From the Archives: "The making of a Jewish feminist activist!"

By Eva Cox
[Originally published in the AJDS newsletter, 30th January 2003, available in our archives, here.]
I am writing this piece in a time of huge turmoil for Jews in the Diaspora as well as for the Israelis and Palestinians. The question for many of is whether we will judge Israel by the same criteria as we might judge others on the ways the campaigns in Palestine are being fought. I am conscious, as maybe most Jews are, that there have been tensions for many of us about the actions of the nation of Israel and the ways we would like it to act.
I write this as a feminist, aware that within Jewish cultures women have not always had their voices heard. I hear too few Jewish women in Israel or the Diaspora speaking out maybe because war is too often still seen as men’s games. We are told that women are influential in Judaism, and that our presumed dominance in the home gives us more power. However, in terms of finding any solutions to the stand off that has been the dirty history in the Middle East for some time, there have been few women seen publicly in positions of power. We see grieving mothers, some women from the peace movements but few women in power positions maybe because a culture of killing and force sits in masculine stereotypes.eva-cox
I’m not sure that more women would offer more gentle solutions but maybe they could broaden the debate and options from the current versions of ‘my grievance is bigger than your grievance’. Maybe the stereotype of the Jewish mother is affecting my political judgment but I want someone to say ” I don’t care who started it, both of you stop fighting and do it now!”
Would more women make a difference? I do not know because I do not believe that, as potential mothers, we are biologically more caring, gentler or less likely to manifest aggression. However, women have often been socialized into less aggressive ways of solving disputes, which could be why we have more often been leaders of peace movements that armies. Why are there so few women in leadership positions in Israel, despite their long term involvement in politics and even the army?
I read the emails which give a wider coverage than the daily media, and listen to the radio as both sides seek to justify their stance. Both sides have valid complaints against the other but the question is whether the legitimacy of the opposing claims justify the violence being used on both sides. I acknowledge the real fear of Israeli civilians and their anger about their vulnerability, as civilians, to suicide bombers. I do not accept, or in any way approve of, the deliberate targeting of civilians as targets.
However, I also acknowledge the legitimacy of Palestinian anger against occupation and the encroaching settlements and how their anger is fuelled by Israeli army actions and the injuries and deaths of civilians. Both types of actions end up with the deaths of non-combatants, both create residual hate and both fuel resentment which make any negotiations harder.
It’s the intransigence on both sides, which seems to be partly tied up with the masculine values of pride and saving face. Sharon is the ultimate militarist, steeped in traditions of toughness as indicator of righteousness. Arafat is in a more ambiguous position, probably caught between his own hard men and a somewhat duplicitous confusion of statements. Both sides have their elements of extremists, religious and ideological, that do not want peace. Neither side should allow these to have the influence they have. We need new negotiators who have both the courage to reject and control their own warmongers and the capacity to understand that sitting righteously on competing grievances cannot solve the problems.
If both sides have what they see as legitimate claims over the same land, there needs to be some real compromises. There needs to be a recognition of that both have been wrong and wronged and that competing for the high moral ground is not going to work. Maybe if the negotiators have had more maternal experience in breaking up sibling fights they would recognise the need for different processes to move on.
I am appalled by the levels of anti Palestinian prejudice (racism?) and their demonising in both Israeli propaganda and often comments by local Jews. Whatever our desire to support the continuation of the state of Israel, we need to recognise that it was at the expense of the then inhabitants. The claims that this was given by God is not acceptable as anyone can make similar claims on the basis of their different beliefs and who is to adjudicate on their legitimacy.
We have accepted reparations for losses under Nazis but somehow deny the Palestinians’ case. They should not have to pay for the sins of anti-Semites in Europe. I recognise that many originally denied the right of Israel to exist but, now, most of the moderate states would not support this stance. There is a good basis for new agreements but not if Israel continues to create aggrieved and angry potential bombers by gross military interventions.
Why am I writing something like this? I want to see more debate within the Australian Jewish community, as there is in Israel, about the way forward. Loyalty should never be blindly given but should be able to be critical to ensure that the country we want to support deserves not just our but the support of others. The present aggression by Israel, whatever its basis, is making enemies and losing the vestiges of high support that it gained because of collective guilt at inaction on the holocaust. Israel was necessary because it offered us somewhere safe to go, but we need to pay the rent and recognise its survival depends on its reputation and the goodwill of others, not the power of its army.
I am a feminist, secular, humanist Jew. I come fully equipped with a desire to make the world a better place because of what happened to me and my family in Europe in the thirties. I was born in Vienna in February 1938, and Hitler took over early in March. My mother was in her final year of a medical degree; My father, was a university drop out and I suspect, political activist, son of a well off coffee merchant. We became aliens in a short time and joined the exodus.
What happened to me and my family was because we were Jewish. This was not a matter of choice but attribution so I remain indelibly Jewish and have never, as an adult, wanted to deny this. I learned much from two men and two woman in my life: my grandfather Philipp Kantor, who taught me civility; my father Richard Hauser who made me responsible for the fate of the world; my stepmother Hephzibah Menuhin who helped me to care about others but it was her bad example, and that of my mother, who taught me that women should not be silent and complicity with unfair use of power, neither in the household nor in the wider world. That is one basis of my feminism.
Eva Cox
April 11th 2002