By Zubeida Mustafa
IN these turbulent times when the Middle East is up in flames, Dr Elise Young’s interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is remarkably insightful and, coming from a Jew, radical. She learnt about her people’s history from her own family, but felt sceptical when as a historian and scholar she was trained to analyze the events of the past dispassionately. As a feminist, who feels keenly for the sufferings of other women, she felt compelled to probe deeper into the experiences of women in Palestine — both Muslim and Jew. As a peace activist, she had the strong urge to stop violence. All these qualities have combined to make Elise Young what she is today.
Young teaches history at the Westfield State College, Massachusetts, USA. She has recorded the findings of her research in her book, Keepers of history: women and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a nutshell, Elise Young’s provocative thesis states that the Jewish and Muslim women in Palestine have had a long history of cooperative relationship, which has transcended conventional andocentric nationalism. According to her it was the politics of nationalism, class, race and gender which has manifested itself in the form of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Explaining the underlying theme of her book, Young writes:
“The basic understanding of feminism, that the fate of all women is interconnected, is a bridge between Israeli and Palestinian women polarized by those forces that have brought Jew and Arab to this battlefield….. The purpose of this book is to bring into the foreground critical connections between gender, race, and class as they inform historic and current developments of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Women are ‘keepers of history’; feminist critique is the basis for politics that can transform the deadlock between Israeli and Palestinian, ‘Jew’ and ‘Arab’.”
I met Young in Westfield where she had organized a conference of Pakistani and Indian women under the aegis of the Global Women’s History Project of which she is the founder and director. Her thinking is so different from the American mainstream opinion on the Middle East. She set up her project to bring together women from different sides of a conflict and help them see their situation from the perspective of history. She has already organized meetings of women of Palestine and Israel, South Africa and Ireland. A strong believer in non-violence — she wakes up before dawn every day to perform yoga for three hours before she starts her day’s work — she feels convinced that all conflicts can be resolved peacefully.
I was curious to know what provoked her interest in the Palestinian issue? And what made her so different from the majority of the Jews in America who are staunchly pro-Israel? Until the end of the sixties Young’s activism had focussed on the anti-Vietnam war protest, the civil rights movement and feminist causes. Her personal experiences and impressions in her first visit to Israel to meet relatives in 1971 made her interested in the region.
“I found the Israeli state highly militarized,” Young remarks (and that went against her pacifist nature). “The link between the military and racism deeply penetrated into my consciousness when an Israeli soldier boasted at length about how he would protect me from the Arabs only to follow me with a knife in an unsuccessful attempt to molest me. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 sharpened my interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Many questions came to my mind and I found my knowledge highly Euro-centric. What were the roots of anti-Semitism? What were the forces of dissension that disrupted the long-standing links between the Muslim, Jewish and Christian civilizations?”
Her quest for knowledge took her to Birzeit university in 1985. She was to study the holocaust and how the subject was taught in Israeli academia. But she found the universities too restrictive and regimented, Her favourite theme — relations between the Israeli and Arab women — continued to haunt her. The director of the women’s studies programme at Birzeit, Islah Jad, was a mine of information on the subject.
“Until then I never thought of writing a book. Then one day I visited a refugee camp with a Palestinian guide and met her aunt who had been there since 1948. When I heard the woman speak of her travails, it dawned on me that there is a feminist perspective to the conflict which has not been analyzed. Then she quoted an Arabic proverb saying that the five fingers of the hand are not equal,” Young says.
Thus Young got involved with the Palestinian women’s struggle. She met and travelled with Sarwar Nijab Khatib in 1987, the year of the first intifada, and co-founded the Middle East Peace Coalition. She has a profound understanding of the Israeli women’s perspective and speaks of the exploitation of the woman under Zionism. Though they struggled with the men for Israel, they found themselves driven back into the kitchen when the Zionist state was founded. She cites the election of Golda Meir as the prime minister as the biggest defeat of the Israeli women’s movement. She was coopted by the male leadership which bypassed Ada Maimon, the leader of the Israeli Working Women’s Union.
She speaks lucidly about the direct connection between race and gender in Israel. The Jews were Arab racially and had lived with the Muslims in Palestine for centuries. Zionism was a Europe-centred movement and was used by the European Jews to set up a state for themselves in Palestine. Today Israel is a racist state in which the European Jews who migrated to Palestine oppress the indigenous Jewish inhabitants.
“The Jewish identity in Israel is multi-layered,” she observes. “Factors such as gender, race and class interests are involved. Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been promoted as a smokescreen to conceal the Israeli patriarchal state which seeks to control women and to perpetuate the hierarchical class structures,” she argues compellingly.
When her book was published in 1992, it received positive reviews in women’s journals. However the mainstream Jewish opinion was not moved. Some even denounced her as a traitor while others thought it paradoxical because they saw the truth in what she said. But found it in conflict with what they had learned from childhood. Her book is now out of print but there is no proposal to print a second edition. “It is difficult for women to get their books published if they do not conform to mainstream opinion, and I hardly hold such views” she says.
Her parents migrated to America from Eastern Europe. She now wants to study the radicalization of the Jewish garment workers and their links with Zionism.
For Young, the violence on the West Bank is devastating. “Revenge killings of the kind being witnessed in Palestine every day will not bring peace,” she insists. “The Jews have always been trained to think of themselves as victims in history. This is a dangerous concept which has encouraged them to take positions without accepting responsibility for their action.” Where, in her view, does the solution lie? Without hesitating she says:
- • The Americans must exert massive pressure on the Bush Administration to halt aid to Israel
- A movement must be launched to impose sanctions against Israel
- Sharon must be tried as a war criminal
- The restitution of Palestine must take place
She denounces the Oslo process and says it is now defunct. “There is need to reconceptualize issues to find a feasible solution. Zionism must end because as a Jew I believe it doesn’t provide me any security. Anti-Semitism must be addressed in the local milieu. In Israel and Palestine, the Jews and Muslims have lived together for ages. By setting up a new grassroots infrastructure, they could connect to each other. There is need for them to connect which they are doing in a small and sporadic way, the troubles notwithstanding. These groups should form the nucleus of a wider network to join these areas together,” Young says.