‘Zioness’ fights for women’s place in progressive movements

‘Zioness’ fights for women’s place in progressive movements

Declares: ‘We are Zionists who believe in social justice for all’

Chapter award winners were honored at the annual Myrtle Wreath Luncheon of Hadassah Southern New Jersey. Photo by Debra Rubin
Chapter award winners were honored at the annual Myrtle Wreath Luncheon of Hadassah Southern New Jersey. Photo by Debra Rubin

Some Jewish women are so turned off by progressive leaders that they don’t participate in the movement’s protests, such as women’s marches, against President Donald Trump and his perceived anti-woman attitudes.   

The intermingling of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel views held by some of the women’s movement leaders — such as Linda Sarsour, a strong advocate of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign — has created what some believe is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. Such perceptions make it difficult for Jews to join the cause, even though they may agree with its feminist and progressive agenda.

Amanda Berman is among those who will not allow those conflicting ideas to stop her from having a voice.

A committed Zionist and avowed progressive, she wanted to continue supporting efforts on behalf of liberal social causes, including women’s equality, reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, and the advancement of people of color.

Berman was the honoree at Hadassah Southern Jersey’s annual Myrtle Wreath Awards Luncheon. Held Nov. 4 at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe, the regional event drew 355 people.

During the program, 29 women — chosen by their respective Hadassah chapters — received the region’s Wonder Women: The Power of Women Who DO awards.

“We know [anti-Semitism] exists on the right,” said Berman, “but some of us don’t know it exists on the left.” Knowing of its presence among progressive leaders, she said, imposes “an obligation to root it out.”

With that knowledge, Berman, instead of turning her back on the social justice and liberal movements she passionately believes in, last year cofounded and assumed the presidency of the Zioness Movement, whose manifesto is, “We are Zionists who believe in social justice for all people.”

“As Zionist Jews we have been at the forefront of social change and civil rights,” as well as health care and other progressive issues, she said.

In her remarks, region president Michelle Krasner of Marlboro said Berman established the movement “to activate and empower Zionists to stand proudly for justice and for Israel, just as Hadassah continues to empower our members and encourage discussion about Israel and Zionism.”

During her presentation, Berman explored the troubling phenomenon of women Zionism supporters who, when confronted with “Israel bashing” (that organizers claim is not anti-Semitic), are cowed into not standing up for Zionism as a core Jewish value.

“As Zionist Jews who have been at the forefront of these [liberal social] causes, we have allowed the conversation on Israel to divide us,” said Berman.

Berman is director of legal affairs for the Lawfare Project, a New York-based nonprofit that takes on cases supporting Jewish rights throughout the world.

She recalled watching in dismay as the Black Lives Matter movement adopted a platform endorsing the BDS campaign, which targets Israel but is believed by many Jews to be anti-Semitic.

Noting that Jews had been in the vanguard of — and had even died fighting for — the Civil Rights movement, she said, it was painful to realize “we were no longer welcome” among those supporting issues important to people of color.

She watched the first Women’s March on television in early 2017, feeling she could not participate because one of its organizers, Rasmea Yousef Odeh — “a hero” of the international women’s movement who helped stage “A Day Without Women” protests all over the world that same day — is a Palestinian who was convicted in Israel in 1970 for her part in two terrorist bombings, one of which killed two students. She served 10 years in prison.

Odeh’s past crimes drew little to no attention, said Berman.

But the incident that proved the watershed moment for Berman and led to the formation of the Zioness Movement occurred in June 2017 when three LGBTQ rights activists were ejected from Dyke March Chicago for displaying a star of David on a rainbow flag. Organizers deemed the Jewish star a “Zionist symbol,” equating it with Israel’s so-called “oppression” of the Palestinians.

“People not active in the Jewish world had no idea all this was happening,” Berman said. “Honestly, people thought I was talking about conspiracy theories. Friends and family thought I was crazy.”

However, the disparagement of the star of David, as a symbol of Israel and Judaism, woke some people up. Two months later, when organizers of SlutWalk Chicago — which supports the rights of female sexual assault victims — also banned stars of David as a symbol of “evil” Zionism, Berman took action. She printed up posters showing a woman wearing a large star of David necklace and set up a Facebook page urging supporters to join her new Zioness Movement and learn the progressive bona fides of the Zionist movement.

Her group of 20 was criticized by speakers at the event who were unhappy at their presence; the group was even subjected to physical threats. But others rallied to their support and were genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say.

“People said, ‘Can we have one of your extra posters?’ and we made friends, people who would not have supported Zionism had they not heard what we had to say,” said Berman. “We realized then that people want to engage in these spaces.”

Since then, the organization has grown and engaged people of many ethnicities and religions who are open to learning the history of the Zionist movement.

There are now 16 Zioness chapters throughout the country, including one in Morristown. At the 2018 Women’s Marches, “thousands of people” proudly carried Zioness posters and found others welcoming and engaging about what they represented.

“We have shown up and shown we can have an effect,” said Berman. “We have shown that being a progressive is totally compatible with Zionism. Why should we cede that space?”

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