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When Feminists Were Zionists

A new generation of women is being misled into assuming an ideological tension between feminism and Zionism

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Betty Friedan, 1975. (David Montgomery/Getty Images)
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In June 1975, weeks after Saigon fell, Betty Friedan led a large delegation of American feminists to Mexico City for an International Woman’s Year World Conference hosted by the United Nations. The feminist trailblazer—whose legacy is in the spotlight on International Women’s Day today, 50 years after the publication of her book The Feminine Mystiquetraveled south “relatively naïve,” she would recall, hoping “to help advance the worldwide movement of women to equality.” Instead, she endured what she called “one of the most painful experiences in my life.”

The conference’s anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism shocked Freidan—and diverted attention from the feminist agenda. Men, political spouses, or “female flunkies,” she noted, dominated most official delegations. Few of the delegates seemed interested in women’s issues. American feminists were mocked as spoiled bourgeois elites raising marginal concerns to avoid confronting more pressing issues of racism, imperialism, colonialism, and poverty. A thuggish atmosphere intimidated the American feminists, especially in the parallel NGO, or non-governmental organization, conference. At critical moments “microphones were turned off” and speakers shouted down. Friedan recalled in notes found in her papers, which formed the basis of her famous article “Scary Doings in Mexico City”: “the way they were making it impossible for women to speak—on the most innocent, straightforward of women’s concerns, seemed fascist—like to me, the menace of the goosestep.” Friedan saw the Israeli prime minister’s wife, Leah Rabin, booed and boycotted, and she watched, horrified, as the “Declaration on the Equality of Women” became one of the first international documents to label Zionism as a form of racism.

When Third World and Communist delegates moved to link the Ten-Year Plan of Action for Women to the abolition of “imperialism, neocolonialism, racism, apartheid, and Zionism,” some feminist voices finally broke the silence. One European woman delegate told Friedan: “That is clear anti-Semitism, and we will have no part of it.” “If Zionism is to be included in the final declaration, we cannot understand why sexism was not included,” T.W.M. Tirika-tene-Sullivan, heading the New Zealand delegation, shouted. Lacking a two-thirds majority, the Arab and Communist delegates forced through a procedural change requiring only a majority vote to approve a declaration so that the anti-Zionist plank could pass.

Under attack, “followed by gunmen and advised to get out of town,” and ultimately hustled out of the hall by three large women from Detroit who were concerned about her physical safety, Friedan had her consciousness raised in a new way. She had been criticizing American society for years. Regarding Judaism and Israel, she had been ambivalent, saying her “own background was not that religious.”

Following the conference, Friedan viewed these democracies’ flaws in perspective. America was at least acknowledging sexism as a problem. Upon her return to the United States, she also dedicated herself to the Zionist cause, advocating Jewish self-defense in confronting vicious, obsessive lies about Israel.

The Mexico City experience integrated Friedan’s two embattled identities. She later celebrated the “new strength and authenticity of women as Jews, and Jews as women, which feminism has brought that enables them to combat the use of feminism itself as an anti-Semitic political tool.” She linked this struggle to “part of the larger never-ending battle for human freedom and evolution. Women as Jews, Jews as women, have learned in their gut, ‘if I am not for myself, who will be for me (and who can I truly be for). If I am only for myself, who am I?’ ”

Back home in New York, when the United Nations considered expelling Israel that fall of 1975, Friedan mobilized against the move in order, as she put it, to “save the U.N.” She noted that, having risen from the “ashes of the Holocaust,” the United Nations was now sacrificing its credibility in targeting one country. Many of the Asian and African delegates agreed with Friedan and vetoed the move, unwilling to risk their new status as member states by questioning Israel’s right to belong.

The Soviets and the Palestinians then turned to their fallback position: having the General Assembly label Zionism racism. The Soviets hoped to humiliate the United States, six months after South Vietnam fell. And beyond their terror attacks and diplomatic grandstands, the Palestinians were fighting an ideological war. They framed their local narrative, Edward Said explained, as part of “the universal political struggle against colonialism and imperialism.”

Proclaiming that “all human rights are indivisible,” Friedan’s Ad Hoc Committee of Women for Human Rights objected to the racist label being “applied solely to the national self-determination of the Jewish people.” Politicians including Bella Abzug, Helen Gahagan Douglas, Margaret Heckler, Elizabeth Holzman, and Pat Schroeder; celebrities including Lauren Bacall, Beverly Sills, and Joanne Woodward; writers including Nora Ephron, Margaret Mead, Adrienne Rich, and Barbara Tuchman; Joan Ganz Cooney of Sesame Street; La Donna Harris, the American Indian activist; and the feminist Gloria Steinem, among others, joined Friedan’s committee.

