On Monday, December 4, a faculty roundtable titled “On Feminism and Palestine” examined the history of Palestine and the ongoing violence in Gaza from feminist, queer, and postcolonial frameworks.

On Monday, students, faculty, and other Columbia affiliates filled Joseph D. Jamail Lecture Hall for “On Feminism and Palestine,” a faculty roundtable co-presented by the Institute for the Study of Sexuality and Gender (ISSG), Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS), Center for Palestine Studies (CPS), Center for the Study of Ethnicity & Race (CSER), and the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW). 

The evening’s programming included five short presentations from Columbia faculty connecting feminist thought to the present and past of Palestine. It began with a statement from Professor Sarah Haley, the event’s moderator, who noted the event had been granted an exception from the ongoing boycott of on-campus events and speaking opportunities to protest the cancellation of Palestine-related events and the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). 

A Feminist Framing of Palestine

Why feminism and Palestine? Each of the evening’s speakers touched on their personal connection to this intersection and their scholarly understanding of its importance. 

Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies and a Palestinian-American, noted her deep personal stakes in the issue alongside her Palestinian feminist scholar colleagues. As an example, Abu-Lughod shared the experience of Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who co-edited The Cunning of Gender Violence with Abu-Lughod. 

Shalhoub-Kevorkian authored an open letter titled “Childhood researchers and students call for immediate ceasefire in Gaza,” which characterized the violence in Gaza as “Western-backed Israeli genocide” and an “egregious violation of Palestinian children’s rights.” President Asher Cohen and Rector Tamir Sheafer of Hebrew University subsequently called on Shalhoub-Kevorkian to resign. 

Yet, according to Abu-Lughod, Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s work exemplifies why the violence in Palestine is a feminist issue. She pointed to violence against children and the destruction of lines and families as vital issues for “a feminism that embraces humanity as a central concern.” 

For Professor Jack Halberstam of the English and Comparative Literature Department and the ISSG, a feminist framework of Palestine must not fail to recognize the civilian deaths and sexual violence committed during the October 7 attack by Hamas. 

Professor Premilla Nadasen, of the Barnard History Department and the BCRW, echoed these connections between feminism and concern for humanity. She remarked that a feminist framework ties the quotidian struggles of food, shelter, and safety to anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. 

Professor Neferti Tadiar of the Barnard Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department offered her remarks from a “decolonizing Filipina feminist perspective,” from which she argued that the future of Palestine is important “for our collective liberatory futures.” According to Tadiar, the conditions of female oppression and violence are inextricable from continuing histories of colonialism. She, along with each of the other speakers, placed the Israeli state within these histories. As feminists, said Tadiar, “we see that zones of war are also zones of living.”

Black Feminist Thought and Third-World Feminism

Professor Jafari Sinclaire Allen of African American and African Diaspora Studies offered his remarks as a “meditation on a Black feminist tradition.” He pointed to several themes in Black feminist thought that can serve as analytical frameworks for understanding the conflict, including a politics of recognition, a critique of false innocence, and a recognition of difference as generative. 

Quoting writer James Baldwin, Allen noted that “it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Rather, Allen drew an understanding of solidarity and complicity from writer Audre Lorde and poet June Jordan, specifically referencing Lorde’s 1989 commencement address at Oberlin College and Jordan’s “Apologies to All the People in Lebanon.” 

Lorde’s speech condemned passive belief in injustice, whether racism, homophobia, or antisemitism, declaring that “every day that you sit back silent… terrible things are being done in our name.” Allen noted that the speech explicitly mentioned the “over $200 million of [American taxpayer money] spent fighting the uprising of Palestinian people who are trying to end the military occupation of their homeland.” 

As another framework for thinking through international solidarity, Nadasen focused on the life and work of South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba. Contextualizing Makeba in a history of Black feminist support for Palestine, Nadasen noted that Makeba’s public image shifted during the 1960s from mainstream icon of the anti-apartheid movement to “radical.” 

During this decade, Makeba began to question the political implications of performing in Israel. She stopped doing so at the cost of her artistic collaboration with Harry Belafonte and began to engage with the Black power movement’s declarations of solidarity with Palestine, especially after the Six Days War of 1967. 

Yet, in considering the question of international solidarity between oppressed groups, Tadiar argued that postcolonial thought calls for more than mechanical solidarity between groups that have historically faced oppression. She called for a recognition of how historically oppressed and colonized groups can themselves become agents of oppression and colonization. This recognition necessitates moving away from a simple politics of blame that demarcates the innocent and the guilty and adheres to the trope of “timeless victims.” 

Tadiar pointed to the colonial-esque violence of postcolonial states, such as the Philippines, which has been a close military and trade partner with both the US and Israel under former President Rodrigo Duterte. In exploring the connection between Israel and the Philippines, she also examined the influx of Filipinx caregivers to Israel, who have often been brought in to replace Palestinian labor. 

For Tadiar, this “trading of life” creates a condition of possibility for global capitalism by distinguishing between caregivers and those who are cared for – or in other words, between those who are considered disposable labor and those who get to be “global citizens.” 

Pinkwashing and “Toxic Racial Nationalism”

Like most of the night’s other speakers, Halberstam offered his remarks in the context of his personal connection to the issue–as the child of a Jewish refugee father and grandchild of a staunch anti-Zionist grandmother. Halberstam’s grandmother turned down an opportunity to move to Israel and was adamant that she did not see Israel as a viable solution to Jewish safety. She was killed in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. 

Following Judith Butler in rejecting as false the correlation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, Halberstam said that restricting discourse on anti-Zionism by conflating it with antisemitism limits diverse and numerous perspectives on Jewish safety–including his grandmother’s rejection of Zionism. 

“The answer to toxic racial nationalism cannot be toxic racial nationalism,” Halberstam said. He argued that the legacy of the Holocaust should be the association of terrible violence with all attempts to preserve the ethnic homogeneity of a state; instead, he said, Zionism has maintained a colonialist project whose initial conditions were framed by colonial states.

This colonial project includes “pinkwashing,” or Israel’s use of gay-rights legislation to portray itself as a liberal democracy in opposition to purported notions of “Islamic intolerance and backwardness.” This construction allows queer Palestinians to be painted as “in need of rescue,” and for Halberstam, it reveals how the notion of the ethnically pure nation creates a “phalanx” of interlinked injustices.

Lila Abu-Lughod via Columbia University Department of Anthropology

Jack Halberstam via Columbia University Department of English & Comparative Literature

Premilla Nadasen via Barnard College

Jafari S. Allen via Columbia University African American and African Diaspora Studies

Neferti X. M. Tadiar via Barnard College