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Posted in: Anti-Semitism, Jihad & Terrorism

Published on Jul 23, 2003 by Mickey Pearlman

Written for JBooks.com

Chesler Takes a Stand


Phyllis Chesler, author of the landmark feminist classic Women and Madness, Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies, psychotherapist, and expert courtroom witness, says that recent events made writing The New Anti-Semitism mandatory.

Chesler has "been dealing with anti-Semitism on the Left, among progressives and feminists since 1971" and now finds herself dealing with "the unexpected anti-Semitism among European intellectuals and members of the American academic community." So, in 2002, when "a literary agent, someone who liked my work, asked, 'What do you want to write about?', I decided to write the book in six months, hardly leaving the house in Park Slope and also endangering my health." She was energized by reminding herself that "after 9/11 I thought everyone would get it, that we are all Israelis, but instead what we got were the reports of false massacres," endless examples of "blaming the victims," and footage on CNN of Arabs "dancing in the blood of Israelis." She decided reluctantly that "you can't escape Jewish history" and that there is a "good chance it is repeating itself."

While writing as a feminist, Chesler says, "I never hid the fact that I was a Zionist. But because my intellectual feminism was so compelling" the other feminists, with whom she has long been associated, "let my Zionism pass, I wasn't shunned, and it didn't become a sticking point. What happened is that in 2000 I began to see on listserv groups [group e-mails]—all from professional women who are serious—nothing but propaganda, not talk about trauma and rape, which are important feminist discussions—but doctrinaire, well-orchestrated nonstop vitriol against Israel, nonstop suspicion of Judaism, and nonstop anti-Americanism. And this was of course before 9/11. I tried to use my personal authority to get the feminists not to silence Zionists and lovers of Judaism, but I was answered by goon squads and bullies."

What was being lost, she felt, was "the ability to think clearly while wading through stereotypes." She realized that "the problem is not only unexamined anti-Semitism but the ability to read and think as opposed to getting Brand X truth, TV debate, and weepfest." She remembered the United Nations conferences in 1980 "which were really about the demonizing of Israel and were really dominated by PLO goon squads who had been trained to disrupt, demonize, and terrify Israeli and Jewish women." Chesler's epiphany was that the UN experience had really been the turning point and that her listserv experiences were an extension of what had been brewing in political and academic circles for some time.

Chesler did not have to start from step one in thinking about Judaism or about anti-Semitism since she grew up in an Orthodox home in Borough Park and "although I fled it, I have a feeling for it." She now identifies herself as a meta-denominationalist, conservative rather than Orthodox, whose greatest joy is in Torah study. She feels most comfortable now "with religious women who are somewhat conservative and traditional, but who are also feminists who do not believe that women are the same as men or should necessarily do the same things they do." Still, she has not forgotten that "on the other hand, I am a radical feminist."

She was hurt and shocked into action (and long days of writing) when even Israeli feminists attacked her for saying what she considered to be obvious and basic: that "we should be evenhanded in how we dole out compassion." Now Chesler is convinced that "Leftists have decided that Palestinians are the new symbol for women—that when the Palestinians get a State, all suffering for women and intellectuals will end," and that this "romantic notion" is both insidious and dangerous. She has "tried to get the message across" that you can't "mindlessly embrace a symbol" and that the Left is, in fact, "embracing an Islamo-fascist world" as a symbol, and forgetting "who they are, and who they were, long before Israel was created and an American empire came into being."

Although she remains most interested in "motherhood and psychiatric mistreatment," subjects of her previous books, Chesler has turned to the subject of anti-Semitism because she feels "dismayed by the betrayal of the truth and of the Jews." She is open about her support for the war in Iraq and Bush's agenda in Afghanistan (if not his domestic agenda), and she is clear in her own mind that the Taliban spawned "a horrible level of genocide" and that Saddam was "a mass murderer." "Some of what Bush is doing," she says, "is not merely for the oil companies" and she believes him in any case to be a "man of faith."

In her book and in person, Chesler emphasizes that it is time for "Jews to stop fighting with each other." For her part, she says, she will also "reason with any Christian or Muslim of good will." But as for the Jews, says Chesler, "they are my people," wherever they live. "I will not break ranks. I'll be with them." In the Middle East, "a region fraught with fratricide, it will take a miracle" to achieve peace. "But I am hopeful. We are on Day Two."


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