Of Feminism & Zionism: A Response to Linda Sarsour
Rabbi Jodie Gordon
Feminism and Zionism
I want to begin with a bit of a thought experiment.
If you’re able, I’ll ask that you stand up whenever I say the name of a group you identity with, and give you a minute to look around- see who else identifies as part of that group, and then sit. You may stand more than once.
And now, a second set of groups.
With that, we conclude this edition of Identity Politics.
There are groups that we are born into— that we claim through biology and destiny, and there are groups we affiliate with by belief, obligation, and passion.
This week, a startling claim was leveraged at those of us who identify as both “Feminist” and “zionist”.
Linda Sarsour, a noted feminist and Muslim activist made the claim that it is impossible to be both.
As a Jewish feminist and as an ardent zionist, I could not disagree more.
As a bit of background, Linda Sarsour is a complex character, who inhabits a number of activist spaces. If she were here tonight, I imagine she would have had multiple opportunities to stand and proclaim her affiliations as a muslim, as a leader, a feminist and activist. A self-proclaimed Palestinian-American activist, Sarsour was one of the major organizers of the January women’s march on Washington. She continues to be a notable voice of pressure on the administration around the Muslim travel ban, and remains at the center of women’s activism following on the momentum of the January marches. Following the descration of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis last month, she called upon the American Muslim community to rally around the Jewish community, raising more than $160,000 dollars for it’s repair. She describes herself as progressive, and is also the former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. She is my contemporary, born the same year as me.
In some ways, she has been a great friend to Jewish Americans. I highlight “American’s”, because her politics and activism have also posed a challenge to our brothers and sisters in Israel. An advocate of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and a critic of the State of Israel, she has been accused by her detractors of being a serious threat and enemy of the Jewish state, while other moderate voices believe she could be just the voice of moderation and modernity needed to move forward.
To be sure, she is a controversial figure- garnering both admiration and disdaim throughout the Jewish community. She is at once a striking feminist role model, and a challenging voice of opposition to the State of Israel.
As the grounds beneath us have shifted over the past few months— as the call to renewed feminist activism has sounded and many of us have answered, a question has emerged: can feminism be a movement for everyone? Certainly, Linda Sarsour’s belief that there is no room in feminism for anyone who identifies as zionist, is troubling.
And yet- I do not believe that she is our enemy. She is not our opponent in the ongoing game of identity politics chess. Her statements this week were inflammatory, but ultimately— the question is not whether or not she is right— I do not believe she is. But rather— why might it matter that someone in a position of prominence in the activist community would level such a claim. In that accusation, she missed a major opportunity.
In the interview in “The Nation”, in which she made her claim, she is quoted as saying:
“It just doesn’t make any sense for someone to say, ‘Is there room for people who support the state of Israel and do not criticize it in the movement?’ There can’t be in feminism. You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it,”
And this is where I wish that Linda herself were actually here tonight- so that after she stood along side many of you, standing as a feminist and as an activist— we could have an open dialogue about what it means to be a zionist, and what it means to see one’s zionism and ones’ feminism as not only compatible, but inextricably linked.
First— let’s start with some definitions.
So, what’s the point of Zionism?
A few summers ago, a friend of mine and fellow educator asked me this question as he guided a small group of us on a walking tour of South Tel Aviv.
Between us, we were two rabbinical students, an Orthodox rabbi, and Josh. We offered answers that ranged from the cynical to the ideal: “an outdated political belief” answered one person, “the vision of a Jewish state in the Jewish ancestral homeland” answered another.
My answer? “Aspirational thinking”. Turns out I got an A+ on that first pop quiz. My friend handed out a piece of paper, with an excerpt from Theodore Herzls’ utopian novel “Altneuland”, or, “The Old New Land”.
In it, Herzl describes a vision of a Jewish state and then, he writes: “I believe that Zionism will not cease to be our ideal even after we come to settle in the land of our forefathers in Eretz Israel, for within the Zionist idea is contained the aspiration to moral and spiritual perfection.”
For me, Zionism continues to be a container for my greatest aspirations for the Jewish people as a political entity: it is an expression of our highest ideals for living in peace together. Zionism is an act of aspiration: toward moral and spiritual perfection. There are Zionists who stand by Israel wherever Israel stands— and there are Zionists, like me, and like many of you, who believe that to truly be Ohavei Zion— lovers of Zion— is to engage in the mitzvah of tochecha, of loving rebuke. There are Zionists who believe that to aspire to the moral and spiritual perfection that Israel is capable of, is to lovingly criticize her— to speak out against practice, policies and procedures which threaten the humanity of anyone who dwells within her borders.
And that is why I believe that Zionism is as much a political ideal and a spiritual practice. And why, I believe it is inherently compatible with my feminism.
What’s the point of feminism?
Rebecca West wrote more than 100 years ago, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute…”
(Joking aside)— my feminism is both a political theory and a spiritual practice: a reminder that feminism must be accessible to [all] women: As Barbara Smith wrote in 1979,
“women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, [transwomen] –as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”
My feminism rests on the “belief that a woman-driven movement can bring about race, class and gender equality and that women deserve all of the rights and privileges afforded to men”
My understanding of feminism sees my freedom inherently bound up in the freedom of all women. My zionism requires me to see my freedom as inextricably linked to the freedom of all; and to push for justice when Israel falls short of moral perfection.
This, Linda Sarsour, is where you have underestimated the causes of both Jewish feminism, and zionism– and painted us with too broad a brush.
Zionism, it seems, has become the stumbling block to some of the momentum that otherwise positive, activist movements have begun to achieve. We have seen this before: in the Black Lives Movement last spring, when they designated Israel as an apartheid state, and now in the emerging Women’s Movement, as recently voiced by Linda Sarsour. The problem, as I see it, is that Zionism, as a concept- as a movement, has been coopted to represent only a small segment of those of us who believe deeply in the possibility of a more just Israel.
When I hear Linda Sarsour say that feminism and zionism are incompatible, I’m not really angry— I’m sad: sad that the version of zionism that she speaks of is not the one that speaks for me. As that friend and educator in Tel Aviv said to me that day so many summers ago: “The worst thing that could happen to Zionism would be for it to become the sole domain of Israeli patriotism.”
These are unprecedented times we are living in.
I believe we are obligated to leverage all of the power, privilege, capacity and capability we inherit through biology, and that we claim by belief and passion.
Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist and artist, wrote:
““If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
I truly believe that Linda Sarsour’s liberation is bound up with mine. That the liberation of our Muslim neighbors is bound up with ours. That the liberation of refugees and those seeking a life of freedom are bound up with ours. And I believe that we could actually achieve some of our mutually held goals, if were able to work in coalition, able to truly hear those whose opinions and beliefs differ from our own.
I believe this because of something I know to be true, deep down in my bones: something I learned as a Jewish feminist, and as a zionist:
If you will it, it is no dream.
But willing it isn’t enough: we must be willing to be relentless— dogged in our pursuit of those ideals, together.