Women’s Movement Torn By Infighting. Again.

There are no worse relationships than the relationship among women in organizations.” Thus wrote Rachel Shazar to her husband Zalman Shazar, who would later become the third president of Israel. The year was 1928, long before the state was established and at a time when Rachel was devoted to women’s causes in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. But the infighting within the Women Workers’ Council, an influential women’s trade union with which she was involved, deeply distressed her. Although these women sought independence from the powerful Histadrut, the male-run general federation of labor, their internal battles invariably gave the men more control over them.

I thought about those early women recently while following the squabbles in the Women’s March movement, originally designed to unite women in opposing racist, sexist and anti-immigrant currents in our country today. It would seem that throughout history, women’s groups have been plagued by schisms that worked against their common ideals.

Consider the 1970s in the United States. The women’s movement that came to fruition then brought enormous change to the lives of millions of women — and men. As a result of it, women ran for public office as never before. They became rabbis and priests, doctors and lawyers, mechanics and taxi drivers. It was a heady time and it accomplished great things. And yet, it became marred by rivalries and rifts. Some feminists adamantly opposed pornography while others defended it as an expression of free speech; stay-at-home moms felt betrayed by the movement’s celebration of working mothers; lesbians attacked mainstream feminists for ignoring their needs; and women of color complained of being left out altogether. Among the leaders themselves, Betty Friedan, whose book “The Feminist Mystique” had a profound influence on hundreds of thousands of women, resented Gloria Steinem and the popularity of Ms. magazine. And vise versa. (I once belonged to a Jewish organization co-headed by Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. The tension between those two strong women was so thick that the co-heading arrangement fell apart after two meetings and a new chair was appointed.) By the 1980s, the women’s movement as such had come to an end.

To be sure, women’s organizations do not have a monopoly on internal conflict. Think about the back-stabbing among the founding fathers of the United States, especially the enmity between Alexander Hamilton, champion of federal powers, and Thomas Jefferson, advocate for states’ rights. Or look at the bitter struggles among Israel’s founders. David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, for example, once friends and co-workers, were no longer on speaking terms by the end of their lives. But the contentiousness among women seeking change has been particularly painful for many of us, because there is still so much to accomplish in seeking equality, and because, I suppose, we had expected more from ourselves.

Most troubling today, the strife tearing at the heart of the Women’s March turns on charges of anti-Semitism among the movement’s organizers. One, Tamika Mallory, refuses to distance herself from Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who feels no compunction about speaking of “Satanic Jews” or comparing the Jewish people to termites. Another, Palestinian-American Linda Sarsour, while decrying anti-Semitism, holds openly anti-Israel and anti-Zionist positions. In this, too, there are echoes of the past. In 1975, American Jewish women attending the United Nations-hosted International Woman’s Year World Conference in Mexico City, were stunned when third world delegates and others equated Zionism with racism, a linkage that would soon become part of a General Assembly resolution (not rescinded until 1991). Five years later, the anti-Jewish atmosphere at the feminist conference in Copenhagen prompted activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin to write an article in Ms. called “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement.”

So here we are again. But now, the anti-Semitic, anti-Israel overtones in the Women’s March reflect broader, deeply disturbing trends in society as a whole: the increase in anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country; the struggles of Jewish kids on college campuses against intimidating BDS and other anti-Israel groups. Instead of fighting those trends and encouraging women of all backgrounds to stand up against any form of bigotry, these organizers have created more divisiveness than ever.

I attended the New York branch of the first Women’s March in 2017, unaware of the fissures within the national movement. I will not be at this year’s march. There are those who say the larger cause is too important to be diverted by the shortcomings of a few at the top. I say that a movement smacking of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism on any level cannot serve a larger cause — it loses all moral standing, all authenticity.

But what a shame that yet again the unity and mutual respect meant to be inherent in a women’s movement have been shattered, and this time for the worst possible reasons.

Francine Klagsbrun’s biography, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the National Jewish Book Awards. 

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.
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