At the Women’s March in Sacramento last month, an estimated 36,000 women turned out, many donning pink knitted hats with pussycat ears. Among the marchers was Susan George, who joined a busload of women just like her: They all live in Vallejo and all “believe in the representation of all women fighting for education, health care and other issues.”
And they all consider themselves ardent Zionists.
George fell in with the Vallejo contingent on behalf of Zioness, a 6-month-old national organization.
Carrying signs with Stars of David and slogans such as “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” and “Zioness for Women’s Rights” was “heartening,” George said. Although she is not Jewish, George said it was important for her to support her “Jewish brothers and sisters who have been excluded,” and “to show up and represent communities that are marginalized.”
Zioness was co-founded last summer by Amanda Berman, a self-declared progressive Zionist who was getting tired of seeing more and more anti-Semitism in progressive spaces. To wit, she decided not to participate in last year’s Women’s March, which drew 3.3 to 5.2 million people to 650 marches across the United States, according to an analysis in the Washington Post.
“I didn’t go because I knew the leadership, or those who organized it, didn’t want me there,” Berman explained.
Berman was alluding to several incidents of progressive Jews being excluded or expelled from women’s events — most notably a June 2017 incident in which three queer 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.”
Berman called what happened in Chicago a “watershed” moment for the Jewish community. The argument that anti-Zionism doesn’t equal anti-Semitism — a defense often used by those who criticize the Jewish state — was shattered.
Berman’s response was to encourage people to participate in SlutWalk Chicago in August 2017. Despite opposition to their presence by march organizers, some 12 to 20 Zionist feminists participated, and the Zioness group was born.
Since then, the organization’s mailing list has grown to 6,000, organizers say, and its slogans include “Unabashedly Progressive, Unquestionably Zionist.” Its manifesto begins, “We are Zionists who believe in social justice for all people. We come in all genders, colors, sizes and creeds.”
Locally, a Bay Area Zioness Facebook group urges followers to “Connect with Zionesses in and around the Bay Area to mobilize and organize. We are proud Zionists who work to enact progressive policies and support social justice movements.”
“We won’t be told you can’t fight because you support Israel,” said Berman, a civil rights attorney and director of legal affairs at the Lawfare Project, a nonprofit litigation fund based in New York. “Our goal is to activate and empower Jews and Zionists. Progressives have always been at the forefront of social justice. It is an exploitation of the real issues to talk about a foreign conflict.
“I want to fight for issues without checking my Zionism at the door.”
Another Zioness organizer is Ann Lewis, the White House communications director for President Bill Clinton and a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. She is a Zioness board member who helped organize a Zioness contingent at last month’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
“Zioness is inspiring and empowering our country’s next generation of progressive leaders to wear their Zionist identities proudly, as they fight for human rights and women’s rights, health care, education, compassionate immigration reform, equal pay, and equal dignity,” Lewis said in a statement. “These are the values — like Zionism, the right of the Jewish people to self-determination — which inspire our commitment to action, at the Women’s March and every day.”
George, the Vallejo organizer who’s a very active Democrat, said she is no stranger to anti-Israel rhetoric. At one meeting of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus, of which she is a delegate, a bill to divest from companies that do business with Israel was addressed — and the issue became quite polarizing, she said.
At that point, she decided to organize what she is calling “Building a Constructive Peace Through Engagement as Opposed to the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.” It’s not quite a snappy name, but George said it gets her point across.
“This is not about First Amendment rights,” she said. “BDS is one-sided, blaming Israel for everything. I was shocked. Friends and other delegates did not feel safe in that space, one where Israel is all wrong and bad and Palestinians are in need of support, period.”
Meanwhile, Berman said the modern definition of “progressive” has come to be defined by “intersectionality,” meaning that to be progressive you have to agree on every issue and side with the underdog.
She takes issue with people like Linda Sarsour, a 2017 Women’s March co-organizer who has pushed the theory that Zionists cannot be feminists. A Brooklyn-born Palestinian American, Sarsour has tweeted “The Zionist trolls are out to play. Bring it. You will never silence me” and “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.”
In a piece last fall in the Forward, Berman wrote, “At the March for Racial Justice in New York, organized expressly to include Jews in the movement after the original march was scheduled on [Yom Kippur], speaker Linda Sarsour said that we made her ‘feel unsafe’ and implied that we had no right to participate — simply because we are open and public about our Jewish and Zionist identities.”
Berman has had it with such limiting definitions of progressivism.
“For me, it’s caring about racial, economic and social-justice issues,” she said. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone who feels the same. I will not ask anyone to commit to a set of beliefs too broad to mean anything and that oftentimes is bigoted. To be exclusionary is at odds with progressive values.”