The Nation accepts pretty much every advertisement that comes its way. This open-door (open-hand?) policy has its downside. We get tsoris from readers–for example, a flurry of outraged letters in 2006 over an ad from FLAME, a Zionist group with strong views about Middle Eastern demography. We live with occasional humiliation–two issues in 2004 carried a garish full-color ad from Fox News, which was a bit like having Rupert Murdoch wipe his shoes on your behind. When I was an editor, the ad policy gave me fits. But as Victor Navasky in his wisdom discerned, it has one great advantage: it makes life simple. You don’t have to explain why you rejected this ad last week when you accepted that one three years ago, you don’t get embroiled in ideological flash fires over words you didn’t write, and you don’t get enmeshed in other people’s agendas.
If only Ms. magazine had followed the Navasky rule, it wouldn’t be in such a pickle now, trying to explain why it rejected an ad from the American Jewish Congress that featured headshots of three highly placed women in the Israeli government–Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch, Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik–above the words “This is Israel.” Was it because it was “too controversial” and would have “set off a firestorm” among readers, as the AJCongress’s Harriet Kurlander says she was told at the end of a long foot-dragging process? Or was it because, as executive editor Katherine Spillar writes on the magazine’s website, “Ms. policy is to accept only mission-driven advertisements from primarily non-profit, non-partisan organizations that promote women’s equality, social justice, sustainable environment, and non-violence”? In fact, that is a fair description of the kind of ads Ms. runs, but unfortunately, Spillar didn’t stop there: “Not only could the ad be seen as favoring certain political parties within Israel over other parties, but also with its slogan ‘This is Israel,’ the ad implied that women in Israel hold equal positions of power with men.” I read the ad as simply implying that there are some pretty powerful women in Israel, which is true. But if you have to explain your decisions on your website, you’re already in trouble. Because that invites the rejected advertiser to critique your editorial content going back to the year dot; why, Kurlander wanted to know, did Ms. reject the AJCongress ad but run a friendly profile of Queen Noor of Jordan in 2003? Her implication is that Ms. has an anti-Israel, pro-Muslim tilt.
I spent an evening with the past three years of Ms., and, Queen Noor notwithstanding, its coverage of Israel seemed if anything more positive than its coverage of Muslim and/or Arab lands. But don’t take it from me; take it from Clare Kinberg, managing editor of Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal. “After looking through years of issues of Ms.,” she wrote in a letter to the Jewish Daily Forward, “I came away really furious, not with Ms., but with the American Jewish Congress for their scurrilous attack on the magazine.” Indeed, the just-published winter issue contains a flattering profile of Livni, one of the women in the AJCongress ad. (The genial Richard Gordon, president of the AJCongress, is not the only person who suspects it was damage control, but even if so, Ms. printed it.)
However, gender equality in Israel is not what this flap is about. It’s about walking into a trap labeled “political correctness” and “left-wing anti-Semitism” and “multiculturalist Islam-love.” Charges that Ms. is anti-Semitic and anti-Israel are now all over the web. The AJCongress organized a press conference featuring Phyllis Chesler, whose last book, The Death of Feminism, argues that the US feminist movement has abandoned the cause of global women’s rights because it is mired in a toxic mix of ’60s leftism, secularism, cultural relativism, political correctness and white guilt. Add anti-Semitism and stir!
This caricature has acquired a fair amount of currency in the media–so much so that Ms. should have seen how its rejection of the ad would play. Tiny as the incident may be, it fits an increasingly popular story line. In this version of recent history, American feminists are either indifferent to or actively hostile to the human rights of women around the world, because they are obsessed with their own largely imaginary problems (abortion rights, job discrimination and so on) or because they have learned in women’s studies courses that the West is evil and Islam is great; the people who really support human rights for women are, curiously, conservatives, the very people who oppose women’s rights here at home! You would never know that it was feminists, not the ladies of the Independent Women’s Forum, who identified as human rights issues such cultural practices as female genital mutilation, child marriage, forced marriage, compulsory religious garb, and the denial of education and healthcare to women and girls.
Are there feminists who fit the media stereotype? Definitely. But from what I have seen, the vast majority of women who call themselves feminists believe that women’s rights are human rights, whether in Iran or France or Palestine or Israel or the United States. To me, that’s what feminism is. And no, that belief doesn’t mean arrogantly informing happy people that they’re oppressed, much less supporting the invading of foreign countries under the rubric of women’s liberation. It means lending support, as requested, to the efforts of women, east, west, north and south, on behalf of gender justice and equality.
With advice and counsel from the History in Action e-mail list, I wrote An Open Letter From American Feminists to set the record straight on where we stand on women’s human rights. It’s been circulating on the web and by e-mail, and I’m happy to say that in just a week it’s been signed by around 1,200 feminists–women and men, young and old and in between from all walks of life. You can read it at www.thenation.com. If you’d like to sign, e-mail me at kpollitt at thenation.com and I’ll add your name. The Open Letter has already been attacked by David Horowitz and The Weekly Standard. So it must be right on target.