Despite Friedan’s efforts, and despite the eloquence of U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s opposition to “this infamous act,” General Assembly Resolution 3379, which labeled Zionism as a form of racism, passed on Nov. 10, 1975. The next day, Friedan made a surprise appearance at an anti-3379 protest, where she identified herself “as a woman, as an American, and as a Jew.” She proclaimed: “All my life I have fought for justice, but I have never been a Zionist until today.”

Subsequently in an American Jewish Congress Symposium called “Woman as Jew, Jew as Woman,” Friedan would root her feminism in her Judaism. She often wondered, “Why me?”—what prompted her to confront sexism? Eventually, she traced “this passion against injustice” to the values she absorbed and the mild anti-Semitism she experienced “as a Jew growing up in Peoria, Illinois.”

Friedan’s Jewish transformation was mostly public and political. Letty Cottin Pogrebin experienced a more personal awakening. Pogrebin wrote in her 1991 memoir, Deborah, Golda and Me, that although Israelis were targeted, “I knew the arrow also was meant for me.”

She realized that “to feminists who hate Israel, I was not a woman, I was a Jewish woman.” Launching a deeper Jewish journey, Pogrebin wondered: “Why be a Jew for them if I am not a Jew for myself?” Many Jews reported experiencing an identity reawakening following the public trauma of the “Zionism is racism” resolution. Like Pogrebin, and Theodor Herzl, many discovered that anti-Semitism can make the Jew, but it is more satisfying for the Jew to make the Jew.

Yet many feminists, Jewish and not, felt that solidarity with international women’s conferences was more important to the movement than the fate of the Jews. Pogrebin confronted feminist anti-Zionism in her controversial June 1982 Ms. Magazine article “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement.” There Pogebrin defended Zionism as an experiment in realistic nationalism. “If we can understand why history entitles lesbians to separatism, or minorities and women to affirmative action, we can understand why history entitles Jews to ‘preferential’ safe space,” she wrote. “To me, Zionism is simply an affirmative action plan on a national scale. Just as legal remedies are justified in reparation for racism and sexism, the Law of Return to Israel is justified, if not by Jewish religious and ethnic claims, then by the intransigence of worldwide anti-Semitism.” Pogrebin echoed the radical thinker Andrea Dworkin’s vision: “In the world I’m working for, nation states will not exist. But in the world I live in, I want there to be an Israel.”

Globally, the battle only got nastier, and weirder. U.N. organizations and conferences worked diplomatically to “add Zionism to all the nasty ‘isms’ ” the world wanted “eliminated,” lamented the Israeli diplomat Tamar Eshel, who represented Israel at the U.N.’s International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in July 1980. A huge portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Islamist anti-feminist leader, decorated the conference headquarters, inside of which attacks on Israel, Jews, and America intensified. Most Third World delegates decided sexism was a Western problem, because only Western women complained about it.

Co-chairing the American delegation was Sarah Weddington, a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, and the winning lawyer in the Supreme Court abortion case Roe v. Wade. Disgusted by what she saw unfolding in front of her, she had her own Moynihan moment—echoing the now-former U.N. ambassador’s courage and eloquence—and demanded that the women’s conference address women’s needs. “To equate Zionism with colonialism and imperialism,” she objected, “is in a sense to state that the destruction of Israel is a prerequisite for peace.”

Friedan (center) at the Women’s Press Conference in Bucharest, 1974. (United Nations)

Yet Weddington’s arguments were largely ignored by the other delegates, who were more interested in creating a common global agenda of the oppressed. Anti-Zionism was emerging as an identity marker, the glue uniting a broad, diverse, often contradictory left-wing movement. “The real test of our fabled ‘Jewish power’ is how powerless Jews were in Copenhagen,” the radical writer Ellen Willis of the Village Voice glumly reported. A liberal “Diaspora Jew” uninterested in Jewish nationalism, Willis strongly opposed Israel’s control of the West Bank. Still, she slammed radical leftists’ collective blind-spot regarding the anti-Semitic impulses triggering their anti-Israel obsession. Eventually, she proclaimed: “I’m an anti-anti-Zionist.”

