Did Linda Sarsour say that you can’t be a feminist and a Zionist?
No, she didn’t. In The Nation article that so many Jews have been citing on Facebook, The Times of Israel, and virtually every Jewish newspaper, Sarsour only uses the term Zionist twice, and each time she specifies “right-wing Zionist.” Meaning, obviously, that there are Zionists who are not right-wing. This is a pretty huge distinction.
Yet The Nation titled their article, “Can you be a Zionist feminist? Linda Sarsour says no.” The headline seems to be the only thing that most Jews have read, including lefties, proving that being left of center does not make you immune to fake news. (Here and here are two examples of articles that seem to distort what Sarsour said because of the title of The Nation article.)
What actually seems to be going on is an attempt to break apart the alliance between Jews and Muslims that is so essential to the resistance in America, and so challenging to the awful status quo in Israel and Palestine. We are getting sucked into a trap.
The funny thing is that the trap is not being laid by the right wing, but by people on the left. Specifically, the more extreme left. Maybe The Nation gave us a misleading headline as clickbait, or maybe they were uncomfortable with a strong radical Muslim leader, but the group that declared that Zionism and feminism are incompatible was the so-called International Women’s Strike USA organizing committee (I say so-called because few people who participated in or supported the “strike” heard anything about the committee or their platform until now). Though Jews on the right have been talking smack (as well as asking serious questions) about Sarsour for years, the role of the right-wing here seems only to be one of amplification.
The actual question Sarsour asks, and answers in the negative, is this one: “Is there room in the movement for people who support the State of Israel and do not criticize it?” That’s a pretty important question.
Maybe the question can be phrased in a way that’s easier for Jews to hear. If you assume that women’s rights are human rights — that is, inalienable and intrinsic — then a broader question would be: “Can you claim to support human rights and still support Israel’s occupation* of the West Bank?” There’s a more rabbinic way to phrase this: “Does the occupation violate the fundamental Torah principle, ‘Don’t do to your fellow what you would hate for yourself’?”
There’s another assumption that stands behind Sarsour’s question: not criticizing the occupation is tantamount to supporting it. The reason why that has become true is that the Zionist right has successfully waged a scorched-earth policy against any middle ground. Their most recent victory was the bill passed last week banning travelers to Israel who support boycotting goods from the settlements.
It’s the Zionist right, not just the left, that needs to be earnestly asking the broader version of Sarsour’s question, “Can you claim to support human rights/Torah principles and still…?” — and to answer it. Either that, or they need to admit that they don’t think that Palestinians fully deserve human rights — which is by definition the same thing as not believing in human rights at all.
That doesn’t mean that there’s an easy way to unwind the occupation, or that peace would come tomorrow if Israel did so. But no one who is honest can deny this fact: Israel’s government could do vastly more to respect the dignity and the rights of Palestinians in the territories, not to mention of Arabs and Bedouin who are citizens inside of Israel, than it does now. It could do that whether or not it is negotiating with the PA — even whether or not the government supports a two-state solution (though a one-state solution absolutely requires that everyone, Jew or Arab, have equal voting rights, contrary to a Knesset member’s recently proposed fantasy).
Here is where I could provide dozens of examples where Israel has not protected people’s fundamental rights, examples that include killing and racism and house demolitions, examples which have nothing to do with stopping terrorism and everything to do with taking away land or punishing things like non-violent resistance. But I won’t, because I don’t want to focus on that. What we instead need to talk about here is how to recognize those forces on the left that might actually be a real threat to us.
That brings us back to the IWS Committee. Their platform also includes a plank about the “decolonization of Palestine”. I’m open to hearing otherwise, but to my ears, that language is taking a clear stand against Israel’s existence. People who use it are either enemies of Israel, or are ignorant of history. They are also not talking about human rights, since they are not acknowledging the human rights of Jews.
That’s not Linda Sarsour, at least not the person we have gotten to know through her public statements. It’s not only true that one cannot support human rights without being critical of the occupation, it’s also true that one cannot be a true ally of Israel and the Jewish people without doing so. I don’t know if Sarsour is a true ally or not, but I do know that what she’s said so far leaves her in the running.
Maybe tomorrow Sarsour will do something that makes me rethink that, but for now, her actions, including rebuilding a Jewish cemetery, and her words speak loudly and with one voice. The IWS, on the other hand, has an entirely different voice.
Of course, it’s not the first “movement” platform in recent memory to make unfortunate generalizations about Israel and Zionism. What comes to mind immediately is the Movement for Black Lives (which is related to but not the same as Black Lives Matter). When the M4BL, as they designated themselves, released a platform last summer calling Israel an apartheid state and accusing Israel of genocide, the Jewish community was stunned.
“Genocide” sounds a lot worse than “decolonization”. In this context it may not be though, and here’s why. The word “genocide” has been used in the African-American community to describe U.S. policy, in a very different way from the way we in the Jewish community would consider using the word. Read the 1951 statement titled “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People”. You’ll see that with the definition used there, the M4BL statement is less extreme than it sounds.
But I do NOT mean to excuse the use of the term “genocide” in the M4BL platform. The fact is that one of the co-authors of that section, who describes herself as a black feminist, was born and raised as a Jew, though she does not identify as one. It’s safe to guess that she knew exactly how Jews would react to the term “genocide”.
It’s dangerous to make up stories about someone I don’t know, but I wonder if she felt she needed to reject her Jewishness in order to embrace her racial identity. It certainly seems like she wanted to repel Jewish activists who whose presence might challenge that kind of split. By adopting that language, the M4BL platform also indicated that the organizers think that being allies to Palestinians means davka not being allies to Jewish people, and that they are not concerned whether we are allies to them.
The same thing could be said about the IWS statement. Looking at the IWS committee members, I also saw several identified Jewish women, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the Jewish members who insisted on the word “decolonization,” knowing how that would effect Jews who identify with Israel. That even might to be its main purpose. This is a game these people are playing, and we shouldn’t join in.
As pushers of slogans that are empty because they can never become policy, and as people who are not actually in charge of the women’s movement, the IWS aren’t a real threat to the Jewish people or Israel, except in one sense: they are threatening the solidarity we need to resist oppression and fight for justice. We can’t let them tear us apart from our true or potential allies.
More than this, what they do is also no good for the Palestinians: Jews who have to renounce their own story to fit in cannot be allies to Palestinians or Black people in the fullest sense, any more than Linda Sarsour would be as significant an ally to Jews if she stopped being a devout Muslim and downplayed being Palestinian. Their rhetoric is also no good in another, global way: we are living on an edge where left-wing anti-Semitism and right-wing anti-Semitism could approach each other and merge. That may be the biggest threat we face – one that extreme left-wing rhetoric will advance and that Jewish right-wing scare tactics will do nothing to prevent.
With hopes against that, here’s a final question to challenge IWS and anyone else who may think you can’t be a Zionist and a feminist. Do you think you can be an observant Muslim and a feminist? If radical leftists want to measure Islam in the same way that they measure Zionism, the answer has to be no. But if you recognize that what it means to be a real change agent for others is to also be a change agent for one’s own community and culture, then you will know that the answer has to be yes. That’s something I think Sarsour already knows.
* For Zionists on the further right who may need special help understanding the question (because they refuse to use the term “occupation”), here’s a functional definition of occupation that can’t be denied: people are living under occupation if they or their borders are ruled or controlled by a military that is not their own.