Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives: Excerpts

Jan. 6, 2015

By Nelly Las

Editor's note: The HBI hosted Dr. Nelly Las, Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence and author of the upcoming "Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives."

My approach is to observe what happens when today's feminist activism and Jewish dilemmas meet and intersect against a comparative background of France and the United States. The feminist debate is thus placed in a setting which does not address women's "voices" only but also more generally historical and contemporary aspects in Jewish identity and dilemmas.

Why look for correlations between two topics that seem so far apart? Why deviate from the focal area of feminism and pose questions about it on the slippery and complex terrain of Jewish identity? This initiative is based on both theoretical work and hands-on experiences, in the context of feminist thought as well as the Jewish search for identity. Our starting point is the principle laid down by feminists themselves: that the issue of women must be considered as it intersects with all issues in the society in which they live and develop.

All research has its autobiographical roots, and the choice of this particular subject is definitely a reflection of various topics of interest to me, including Jewish history and current affairs, plus the universal topic of women, with the stress on France with which I have linguistic and intellectual ties. To this mixture I must add the American and Israeli sources and situations which have fed my Jewish and feminist experiences, enabling me to juxtapose different intellectual traditions. It goes without saying that "the Jews" are not a marginal topic, one studied only out of personal interest.

Just as women's issues do not concern women alone, so Jewish issues do not concern Jews alone. The Jews have played a key role in our civilization. They have in turn been idealized, denigrated, tolerated, or condemned, all the way to the abhorrent Nazi plan to exterminate them, a plan which passes all understanding. Today, they are still very much at the heart of current affairs, at the center of philosophical, political, and media discussions, especially in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict in which, like it or not, they are caught up.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a period which was particularly harrowing for the Jews, many Jewish women were involved in general feminist movements that called for women’s rights to vote and work, as well as for world peace. At the same time, organized action to help the oppressed Jews was undertaken almost exclusively by Jewish men and women. The Jewish women involved in these struggles had to fight for their co-religionists without any outside help.

Unlike the 19th-century anti-slavery movement, which many white women supported, female activists showed no empathy over anti-Semitism. At times, as we will see, they even joined the anti-Semitic camp. In France, during the Dreyfus affair there were both pro- and anti-Dreyfus feminists. Similarly, between the two world wars and then under the German occupation, no clear feminist line was adopted in favor of the Jewish victims of anti-Semitism. The phase of feminism on which we will focus here is the contemporary period, known as the "second wave," which began at the end of the 1960s, some 20 years after the Nazi genocide and almost the same number of years after the establishment of the State of Israel.

This period coincides with the beginnings of increased awareness and speaking out about the Nazi period, as well as support by the left for Third World struggles, especially that of the Palestinians. A number of Jewish women who had thrown themselves enthusiastically into the feminist movement were bitterly disappointed by the indifference, lack of empathy, and sometimes hostility of their non-Jewish comrades about their fears and dilemmas. Others, including Israeli women, supported the vehement criticism of the Jewish state's policies. Since this time, the feminist debate has included the question of Israel, the origins of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The contemporary Jewish "voices" cited in this work highlight diverse — and even contradictory — elements that make up Jewish identity, defined as a religion, a diasporic or national culture, or a historical memory bound up with anti-Semitism and the State of Israel. One of the questions that arise when feminism is chosen as a tool for analyzing multiple-component dilemmas in Jewish identity is, inter alia, to what extent is such an approach likely to enrich reflection by giving it new perspectives?

The other question concerns the positions of feminists as a whole, in respect of issues of current relevance: is it possible to identify a particular tendency which is more in keeping with feminism than another? This refers in particular to debates of ideas about current events in the domains of politics and society with regard to the Jewish world: religion, history, memory, anti-Semitism, and Zionism. It goes without saying that we must take account of pluralism and diversity in both feminism and Jewishness: expressions of identity, as well as political, intellectual and ethical engagements. Hence the range of responses will be extremely wide and varied.

"Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives" by Nelly Las is published by the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Las received a translation award from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to translate the book from French to English.

Dr. Las researches contemporary Jewish history including Zionism, anti-Semitism, history of French Jewry, Jewish NGOs, and gender studies including women in Jewish history, Jewish women in feminist movements and analysis of contemporary Jewry through the prism of gender.