Zionism and Feminism

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Ein Chadash tachat hashemesh.” There is nothing new under the sun. While some may think that the Women’s March on January 19th, which was led by women like Linda Sarsour who promote BDS, was a new cause for concern, I was reminded of 1975, when the International Women’s meeting in Mexico City dubbed Zionism “racism.” At the time,
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a leading American feminist was deeply disturbed by this name calling, and wrote: “To my mind, Zionism is to Jews what feminism is to women – an ongoing struggle for self-determination, dignity and justice.”

But leaders of the Women’s March, like Palestinian-American Linda Sarsour, a co-chair, are still on their crusade against my people’s drive to self-determination, claiming that feminism and Zionism are mutually exclusive. She stated in 2017: “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.”

Intersectionality is a powerful ideological tool used by many, including the Women’s March leaders, preaching about the importance of their own rights while excluding Zionist feminists like myself and negating the right of my people to self-determination. This issue cuts to the core of my identity.

Who am I? I am a mother, a wife, a proud Zionist and Jew, and, yes, a feminist. Truth is that I am not just a mother, but a mother of seven daughters, so naturally, all issues related to women’s rights provoke deep reflection and consideration. But feminist or not, the Women’s March is an issue that we must learn about and discuss. Our students are reading, watching, learning and developing ideas and opinions about the Women’s March from all the different social platforms they frequent. This is an opportunity to explore what they are thinking and help them understand our world and develop thoughtful opinions.

I don’t want my daughters, or any Jewish women, to think their individual self-affirmation as proud women should come into conflict with their national self-affirmation as Zionists. This is precisely how the leaders of the Women’s March would have all women believe. They want to create a cognitive dissonance in order to force Jewish women to take a side. They want women to believe that being a feminist precludes being a Zionist while the opposite is true. To quote former Member of Knesset, Einat Wilf:

“Feminism and Zionism started out as revolutions for changing the fate of women and Jews, but as they grew in power and faced growing backlash, they became revolutions for civilizational transformation.”

The reality is that feminism and Zionism are deeply connected and are both “forms of refusal to accept the role that others have assigned to women and Jews… built on self-definition and human agency,” Wilf states.

And yet, when my 15- and 17-year-old daughters look at the Women’s March and see the vitriol spewed against Zionism, I fear they will only identify with their national aspirations, their Zionism, and cast their individual self-actualization as women, and the important cause of feminism to the side, arguing that such a spirit only resides in those who despise Israel.

What can we teach our daughters and sons about this?

I would teach that:

  1. Zionism was one of the original liberation movement and that Zionism’s fight for self-determination and self-actualization inspired people like Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Seventeen women attended Herzl’s First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. Women were accorded voting rights as part of the Zionist Congress the following year, in 1898 (for context, women in Germany received the right to vote in 1918, France in 1944, and Switzerland in 1971!).
  3. The power and empathy of Golda Meir, and her aspirations and her convictions as a Zionist and also as a woman. Just 21 years after its founding, Israel elected a strong-willed woman to lead it. Known as the Iron Lady of the Middle East, Meir was widely respected for raising $50 million in America, which Israel used to win its War of Independence. She was one of two women to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948.
  4. I would not want my children to think that Meir was a lone Zionist woman. I would teach the history of people like Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi, who was known as “chaverah” or comrade, who helped found the Hebrew Gymnasium, the self-defense organization Hashomer, and someone who used her own hands to “participate in the great task of reforesting the country.” In her iconic Zionist text The Plough Woman: Records of the Pioneer Women in Palestine, Yanait Ben Zvi laments the fact that “the road that lies before the women in Eretz Yisrael is still a long one,” but this did not deter her and many others from leading.
  5. Henrietta Szold founded Hadassah and was a leading figure in shaping “practical Zionism.” More than anyone else, Szold taught American Jews that Zionism was not to be played in the stands, but on the field itself.
  6. Though I may not agree with everything from Letty Cottin Pogrebin, I would introduce my children to Deborah, Golda and me: Being Female and Jewish in America, where Pogrebin describes Zionism as being about Jewish solidarity and pride while feminism is about the ongoing struggle for women’s solidarity and pride.
  7. Ruth Calderon revolutionized Torah learning in Israel for the “secular” community and  Einat Wilf taught us all about Zionism being the most powerful tool for a healthy Jewish identity.
  8. Israel is one of the only countries with mandatory conscription for women, and women are eligible for the vast majority of army positions. Debate abounds over women’s length of service and what roles they fill, but there is no arguing that Israel’s egalitarianism is unique in its army make-up.

Instead of focusing on the toxicity and hypocrisy of the leaders of the Women’s March, let’s redouble our educational efforts to teach Zionism in the classroom and ensure we spend time focusing on the accomplishments of both the women and the men who helped shape the State of Israel.

Let’s use the issue of the Women’s March to help our students grapple with the challenges of dual identities (American/or other Nationality and Jewish, Feminist and Zionist, etc.) and the complexities of who we are and what we care about to gain a deeper understanding of these important issues and themselves.


CEO, Jerusalem U

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