Chesler Chronicles

Scapegoating Israel is Fashionable. Balancing Feminist Sorrows with Israel's Right to Exist

In June of 1982, in the pages of Ms. Magazine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin earned her reputation as a Jewish feminist by writing about anti-Semitism among feminists. She did so by standing on the shoulders of other Jewish feminists who had been wrestling with this “problem without a name” since the early 1970s and whose cries Pogrebin finally heard.

Pogrebin’s article in Ms. Magazine was brave and she was, at the time, both attacked and disbelieved. But she was also respected for writing the piece. By 1991, Pogrebin had expanded her article about Jew-hatred among feminists into a book about Judaism and feminism, Deborah, Golda and Me. The book’s index contains at least 30 references to anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism and the women’s movement. There is also a whole chapter titled ”Special Jewish Sorrows and Women and Anti-Semitism.” Since Pogrebin published her book, she has risen to prominence as a spokeswoman for all things Jewish and feminist.

During the same decades, however, Israel’s enemies have successfully made it into a pariah nation. The constant campaign of suicide killings, international boycott campaigns against its scholars, United Nations resolutions, rocket and shooting attacks upon innocent Jewish civilians both in Israel and in the West — all accompanied by a steady drumbeat of propaganda that hardens the heart of the world against Jews, and against Israel—has transformed the victim Israel into the transgressor/aggressor and villain in the eyes of much of the world. PRESS HERE

It is at precisely this historical moment that Pogrebin has chosen to attack the American Jewish Congress for their campaign to place a pro-Israel ad in the pages of Ms. Magazine: she does so in her latest column in Moment Magazine. PRESS HERE. Pogrebin is a founding editor of the original Ms. Magazine and a friend and ally of Gloria Steinem’s. This entire “Ad Affair” must have given Pogrebin a serious headache. She feels she has been “forced” to choose between her feminism and her Zionism, between the preservation of her own feminist legacy and her pro-Israel and pro-Jewish principles.

The AJCongress is a liberal Jewish American organization that finally felt desperate enough about the defamatory anti-Israel propaganda to pay Ms. Magazine $3700.00 to run a neo-feminist pro-Israel ad. Ms. decided not to run the ad, which featured three powerful Israeli women over the headline: “This is Israel.” At this point, the AJCongress was genuinely frustrated and outraged: perhaps they also viewed this as an opportunity to garner headlines which might, in turn, garner funding. Whatever their motives, as a result, on January 15, 2008, the AJCongress held a press conference that challenged Ms.’s decision.

(Full disclosure: I was one of the speakers and letter-writers whose words and ideas Pogrebin characterizes in her column as “hysterical rants.” The others include Blu Greenberg, Susannah Heschel, Francine Klagsbrun, and Cynthia Ozick.) You may read the AJCongress press release, my speech, and see us all on YouTube. PRESS HERE

Subsequently, The Nation magazine, a far-left, relentlessly anti-Zionist publication which Ms. magazine increasingly resembles where Israel is concerned, accepted the ad–which acceptance, coupled with a phone call from the very influential Pogrebin, apparently settled the matter for the AJCongress. The Congress was apparently unperturbed by the column which Katha Pollitt wrote on February 21st, 2008 for The Nation which mocked both the ad, the Congress, and the press conference. PRESS HERE TO READ POLLITT’S FEBRUARY 08 COLUMN.

On March 18, 2008, Pogrebin released her column on the internet. It is titled “The Ad War: American Jewish Congress vs. Ms. Magazine.” In it, Pogrebin justifies what Ms. has done and attacks the AJCongress for what they have done. (Only Orwell can fully capture the times in which we live). She concludes that “Ms. was right to reject the ad not just because it was nationalistic but because it violated truth in advertising.”

It seems that Pogrebin has also suffered at the hands of the AJCongress. In her column, Pogrebin describes having worked hard for the Congress in order to create an international Jewish feminist conference in Jerusalem -– only to discover that once the headlines had died down, the Congress had no serious interest in continuing the work. (Those of us who worked on the Women of the Wall struggle experienced a similar frustration).

