Marcia Freedman

Marcia Freedman

"The silencing was incredible… and this was the 1970s. It got even worse in the 1980s and even worse…when we began to organize in the early 2000s Brit Tzedek…. There is an enormous amount of censorship and self-censorship within the Jewish community, and a fear…of loss of funding in synagogues and other communal institutions by a small number of influential Jewish people, mostly men with a lot of money.”

Peace Activism
1973 – present
Brit Tzedek v’Shalom
Women in Black
Women’s Party
Ratz Party, Independent Socialists

Interview Date
August 26, 2015

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

 

The Interview

Marcia Freedman first learned about Israel in 1948 because her family was listening to the U.N. debate, “and there was great celebration afterwards, etc.” She first went to Israel in 1959 when “it was still a democratic socialist society.” Things were simple. “There was no fashion. There was just no consciousness of it. There was no makeup. There was just none of the crap that I just took for granted but when it was gone it was like, right. This is the way it should be. And I had been a socialist my entire life since childhood…This was where the revolution was happening.”

“In 1967 what still attracted me was what I thought was still a socio-economic experiment being carried out by the Jewish people in the name of socialist politics and economics, and I was very much part of that. I was very proud of it as a Jew, as a socialist. All of that sort of came together and excited me enormously.”

She moved to Israel just after the 1967 War and was not well informed about the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I one of those who said, ‘Oh, my God. Israel's going to get wiped out. Oh, my God. Israel has triumphed and now look at us. We've got this wonderful army and we're heroes,’ and bought into all that shit at the time.

“I cannot…tell you the extent of my naivety at the time and it didn't take too long, but it did take several years to really unpack all of that and see what was actually happening.”

Freedman took great in interest in feminist movement in 1971, the year that she and her husband returned to the U.S. “It really wasn’t that difficult translating American feminism to Israel, with many of the same issues: the ability of women to work outside the house, abortion and issues of women controlling their bodies, although on Israel a very common response was that no women’s movement was needed because Israeli women were already ‘liberated.’”

Upon her return to Israel, Marcia became one of leaders of the country’s feminist movement, leading to her election to the Knesset in 1973. Here she “was drawn into what I would call foreign policy issues because I was a member of Knesset, and that was totally accidental and unplanned.” She became an early advocate of the two-state solution. “It emerged on the far Left. It emerged in the anti-Zionist Left. And it very slowly was picked up by the Zionist Left, I would say, beginning just after the Six-Day War…

“Aryeh (Lova) Eliav, former secretary general of the Labor Party and David Ben-Gurion were the most prominent Zionist advocates for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, establishing a border, etc., but “they were voices in the wilderness…:Meir Pa'il[1] and Matti Peled[2] were part of the phenomena of these heroic generals who were on the left” and advocated for two states. “Nobody quite understood them.

“We all realized…that we were a tiny…miniscule minority, in the country that was rapidly moving and shifting in the direction counter to where we thought everything should be going. And we were all convinced that the savior would be the American Jewish community. When the American Jewish community would understand what they had to understand and then put pressure, both economic pressure and political pressure, on the Israeli government we would then have the support that we needed because we didn't have it within Israel. That was the naïve belief at the time…”

In the mid-1970s, Freedman participated in speaking engagements in the U.S., mostly for the women’s movement, but also for peace groups. “The silencing was incredible… and this was the 1970s. It got even worse in the 1980s and even worse…when we began to organize in the early 2000s Brit Tzedek…. There is an enormous amount of censorship and self-censorship within the Jewish community, and a fear…of loss of funding in synagogues and other communal institutions by a small number of influential Jewish people, mostly men with a lot of money.”

She did not stand for reelection to the Knesset in 1977, and in 1981 moved to the U.S. She lectured periodically on women’s, social, and conflict-related issues in Israel but her main focus was on “reestablishing myself as a citizen of the United States and having an economic base.”

