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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Anti-Semitism, Feminism

Published on Mar 31, 2004 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Hadassah Magazine

Letter from New York: Left Behind


Today the entire Arab Middle East is Judenrein; there are no Jews left in 22 Arab countries and the twenty-third and smallest state remains under constant siege.

On November 8, 2003, the anniversary of the eve of Kristallnacht, I addressed a woman's "networking" conference of mainly black and Hispanic-American feminists. The conference, sponsored by WERISE (Women Empowered through Revolutionary Ideas Supporting Enterprise), held at Barnard College, was described as a grassroots, multicultural, multigenerational and multidisciplinary organization for women in the arts.

Indeed, the women seemed to range in age from 20 to 65 and were dressed in corporate business suits, various ethnic attire, youthful jeans.

Booths were arranged in a semicircle—it was as if the panels and performances were taking place in an African outdoor marketplace. Scented candles, beaded drums, photographs, Citi-banking for women consultants and colorful skirts vied for my attention.

The conference was closed to men—but one of the organizers made a split-second decision to allow my adult son in and seated him by himself at the very back of the room on a chair set apart. Growing up in a feminist household, he was used to this. We still sighed over it.

A few days before the conference I had the following conversation with one of the organizers. She asked me what my most recent book was and I told her it was The New Anti-Semitism. I explained that Jew-hatred was a form of racism—only it was not being treated as such by anti-racist "politically correct" people. The organizer only said: "We need you to explain the ways in which women sabotage each other so that we can overcome it and come together. We need you to talk about your book Woman's Inhumanity to Woman [Plume]. Your speech will precede our big Unity panel."

When I arrived, performers were rapping and singing and dancing and the energy was fabulous. I whispered to my son: "There's still a whole world out there. Perhaps I have become too obsessed with the Jewish Cause, with Israel. Maybe I need to remember that I am deeply connected to more than one issue."

While I was speaking, the women in the audience applauded, sighed, cheered, nodded in agreement, laughed, groaned, nudged each other—it was a half hour of good vibes.

And then my first questioner blew it all to hell. All it took was 'The Question' and it only required one Questioner. She demanded to know where I stood on the issue of the women of Palestine. Her tone was hostile, relentless—and prepared.

I took a deep breath and said that I did not respect people who hijacked airplanes or conferences or who, at this very moment, were trying to hijack this lecture. I pointed out that the subject of my talk was not Israel or Palestine. She grew even more hostile and demanding. "Tell this audience what you said on WBAI. I heard you." Clearly, she wanted to unmask me before this audience as a Jew-lover and an Israel-defender.

I took the question head-on. "If you're really asking about apartheid, let me talk about it. Contrary to propaganda, Israel is not an apartheid state. The largest practitioner of apartheid in the world is Islam, which practices both gender and religious apartheid. In terms of gender apartheid, Palestinian women—and most women who live under Islam—are oppressed by 'honor' killings, in which girls and women who are raped are then killed by family members for the sake of restoring the family 'honor'; forced veiling, segregation, stonings to death for alleged adultery, female genital mutilation, polygamy, outright slavery, sexual slavery. Women have few civil, legal, or human rights under Islam."

I continued: "Islam also specializes in religious apartheid. All non-Muslims—Christians, Jews, Assyrians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, animists—have historically been viewed and treated as subhumans who must either convert to Islam or be mercilessly taxed, beaten, jailed, murdered, or exiled."

"Today," I said, "the entire Arab Middle East is Judenrein, there are no Jews left in 22 Arab countries. And the Arab leadership has backed the P.L.O. strategy in which the twenty-third and smallest state remains under constant siege. Jews cannot become citizens of Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example, and yet no one accuses those nations of apartheid." I said that Israel is not an apartheid state.

Clearly, they had not heard this before. The audience collectively gasped. Then people went a little crazy.

Someone muttered darkly, coarsely, in a near-growl: "What about the checkpoints? What about the fence?" As if checkpoints and fences are the same as being killed by your father for the crime of having been raped was really the same as having your clitoris sliced off, the same as being stoned to death for alleged adultery. The first questioner demanded that I denounce Ariel Sharon—but not Yasser Arafat—as a murderer. I absolutely refused to do so.

The lightning rod of "Palestine" was enough to turn a very friendly audience quite nasty and a bit unhinged. As I left the podium, a young African-American woman stopped me to say that I'd "hurt" her by how I had "disrespected" a "brown" woman. "What brown woman?" I asked. "Your first questioner was a brown woman," she said, "and so are Palestinian women."

I said: "Jewish women, especially in Israel, also come in many colors including brown and black." She stopped me. "But you're a white Jew." As if this was proof of a crime.

