By Leanne Gale and Gabi Kirk
As Jewish feminists living in the United States, we care about a lot of things. We care about the ongoing legislative assault on abortion rights across the country. We care about rape culture, and the fact that every 107 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted. And we care about the wage gap, which disproportionately impacts African American and Latina women.
We also carry with us the trauma of past atrocities done to our people, especially Jewish women. As part of their racist program to annihilate the Jewish people and purify the Aryan gene pool, the Nazis targeted Jewish women (along with Roma women and other “undesirables”) for forced sterilizations. In the ghettos and concentration camps, pregnant Jewish women were either forced to submit to coercive abortions or sent to the gas chambers. Indeed, as in all authoritarian systems, women’s bodies bore the brunt of Hitler’s dark demographic vision. As Jewish women living safe and sound in the United States today, we are keenly aware of our relative freedom from reproductive oppression. Especially because, not too long ago, the United States also engaged in coercive sterilization, targeting black, Puerto Rican, and Native American women.
At the intersection of our Jewish and feminist identities, we have found meaning and inspiration in the reproductive justice movement. Developed by women of color in the mid-1990s, the reproductive justice framework represented a dramatic shift from the pro-choice movement, which had focused more narrowly on legal access to abortion and contraception, privacy, and individual choice. Reproductive justice acknowledges racial, economic, and cultural systems of oppression, centering on four basic human rights:
1. The right to have full autonomy over bodies
2. The right to have or not have children
3. The right to birth and parent our children with dignity
4. The right to live and raise a family in a safe and healthy environment
The Repeal Hyde Art Project
These rights capture the broader thrust of what it means to live free from reproductive oppression, from access to contraception to the ability to raise your children safe from police violence. The United States has a long way to go before reproductive justice is achieved, and as Jewish women, we are sorry to say the same for Israel and Palestine.
Palestinian women bear the brunt of Israeli military occupation, their wombs symbolically weaponized as carriers of demographic time-bombs. Jewish women are also impacted by state policies and bigoted attitudes, although in very different ways. This is reproductive oppression, rooted in racist state policies.
Palestinian women cannot be pregnant or give birth in peace
Palestinian women face profound indignities in their experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. In the West Bank, between 2000-2005, 67 Palestinian women were forced to give birth at checkpoints. Half of those babies died. While no systematic accounting has been published since then, cases continue to be reported. Additionally, Palestinian pregnant women can be imprisoned and forced to give birth while incarcerated. Yara, a 29 year old Palestinian woman, details how she was forced to take a bus and then a taxi alone, while her husband was detained by Israeli forces, to give birth.
Do you know any pregnant woman who needs to cross checkpoints, ride a bus, leave her kids alone at the mercy of soldiers throwing tear gas bombs, under their surveillance devices that are surrounding our area…to make sure the new baby is born in Jerusalem?”(1)
Birthing in Jerusalem is important because, due to the Citizenship Law and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Order, 2003), babies must be born in the city to receive an East Jerusalem ID. And families with different IDs, like a mother from East Jerusalem but a child with a West Bank ID, can be torn apart.
Approximately 25% of Palestinian women in East Jerusalem have been exposed to tear gas inhalation while pregnant. (2) In both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they are also exposed to settler violence. Mary, a woman living in the Old City, tells of experiencing a settler attack as she was going into labor.
I needed to walk four minutes [to the meeting point] but one them [a Jewish settler] saw me, and started saying: “Rooh moot (go die), rooh moot,” and I started walking faster from fear, hoping to meet my husband, but he pushed me, and I fell on the ground, with my pain, in the middle of the street. People came to help me, but my water broke, and I was embarrassed to get up… (3)
Further, because of Israel’s discriminatory allocation and outright destruction of resources, Palestinian women are forced to make due with limited access to basic maternal health services. There are three times fewer infant health clinics in East Jerusalem (mostly Palestinian) as in West Jerusalem (mostly Jewish). And, during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, six maternity wards in Gaza were closed due to damage to the hospitals. Increases in pregnancy complications were observed, newborn care units were overloaded, and the infant mortality rate at Shifa Hospital doubled (from 7 to 14.5%). This is only the tip of the iceberg.
Remains of Tank Shell in El-Wafa Hospital, Gaza, Summer 2014
Palestinian families live in a constantly unsafe environment
Palestinian families living under the Israeli military occupation face everyday violence.Even after pregnancy and birth, Palestinian families and children face myriad hardships and indignities. One notable tool of the Occupation, housing demolitions, has an immense impact on family networks. In traditional Arab style, Palestinians tend to house multiple generations of one family live in one home. When adult Palestinian children get married and raise children of their own, they often add another story to the existing family home. But the Israeli authorities have made it practically impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits to construct or extend homes in occupied East Jerusalem or Area C of the West Bank, demolishing structures that Palestinians build to accommodate growing families. The continued home demolitions makes for an unstable life for Palestinian children.
Palestinian children are routinely imprisoned and abused, in direct violation of international human rights standards. Palestinian children have a 90% detention rate in Israeli prisons (compared to only 6.5% of Israeli children). Recently dozens of U.S. Congress members called upon the State Department to defend Palestinian children's’ rights, in response to the startling reality that over 7,000 children have been imprisoned over the past decade.
