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My Jewish Feminist Problem: Why My Sisters Can’t Think Straight About Israel



Western feminists have been vocal about their hatred of Israel but refuse to acknowledge that the true purveyors of apartheid and racism around the world are Islamic countries. It is in these countries that women are denied basic human rights

In 1969, Leila Khaled became the first Palestinian woman to hijack a plane (TWA), which she had flown to Damascus

Dr. Chesler had first encountered anti-Semitism among women on the feminist left in the late 1960s and early 1970s

Adapted from the revised and updated edition of The New Anti-Semitism (Gefen Publishing)

I had first encountered anti-Semitism among women on the feminist left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that period it was quite fashionable among the “radical chic” to despise Israel as a “racist,” Eurocentric state, a puppet of U.S. imperialism, and oppressor of the newly underdog Palestinians. Never mind the actual ethnic and cultural diversity of the emerging Jewish state, the intransigence of the surrounding Arab nations in their stated intention to destroy Israel and push the Jews back into the sea where they had come from. No, my feminist friends and colleagues could not tolerate this little nation’s struggle for identity and survival against overwhelming odds because the Israelis were Jews, and Jews were held to a different standard. They were fair game for self-righteous attacks from progressive feminists who were, in my opinion, guilty of frank and outright anti-Semitism.

I called anti-Semitism by its rightful name immediately and have not stopped doing so ever since. But my credentials as a radical were impeccable, so when I began wearing big Jewish stars to rallies, I was neither challenged nor shunned. Perhaps my Star of David was seen as a mere fashion statement; perhaps I got away with it because I was the “right” kind of Jew: secular, ideologically sophisticated, universalistic, anti-racist. I had even been married to a Muslim. I worked with Iranian Muslims against the Shah. I was one cool Jew.

What do I mean by anti-Semitism? I mean the raw and filthy kind, in which the prejudice is both blatant and eroticized, without any left political cover. For example, I once rescued a (Christian) feminist colleague from being psychiatrically institutionalized against her will. Afterwards, she treated me to a monologue about how “The Jews are dirtying up the beaches.” Poor soul, she reminded me that when one goes mad, one’s political or philosophical orientation cannot withstand the ideas embedded in our collective unconscious. A stream of anti-Semitic vitriol came flying out of this genius’s mouth.

Another (Christian) feminist confided in me. She said that in her view, “the pushy Jews had taken over the feminist and lesbian movements;” she was very unhappy about this. She was proud of her friendship with one particular Jewish woman, but she also viewed the “pushy” Jewish women as “slutty, sexy” scoundrels.

A third feminist, an African-American (Christian) woman of enormous beauty and dignity continually confronted me, albeit privately. She said: “How can you call yourself a feminist and still support Israel, an apartheid state?” Nothing I ever said about Israel ever got through to her. She understood the symbolic and political importance of African-Americans converting to Islam, of African nationalism; she simply did not extend the courtesy to the Jews.

A fourth feminist, who was living and teaching in Colorado, told me that she’d been thrown out of her feminist consciousness-raising group for being “too pushy, too smart, too verbal.” I was astounded. “Are you Jewish?” I asked. “Was anyone else Jewish in your group?”

“No, I was the only one. But I never thought of it this way.”

A fifth feminist blamed Betty Friedan’s homophobia and woman-hatred primarily on her “heterosexual Judaism.” A sixth feminist blamed what she saw as Bella Abzug’s rage and self-destructive ambition on her Judaism and probable Zionism. (I must say that Bella was as compassionate as she was angry and that her Zionism was of a limited nature.)

Encountering such anti-Semitism within progressive political circles sent me straight to Israel for the first time. In 1972, when I was in Tel Aviv, I remember coming upon a review of my recently published first book, Women and Madness, in Time magazine. Freud was caricatured as a big-nosed, ugly, pygmy-midget, clearly “in lust” with the tall, blonde Viking Princess on his couch. The pure racism just leapt off the page at me. I was shocked. I hated the anti-Semitic illustration even more than the reviewer’s anti-feminist bias.

