Many of us who are Jewish feminists returned from the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Milwaukee (November 2015) with inboxes full of email from colleagues who were stunned by the association’s passage of a BDS resolution boycotting Israel. The NWSA-BDS resolution is an endorsement of “the 2005 call by Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of economic, military and cultural entities and projects sponsored by the state of Israel,” that is a general BDS of all Israeli institutions, including “Israeli institutions of higher learning” that “have not challenged, but instead legitimized, Israel’s oppressive policies and violations” (www.nwsa.org/content.asp?contentid=105). The resolution was circulated at the 2015 conference along with a list of Frequently Asked Questions. The answers to questions about boycotting Israeli institutions of higher learning gave conditions for permissible and non-permissible communications between Israeli and U.S. academics that were contradictory and did not identify the “complicit” institutions of higher learning.
For many, this resolution stung as hugely insensitive to the diversity of opinion within the Jewish membership of NWSA. In a pro BDS plenary at the 2015 NWSA Conference on violence against Native women, Latino women, and Palestinian women, for example, not a word was uttered about the genocidal violence committed against Jewish women, men and children in the 20th century, let alone previous centuries. It felt like a throwback to the 1980s, when Women’s Studies was a fledgling interdisciplinary field that that was blind to Jewish women and anti-Semitism. Introductory Women’s Studies courses covered the discriminatory experiences of women of color, lesbians, working and middle-class Western women, and later women, gender and sexuality from a global perspective, but omitted Jewish women and anti-Semitism from the canon. The persistent absence of anti-Semitism and diverse Jewish women’s realities from the Women’s Studies canon has allowed a one-sided platform to dominate NWSA dialogue about BDS and about conflicts in Israel.
When Jewish feminists attempted in the 1980s to include anti-Semitism in NWSA’s mission as an intersectional oppression, the statement wouldn’t pass unless Arabs and Jews were both included as victims of anti-Semitism. While this may be understandable on some levels, it becomes much less so when it is followed years later by an anti-Israel BDS resolution and plenary sessions that neglect to differentiate between a right wing government in Israel that has re-defined Zionism on its own religious, militaristic terms and the many Israelis on the left, Zionists for a democratic Israel, who are desperately calling out for coalitions with American Jews to end the Occupation, as demonstrated by the recent Ha’aretz Conference held in New York City (December 2015). In 2014, the NWSA plenary session in Puerto Rico, out of which support for BDS began, was devoted to settler colonialism. But the plenary completely excluded the varied positions within the Jewish left on the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, inviting only Jewish speakers whose positions reflected one left group, Jewish Voice for Peace. This group is committed to social and economic justice for Palestinians but, like BDS, has not clearly articulated whether “peace” means returning to the borders of 1948 or those of 1967. Following the plenary, the NWSA leadership called for a “straw vote” asking those in the audience of approximately 2,500 who supported BDS to stand up. An ad hoc group was then formed, Feminists for Justice in/for Palestine, the group that then proposed the NWSA-BDS resolution in 2015. The Jewish Caucus in the NWSA, which reflects a diversity of Jewish left perspectives on both settler colonialism and BDS, was not once consulted at any point in this conversation. No one represents the NWSA Jewish Caucus in this ad hoc group. This omission of the NWSA’s own caucus bespeaks a fear of Jewish opinion. While the Caucus has been struggling to survive within NWSA since the 1980s, many members recently resigned due to NWSA’s pro-BDS stance, causing further erosion.