Thus, I happen to agree with Pogrebin that the AJCongress is not a feminist organization and that it has not supported certain feminist projects for which it has nonetheless claimed credit and solicited funds. But over the years, many feminists have argued that Ms. Magazine has done something similar. Nevertheless, the AJCongress at least finally tried to Do Something, however misguided.

Why should Pogrebin attack and shame them for trying to take a principled stand — and indeed, for daring to potentially offend their own liberal funding base “for love of Zion?” What does Pogrebin gain by defending Ms.’s decision and by quoting only left-feminists (Katha Pollitt, Claire Kinberg, etc.) to support her view? Indeed, over the years, with very few exceptions, the Israel that Ms. Magazine has profiled is the Israel according to Israeli left-feminist critics of Israel.

Playwright David Mamet has written an elegant book titled The Wicked Son, in which he analyzes not only the opportunism and cowardice but the religious hunger gone awry that may account for the ways in which many progressive secular Jewish men savagely critique–or at least spurn–too close an association with Israel or with religious Judaism. He likens this syndrome to that of the “wicked son” at the Passover seder who does not think that the story of Jewish slavery and redemption has anything to do with him.

However, Pogrebin does not fit that mold. She is religious, she is also a Zionist, and she is far from being a self-hating Jew. Therefore, Pogrebin’s left-ward shift , both in general and in her column is even more troubling: it is certainly more heartbreaking to me. Pogrebin may not believe that her current ideological point of view has deadened her to certain “Jewish Sorrows.” But, based on Pogrebin’s column, one may conclude that Israel’s life-and-death struggle has nothing to do with Pogrebin. She magnifies serious social inequalities in Israel. (which exist everywhere, even more so in Muslim countries), and minimizes Israel’s unique existential struggle for survival.

In her column, Pogrebin focuses mainly upon the suffering of Israel’s women at the hands of Israeli and Jewish patriarchy. The women are suffering. Pogrebin is not wrong about this. But I despair when her emphasis suggests that only such evils are worthy of her deepest concern. To her, there is no “larger” jihadic war that has targeted Israel, Jews and the West: there is only the war against women waged mainly by: Men? Jewish and Israeli men? American, Republican, war-mongering men?

Please understand: Pogrebin speaks for many American Jewish feminists who may also wish to escape the burden of being associated with an increasingly-defamed Israel, and with an Israel that has, in their eyes, failed to hear the cries of its most vulnerable female citizens.

Such Jewish-left feminists are reluctant to criticize the far greater barbarisms of the Islamic world, including its system of gender and religious apartheid, lest they be viewed as “racists.” But they can and do criticize religious misogyny and violence against women in a demonized Jewish Israel without either risking their reputations or their lives. Indeed, scapegoating tiny Israel for the crimes that are actually indigenous to the larger Islamic world is both safe and quite fashionable.

For the record, let me be very clear: I am not saying that Israel is a feminist paradise. Far from it. And yet: There is a feminist and civil rights movement in Israel which is fighting back. And, Israeli women (Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druses), have many more freedoms and opportunities than do their counterparts anywhere in the Arab, Muslim Middle East. As the AJCongress ad points out: The President of the Israeli Supreme Court is a woman, as is the Speaker of the Parliament and the Foreign Minister. While this may not be enough, it’s not just chopped liver either!

But most important: If Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, and al-Queda have their way, the secular feminists of Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the Negev will all be blown to smithereens, together with their haredi, right-wing opponents. Thus, I implore Pogrebin to think of both dangers at the same time because both surely exist. Let us agree to balance our righteous feminist criticism of Israel with similar criticism of other countries and to “never forget” that such criticism will invariably be used against Israel’s right to exist.

This article is dedicated to Isaac Meyers z’l (may his memory be for a blessing) who was hit by a truck in Cambridge, Massachusetts on his way to an early morning shiva minyan.