Sisterhood Blog

Why It's Hard To Be a Zionist and a Feminist

By Elana Sztokman

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The overwhelming assumption in many circles is that anti-Zionism is the only authentic feminist position. This knee-jerk position assumes that caring about human rights and equality necessitates a view Israel as a great patriarchal enemy.

I support Jewish-Muslim women’s peace efforts, and I completely support the notion that women must play a key role in bringing change to the Middle East. Women’s language, social tools and shared cultural history have the potential to alter the discourse of Palestinian-Israeli relations, by placing human relationships and care above power politics. But I don’t believe that by saying this, I should have to denounce Israel’s right to exist. I live in Israel; my family proudly serves in the army; my efforts to promote equity, fairness and democracy in Israel are based on an unwavering belief in Israel’s right to safely exist and defend its people. I believe in fighting injustice within Israeli society — not in attacking Israel at its core. But this nuanced approach rarely finds public expression, and that’s very challenging for me.

Once, an essay I wrote for The Jerusalem Post about anti-Sephardic discrimination in state-run religious schools was picked up by Web sites calling for the destruction of Israel. Shortly thereafter I was invited to contribute to an international feminist news portal as the sole Israeli representative. I still have not contributed, simply because I haven’t worked out how to write a feminist piece about women in Israel without it being used as fodder for Israel-bashing.

This issue came to the fore recently as Israelis were barred from a breast cancer conference held in Cairo.

As the Forward reported, Egypt’s health minister disinvited a group of Israeli doctors from an international conference sponsored by The Susan G. Komen Foundation — whose namesake, a victim of breast cancer, was Jewish. The gathering was held under the auspices of Egypt’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and was backed by the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement, the Egyptian Ministry of Health, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Institute of International Education and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs. That’s quite a startling confluence of institutions that allowed the Israeli contingent to be excluded. What should have been a scholarly, feminist conference aimed at global women’s health became another excuse to completely delegitimize Israel.

There was of course some (Jewish) protest. The American Jewish Committee urged the Egyptians to reconsider and The Israel Medical Association denounced the boycott. IMA chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman noted that “Israeli doctors and scientists are often confronted by hostility when attending professional conferences abroad,” and argued that “even those who oppose policies of the government of Israel should never inject politics into these fields, which aim to save lives and to which Israelis contribute a great deal.”

Sisterhood contributor Rebecca Honig Friedman on her Jewess blog wrote that at the last minute Egypt re-invited the Israelis. Komen Foundation founder Nancy Goodman Brinker announced via email: “All advocates, regardless of their country of origin, are invited to fully participate in events to bring breast cancer to the forefront of public discussion in the Middle East.” But by that point, as the Forward reported, the event was “practically over.” Meanwhile, the silence, especially the feminist world, was quite deafening. And the unspoken message seems to be that this is okay, that the entire discussion of breast cancer takes place without Israelis; for me, it’s horrifying.

Among the only beacons of light has come from University Hospitals thoracic surgeon Dr. Arie Blitz, a brave and valiant soul who boycotted back: He had been invited to speak at the first Congress of Organ Transplantation to be held this November in Cairo, but canceled his trip in protest of the treatment of Israelis. Blitz commented on Friedman’s post saying that:

The racism that served as the springboard for Egypt’s decision cannot and should not be tolerated… If we cannot cooperate in saving lives wasted by cancer, how can we ever hope to cooperate in preventing further lives being lost through the horror of the Israeli-Arab conflict? As a doctor, I am deeply disappointed. As a Jew, I am worried. As a human being, I am disgusted.

Well said, Dr. Blitz. And kudos on your courage and integrity.

I would just add for myself, that as a Zionist feminist, I am also a bit, well, lost.

D Wed. Nov 18, 2009

Thank you for writing about this. It deeply disturbed me as an undergrad to attend a forum billed as a discussion of "parallels in the women's movement of the Middle East and Mexico" and sit through an hour of violent anti-Israel apoplexy from supposedly forward thinking, well educated women hailing from around the world. Sadly it fell on deaf ears during a class discussion the next day that such an approach may be a tiny bit antithetical to feminist ideals.

Caroline Blecherman Sun. Nov 22, 2009

Thank you so much for publicizing this problem. In the United States, I have been aware that many women who consider themselves feminists are anti-Israel, but I didn't know how difficult it is for an Israeli woman to be a feminist and a Zionist. Working within the system, as you are doing, is the only answer. Denouncing our beloved Israel is a cop-out, so much easier than working to correct what may be imperfect.

Rina Copper Sun. Nov 22, 2009

There is nothing about Zionism that conflicts with feminism.

esthermiriam Mon. Nov 23, 2009

You do seem to be lost -- what circles are you going around in?! What definitions are you offering of either of your key terms?

Surely you are aware of all the many women's groups based in Israel (Zionist by your definition), and all the American Jewish women's groups who support and contribute to them and tocauses in Israel like those you espouse; of the gender studies programs in both lands and elsewhere, of many readers of this blog. Aren't you?

So, good for your having concern about your work and/or sisterly critiques being mis-appropriated, and for being disturbed by anti-feminist, anti-Zionist threats. Aren't we all?

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