In the late 1980s, following the example of Women in Black in Jerusalem, Israeli women who held weekly protests against the Occupation, Freedman helped found a local affiliate of Women in Black. “We would stand in front of City Hall in San Francisco every Friday from 1:00 to 2:00…There were many Women in Blacks beginning then around the country and sort of hooking up.”

“With the handshake on the White House lawn,” Freedman thought “I can go back now… I want to be part of trying to make the peace…Yossi Beilin deserves a great deal of credit [for the Oslo Agreement], because it really was almost an individual initiative on his part. I think that the fact that a group of Israelis who were recognized as Zionist, though they belonged to the Left-of-center, and a group of Palestinians recognized as nationalists, though they belonged Left-of-center in their spectrum, could come together with a document that Rabin and Arafat could sign took the two-state solution and said, ‘This is possible.”

She returned to Israel in 1995, “two days after I arrived Rabin was assassinated… That was like a thud. There goes those plans… It was very clear that everything that I had really so feared about the easy collapse of Israeli democracy and the easy rise of a warmongering and almost fascist Right was already beginning to blossom.”

Freedman subsequently divided her time between Israel and the United States until 2002 when she became involved in Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.  “I was just on my way home from Israel and the conference, that first conference in 2002, right, was on the way home. . . I was enormously impressed” by the mix of people, activists, people from the Jewish communal world, and people from a human rights background. “And I was also very impressed, as I had been from the very beginning, about how much of the initial leadership of the organization, were strong feminist women.”  

The most important contributions of Brit Tzedek were creating “a grassroots American Jewish peace movement,” something beyond “the wealthy leftwing donors and a few others who were contributing. The second thing that was hugely important was we were organizing Brit Tzedek during another very intense period of silencing within the American Jewish community, about a two-state solution. The tension level had been raised so high, the bar had been raised so high in the silencing effort that it was affecting people's individual relationships and their familial relationships with one another. I had never seen anything quite as intense as that before in terms of an effort to really silence a position…We accomplished exactly what we had set out to do. There would be no J Street if it weren't for Brit Tzedek…. J Street changed the landscape, but we were the beginnings of what made it possible to think about actually in a big way changing that landscape, and we also were the first steps towards making it happen.”

Around 2007 she stopped speaking on behalf of Brit Tzedek, because she no longer believed that a two state solution is possible. The move to the right, and the growth of fascism in Israel over the past decade is “very dire, very dire” and probably irreversible, in terms of any hope for a true rapprochement with the Palestinians. “In one or two generations Israel will devolve into a nation of which American Jews will be ashamed. I already am.” 

Looking back on the two great political causes of her life, Marcia Freedman looks at feminism as having become established and institutionalized. However, she feels that there still is a role and place for radical feminism, and that a feminist “third-wave” surge of activism is likely, centered around issues connected to the control of women’s bodies, probably with a different cadre of leaders; women of color, and perhaps the transgendered. On question of peace in Israel she is far more pessimistic. If she was always “Jew-centered” she was never really a Zionist, and she is increasingly alienated from Israel.

Biography

Marcia Freedman was born in 1938 and raised in Newark, New Jersey.  She received an early political education when her father lost his position as a union organizer for the CIO amid the anti-Communist shift in the late 1940s, despite the fact that he was not a member of the Communist Party. Freedman always admired her father’s path, and dedicated her memoir Exile in the Promised Land (Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books, 1990) to her father, Philip Prince, “whose example I have largely followed.”)    

Although Marcia grew up with observant immigrant grandparents, her immediate family was both “atheist” and “very sentimental about Judaism.”  In 1959, while an undergraduate at Bennington College, she made her first trip to Israel and was entranced by the “democratic socialist” society she found there. 

In the summer of 1967, shortly after the end of the Six-Day War, Freedman, along with her then husband and young daughter, made aliyah to Israel. She had been pursuing a PhD in philosophy, and the move to Haifa led to her put her uncompleted dissertation on permanent hold.

