Law professor shifts research from women and jurisprudence to combating anti-Zionism
Defending IsraelUsing her voice

Law professor shifts research from women and jurisprudence to combating anti-Zionism

"I don't know what prize we win by hiding and being scared, other than forgetting who we are."

Rona Kaufman. (Photo courtesy of Rona Kaufman)
Rona Kaufman. (Photo courtesy of Rona Kaufman)

Rona Kaufman is tired of the silence, tired of the noise.

Since Oct. 7, a cacophonous mix has grown, she explained: Some Jews are spewing vitriol, others are placing their heads in the sand.

Kaufman said her platform necessitates another path.

The Squirrel Hill resident is an associate professor at Duquesne University’s law school and teaches about the Constitution, gender and employment discrimination.

Like many, she’s spent the past five months consumed by the Israel-Hamas war and the reactions that it’s spurred. But the daughter of Israeli parents and Holocaust-surviving grandparents isn’t interested in using her classroom for politics du jour; instead, she has a keyboard and a need to cite.

Scores of academicians are waging battles on X (formerly Twitter) and other social media sites.

Kaufman focuses on listservs and law reviews, where “in one sentence an anti-Zionist can basically throw out four different blood libels: that Israel is a settler-colonialist, racist, apartheid and genocidal state,” she said. “If believed, they can destroy everything about the history of how this country was created and what it is today.”

Countering the common barrage of accusations hurled at Jews and the Jewish state is labor intensive, as following a traditional format of citation, deduction and proof requires nearly eight pages of writing, she said.

Kaufman is up to the task, but the process has taken its toll, she said.

As opposed to “being on defense, and responding to lies and trying to undo lies,” the Squirrel Hill resident and mother of three said she’s adopting a new tactic: writing an origin story of Zionism.

David Ben-Gurion (left) signs the Declaration of Independence held by Moshe Sharett with Eliezer Kaplan looking on at the Tel Aviv museum on Rothschild Boulevard on May 14, 1948. (Photo courtesy of Government Press Office via Flickr at

Scholars already have documented how the political movement emerged from religious Zionism, but, Kaufman said, “I’m coming at it from a gendered lens. I believe that an incredibly important motivation for political Zionism was the role of sexual assault in the pogroms that were taking place in Europe and in other parts of the world.”

Throughout 1919, hundreds of Eastern European Jewish women were raped, tortured and publicly humiliated. Documented cases in Skvira, a town southwest of Kyiv; Rakitino, a shtetl south of Kyiv; and Smela, a town southeast of Kyiv, depict horrifying episodes from merely a century ago.

Political Zionism, according to Kaufman, emerged from a world in which Jewish women were repeatedly violated.

The backdrop is also a prism into the current war, she continued: “The way we’re seeing Israel respond to Oct. 7, I believe, is in large part because of the role of sexual assault in Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7.”

Kaufman said she envisions a book where chapters are initially published by law reviews and then coalesced and refined for “popular consumption.”

Her working title is “Zionism is a Women’s Liberation Movement.”

The passion project is “deeply personal” and, in some ways, stems from a place of worry.

“I’m absolutely horrified by what I’m seeing in the news and what’s going on in academia,” Kaufman said. “I feel a little bit helpless. This is what I think I have available to contribute, so I’m going to contribute it and hope that it makes some difference.”

That mindset has fueled her scholarship. Early in her career, she wrote about the intersection of law and motherhood.

“It started there because I was a young lawyer who was having a baby,” she said. “I was working at a big law firm and trying to make that work-life balance work and really struggling because we don’t have the support in the U.S. that we should have. In part, that’s what prompted me to leave practice and transition to academia.”

Her interest in women and the law led to further research into sexual assault, violence against women and patriarchal violence.

Now, she’s interested in anti-Zionism.

Last month, Kaufman joined the 3rd Annual Law vs. Antisemitism Conference at Florida International University, where she participated in a panel discussion about antisemitism, race and gender, and a public dialogue on how the events of Oct. 7 and the Israel-Hamas war are “affecting the U.S. legal academy.”

She has also shared research on the growth of anti-Zionism at events with Duquesne’s Jewish law student association and spoken publicly during the weekly Bring Them Home rallies in Squirrel Hill.

The collective activities represent an “all-encompassing” approach, she said.

There’s also an innately personal element to the scholarship.

“I have a daughter who’s a soldier in Israel, and I have a son who’s also in Israel,” Kaufman said. “And I have a ton of family in Israel, and I spend a ton of time in Israel.”

Whether writing about jurisprudence and motherhood or attitudes about Israel, “academic research is really autobiographical,” she said — which is part of the reason why this moment confuses so many individuals.

There’s a privilege that comes from being Jewish in America where people can not only bifurcate Judaism and Zionism but “really think that nothing could ever turn on them,” Kaufman said. Aside from the fact that “half of the commandments in the Torah can only be performed in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel),” standing up and supporting Zionism is a relatively uncomfortable expression.

The democratic action requires a shift in thinking, she continued: “Finally, after thousands of years, we are free people, so act like a free people … unless you really believe that our destiny is to be a persecuted oppressed violated minority wherever we go, and that this is just the cross we want to bear.”

Kaufman is a proponent of Jewish education and communal involvement. Her three children graduated from Community Day School. She served as president of its PTO and on the board of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Years before becoming a lawyer, she taught at Rodef Shalom Congregation and Tree of Life.

“I love this community,” she said. “Right now, my focus is very much on Israel.”

The clamor that comes from clinging to perpetual victimhood or trying to separate Jews and Judaism from Israel is “absurd,” Kaufman said. “The reality is — and I feel this very much as a woman in the world and also as a Jew in the world — we as a people, as the Jewish people, haven’t been a free people for very long.”

She urges others to read history, gain perspective and speak up.

“I don’t know what prize we win by hiding and being scared, other than forgetting who we are,” she said. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

read more: