Why Feminism and Zionism Are Not Contradictory
By Eetta Prince-Gibson
When the organizers of the International Women’s Strike, held earlier this month, wrote in their platform that the “decolonization of Palestine is the beating heart of the new feminist movement,” many were upset. In an interview with The Nation that soon followed, Palestinian-American feminist activist Linda Sarsour—an inspiring leader who has challenged her own community as she joined the Jewish community to fight anti-Semitism—implied that Zionism and feminism cannot sit together in the same tent.
Sarsour, like the activists from the International Women’s Strike, is a committed supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that singles out Israel and Zionism for condemnation. This reflects not only a misunderstanding of Zionism but a violation of some of the most basic feminist principles.
Zionism is the movement of Jewish national self-determination; it is an ideological assertion and a political plan for Jews to exercise their right to a homeland in part of the historical land of Israel. But for me and many of my feminist-Zionist co-activists, Zionism is also much more: Just as feminism is not “merely” a struggle for women’s parity, but a search for a better world based on full equality for all, so too is Zionism not “merely” the assertion of political sovereignty over a piece of land, but a quest to create a better society based on the teachings of the biblical prophets and those who came after them. This is why feminism and Zionism are integrated into my personal, collective and political identities.
Given the history of the 20th century, I am not unaware of the dangers of nationalism. Greedy, evil hands can transform nationalism into a fascist weapon, used against others. It has happened and is still happening. In Israel, my country, the prevailing powers have appropriated Zionism and turned it into an occupation over the Palestinians. They have distorted Zionism into a maximalist doctrine that rejects compromise, compassion and justice.
And yes, those are the people who are in power now. But their warped definition of Zionism is not the only definition, and Sarsour should understand this. As feminists, I would hope that she would recognize and respect my assertion of an inclusive, Israeli feminist nationalism, just as I recognize and respect Palestinian activists’ assertion of an inclusive, Palestinian feminist nationalism. And I do know, as do many Israelis, that recognition will demand that I forgo much of my material and social advantages and power as a white, Jewish woman.
It may be that there is an inherent tension between the commitment to nationalism and the maintenance of a true civic democracy. I don’t know if any ethnic state can exist without violating the rights of other ethnic groups. I hope so, but I’m not sure what the future holds or how our political realities will play out. But these complexities are true for all groups—Zionism is no more racist than any other form of self-determination and patriotism, and the Palestinian people, when they establish their state, will face the same questions.
Calling the decolonization of Palestine the “beating heart” of the feminist movement is not only ludicrous, melodramatic hyperbole—it is an invalidation of all other women’s struggles throughout the world. Statements like these are simply cruising on the wave of the currently popular pro-Palestinian zeitgeist (which could turn against their “beating heart” in a heartbeat. Trust me, as a Jew and an Israeli, I know what it means to be both the darling and the devil of the left.)
More significantly, making anti-Zionism the only sine qua non of feminist activism requires an abdication of the responsibility to other women. I am not comparing the oppression of women in Palestine to other oppressions; I don’t know how to titrate pain and suffering. But what about Dalit women in India? Or the abuse of women in some Muslim states? Or women who are kidnapped and raped by ISIS? Or women trafficked from the Far East and the FSU? Or any of the other countless forms of oppression that women face, from glass ceilings to mud floors.
Intersectionality is a valuable principle and important political tool for the feminist movement. It is based on the recognition that we all hold multiple identities, some of them internally contradictory yet all equally valid in order to enable us to bring our full, authentic, complex, selves into the circle.
But the focus on anti-Zionism denies some of my own intersectionality. Moreover, not all Zionist women are white, heterosexual or class-privileged. Many are women of color, members of minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, poor, disabled, oppressed by religious and other reactionary institutions—what about their intersectionality?
Fragmentation and litmus tests have blighted the second wave of feminism for too long, and narrow identity politics are a luxury that none of us can afford in these times. Could we come to some very basic agreements instead of binding ourselves to various cultural relativisms and political trends that merely play into the hands of the powerful? Could we at least come to an agreement that we support all women’s groups and all women who face state-sponsored or institutionalized oppression? And can we condemn the murder of all innocents, whether state-sponsored or by individuals, whatever the purported justifications?
I will continue, from over here, to support the feminist resistance and will happily and gratefully accept any leadership that can help us reach our goals as women and as human beings. I know that when Muslim women like Linda Sarsour take on leadership roles, they are quickly targeted by the right (including right-wing Zionists). I promise, to the extent that I can, to stand by these brave women. But they must know that I do so as a feminist, a Jew and a Zionist.