It was in the United States, where Freedman had spent a year from 1971-1972, that she developed a zeal for radical feminism. She returned to Israel in 1972 and became a leader of the nascent Israeli woman’s movement. Her prominence in and devotion to the movement caught the attention of Shulamit Aloni[1], who asked her to be the third name on her Civil Rights Party[2] (or Ratz) list. To their collective surprise, the Civil Rights Party won three seats in the election, held on the last day of 1973. Marcia Freedman, who had lived in Israel for a mere six years, was now a member of the Knesset.    

Although feminism was always Freedman’s central political issue, during her term in the Knesset her voice became increasingly prominent on the question of peace with the Palestinians. At the time, most of the center-left politicians in Israel favored a version of the “Allon Plan”, under which much of the territory conquered in 1967 would be returned to Jordan and Egypt, with Israel annexing the remainder; though primarily she remembers that “almost everyone tried to avoid the issue of the West Bank occupation.” Freedman was an early proponent of the Zionist left calling for an independent Palestinian state, engaging in direct negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and supporting what came to be called the two-state solution.

Ratz acquired a new name and new member when in June 1975 they were joined by Aryeh (Lova) Eliav[3], who had been elected to Knesset as a member of the Alignment (Labor) list,  forming Ya’ad-Civil Rights Movement (usually called Ya’ad.). But this arrangement proved short lived, as Freedman and Eliav split with Aloni over the Palestinian issue, forming a two-person Social Democratic Faction in 1976, which was later renamed the Independent Socialist Faction. This party, after combining with several other factions, stood for elections in 1977 as the Left Camp of Israel, or Sheli. Freedman decided not to stand for re-election, breaking with Sheli when the party refused to position women high enough on its electoral list, and instead became a founding member of the Women’s Party. Unfortunately, the fledgling party did not receive enough votes in 1977 for representation in the Knesset.

Her active political career at an end, Freedman helped establish a woman’s shelter in Haifa. She returned to the United States in 1981, settling in Berkeley, which remains her home. Her move was motivated in part to be close to her daughter, and in part because she felt constrained in Israel by her celebrity and the limits on her feminist, lesbian, and peace activism. She had spoken frequently in the U.S., primarily on feminist issues, but addressed issues related to Israel and peace as well. Although she thought the American Jewish community was crucial for the Israeli peace camp, on the whole she found the organized Jewish community in the United States “hugely unwelcoming.” However, from her many speaking engagements in Israel, she “was used to bad receptions.”

In 1997 Freedman started to return to Israel for extended stays, several months every year. She found herself inadvertently elected to the board of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a pro-peace and pro-Israel organization at the group’s founding conference in April 2002 and several months later as national president. Brit Tzedek developed a grass roots network of activists in 40 chapters across the U.S. She feels the organization made a significant contribution in “breaking the silence” about Israel and Palestine within the Jewish community, making possible an honest dialogue about the future of Israel for the first time. Chronically underfunded, Brit Tzedek merged into J Street in 2010, and Freedman ceased much of her political involvement with Israel-related issues.

 

[1] Shulamit Aloni (1928–2014) was an Israeli politician, the founder and leader of the Civil Rights Movement (Ratz) and later the leader of Me’ertz.  She was first elected to the Knesset in 1965, and served continually from 1973 through 1996. She was minister of  education from 1992 to 1993.

[2] The Civil Rights Movement, more formally the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace or Ratz, was founded by Shulamit Aloni in 1973.  In 1992 it formed an electoral alliance with Meretz and Shunui, and formally merged into Meretz in 1997. 

[3] Aryeh Lova Eliav (1921–2010) was first elected to the Knesset in 1965 on the Alignment (Labor Party) list and was at one time general secretary of the Labor Party With different party affiliations, remained a member of Knesset until 1981, and served again with the Alignment from 1988 to 1992.  

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