Meanwhile, American feminists tried liberating the international women’s movement from its anti-Zionist obsession. Some activists, disgusted by Mexico City and Copenhagen, spent years preparing for the July 1985 International Women’s Conference, in Nairobi, Kenya. Applying feminist methods, Pogrebin and Abzug convened Black-Jewish Women’s dialogue groups and tried establishing Palestinian-Jewish dialogues. Emerging from what she called “virtual feminist retirement,” Betty Friedan mobilized Jewish women worldwide to tap the “strength that comes from authentic assertion of one’s own identity, as Jew or woman.”

Women at Nairobi wanted to avoid the politicized ranting about Zionism and talk, Friedan noted, “as feminists about their common women’s problems.” In the middle of yet another dreary debate about Zionism and racism, a French woman began chanting: “The women of the world are watching and waiting.” Others joined in, until the PLO and the Iranian delegates finally relented. Representatives of 157 countries, many teary-eyed, many singing the conference’s unofficial theme song “We are the World, We are the Women,” unanimously adopted a final document with, Betty Friedan exulted, “every reference to Zionism gone.” The first major international movement to declare Zionism to be racism, the women’s movement now became the first to denounce that lie. Six years later, in 1991, the General Assembly repealed its infamous resolution.

Yet, despite the heroic leadership of Friedan and her sisters, what Moynihan called “The Big Red Lie,” which insists that the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians must be viewed through the distorting, inflammatory anti-Zionist lens of racism, still persists. Despite her victory in Nairobi, Friedan would be devastated to see that the libel she opposed with such courage and strength is now increasingly accepted by leading American feminists like Judith Butler and Alice Walker, who would rather identify with the warped gender politics of Hezbollah and Hamas than with the history and heroes of their own movement.

Adapted from Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism, by Gil Troy, with permission of Oxford University Press, all rights reserved.


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So this turn of events occurred 18 months after the Yom Kippur war in which Israel was victorious and recognized worldwide as the superpower of the middle east. Any connection to Zionism in that climate would naturally be assumed to be an oppressive colonial invasion. Now women were not the underdog but rather the reframed Palestinians. The Arabs simply robbed the victimhood role from feminists and ascribed it to the enemy of the Jews.

What other outcome could Friedan have expected? The enemies of freedom and equality are also the enemies of Israel. Male dominated patriarchal cultures have always despised the Jews and coincidentally also women.

This may have been a huge disappointment to Betty Friedan, but I can’t imagine any other outcome. Many minorities depend on Israel as their only middle-eastern human rights advocacy, including more recently GLBT. No Arab nation would accept feminism in 1975, and no Arab nation is going to accept GLBT today. Instead the world is expected to accept Palestinians as the world’s oppressed martyrs.

The United Nations was always about mob rule. In its conception it was the League of Nations, a republic dedicated to protecting the rights of the minority. But since then it was abandoned to the majority of vultures.

Did I just hear Judith Butler burp ?

herbcaen says:

Feminists ally themselves with radical Islam for the same reason that gays do. Feminists and gay activists view Judaism as the bigger threat than radical Islam. Rabbi Tony Jutner, an antizionist activist, explained this on line. They are prepared to overlook the hangings of gays and the mistreatment of women because they feel that if they prove themselves reliable allies of Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaida and Iran, when it comes to Israel, they will be rewarded with tolerance in the Muslim world. Thus Judith Butler and Women of the Wall stand hand in hand with Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Nasrallah, and Assad (and Chavez of not so blessed memory) against Israel and the Jewish people

    oaklandj says:

    Gays ally themselves with radical Islam?! Seriously, what planet are you living on?

      You have never heard of “Gays for palestine?”

        Lynne T says:

        I think you mean “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid”. But long before QAIA, you had Michel Foucault slavering over Khomeini.

          oaklandj says:

          A powerful group, probably number in the ones, maybe even tens!

          jzsnake says:

          There really are plenty of gays that are pro-Palestinian which is kind of like blacks being pro Klu Klux Klan.

          oaklandj says:

          Do you like to tell yourself that because you don’t like gays or Palestinians, and you’ve given yourself pretext to hating both?

          jzsnake says:

          Your kidding me right? LOL!

          Joel Wurnig says:

          Oaklandj is trolling. Best not to keep feeding him. Obviously, the LGTB movement’s strong support for Palestine is well documented. I’d challenge our LGTB friends of Israel to work toward changing that from within.

        oaklandj says:

        I haven’t, and I’m gay. I’m curious, how many members does this group count, and compare that to the number of gays who support Israel. I suspect herbcaen has no interest in answering that question.

