BDS and NWSA: A Re-Awakening for Jewish Feminists

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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” ( 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.
Yet, were it not for the Jewish Caucus panel in 2015, “BDS: Two Jews, Three Opinions,” the divergent Jewish views over BDS would not have been presented at all publicly. Two Jewish speakers were pro-BDS, committed to social and economic justice for Palestinians. Two Jewish speakers were critical of BDS, committed to ending the Occupation in other non-violent ways that take the positions of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs into account. But this round table was not an “official” function of NWSA. It was one among hundreds of sessions at a four-day conference that once again drew approximately 2,500 attendees. Only a tiny percentage of the large number of feminists at the 2015 NWSA conference attended the Jewish Caucus round table (approximately 25) to hear the pros and cons of BDS aired side by side. And the “official” pro BDS plenary held in 2015 (mentioned above) included no Jewish speakers at all.
The “stacking” of the plenaries with only pro BDS speakers, the minimal opportunity taken to educate its membership of the pros and cons of BDS, the ignoring of its own Jewish caucus, and the few panels accepted over the years on Jewish feminist topics or on the intersections of anti-Semitism, race, gender, sex, and class lead us to believe that NWSA still suffers from the anti-Semitism that led, in the first place, to the formation of the Jewish caucus in the 1980s.
The lessons of the 1980s about the intersections of anti-Semitism, sex, gender, race, and class oppression have been internalized only selectively by NWSA. If they had been fully integrated, many of us would not be raising the same question Letty Cottin Pogrebin posited in June 1982 in her pioneering article “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement” (Ms. Magazine): “Must we identify as Jews in feminism with as much discomfort as we identify as feminists within Judaism?” And many of us would not still feel, as she wrote, the need to defend the very existence of Israel: “In the world I want, nation states would not exist, but in the world I live in, I want an Israel.”
Of course, today’s question is more pointedly, What kind of Israel do we want? While there’s no unanimity among members of the NWSA Jewish Caucus about a one or two-state solution, there is unanimity about core values. These values represent an amalgam of positions taken by such groups as J Street, Third Narrative, and Americans for Peace Now; leading columnists for Tikkun and Ha’aretz, including Ari Shavit and Gideon Levy; and even by some pro-BDS activists.

  • We acknowledge the current opposition within Israel to a two-state solution. Thus, we recognize the problem of the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and public support for an Israeli system that denies Palestinians basic survival needs and any shred of dignity that citizens of any state deserve.
  • For the violence and suffering on both sides to end, we support the complete end of Israeli occupation of lands conquered since 1967.
  • As feminists, we recognize that under Israeli Occupation in Occupied Territory, domestic and gender-based abuse increases, including child marriages and honor killings (Dr. Alice Rothchild, director/producer Voices Across the Divide, documentary 2013).
  • We recognize the legitimate claims of Palestinians and Israelis to the same land and the need for both sides to come to mutually agreeable compromises to divide that land. We support an Israel where Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs live together without segregation, with equal political rights. We support equal access for all Israeli citizens, regardless of nationality or religion, to education, housing, economic opportunity, social services, and mutual respect.
  • We support mutual agreement between Palestinians and Israelis about ways to return and make reparation for lands from which Palestinians have been displaced. To accomplish these goals, we advocate truth and reconciliation programs to build trust among Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Arabs, and all other minority groups living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

In the Jewish Caucus, we do not agree about wholesale endorsement of BDS, including academic boycotts that set complicated restrictions upon Israeli-U.S. faculty communication. Many of us believe this only serves to further marginalize dissenting opinions within Israel itself. Many of us hold at least some BDS activists responsible for inflaming anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes in the U.S., and for increasing backlash by the Israeli government against freedom of expression (Chemi Shalev “The Great Betrayal” Ha’aretz, January 22, 2016). On the other hand, many of us recognize the effectiveness of economic boycott strategies such as the European Union’s requirement that goods produced in the West Bank are labeled. The more that companies operating in illegally-occupied lands feel the economic pinch of such a boycott, the more the anti-Occupation message is transmitted.
As Jews and as feminists, as we work to end the Occupation, we work to end racism and sexism. We believe a multidisciplinary field such as Women’s Studies must garner a diversity of well-informed perspectives, especially the diversity of Jewish voices that are intimately involved in this struggle, before calling for a vote on such a controversial issue; otherwise the professional association simply becomes a venue for the political fad of the moment.

Dr. Sharon Leder is President of Feminists Against Academic Discrimination and Member NWSA Jewish Caucus.

C.Fred Alford, Professor of Government and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, University of Maryland, College Park
Dr. Diane Balser, Instructor Women, Gender, Sexuality Program Boston University, past Director Brit Tzedek V’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), Member NWSA Jewish Caucus
Dr. Miriam Quen Cheikin, Professor Emeritus, English, Nassau Community College
Dr. Ellen DuBois, Distinguished Professor of History and Gender Studies, University of California Los Angeles
Judith Ezekiel, Professor in Residence, Wright State University, Maitre de conference, Universite de Toulouse-Jean Jaures
Rabbi Dr. Elizabeth Goldstein, Assistant Professor, Religious Studies, Gonzaga University
Lesley Gordon, Deputy Superintendent, New York City Board of Education, Retired
Dr. Phillipa Kafka, Professor Emerita English Literature, Formerly Director Women’s Studies, Kean University, New Jersey, Member NWSA Jewish Caucus
Debra R. Kaufman, Professor Emerita and Matthews Distinguished University Professor, Northeastern University
Michael Kaufman, Retired Professor, Tufts University and Founder of Humanities at Work
Dr. Gail F. Melson, Professor Emerita, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Purdue University
Dr. Robert Melson, Professor Emeritus, Political Science, Purdue University
Barbara Moore, Ph.D., Director Counseling, Health and Wellness, Queens College, C.U.N.Y.
Laurie Price, Poet and Artist, Oaxaca, Mexico
Dr. Lois Rubin, Associate Professor Emerita, Penn State University, Member NWSA Jewish Caucus
Dr. Eugene Saklad, Member Nauset Interfaith Association and Justice Committee of The Federated Church of Orleans representing Am HaYam Cape Cod Havurah, Member Participating Members Council of National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Mari Seder, Professor Emeritus, Early Childhood Education, Quinsigamond Community College, Worcester, MA
Ruth Shapiro, Former President Am HaYam Cape Cod Havurah, Member Justice Committee The Federated Church of Orleans representing Am HaYam Cape Cod Havurah
Ruth Silverman, Professor Jewish Studies and Women’s Studies, Nassau Community College
Dr. Milton Teichman, Professor Emeritus, English and Jewish Studies, Marist College
Renate Wasserman, Member Justice Committee of The Federated Church of Orleans representing Am HaYam Cape Cod Havurah, Volunteer International Rescue Committee
Dr. Batya Weinbaum, SUNY Empire State College, Center for Distance Learning and American Public University System, Editor Femspec, Resigned from NWSA