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The Paradox of Contemporary Feminism

Nicole Brackman

A deep-seated paradox lurks in modern feminism. In its purest form, the championing of women should open opportunities, provide us with a plethora of choices, and allow us to make our own decisions about our lives.

Unfortunately, though, the reality can yield quite the opposite. A recent incident sadly illustrates the point. In April, a brouhaha broke out in Israel when Justice Minister Yossi Beilin decried the Jewish religious community's preference for large families. Opposing a bill to increase child allowances beginning with a family's fourth child, Beilin noted that the Israeli system "encourages" families to have more and more children at the state's expense, and that they become a "burden to society."

Anti-religious Knesset member Tommy Lapid chimed in, expressing doubt that children of large religious families will become useful members of society.

There were insinuations, too, that religious Jews have many children so that they can take advantage of the Jewish State's per-child stipends - something that would probably surprise not only the parents of those families but the hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews outside Israel who similarly observe the commandment Pru U'rvu ("be fruitful and multiply") but receive limited if any public assistance.

More insulting still, though, to many Orthodox was Mr. Beilin's statement that large families condemn women to lives of "slavery and servitude." The sentiment was echoed by author Naomi Ragen, who not only claimed that the preference for large families drives religious women to mental illness but also that the women's own testimony to their happiness was simply a parroting of "the party line."

Although I had thought that precious little in the war of invective against religious Jews could surprise me any longer, I was a bit taken aback to realize that I and countless other women like me were being effectively labeled intellectual inferiors.

Ironically, though, I'm just the kind of woman that the secular liberal intelligentsia and feminists generally love: I have a doctorate in political science, and I was educated in the enlightened ivory tower of academe. But they look askance at me, my "sin" (so to speak) being that I subsequently "regressed" by choosing to become a religious Jew. In fact, I actively seek out the company of women raised with few secular academic honors but who are steeped in our heritage, who move between ancient textual sources fluidly and with complete assurance, and whose breadth and depth of knowledge never cease to astound me. They conduct classes - often with multiple children playing around their feet - for other Jewish women. Often they are the breadwinners of their families; in fact, women are at the forefront of the high-tech revolution in Israel's religious community - though that fact somehow does not endear them to their feminist sisters.

Feminism, like the socialism of the Labor Zionists who founded Israel, is premised on the concept - an astoundingly anti-democratic one - that the masses are ignorant of their true condition and need their "consciousness raised" by a vanguard intellectual elite. Though socialism has been largely waylaid in Israel, this condescending ideological remnant has, it seems, devolved into widespread antagonism toward a community that has grown both in numbers and in commitment, far surpassing expectations of its vitality and belying the repeated reports of its impending demise.

That is precisely why religious women - whom our Torah and sages teach have been the salvation of the Jewish people many times over - are under attack. As the carriers and transmitters of the tradition, we are at the heart of the Jewish family and the nurturers of its soul. Without the commitment of Jewish women, the community would languish. Knowing that full well, those opposed to religion feel they must attack our very legitimacy as independent thinkers.

It may be too much to hope for that the "vanguard elite" will heed appeals to abandon attacks on the religious community in favor of reasoned debate. But none of us - religious or not - should hesitate to point out the absurdity and authoritarianism of that self-appointed elite's quest to "free" religious women by casting aspersions on our intelligence and seeking to deprive us of true freedom of choice. Feminism cannot be used to simultaneously empower some women and delegitimize others; if "pro-choicers" are honest, after all, they must defend the choice to have large families and live according to the Torah as well.

Lest Jews in the Diaspora remain complacent, we should not harbor the illusion that the paradox of contemporary feminism is idiosyncratic of Israel. While the degree of resentment for the fervently religious Jewish community may be particular to that country, attacks by the liberal left and the feminist camp on the value of larger families and the religious lifestyle occur in the United States and other western nations as well. It may be axiomatic in some circles that the enlightened intelligentsia know best. But some of us, less trendy perhaps but no less intelligent, think otherwise.

[Nicole Brackman, Ph.D., is a Washington-based political scientist who specializes in Israeli and Middle East politics.]

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