          I am sorry to report that unfortunately, particularly in academia, that the anti-Israel brigade in the “Queer” world is legion. Recently, Sarah Schulman, a well known lesbian novelist and a professor (of course), organized “Homonationalism Pinkwashing” conference at CUNY — it was sold out. While these miscreants are not necessarily the majority of LGBT people, they exist and are not a small minority. All part of the “Israeli Apartheid”brigade.

Binyamin says:

Mr. Troy is selling the delusion that his nice, sweet, liberal brand of Canadian Zionism is what characterizes Israel today. Dream on.

A few quotes from the leader of the fastest growing faction in the Likud (and newly elected Knesset member), Moshe Feiglin, will suffice:

“Tel Aviv has become a city that has erased masculinity and where being a man is considered a sickness,” and added that feminism has destroyed family values, something essential to Judaism. The implication: Feminism isn’t Jewish. Pressed further, [Feiglin] stated that “the man is the family while the woman is the home [literally ‘house’]” and that in our current culture we are forgetting “what it means to be a man.”

Truth be told, Mr. Troy (and the editors of Tablet) know that sexism is rampant in Israel, not just among the orthodox. When you have your (secular) education minister proudly working as a DJ in a Tel Aviv disco and partaking of the underage girls who frequent it, you know you’ve got a problem. (I’m not even going to mention President Katsav.) Is it as bad as Iran? Of course not. But if Feiglin becomes Prime Minister, you bet we will see honor killings of Jewish girls who date Arabs.

(BTW, I knew Betty and her family well. She made a big mistake by endorsing Israel without strongly denouncing the occupation. I cherish her memory nonetheless. She was a wonderful person.)

anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism = anti-Americanism

salemst says:

Let’s be bluntly honest.
Feminism/feminists are politically liberal firmly ensconced within the Democrat Party–reliable part of its base. Their goal is women’s independence from men, starting financially working outside the home.
By pushing men away so they can control their environment and others’ behaviors clearing all impediments enabling their doing so they look to the government to help them attain their “independent” lifestyle. They’ve always wanted government policies forcing society to meet their needs including affirmative action, abortion, ‘no fault’ divorce, gender advantages educationally, political correctness, sexual harassment subjectivity, family leave–now they want it with pay, government subsidized daycare, pre school care, after school care, etc… the list of government demands is endless.

So to be clear, feminists are liberal wanting women indistinguishable from men pushing them away and causing them to not want commitment for, after all, the more a woman is like a man the less a man wants to commit to the woman.

Marrying the government, or other women, is their preference–not men.

Where does this relate to Zionism? The Democrat party base is far left. They’re the party of government. Feminists love government as it hamstrings men, gives women advantages, and provides the benefits women would otherwise derive in marriage to a man.

So given a choice between Israeli support or political liberalism with enormous government intervention in our lives, they’ll choose to side with the Democrat Party and liberalism so they can continue deriving the benefits from marriage to the government not wanting to alienate the anti Israelis in the party. Going along to get what they want–government.

Israel is a lesser priority for them than government subsidization absent a man/marriage.

jzsnake says:

My hats off to these woman who are and were real warriors!

    zlop says:

    Good picture of a Warrior Woman here;
    “How the Rockefellers Re-Engineered Women”

It is tragic that the feminist art movement found the most success in glorifying sexuality and also joining with New Left anti-imperialists, leaving such feminists as Friedan hanging. I wrote about the hyper-sexuality advocated by some feminist artists here: “Female genitals as Red Flag.”

oaklandj says:

There will always be a segment of the left (and I say this as a leftist myself) that sympathizes with those who have less money and power over those with money and power…without any regard to *why* those groups are powerless/poor and powerful/wealthy. It’s a gross simplification, which is why it doesn’t resonate with most people, including people on the left.

Most complex phenomena don’t lend themselves to simple reductivist thinking. I’ve always been skeptical of those people who are given to it (both on the right and left), and I’m proud that Betty Friedan did, too. I was always a fan, but this article gave me even more reason to be. Nicely done, Gil Troy.

    surfer_dad says:

    Well said.
    Too many real and deep issues get simplified so they fit into already established political norms – Israel and the Israel/Palestinian conflict is a perfect example of that.
    Israel can’t do ANYTHING right because they are on the wrong “side” of the political argument. And of course evils on the Hamas/Hezbollah side get whitewashed because they are on the “correct side.”
    (Of course it goes both ways, JStreet gets vilified because they are lumped into a certain side – irregardless of their stated positions.)