When the daily violence escalates into all-out war, Palestinian children bear the brunt. Over 500 children were killed in the most recent bombing of Gaza, and an estimated 35-40% of Gazan children suffer from PTSD. Any child in Gaza over the age of six has now lived through three sustained bombing campaigns, leading many to decry the mental health crisis as an unending barrage of trauma. It’s not post-traumatic stress disorder; there is no “post” when the trauma is revisited again and again.
Jewish women are treated as weapons in a demographic war
The politicization of Jewish wombs began far before the founding of the Jewish state. Early Zionist thinkers, from Theodore Herzl to Max Nordau to A.G. Gordon, viewed female fertility as a fundamental mechanism of securing Jewish survival and cultivating the nation. The Jewish state was then established in the wake of the Holocaust, simultaneously reeling from the loss of six million Jews and preparing for a demographic battle of dominance against the local Arab population. Ben Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, literally said, “A Jewish woman who does not bring at least four children into the world…is defrauding the Jewish mission.”
At its inception, Israel enacted pronatalist policies (for Jewish women), including social campaigns like “maternal rewards” to increase the Jewish birth rate. And in the 1970s, during early deliberations leading up to the legalization of abortion, Haim Sadan, the advisor to the Minister of Health, proposed that Israeli abortion committees should force every woman considering an abortion to watch a slide show which would include pictures of dead children in Nazi concentration camps. While this particular recommendation never came to fruition, the Israeli public discourse still maintains the crucial role of Jewish women as reproductive vessels for the Jewish nation, our wombs held hostage to traumas of genocide and anxieties of a growing Palestinian population.
This means that intermarriage remains impossible under Israeli law. This means that violent groups like the Lehava continue to grow, handing out flyers to Jewish women warning, “The women of Israel for the nation of Israel.” And this means that we Jewish women, the writers of this piece, may be valued at no more than the Jewish products of our bodies.
Lehava Activists Holding Sign in Hebrew Saying, “Jews, Let Us Be Victorious! Girls of Israel for the Nation of Israel"
If and when we decide to have children, we want to look into their eyes and see only curiosity, possibility, imagination of all of the love and joy this universe can contain. We do not want to see a checkmark in a logbook of Jewish demographic warfare. Our children will not be weapons or checkmarks.
Demographic policies are inherently oppressive
All of the above issues are rooted in one, haunting core: Israel’s demographic policy. In order to maintain a Jewish state (at least as it is conceptualized today), a Jewish majority population is needed. This requires two things: a high Jewish birth rate, and population control measures on Palestinians. Indeed, Jewish population growth is encouraged through the Law of Return and encouraging Jewish birth rates (See #4, above), and many Israeli politicians have wrung their hands over Palestinian population growth. (In fact, in conducting research for this piece, discovering the mere number of published articles on Jewish vs. Palestinian fertility rates was quite disturbing.) The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Order, 2003) is a recent example of coercive state policies explicitly meant to keep Palestinian families separated and maintain Jewish demographic supremacy.
During last summer’s bombing of Gaza, Ayelet Shaked, the new Israeli Minister of Justice, called Palestinian children “little snakes.” And coercive policies, coupled with diminishing or non-existent state support for Palestinian families within Israel proper, have had an effect. According to an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics report, in the years from 1990-2011, “fertility among Jewish women increased slightly while among Arab women it declined sharply.” In East Jerusalem, where the Israeli target ratio has long been 70% Jewish, 30% Palestinian, the Israeli authorities use permanent residency status, overt discrimination, and ongoing policies of military occupation to depress the Palestinian population. Today, 74% of Palestinians residents of East Jerusalem, and 84% of children, live below the poverty line.
Reproductive oppression can be defined as the control and exploitation of women, girls, and individuals through their bodies, sexuality, labor and reproduction. Any policy designed to maintain a demographic ratio of populations is reproductive oppression. These policies restrict women’s autonomy in deciding whether and when to be a parent. For women birthing “desirable children,” their reproduction is valued often above all else, and they become mere vessels for a state reproductive project. For the women birthing “undesirable” children, their reproduction is disdained, discouraged, and devalued.
Does a Palestinian woman really have the full right to birth and parent a child when her baby is determined a threat from birth, her womb aiding and abetting the enemy? If her maternity ward is destroyed by bombs and her doctor shot by IDF soldiers? If a settler can attack her pregnant body without repercussion, if an Israeli border police officer can shoot tear gas in her direction, if an Israeli soldier can stop her bus and force her to give birth at a military checkpoint?
As Jewish feminists, we pose this piece as an invitation to our peers. If you believe that everyone should have the right to decide when and whether to become a parent, work to end the occupation. If you believe that everyone should have the right to birth and parent their children with dignity, work to end the occupation. If you believe that everyone should have the right to live and/or raise their family in a safe and healthy environment, work to end the occupation.
As Audre Lorde, the prophetic black lesbian feminist writer once said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
(1) Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, "Birthing in Occupied East Jerusalem: Palestinian Women's Experiences of Pregnancy and Delivery," YWCA-Jerusalem
(2) Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 'Birthing in Occupied East Jerusalem