BDS, anti-semitism and misogyny: A response to Naomi Gaertz



By Ronit Lentin, Academics for Palestine

In the wake of the National Women’s Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israel, several members who support Zionism and oppose BDS have called on the NSWA to retract and oppose BDS. Relying on a 1982 article by Letty Pogrebin in Ms Magazine on antisemitism in the women’s movement and a 2010 blog by Phyllis Chesler on the links between antisemitism and misogyny, Biblical scholar Naomi Graetz of Ben Gurion University, writing on the WMST listserv, compared the BDS movement on the left and the anti-woman movement on the right, arguing that, as ‘the one is anti-Semitic in the guise of being anti-Israel and the other is simply misogynist’, the link between the two ‘would turn the clock back on women’s gains’. Graetz writes that BDS stifles free speech on campus and is ‘reminiscent of the Stalinist era’ and should thus have ‘no place in western academia’. Simplistic comparisons with Stalinism aside, Graetz equates misogyny and antisemitism as signalling ‘the male fear of losing power’. At the same time she totally disregards the fact that the academic freedom she upholds is accorded exclusively to Jewish Israeli academics while Palestinian academics and students, including feminist ones, are deprived of such freedom as West Bank universities are regularly closed by the Israeli military authorities and their freedom of movement to and from classes is curtailed due to the checkpoint and separation wall regime, while academics and students in Gaza, like other Gazans, are subject to Israel’s ongoing siege and are hardly enjoying any academic freedom.

My argument is that proposing that boycotting Israel – a racial settler colony enjoying international impunity despite its ongoing criminal behaviour towards occupied and besieged Palestinian subjects as well as its own Palestinian citizens, complete with a whole array of state crimes from house demolitions, extra judicial executions, administrative detentions to the detention and torture of children – is antisemitic is absurd; moreover, arguing that BDS as antisemitism parallels misogyny is a gross exaggeration. Graetz’s simplistic argument ignores Judaism’s own inherent misogyny, as argued by many Jewish feminist theologians. It also wrongly equates ‘male power’ with a criticism of Israel’s war crimes rather than with those very war crimes, even though Israel is patently both misogynist and criminal as evidenced by its racist treatment of its Palestinian subjects and citizens alike.

In the introduction to their edited conversation on ‘The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and justice in/for Palestine’ as part of the International Feminist Journal of Politics’ special issue on ‘Transnational Feminist Solidarity in Times of Crisis’ (IFJP, 2015), Simona Sharoni and Rabab Abdulhadi note the reluctance by many feminists in the Global North to understand ‘why Palestinian women insist on linking their struggles for gender equality to national liberation’. This reluctance has put Palestinian women on the receiving end of misguided initiatives that negate their agency and needs. Such initiatives obscure the root causes of the crisis in Palestine, namely Zionist settler colonialism and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the violation of Palestinian rights and the Apartheid-like racial regime governing the Palestinian people. Since the early 1970s, feminist conferences and gatherings have been debating these points and addressing gender specific issues such as the treatment Palestinian women prisoners, maternal and child mortality caused by the checkpoint and Apartheid wall regime, and the infringement of the rights of Palestinian women whose homes are regularly invaded by the occupying Israeli military, as discussed by several feminist Palestinian scholars including Rabab Abdulhadi, Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian, Honaida Ghanim, to mention but a few).

Even though transnational feminist responses have had limited success in reversing Israeli gendered governmentalities, Sharoni and Abdulhadi suggest that one of the promising signs of an emerging transnational feminist solidarity with Palestine is the international feminist response to Palestinian civil society’s BDS call culminating in the 2014 endorsement of BDS by the National Women’s Studies Association following the latest Israeli assault of Gaza that left over 2,000 civilians casualties, of whom 253 women and some 500 children, all unarmed.

I argue that Israel’s war on the Palestinians makes Palestinian women racialized ‘femina sacras’ – the female version of the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s ‘homo sacer’, or ‘bare life’ – she who can be killed with impunity while also being excluded from the legal remit of the nation and the sanctity of Jewish femininity, seen as the venerated carrier of the (Jewish-Israeli) nation’s future generations. Zionist discourse positions Palestinian women – gendered subjects whose domestic privacy is routinely infringed by Israeli military raids, whose children are regularly arrested and tortured, and whose sexuality is abused,and not only while in detention – as the symbol of the enemy nation, ‘snakes’ who have to be killed together with their children, according to the (female) Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. At the same time, Israeli misogyny targets Jewish women as well in a society where sexual harassment and rape culture are ripe in military and civil life.

Israel’s ongoing war against the Palestinians includes the imprisonment of many women activists ever since the first Intifada, the sexual torture of women political prisoners (see Women’s Organisation for Political Prisoners) and the use of rape as a weapon of war. While Palestinian women are routinely victimised in gender specific ways, Israeli feminists writing about Palestinian women often focus on Palestinian patriarchy as the main source of their oppression, giving little attention to Palestinian women’s resilience and resistance. By contrast, Palestinian feminist scholars have documented the everyday resistance strategies employed by Palestinian women, from participating in weekly protests against the Apartheid wall to going to sleep in their clothes in preparation for IDF night raids.

Jewish and Israeli supporters of BDS are often dubbed ‘self-hating Jews’, the corollary of non-Jewish BDS supporters, who are dismissed by Zionist apologists as antisemitic. I am a Jewish Israeli (and Irish) citizen and would certainly not define myself as self-hating. Indeed, I have been an anti-Zionist ever since the 1967 war and am equally committed to opposing all forms of racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia. Moreover, I am entirely comfortable working with Academics for Palestine and with the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, both groups explicitly opposed to any display of antisemitism. However, I do not act in solidarity with Palestine and support BDS merely ‘as a Jew’, and refuse to homogenise all Jewish people as foregone supporters of Zionism’s worst crimes. Rather, I support BDS at the request of Palestinian civil society inter alia as a feminist whose solidarity with the oppressed and opposition to my own people’s crimes are part and parcel of my commitment to justice. I contend that the focus by many Zionist feminists on Palestinian patriarchy rather than on Israeli settler colonialism and on the occupation amounts to feminist misogyny that jettisons feminist solidarity in favour of narrow nationalism.