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April 21, 2016 by

The Narrowness of Media Boys Clubs: A Primary Passover Story

1449586107_61c9bee57f_z, Anthony Easton

On April 5, JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a Jewish news agency) issued a mea culpa for their list of the 25 Most Influential People on Jewish Twitter. Their original list included only 3 women, and a Times Of Israel piece by Jeremy Burton called them on it.

JTA recalibrated the list by excluding those who belong to the Jewish organizational world (which they identified as “a world that has been shown to be largely dominated by male leaders,” i.e., a boys club) and ended up with 8 women, “a more respectable showing.” But most importantly, they seemed to really get it. They admitted that they should have noticed that women were missing in action on the list, and they didn’t try to dodge Jewish accountability even as they rightly pointed out that the Jewish world is far from the only narrowly male realm (I’m an academic; believe me, I know lots about boys clubs, otherwise known as administration and boards of trustees).  

Andrew Silow-Carroll ended this “response to the response” to JTA’s Jewish Twitter Ranking with “So we agree with Burton’s overarching message. The Jewish community still has a lot to do in order to address a gender gap in positions of influence. It’s an issue that goes way beyond the confines of Twitter.” As a feminist academic who spends way too much time legitimizing Jewishness to my non-Jewish sisterhood, I was energized by a major Jewish news service validating feminist work.  

Fast forward to the day before the New York presidential primary. My inbox contained a listserv message from Steven Cohen, a social scientist whose work I admire a great deal and cite, though I don’t always agree with him. He included a link to a piece he wrote for JTA as a Jewish supporter of Bernie Sanders. After clicking on the link, I realized that his piece was part of a series titled “Ahead of NY Primary, Jewish Supporters Make the Case for Each Candidate.”

Even before I reached the op-ed on Trump, I had the sensation of being sucker punched. While Steven was for Sanders, Stuart wrote for Clinton, Nick supported Cruz, Bradley rallied behind Kasich, and Jason opined for Trump. Yes, all the invited Jewish op-ed writers were men.

So here are my Four Questions. Why is the radical gender imbalance of this series no different than the one that plagued its Twitter list? What definition of and assumptions about Jewish political commentators informed their choices? Why didn’t it occur to them that Jewish women might also have a stake in making a case for candidates? And why didn’t they learn from their own “response to the response”? Ironically, JTA itself proved once again just how much “the Jewish community still has….to do in order to address a gender gap in positions of influence. It’s an issue that goes way beyond the confines of Twitter.”

Lest anyone get confused and blame the Jews for patriarchy, let me be clear: the op-ed boys club is certainly not limited to the Jewish press or to JTA. Indeed, there’s a non-profit called the OpED Project, whose “starting goal is to increase the number of women thought leaders in key commentary forums to a tipping point.” The stats on that organization’s website relating to the gender imbalance on op-ed pages across our sometimes not so great nation make for depressing reading. But JTA doesn’t get a pass because they’re in good (or should I say bad) company.

Well-intentioned folks make mistakes. Lilith readers know all too well that sometimes organizations—even and especially feminist organizations—affirm that they support religious diversity but then schedule major events on major Jewish holidays. There are the heart-felt apologies, sometimes rescheduling (sometimes not), and always the promise of never again. We know that the institutions that welcome Jewish difference learn to read a calendar. We also know what it means when year after year, never again becomes business as usual.

So we also know what it means when business returns to usual two weeks after JTA’s gender mea culpa (actually, worse than usual—the Jewish supporters primary series included 0 women writers, while the original Jewish Tweeps of Influence list included 3). Make no mistake—business as or worse than usual is bad for the Jews. Business as usual reinforces a narrowness that belies the smarts and the creativity of a vital, diverse Jewish world. Jewish continuity is endangered when Jewish women are left out of the conversation or can only talk amongst ourselves. It’s not enough to acknowledge exclusion. Dayenu needs to be reserved for consistently engaging in good faith efforts of inclusion.  

It’s oppressive to be caught between a rock of feminism and a hard place of Jewishness. Next year in New York, Austin, Jerusalem—wherever Jews are gathering for Seder—may the sweetness of Jewish feminism consistently inform our communal conversations. Chag Sameach.


Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University. Most recently, she is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness and is currently writing a book on Jewish American cinema.