Elyssa Schmier

A reckoning for Jewish feminists

Many of my peers were raised by a generation of Jewish women who took part in the second wave of feminism. We inherited rights and a landscape that our mothers and grandmothers fought hard for–reproductive rights, advanced education, career success, women on the pulpit, the lying notion that we could “have it all.”

We inherited a legacy and then grew it. Writer and activist Audre Lorde gave us the concept of intersectionality, writing, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Lorde walked into every space and every issue as a Black queer woman. She couldn’t bisect the enmeshed identities of her very being and they informed the way the world saw her and how she saw the world. This concept is now fed to us in feminist circles like mother’s milk.

But the stark, painful reality is it doesn’t apply to Jewish feminists. We are not fully embraced by the “sisterhood.” In recent years, that has become very clear. In 2017, at the Dyke March in Chicago, Jewish marchers carrying a pride flag with the Star of David were forcefully removed after the Star of David, a prominent Jewish symbol, was deemed “triggering” and “threatening.” In 2018, Women’s March leaders were accused of antisemitism that threatened to take down the entire movement. A number of founders of the organization reportedly made derogatory statements about fellow Jewish organizers and refused to distance themselves from notorious antisemite Louis Farrakhan, even echoing some of his statements.

While the writing has been on the wall for years, the lie of intersectionality became crystal clear to many of us after Hamas attacked Israeli citizens on October 7th.

Almost no non-Jewish mainstream American women’s organizations have strongly condemned the attacks nor voiced strong support for the State of Israel—let alone her right to defend herself. Quite the opposite. I’ve seen local reproductive rights organizations, feminist organizations, movement leaders, and even feminist bookstores gloss over the events of October 7th, ignoring the details altogether or even blaming the Israeli women who were raped, assaulted, murdered, tortured and maimed.

It’s cliche to say that the silence is deafening but as women who have supported other women in their march towards equality, I know I, along with so many others, feel deep pain from the response to October 7th by others in the movement. If this had happened to any other group this would have been a rallying moment to organize, speak out, march, and demonstrate for Israeli and Jewish women. Instead we find ourselves having to explain our pain and our humanity to the world.

Never has it been more excruciatingly clear that intersectional feminism does not apply to Jewish women. Within the restraints of the modern day left feminist movement, we are not allowed to be proudly Jewish. “Believe all women” does not apply to us. And we are certainly not allowed to be Zionist. If you are newly feeling the pain of this harsh and unfair dichotomy, I understand.

There is space for us though—it just might not be in the traditional or the modern feminist structure. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe we can build a movement that does not impose litmus tests, silence voices, or demand a pedagogy defined by a false culture that turns its back on women who are suffering, afraid, and being horribly abused. Maybe, like the strong women who came before us, we can see something unique and different and raise our voices for true equality for ALL women. I hope you’ll join me in this new fight.

We don’t have to do this alone. We can lean into organizations that have been doing this work for a long time, despite being “othered” by elements of the women’s movement: National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Women’s Archive, Hadassah, and Jewish Women International. And there are new spaces online for Jewish feminists, Hey Alma and Zioness among others. We don’t have to lower our voices to be accepted by a movement that has proven it doesn’t have our backs. We need to forge ahead, inspired by the women who came before us and motivated by our convictions so we can create a world where we are truly accepted and safe as Jewish feminist women.

About the Author
Elyssa Schmier is a public policy and advocacy professional who has worked in the women’s, anti-poverty, and faith community. She lives in Michigan.
Related Topics
Related Posts