I did not bother to tell her that without my glasses I could not see the face or color of a questioner so far away, that my answer to the question would have been the same no matter what color the questioner happened to be.

As I was trying to leave, one woman loped after me and continued to demand that I deal with the Palestine question. She kept trying to get at me physically. One of the organizers kept putting her own body between this woman and me. The conference organizers who had invited me thanked me for coming and looked rather embarrassed about what had happened.

What's important is this: Not one of them tried to stop what was happening, not one stood up and said: "Something good has just turned ugly and we must not permit this to happen." Thus, the "good" people did nothing to disperse the ugliness or to address the issues. Perhaps they were simply unprepared on the issues; perhaps they agreed with the view that Israel is an apartheid state and that anyone who would dare defend it was supposed to be treated as a traitor and enemy. Perhaps they simply lacked the courage to stand up to the "politically correct" fundamentalists in their midst.

Like so many Jewish Americans of my generation, I had thrown myself into the civil rights movement and, for 40 years, into so many other liberation struggles against racism, colonialism and sexism. I do not regret this.

Here's what's so sad. Clearly, my speech touched hearts and minds; there was room for common ground and civilized discourse. But not once the word "Palestine" was uttered, not when "Palestine" is seen as a symbol for every downtrodden group of color who are "resisting" the racist-imperialist American and Zionist empires. Once the "Palestine" litmus test of political respectability was raised, everyone responded on cue, as if programmed and brainwashed. It immediately became a white-versus- brown thing, an oppressed-versus-oppressor thing.

These are the Brownshirts of our time. The fact that they are women of color, feminists, is all the more chilling and tragic. And unbelievable. And to me, practically unbearable.

Afterward, my son, ever-wise, said, "Well Mom, you have your answer. The Jew-haters will never allow you into their wider, wonderful world. You can't go back."

I should have seen this coming.

I first began to encounter Jew-hatred on the left in the late 1960's, especially after Israel successfully defended itself in the 1967 war. I spoke out about this right away and have never stopped doing so. All throughout the 1970's, I brought journalists and ideologues to Israel and courted countless celebrity signatures to oppose the resolutions equating Zionism with racism. I also worked for the United Nations, attended the Copenhagen conference, and was an eyewitness-participant in the Russian-P.L.O.-Arab-U.N. orchestrated orgy against Israel in which Israel was demonized as the whipping girl of the world.

Today, these same ideologues and their intellectual descendants are still not thundering against gender apartheid in the Islamic world; they are thundering against Israel as the apartheid state. Some of them are also wonderfully progressive Jews.

Thus, some Jewish feminists and leftists are more concerned with the so-called occupation of Palestine than with the occupation of women's bodies, worldwide.

For example, a feminist rabbi recently had a representative of the P.L.O. address her congregation on Yom Kippur. Another Jewish feminist recently gave a speech about the future of Jewish feminism in which she said that "Jewish feminism would have no future if the Palestinians did not have a state and if Israel did not redress the wrongs done to the Palestinians."

An Israeli Jewish feminist rebuked me when I called for "equal compassion for the Israeli Jewish civilian victims of Islamist terrorism." She accused me of betraying the cause of both peace and women by calling for rachmones for other Jews. (Who could make this up?) An Israeli Jewish feminist psychiatrist described the Israelis as "batterers" and the Palestinians as "battered women."

A leading feminist described Israelis as the "Johns and pimps" and the Palestinians as the "prostituted women of the world."

Such condemnation by metaphor is what Jews, Israel and America have been suffering both in the media and in Western academia. Intellectuals have described Israelis as "worse than Nazis." In my view, this is a new form of Holocaust denial. No feminist worth her salt would say that because a man is unemployed or oppressed he is justified in beating his wife or abusing his child.

Let me be clear. There was no physical rioting at Barnard. I was not in physical danger—although toward the end even the otherwise passive organizers started to surround me to protect me; they gently hustled me out.

What happened at the conference was important for this reason: I was there as an authority, a leader. The audience was grooving on every word I said. But once I was "unmasked" as a Jew-lover and an Israel-defender, I was instantly seen as a traitor. There was no reserve of trust or respect toward me—not after I'd crossed over this "politically correct" line.

I hope this was an isolated instance. I fear it was not. Thus, if Jewish and non-Jewish educators were to speak out for Israel and for Judaism on campus, at rallies, they may risk just this kind of mistreatment at the hands of their peers and students. In fact, many professors and students have written to me and said that this is indeed the case.

We must create pockets of civility in which people can stand up to the Big Lies (the Jews control Wall Street, the media, the United States government; they killed Jesus and are now perpetrating a Holocaust on the Palestinians). We must be able to speak the truth—especially on college campuses and at conferences—without being mocked, scorned, silenced and intimidated.


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