    Life is never black and white … it’s always some shade of grey.

herbcaen says:

The mainstream of the gay movement is anti-Jewish. Gays in SF supported a statewide bill to ban circumcision in California. Gays have been active in the anti-circumcision movement in Germany. Finally, gay leader Judith Butler has called hamas and hezbollah progressive organizations. So just as we thought that the alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union was strange, so we think the alliance between gays and Iran hamas and hezbollah is strange as well. Despite the fact that gays are routinely hung in Iran and Gaza, the US gay movement is staunchly anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. Tel Aviv should stop promoting gay parades because the only ones who benefit are Tehran and Damascus

    oaklandj says:

    More BS. I’m beginning to think you couldn’t tell the truth if your life depended on it.
    And you shouldn’t be using the Herb Caen moniker and talking total bullcrap about San Francisco.

      herbcaen says:

      Sorry, but you will soon need to make a choice whether you support Israel or the gay mainstream in the US. I have no doubt what you will choose

        oaklandj says:

        Keep on drinking that Kool-Aid, Herb. :)

          herbcaen says:

          See you on the next flotilla to Gaza, along with Alice Walker, Desmond Tutu, and Ahmadinejad

          oaklandj says:

          I won’t be there, but it sounds like you’ll have plenty of company.

      Elon says:

      Actually, I wouldn’t call it the “mainstream” gay movement, but what he says is true. There is an Anti-Semitic gay movement. Have you not seen The Adventures of Foreskin Man? Or the editorial decrying Israel’s “pink-washing”, whatever that means?

        oaklandj says:

        Well, I’m glad you acknowledge it’s not a mainstream phenomenon. There are racist Jews, anti-Zionist Jews, etc. Does this mean Jews are racist and against Zionism?

          The point is, that the anti-Zionist sentiment is not small in the LGBT world. I don’t know that it is “mainstream” but I know that in the Bay Area, where I lived for over thirty years, that many ads for LGBT households advertise that they want ” NO ZIONISTS”. The PC crew who are ‘queer” identified are the worst of these. Most LGBT people are probably not entirely on board, but this is not a small group of people by any means. They tend to be the important trend setters and “leaders” like – said Judith Butler. Sad but true. Doesn’t make sense, but there you have it.

          oaklandj says:

          You are really full of it. Please point to “ads for LGBT households” that advertise “no Zionists.” Maybe you mean the Bay Area of Tehran.
          Conservatives really do construct alternative bubbles of reality in which to live.

Back in the twenties (and earlier) zionism and feminism were one and the same thing. Women could vote in local elections in Zionist settlements before they could in Britain and the first female member of the Polish parliament was a zionist.

I think that for many young women, migrating to Palestine was a way of breaking away from the chains of family expectations, sexism and anti-Semitism and while Kibbutz sexual equality might not meet modern standards, at the time it was pretty radical.

Binyamin says:

To the point of whether being a Jewish state is inherently racist, if you haven’t already read it, you should read:
On Questioning the Jewish State
by Joseph Levine, published in the New York Times, March 9, 2013.

How many more times does Judith Butler need to denounce Hezbollah before you guys stop slandering her?

    Contentious Centrist says:

    “Notoriously, Judith Butler said the following about those violent Jew-haters of Hamas and Hezbollah.

    I think: Yes, understanding Hamas,
    Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the
    Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important. That does
    not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements.
    (…) So again, a critical, important engagement. I mean, I certainly
    think it should be entered into the conversation on the Left. I
    similarly think boycotts and divestment procedures are, again, an
    essential component of any resistance movement.

    Surprised by the outraged reaction to her comments, Butler ‘redescribed’ what she had said in a public statement.

    My remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah have
    been taken out of context… I was asked by a member of an academic
    audience… whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to ‘the global
    left’ and I replied with two points. My first point was merely
    descriptive: those political organisations define themselves as
    anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the
    global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the
    global left. My second point was then critical: as with any group on the
    left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that
    group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand. I do not accept
    or endorse all groups on the global left.

    But this just won’t do. As Jay Adler has pointed out, ‘Little of what
    Butler now claims is true. Her remarks were not “merely descriptive.”
    The two organisations she described not just as left, but as, actually,
    “progressive,” and Butler called it “important” to so understand them.’
    Adler rightly adds: ‘She did not offer the choice of support for the
    groups – and why endorse even the choice? – but called understanding
    Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive, left social movements to be a
    “critical, important engagement.”’


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When Feminists Were Zionists

A new generation of women is being misled into assuming an ideological tension between feminism and Zionism