazine article “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement.” There Pogebrin defended Zionism as an experiment in realistic nationalism. “If we can understand why history entitles lesbians to separatism, or minorities and women to affirmative action, we can understand why history entitles Jews to ‘preferential’ safe space,” she wrote. “To me, Zionism is simply an affirmative action plan on a national scale. Just as legal remedies are justified in reparation for racism and sexism, the Law of Return to Israel is justified, if not by Jewish religious and ethnic claims, then by the intransigence of worldwide anti-Semitism.” Pogrebin echoed the radical thinker Andrea Dworkin’s vision: “In the world I’m working for, nation states will not exist. But in the world I live in, I want there to be an Israel.”
Globally, the battle only got nastier, and weirder. U.N. organizations and conferences worked diplomatically to “add Zionism to all the nasty ‘isms’ ” the world wanted “eliminated,” lamented the Israeli diplomat Tamar Eshel, who represented Israel at the U.N.’s International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in July 1980. A huge portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Islamist anti-feminist leader, decorated the conference headquarters, inside of which attacks on Israel, Jews, and America intensified. Most Third World delegates decided sexism was a Western problem, because only Western women complained about it.
Co-chairing the American delegation was Sarah Weddington, a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, and the winning lawyer in the Supreme Court abortion case Roe v. Wade. Disgusted by what she saw unfolding in front of her, she had her own Moynihan moment—echoing the now-former U.N. ambassador’s courage and eloquence—and demanded that the women’s conference address women’s needs. “To equate Zionism with colonialism and imperialism,” she objected, “is in a sense to state that the destruction of Israel is a prerequisite for peace.”
Yet Weddington’s arguments were largely ignored by the other delegates, who were more interested in creating a common global agenda of the oppressed. Anti-Zionism was emerging as an identity marker, the glue uniting a broad, diverse, often contradictory left-wing movement. “The real test of our fabled ‘Jewish power’ is how powerless Jews were in Copenhagen,” the radical writer Ellen Willis of the Village Voice glumly reported. A liberal “Diaspora Jew” uninterested in Jewish nationalism, Willis strongly opposed Israel’s control of the West Bank. Still, she slammed radical leftists’ collective blind-spot regarding the anti-Semitic impulses triggering their anti-Israel obsession. Eventually, she proclaimed: “I’m an anti-anti-Zionist.”
Meanwhile, American feminists tried liberating the international women’s movement from its anti-Zionist obsession. Some activists, disgusted by Mexico City and Copenhagen, spent years preparing for the July 1985 International Women’s Conference, in Nairobi, Kenya. Applying feminist methods, Pogrebin and Abzug convened Black-Jewish Women’s dialogue groups and tried establishing Palestinian-Jewish dialogues. Emerging from what she called “virtual feminist retirement,” Betty Friedan mobilized Jewish women worldwide to tap the “strength that comes from authentic assertion of one’s own identity, as Jew or woman.”
Women at Nairobi wanted to avoid the politicized ranting about Zionism and talk, Friedan noted, “as feminists about their common women’s problems.” In the middle of yet another dreary debate about Zionism and racism, a French woman began chanting: “The women of the world are watching and waiting.” Others joined in, until the PLO and the Iranian delegates finally relented. Representatives of 157 countries, many teary-eyed, many singing the conference’s unofficial theme song “We are the World, We are the Women,” unanimously adopted a final document with, Betty Friedan exulted, “every reference to Zionism gone.” The first major international movement to declare Zionism to be racism, the women’s movement now became the first to denounce that lie. Six years later, in 1991, the General Assembly repealed its infamous resolution.
Yet, despite the heroic leadership of Friedan and her sisters, what Moynihan called “The Big Red Lie,” which insists that the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians must be viewed through the distorting, inflammatory anti-Zionist lens of racism, still persists. Despite her victory in Nairobi, Friedan would be devastated to see that the libel she opposed with such courage and strength is now increasingly accepted by leading American feminists like Judith Butler and Alice Walker, who would rather identify with the warped gender politics of Hezbollah and Hamas than with the history and heroes of their own movement.
Adapted from Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism, by Gil Troy, with permission of Oxford University Press, all rights reserved.
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