This time last year, excitement from the Women’s March popularized the International Women’s Strike in the U.S. The strike aimed to challenge the sexual, physical and economic exploitation of women worldwide. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, the struggle for rights of Indigenous nations, the demand for open borders and for immigrant rights and Justice for Palestine mobilized this effort.
The day before the strike was set to take place, an op-ed appeared in The New York Times written by a self proclaimed Zionist and feminist. In this article, Emily Shire expresses her concern that the International Women’s Strike organizing team left no room for her and her identities. While she states her belief in a two-state solution, as well as her ability to criticize “certain Israeli government policies,” she identifies as a Zionist, citing her support for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. She goes on to express concern over the growing connectivity of feminism to a “wide variety of political causes.” Feminists, she argues, must not be expected to agree with other movements within the International Women’s Strike, such as the call for a $15 minimum wage or support for Water Protectors standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline. (“Does Feminism Have Room for Zionists?” The New York Times, 2017)
Shire’s blatant lack of understanding of intersectionality is made clear by her belief that feminists can pick and choose what issues they should care about — issues that may or may not affect them personally. Some of Shire’s views also may be considered representative of “liberal Zionist” thought. This Zionism dominates the left political camp in the U.S. and usually involves a belief in a two state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a call to end the Israeli occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories. “Liberal Zionists” generally do not use words like “apartheid” to describe Israel’s governance and many reject the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement. Zionism, “liberal” or not, has inexorable ties to historical and contemporary violence on Palestinian bodies. Due to this history, a feminism that upholds Zionism inevitably shirks Palestinian women. Zionism as an ideology, as a national movement and as a settler colonial project must be examined critically for its compatibility with feminism.
Zionism is the movement that led to the establishment, development and protection of a Jewish state that is now Israel. The Zionist movement began in the late 19th century largely in response to the resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, and particularly concentrated in Eastern Europe. Violence and economic scapegoating drove Jewish people en masse into Western Europe and the United States. Theodore Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State)” emerged in 1896 as a manifesto of the modern Zionist movement. This writing not only reeked of anti-Semitism as it asserted the inferiority of non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews, whom Herzl and his colleagues repeatedly referred to as “parasites,” “social diseases” and “germs,” but also affirmed the necessity of colonial violence in the establishment of a Jewish state.
The intersectional potential of a “liberal Zionism” that claims to depart from the historical Zionist tradition seems viable until we acknowledge how this purportedly postcolonial Zionism benefits and emerges from a movement that was violent at its very inception. Zionists who also consider themselves to be feminists all too often erase this history and its disastrous effects on multiple generations of Palestinians. A critique of Zionism’s compatibility with feminism may initially appear to succumb to the very same dangerous cherry-picking tactics Shire employs in her op-ed.
The key difference lies, however, in the basis of this selectivity. While Shire hopes to choose feminist issues based on their proximity and compatibility with her politics, questioning Zionism’s place under the feminist umbrella is an attempt to unveil the violence of a settler colonial project that occured at the expense of Palestinian lives and equality. Zionism should not and can not be defended for its ideological premise of ethno-religious Jewish preservation when it necessitated the displacement of over seven million Palestinians, and has resulted in a 70 year-long dispossession of those living in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. As social activist and prominent feminist scholar bell hooks argues, “as long as women are using class or race or power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realized.”
While it may be a personal decision of some to separate their ideal of a Jewish state from the Zionist movement that resulted in the establishment of the state of Israel, Zionism cannot be excused from a conversation about intersectional feminism. A feminism that leaves no room for the necessary dismantling of apartheid is merely a reiteration of harmful supremacy. For Palestinian women, Zionism has been a principal part of their violent subjugation since 1948. Therefore, any action in the name of a feminism compatible with Palestinian justice and equality must begin and end in terms of decolonization.
On Feb. 27, 2018 at 7 pm in CC 206, Macalester Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (MacSUPER) will meet and continue discussing Zionism and feminism. We encourage Macalester community members to come and engage. We will hold space for all perspectives and experiences. If you are unable to make the meeting, please email us your questions and comments ([email protected]) and we’ll try to include them in our group discussion on Feb. 27.