Posted in: Anti-Semitism, Feminism
Published on Mar 17, 2006 by Sandee Brawarsky
A Contrarian Feminist
Phyllis Chesler has been on the feminist frontlines for nearly 40 years, and she has always been bold in her stance. Now 65, she embraces many sides that in others might seem like contradictions but in Chesler comprise part of a humane whole. She's a religious Jew, an outspoken Zionist, an emeritus professor of psychology and women's studies, an American patriot and a global visionary. She lives with a woman, voted for George W. Bush and has been newly embraced by the right as she has been abandoned by many of her feminist sisters, who were dear friends.
There's a lot that's surprising about Phyllis Chesler these days. But what I don't expect when I meet her in her Upper East Side apartment is to find someone heimishe, the kind of warm host who has a table of snacks set out and invites a guest into the kitchen as she serves tea.
The title of her book also surprises, "The Death of Feminism: What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom" by Phyllis Chesler (Palgrave). But, it's not as though she thinks feminism is a dead movement. She's just upset with its failings and with the way many feminists have become intolerant and passive, more concerned with political correctness than speaking up for human rights.
Her 13th book is published at the same time an earlier book, the landmark, "Women and Madness" — which has sold 2.5 million copies — is reissued in a revised edition, for the first time in 30 years.
In Chesler's view, many feminists have become "cowardly herd animals and grim totalitarian thinkers." She sees many peers as more critical of Israel and America than of reactionary Islamic regimes. Among many feminists, it is considered racist or imperialist to speak out against what Chesler labels "gender apartheid," the acceptance in fundamentalist Islamic societies of, among other things, female genital mutilation, forced marriages of young girls, polygamy and "honor" crimes. In academic feminist circles she sees too much focus on bodily rights and sexual issues — not that she doesn't see their importance, but she believes there are more critical issues on the agenda.
In addition to her concern for the plight of women under rigid Islamic regimes, she's committed to exposing "Jew-hatred among intellectuals, including feminists," something she's been wrestling with since the early 1970s.
"Over time," she says, "history and human events forced me to refocus my attention, not that I'm in favor of war. I am now more concerned with Jewish survival than ever before."
Not surprisingly, many on the left have attacked her views. "I'm strong," she says, "so I can bear the consequences of this truth telling."
Her courage, she says, comes from God. "Where else, possibly?" She adds, "I act as though I have no fear, although I can be hurt."
Chesler writes well, building on her earlier body of work, looking at issues from the perspective of psychology, politics and personal experience. Her previous books include "The New Anti-Semitism" and "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman."
Her own story yields a surprising twist: a personal connection to women of Islam. Chesler grew up in an Orthodox home in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a child, she insisted on learning Hebrew and became a "socialist-mystical Zionist"; she joined the left-wing youth movement Hashomer Hatzair and later Ain Harod, a group that envisioned Jews and Arabs living collectively. Had she been a boy, she probably would have studied to be a cantor. She loved music and, in fact, she and Neil Sedaka played in a band together as teens.
In 1961, she married her college sweetheart — a Muslim young man from Afghanistan who had been away from home for 14 years and was an Omar Sharif look-alike. She married him, in part, so that they could travel together in Europe and visit his traditional family in Afghanistan — who wouldn't accept them unless they were married. Her plan was to stay for a few months, travel to Paris to study and then return to New York to complete her final semester. But things didn't turn out as planned.
In her chapter, "My Afghan Captivity," Chesler describes how her new husband seemed to change once they arrived in his country. She was shocked to learn that her wealthy father-in-law had three wives and that she was expected to wear a heavy veil in the street but mostly to stay at home cloistered with the other women in what felt like house arrest. Chesler, who had always spoken her mind, suddenly had no voice. Her passport was taken away upon arrival, and whenever she escaped, even to explore the city, she was followed and brought home.
Regularly, she saw women being beaten, and she heard, among her husband's relatives, of forced marriages and women being locked away. Her mother-in-law was particularly nasty, making it difficult for Chesler to eat foods digestible to a Western stomach. When Chesler finally managed to leave, she had hepatitis and weighed 90 pounds. She was also pregnant, and had her relatives known that, they would have made it truly impossible for her to leave. When she landed in New York, she kissed the ground. She went on to have an abortion and returned to college. Chesler has written about this experience before, but quietly, never with as much detail and candor as she does here.
"A woman does not forget such lessons — not if she manages to survive," she writes.
In 1979, when the Russians invaded, her former husband, who had become a government minister in Afghanistan, fled Kabul for New York. Chesler helped his family adjust to America, and introduced them to her Israeli second husband, the father of her son. She managed to create the kind of "extended network I've been proud of" but recently, after reading an advance copy of this book, he stopped talking to her, calling her a racist and liar.
In 1989, Chesler, who helped create Jewish rituals like the feminist Passover seder, began attending a women's Gemara class given by her friend Rivka Haut. She discovered that she loved learning Torah and being with learned women, and she continues to study weekly with Haut and another friend.
Close to the dining room table where she studies are tall bookcases filled with Jewish texts. Several shelves contain works of Torah commentary by women, arranged alphabetically, from Rachel Adler to Aviva Zornberg. In another section, adjacent to volumes of the Steinsaltz and Schottenstein editions of the Talmud, she points to "The Szold," giving Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold credit for her unsung work on Louis Ginzberg's multi-volume midrashic anthology, "Legends of the Jews."
"I'm meta-denominational," Chesler says. After belonging to an egalitarian Conservative synagogue while recently living in Brooklyn, she now enjoys attending a nearby Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Orach Chaim, where she finds the congregants very welcoming — a standard set by Rabbi Michael Shmidman. After our meeting, she heads to his weekly Bible class. She shrugs her shoulders at the fact that she's found a shul she's very comfortable in, where she and her partner sit together in the women's section, wearing pants. She continues to believe that women should be on the bima and have aliyot, and keeps on fighting for women's rights within Judaism.
"Does anything happen completely as an accident?" she laughs.
"Who am I now? Am I Orthodox? I'm kosher; I sit and study Torah. Am I a traditional Jewish woman? I don't think so."
Last month, she attended Betty Friedan's funeral with her old friend Kate Millett. There, many of the feminists "who have stopped talking to me, who say I'm a racist who has gone over to the dark side, were hugging and kissing me and I them. Like warriors who lay down their spears when death comes to call."
Chesler admits that she's not totally comfortable criticizing Islam from the outside, and seeks partners in conversation.
"I'm searching for another kind of voice in Islam," Chesler says. "There have to be quieter voices who are trying to wrestle from with their tradition from within. We need to work together. " She has put out the call and is also interested in dialogue with right-wing Christian women.
"A more religious worldview has allowed me the possibility of not demonizing people of all faiths," she says.
Chesler, who writes regularly for FrontPage magazine and the Jewish Press, calls on the American government to build protection of women into international trade treaties. She remains hopeful, steadfast in her belief that women can and must make a difference in the world.
"I'm not willing to be quiet when my house is on fire," she says.
On the way out the door, she picks up a turquoise ceramic container that hasn't lost its brilliant color in 45 years — it's the one object she carried back from Afghanistan.
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