Bridging the Gaps In Order to Accelerate The Women’s Liberation Movement
November 13, 2023
This post originally appeared on the website of the U.S. chapter of Women’s Declaration International. Special thanks to Lorraine Nowlin from the WDI USA Black Women’s Caucus for suggesting the panel and to Lauren Levey for her thoughtful presentation.
When I developed the Bridging the Gaps panel for our September 2023 convention in San Francisco, I had no idea that we would soon be tested to see if we meant what we said about prioritizing women over “tribe.” The current conflict in the Middle East is proving to be a great test of our commitment to ALL women and girls. I do not believe that the Women’s Liberation Movement can move forward or survive if women are not united. There is not now nor will there ever be justification for the rape, murder, or displacement of ANY group of women. That includes Jewish, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim, Black, White, etc. We must remember that even in our questioning of policy or any government as a whole, we should not become apologists for male aggression against women that is once again at a boiling point around the world. We cannot forget that women pay the highest price during war.
The Bridging the Gaps panel was made up of a diverse group of extraordinary women sharing testimonials of their experiences organizing in radical feminist spaces in response to questions from me. Lauren Levey agreed to share her excellent example of prioritizing women over “our tribes.” It is my hope that as you read her statement, you will be moved to openly prioritize women and girls without hesitation or fear, but with courage.
- Lorraine Nowlin
Jewish women and the WLM
Jean-Paul Sartre said: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” Like women, Jews have been set up as a scapegoat class; meaning that everyone in the scapegoat class is said to have all those character traits that the ruling class deems both undesirable and utterly unlike the ruling class. In fact, in many ways, Jewish men have been portrayed as feminized. As physically weak and helpless, but manipulative. Sort of like women; except that Jewish women tend to be portrayed as unfeminine. But not in a really good way.
Nobody wants to claim kinship with Jews. The anti racist Left says Jews are “white,” while the white supremacists on the Right refer to Jews as “one of the muddy races.” Most everybody wants to distance themselves from Jews, including, understandably, lots of Jews (who, after all, grow up in an antisemitic culture). Jewish children hear, on the one hand, that mainstream culture empathizes with Jews and opposes antisemitism; and on the other hand, that Zionists are evil. If you grow up as a Jewish girl on the political left, you learn that you can maybe be seen as a good Jew, or at least an acceptable Jew, but only so long as you don’t advocate for the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish nation. Otherwise you will be framed as an evil Zionist because you believe that Jews are entitled to the one tiny nation where they originated and never left. The parallels between good Jew vs evil Zionist, and good girl vs evil TERF should be apparent.
There are lots of other contradictions in how Jews are characterized too. This is predictable, because hatred of “Zionists” is not separate from hatred of Jews. Some say they would only hire a Jewish accountant; but others say that Jews are thieves. Some on the Left say “Jew” is a social construct and that in reality Jews are just regular white Europeans calling themselves Jews so that they can illegitimately claim a portion of ancient Israel in the Middle East; meanwhile men of European descent on the Right chant “Jews will not replace us.” They know Jews are not Europeans.
Jews are not “Europeans.” European nations were some of the lands where some Jews were exiled, by the Roman army, in the first century. All ethnic Jews have Middle Eastern origins, in language, culture, religion and ethics, and DNA; and Jews exiled in Europe were always treated as “other.”
According to popular Jew-hating rhetoric, there could hardly be a more morally corrupt nation on earth than the only Jewish one. The Left’s stated agenda of BDS — to “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” Israel out of existence as an “apartheid, genocidal” state of “European colonizers” — is unique to Israel. No other nation is consistently lied about and targeted in this way. There were other Middle Eastern nations formed at the same time as Israel, and some commit measurably more human rights violations. But no one is calling for the erasure of Saudi Arabia; only for the destruction of the one Jewish nation. (Bear in mind that the existence of just one Jewish nation in the 1930s could have averted the attempted genocide of Jews in the Holocaust; because before Hitler targeted Jews for extermination, he tried unsuccessfully to deport Jews to any nation that would take them in. But not one nation on earth would take us in.)
I think it’s time for feminists to take the lead in telling the truth in all matters, especially if the men who we consider kin in some respects do not tell the truth. I include Jewish men here. Jewish men have had unjust burdens, to be sure: Jewish men’s fairly recent ancestors were barred from European trade guilds while being simultaneously mocked for not doing “honest labor with their hands.” Jewish men were permitted to earn a living by dealing with money, while being treated with moralistic contempt for their necessarily acquired skill with money. But Jewish men have their own self-hating demons and their own woman-hating demons; there are Jewish men involved in the trans atrocity. There are Jewish men involved in sex trafficking and pornography, including one of my cousins. The Jewish men who govern Israel do not always choose justice or compassion or proportionality or even basic democratic values. Jewish men are no more allies of women than any other ethnic demographic of men. They may have extra challenges in asserting their masculinity. But it is not the job of Jewish women or any other women to support Jewish men in their quest for manliness. I’d say that as a group, Jewish men are not women’s allies at all. In fact, I’d go further and say that Jewish men as a group are by far not the best possible public face for the Jewish people.
That said, I want to remind feminists that Jewish women were way over-represented in the Second Wave of the WLM, considering their numbers in the general population. Andrea Dworkin, Adrienne Rich, Kathie Sarachild, Alix Dobkin, Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, and countless other early leaders all had Jewish origins. I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Second Wave was created overwhelmingly by Jewish women, Black women, and lesbians, who all held all women as their first priority.
The Women’s Liberation Movement is a movement by and for all women. Its goal is to completely dismantle patriarchy. We can only accomplish this by capturing the ethical high ground and by resisting patriarchy’s attempts to divide us through competing loyalties. Such competing loyalties might include loyalty to your man, loyalty to your son, loyalty to your beloved dad, to your attachment to femininity, or to your race or religion or nationality or ethnicity or your social or economic class within patriarchy. The sex class called women and girls must be our clear, single, highest priority if we’re going to bring down patriarchy. But how can we maintain that when we keep bumping up against each other’s other allegiances? Just as we were all raised under patriarchy, we were also all raised within our ethnic group, where we felt at home; and where most of us first learned about other ethnic groups — second-hand, and complete with ancient prejudices.
What we can do when we feel excluded or mischaracterized or disrespected on the basis of race or ethnicity is to speak up. We can try to do it without drama or exaggeration or shaming, speaking clearly enough to be heard, but without unnecessarily raising the temperature of the conversation. We can assume a good faith error. We can be patient and we can repeat our clarifications of what the facts are and what the harm is and how we need to repair it. We need to keep speaking up, keep listening without defensiveness, telling the truth, and documenting that truth, over and over, if necessary, in ongoing dialogue, as sisters. It may seem unfair to especially burden members of historically oppressed groups to do this education repeatedly, but that’s who can do it best, and it needs to be done well. I believe that patriarchy is the most fundamental basis for the exploitation of one class of people by another. Our aim is to deconstruct patriarchy, and part of patriarchy’s arsenal is the weaponization of ethnic and racial differences to keep sisters competing with each other and divided from each other. If we can persistently, calmly, and patiently speak up, tell the truth, document it, and if our sisters can listen without defending – in ongoing dialogue – we have a shot at staying unified as women, winning the hearts and minds of most people, and bringing down patriarchy.
Jewish women are famously hated and resented by Jewish men for being castrating, for unmanning them. Jewish women allegedly accomplish this by infantilizing their sons, by saying no to their sons, by demanding respect from their men, by demanding ethical behavior from their men, by achieving more in their chosen fields than their men, by out-earning their men, by being useless and demanding Jewish American princesses, and by not being more feminine, more pleasing, and more blonde.
Meanwhile, the larger group that generally call themselves progressive, including so-called trans activists, love to call Jewish women TERFs, Nazis, Fascists, and racists. They love calling all TERFs these things, and they love calling all Jews these things, so there’s a special euphoria-inducing thrill in reversing the actual Nazi Holocaust that aimed at literal Jewish genocide, and hurling it all at Jewish TERFs; even better if it’s Jew dyke TERFs. The implication is that Jews deserved to die horrible, humiliating deaths during the Holocaust, and so do TERFs and lesbians and “zionists” now; and someone who’s all three, well why are you still even breathing?
Well, the fact is that race and ethnicity – and class — do coexist with sex. And if we are to succeed in this movement to liberate all women and girls from patriarchy, we must prioritize our sex class over any of its subdivisions. That’s challenging, because oppressed groups that contain men are always accorded more dignity. As I see it, our job is to hold fast to the priority of all women and girls, while also remaining sensitive to the racial and ethnic and class divisions within our sex class. I want our movement to be self-criticizing in the interests of adhering to radical feminist ethics, and in the interests of the universal inclusion of all women and girls everywhere in the world — whether or not they currently support our movement. In my opinion, we can’t prioritize race or ethnicity over sex; but we do need to maintain an ongoing dialogue about race and ethnicity – and class and nationality as well. Because every woman’s voice needs a way to be heard in our movement if we are to succeed in liberating all women and girls as a sex class.