When the aim is to dismantle all walls: on liberal Zionism and the Women’s Strike

I’ve been reading a fair bit of the American poet and essayist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz recently, in particular her 2007 book The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism. She writes there about a version of Jewish diaspora wherein there is no one homeland, but rather all Jews are at home wherever they are, living in community with each other through boundary-crossing networks that span the globe. As part of this political, social, cultural and religious project, Kaye/Kantrowitz argues that ‘love across the lines of race is intolerable to racists; it is also profoundly disturbing to xenophobes’. Moreover, she writes, ‘the political version of love, the opposite of xenophobia, is solidarity’. Therefore, we can:

value solidarity not as a necessary evil; not sole­ly because, as we confront the most powerful machine of war and capital the world has ever known, we understand that solidarity is our only power. Diasporists choose solidarity as the highest expression of humanity.

But what does it mean to work, think, and act in profound solidarity? What are the links between solidarity and justice?

I have been thinking about these questions while watching the fallout from the International Women’s Strike in the US – specifically the opposition, distaste and (perhaps) fear that has resulted from women who identify as Zionist feminists. As the protest’s leaders made clear, their intention in organising the massive show of resistance and opposition on 8 March was to make a space for a feminism which seeks structural change, which disputes the power of neoliberalism, and, significantly, which recognises that ‘lean-in feminism and other variants of corporate feminism have failed the overwhelming majority of us’. They wanted to be part of – and be led by – an emerging global movement which ‘herald[s] a new international feminist movement with an expanded agenda: at once anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-heterosexist and anti-neoliberal’.

In other words, not liberal feminism. The strike drew links between moments of both resistance and oppression occurring around the world, and worked against the notion that borders or boundaries are what constitute societies. It was revolutionary, in that it asked people to consider a fundamentally different world and social formation. And it was challenging, not allowing people to rest easily on what they knew and who they worked with, but asking everyone to think and act differently. It had the potential – it still has the potential – to rupture.

So how do liberal Zionists come to feature in this? If you pay attention to the Jewish internet, you’ll have seen a flurry of articles, posts, comments, outrage and argument alongside this event, ranging from the offensive – ‘Do Jews have to make common cause with people who want to kill them?’ – to the banal – ‘Does Feminism Have Room for Zionists?’. Much of the commentary has focused on the prominent and vital roles of two Palestinian women – Linda Sarsour and Rasmea Odeh – in organising the Strike, as well as the Women’s March which took place in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration.

The general argument is that because the strike calls for ‘the decolonization of Palestine’, and asserts that ‘We want to dismantle all walls, from prison walls to border walls, from Mexico to Palestine’, Jewish women in general are excluded from participating in this movement. As a first start, we can note the slippage here: Jewish is not the same as Zionist, and the conflation is troubling and offensive to many of us whoever this comes from, Jew or non-Jew.

To support ‘the occupation of Palestine, the bombings of Gaza, the apartheid that applies two separate and unequal systems to Israel’s relationship to Palestinians’, organisers have made clear, is to maintain a political project or identity that is incompatible with the aims of the strike, a movement that opposes liberal feminism and all it entails. Their words are a gesture to their internationalism, making the occurrences in Israel-Palestine legible through references to South Africa (‘apartheid’) and the US (‘separate and unequal’). In doing so, the organisers repeat the idea that resistance is a transnational project, and the opposition to this can be read as a moment of liberal nationalism.

The focus on Sarsour and Odeh obscures the ways that the Israeli State has enacted violence on their lives, and on all Palestinian lives. In 1969 Odeh was found guilty by a military tribunal of using an explosive device to murder two Jewish Israeli students. These military tribunals have a ninety-nine per cent conviction rate (this is still the case – the current situation of Issa Amro is just one example of the corruption of these courts), and Odeh was tortured in order to confess. For Sarsour, it is her express support for the BDS movement, and her linking of what happens in Palestine with what happens elsewhere in the world, that has led to slanderous assertions of antisemitism against her. Focusing on the hurt these two women’s words may cause to liberal Zionists who feel excluded from a movement actively distracts us from a complex and deep understanding of what it is exactly that the Israeli State does, what it is that Zionist thought enables, and how what happens over there is inextricably linked with what we all do right here, wherever here is. When, for instance, Israel continues to receive record high levels of aid from the US, even as funding to essential services and other foreign aid is radically cut, then we all need to be thinking about where that funding goes and how it links the two countries in various acts of imperial violence.

It’s funding that supports the continuation of settlement building, of the destruction of Palestinian homes, of continued high rates of Palestinian imprisonment, to name but a few.

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s words on love and solidarity help us to understand that when liberal Zionist feminists generate an all-consuming argument about whether or not they fit into the movement, they are working to obscure and to cover over the violence which Palestinians routinely face as a result of Zionism. They are working not to challenge the violence which the Israeli State does, but are focused on their own emotions and sense of belonging, wanting to extract from this Women’s movement a sense of safety and their own political worth. In doing so, they replicate Israeli hegemonic claims to suffering and persecution as well as a dominant desire to have full access to all spaces, and the erasing work which such claims and desires do.

But as the ‘propheticprotests currently occurring outside AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), led by If Not Now?, have made clear, the coincidence of ‘Trump’s first year in office and the 50th year of occupation’ requires a ‘call for nothing less than bold, moral action’. ‘Trump and Bibi’, they say, ‘are two sides of the same coin and we have a responsibility to resist both’. While certainly some of those protesting are liberal Zionists, and while I may not take on their whole politics or approach, they provide an instructive lesson. Their focus on connections and on the need for change is important: it acknowledges the violence and damage being done, and the possibilities of active response; the links between different forms of oppression, and the different spaces of resistance. But also, as Mairav Zonszein has written, ‘as long as Israel, in its current construction, continues to be a fundamentally unprogressive entity that is incompatible with equality, Zionists in the feminist camp are going to continue to feel – rightly – uncomfortable’. It is this discomfort, this potential for ‘bold, moral action’, which is at the crux of the issue.

All of us, in our thinking and our activism, should be uncomfortable. All of us should be stretched in our allegiances and our politics, as we seek for new ways for the world to work. All of us should be guided not by the desire to be comfortable and to dominate, but by the hard work of making solidarity real.


Jordy Silverstein

Jordana Silverstein is a Senior Research Fellow in the Melbourne Law School. A cultural historian of migration and of Jewishness, she’s the author of Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (2015).

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