It hasn’t been a good week for Jewish feminists.
Yesterday, Israel squashed its plan to equalize the architecture for egalitarian prayer at the revered Western Wall in Jerusalem. And on Saturday, hostility toward Jews by leftist feminists crystallized when Jewish lesbians sporting flags containing both rainbows and stars of David were booted from the Dyke March in Chicago for supposedly making Palestinian marchers “feel unsafe.”
These developments are not unrelated. They are symptoms of a Jewish feminism that has somehow found itself both increasingly strident and increasingly feckless. Historically, Judaism has been a pioneer in protecting and respecting women; and in the 20th century American Jewish women paved the way for a society in which women could feel good about themselves, join the workforce, and engineer their own futures without restrictions by men.
But that’s not today’s Jewish feminism, with its far-left politics and hostility toward Judaism itself – at least as historically defined and currently lived by its most faithful practitioners.
In the case of the Kotel, feminists of mostly North American origin, including many who aren’t Israeli at all, have used the Israeli political system – the courts, the Jewish Agency, the prime minister’s office – to try to force changes to the architecture of the Kotel (Hebrew for Western Wall) to make it appear that the site (and thus Judaism) is indifferent whether prayer is traditional or egalitarian. But it’s not indifferent. Liberal Jews have pioneered several innovations in Jewish liturgy and synagogue practice – and good for them – but they shouldn’t impose their heterodox practices on a site whose prayer system has always been traditional, and whose regular worshippers cannot be expected to adjust.
Liberal Jews are thus demanding the Kotel they rarely pray at look like the temples and synagogues at home they rarely pray at. They want to push their values on the Orthodox Jews who are there day in, day out. Sure, they claim the mantle of religious freedom. But in this conflict (though not every conflict) the civil rights side is that of the Orthodox.
Let’s face it: the Kotel demands are about Jewish identity politics (“we’re just as Jewish as the Orthodox”), and that’s not a good enough reason to change religious policy. One way you know the issue isn’t really egalitarian prayer is that the feminists never talk about, well, egalitarian prayer. Think about it: real egalitarian prayer concerns non-sexist liturgy as well as equitable images of femininity and masculinity in the Divine and the Jewish self. You never hear about any of that from Kotel activists, though. It’s all protests and resistance and compromise and mutual antagonism with haredim (one of Israel’s Orthodox groups).
Mainstream feminism’s increasing rejection of Zionist and even Jewish identity is alarming and ominous – and telling. Advocacy for Palestinians has become increasingly central to the mission of American feminism, so much so that Linda Sarsour, perhaps the most prominent Palestinian in America, feminist or otherwise, declared earlier this year that one cannot be both a feminist and a Zionist.
The gap is spreading. Feminist pioneer Phyllis Chesler has movingly described her alienation from other feminists over her belief that Israel has a right to exist. And the increasing anti-Zionism among feminists frequently spills over into anti-Semitism, as happened at Saturday’s Dyke March – where the women booted had said nothing about Israel whatsoever.
While Jewish feminists caught between their ideology and their movement deserve sympathy, they also deserve some of the blame. Since American Jewish women (largely) founded second-wave feminism in the early 1960s, the movement has adopted other causes not strictly about women’s equality. In some cases – most prominently civil rights for blacks – the causes were natural allies. But increasingly becoming a feminist meant signing up for a whole host of dubious left-wing causes.
For example, in just the last few months the Jewish feminist herald Lilith Magazine has published articles about how immigration, “climate change,” and labor activism are feminist issues. Historically aware Jewish feminists know that extremist movements tend to turn against the Jews eventually. As such, they erred in allowing feminism to stray so far from advocacy for women – because now that leftism increasingly denounces Israel, they’re being forced to literally watch the parade from the sidelines.
It’s possible to advocate for Jewish women – and women in general – without antagonizing traditional Jews, and without pleading for acceptance from a movement so far off the rails it attacks the only Middle Eastern country where feminism is being actualized. Jewish feminists should declare bankruptcy and reboot, getting back to the business of equal rights.