"Whenever you look at social justice struggles, there's Jews and there's feminists and a lot of [ the people involved ] are both. A lot of those Jewish feminists are lesbians," said Melanie Kaye/ Kantrowitz, a lesbian, Jew and feminist who was in Chicago May 4-6 for the Jewish Unity for a Just Peace ( JUNITY ) gathering.
JUNITY was an international gathering of Jews united to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. For three night and two days, more than 180 Jews gathered to discuss strategies for supporting Israeli peace activists and working beyond Israel to bring a just peace to the Middle East. The gathering provided a reference point for a movement that slowly has helped change the perceptions of both U.S. and Israeli society over the last few decades. As attendees and speakers at the JUNITY conference showed, Jewish lesbians continue to lead the way for a peace in the Middle East.
Lesbian feminists Melanie Kaye/ Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz were among the many speakers who shared their experiences with working for peace in the Middle East and commented on the role that feminism has played in uncovering the complexity of the situation in Israel. Klepfisz organized the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation ( JWCEO ) in 1988, which worked in solidarity with the Israeli women's peace movement. She served as New Jewish Agenda's Executive Director from 1990 to 1992 and helped organize Jewish opposition to the Gulf War. Together with Kaye/ Kantrowitz, she edited The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology. Kaye/Kantrowitz works with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York City, currently organizing a June teach-in focused on challenging anti-Arab racism. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she was active against the occupation, working through New Jewish Agenda as co-chair of their National Task Force on Anti-Semitism and Racism and as a member of Jews Against the Gulf War.
While other speakers for the conference and its Saturday night dinner included Rabbi David Seidenberg, Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Ali Abunimah of the Arab American Action Network, the leadership of lesbians and other women both in Israel and the United States was omnipresent. "Women need to be at the front of any movement for a just peace," said Klepfisz. "What's going on in Israel is that women are at the forefront of the peace process."
Rela Mazali, one of the featured speakers at Saturday morning's opening plenary on Israeli activism, is one such woman. Mazali leads a feminist organization called New Profile that is working to end the militarization of Israeli society. She painted a picture of how the oppression of women in Israel is linked to the dehumanization of Palestinians. As Mazali demonstrated through her slide show presentation, the maintenance of a "hostile Arab threat" and the oppression of Israeli women are directly connected to fulfilling the Israeli colonial project. Therefore, the privilege, power and prominence of the military in Israel and its occupation of Palestinian lands are defended as the protection of "helpless" Jewish women from "violent terrorists." "The effects of militarization on women certainly make us more conscious than men of what men do," said Klepfisz. Kaye/Kantrowitz agreed. "There's a lot of concern among Jewish feminists about militarism, about the places where women are and how the oppression of women identifies [ women ] with other oppressed people." In Israel, more than one quarter of the country's budget is allocated to the military—more than half of that money is used to pay top-level salaries. The military is closely intertwined with other governmental departments, including the Ministries of Education and Health. Military service is mandatory for every citizen not engaged in a religious instructional program. It is illegal for men to claim conscientious objector status; women suffer extreme harassment when they claim that their conscience prevents them from serving in the military.
Mezali asserts that women who do serve in the military are subjected to constant harassment designed to make them submissive to men. Women are also kept out of powerful government, military and other positions, she said. Since the beginning of the current intifada in October, resistance by men and women to Israel's policy of militarism has increased. Mazali said one-third of the Israeli military is currently AWOL. Marcia Freedman, a lesbian and former member of the Israeli Knesset, spoke at the Saturday night dinner for Jews and their allies and has also been a feminist leader in Israel's peace movement. Freedman was instrumental in introducing and passing Israel's first domestic-violence legislation as well as legislation creating abortion rights and rights for gays and lesbians. She pointed out that the preponderance of Israelis engaged in civil disobedience to protest Israel's tactics are women, many of them lesbians; she also stressed that the participation of both Israeli and Palestinian women is vital to the success of any peace process.
"Jewish feminists have been very, very active on this cause both within the feminist movements and also in the public sphere," said Klepfisz. She echoes Freedman's assessment that Israeli women's groups pushed for issues that many male-dominated organizations and parties originally dismissed but later saw as significant. One issue includes the establishment and recognition of a separate Palestinian state, an issue Klepfisz and Kaye/ Kantrowitz spear-headed in the U.S. as part of a Jewish women's group in the 1980s. Jewish lesbians have struggled to influence male-dominated institutions with perspectives that are necessary to create a just peace, such as their critique of the militarized Israeli state.
"We have to keep fighting for it; the fight does not end," said Kaye/Kantrowitz. "Working across any kind of difference where there is a power imbalance means vigilance. We have to be prepared [ for people ] to push and stand up and push back at certain moments."
Jewish women from all over Chicago will be maintaining that vigilence when they gather in front of the Israeli Consulate, 111 E. Wacker Dr., noon, Friday, June 8. The vigil is an international solidarity event in conjunction with Israel's Coalition of Women for a Just Peace and Women in Black. Women and their male colleagues are asked to wear black as a sign of solidarity. Call ( 312 ) 409-4845.