Between 1973 and 1975 I tried, but, with the exception of Aviva Cantor and Cheryl Moch, failed to interest other Jewish feminists in meeting on a continuous basis to discuss the problem of anti-Semitism. At the time, one rising feminist light said: “Phyllis, it may be a problem, but it’s not my problem.” Another said that she didn’t identify as a Jew anyway—and hoped I’d give it up too.

By the late 1970s I had begun working for the United Nations. I coordinated a conference in Oslo that took place right before the 1980 United Nations World Conference on Women in Copenhagen. I saw with my own eyes how the entire agenda, both officially and unofficially, was hijacked by the PLO, Soviet Russia, the Arab League, and Khomeini’s Iran. The official United Nations conference voted 94 to 4 for a 186-point “plan of action” that included a paragraph that listed Zionism as one of the world’s main evils, along with colonialism and apartheid. Cuba submitted this amendment when the conference formally opened.

Copenhagen was my first post-modern “pogrom,” and I put it in quotes because it was not like the pogroms of old in which synagogues were torched, women raped, babies thrown up on bayonets, men tortured and murdered. It was something else: a “pogrom” of non-stop words and ideas, an exercise in total intimidation perhaps similar to those perfected in Russia and China that are supposed to result in ego-breakdown, “confession,” a show trial, and death. There is no absolution. The method was now being fine-tuned for use in an international setting filled with ardent, active, naive women.

Official delegates blamed their own regional problems on Zionism and apartheid. Bands of 30 to 50 Soviet-trained Arab and Iranian women, headed by PLO representatives roved the hallways. They had been trained to interrupt each and every NGO panel and to take them over with propaganda against America and against Israel. Their behavior was that of attackers on the march, bullies. They did not pretend to be feminists or to be concerned with women. They did not have to be: No one held them to this standard.

The bullies made no eye contact with anyone as they yelled “Jews must die! Israel must die! Israel kills babies and tortures women. Israel must go!” Many of the unofficial panels were also rigged so that moderators only called upon pro-PLO speakers from the audience. In one panel, they interrupted a speaker for five full minutes with the following chant: “Cuba sí, yanqui no, PLO, PLO!” I heard women say: “The only good Jew is a dead Jew,” and “Zionism is a disease which must be attacked at the cellular level.”

Mina Ben-Zvi, who had commanded the Israeli women’s armed forces in the 1948 War of Independence, wept in my arms. She could not believe that both Israelis and Jews could still be so irrationally hated. Many Jewish women were completely unprepared for the battle-level animosity, its uniformity, omnipresence, ruthlessness. I had personally sent for civil rights member of Knesset Shula Aloni, the founder of Israel’s Civil Rights Party (Meretz) to debate Leila Khaled, who in 1969 became the first Palestinian woman to hijack a plane (TWA), which she had flown to Damascus.

“I will only talk to her out of the barrel of a gun,” Khaled said.

Aloni was unfazed, as was Tamar Eshel, then the head of Na’amat. But, most other Israeli Jewish women experienced Copenhagen as a psychological pogrom. For months afterward, many could not and would not talk about it. They would start talking, then start crying, or start talking and abruptly stop; they said that they were unable to convey what Copenhagen had been like in words.

Thus, anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist goon squads were already well-trained and on the march long before Israel was forced to invade Lebanon in 1982. Such programmed hate was upon us long before Sharon ascended the Temple Mount in 2000. And it rained down upon us from both the left and the right, and from all four corners of the globe.

In 1980, in Copenhagen and Oslo, I met otherwise pleasant and progressive Scandinavians who automatically supported the PLO and automatically hated Israel—reason be damned. As socialists, they had already been well programmed to espouse the most profound disgust and hatred for all things American, Jewish, and Zionist—and in the most aggressive manner. Their considerable anger with religion did not lead them to march against the Vatican, but it did lead them to “march” symbolically against the Zionists. Their anger at imperialism did not lead the Danes or their counterparts all over Europe to demand that France, England, Holland, Spain, and Germany pay serious reparations to all those whom they formerly colonized; but it did lead them and their European counterparts to scapegoat both America and Israel, as America’s “imperialist” outpost in the Middle East.

Phyllis Chesler, an Emerita Professor of Psychology at City University of New York, is the author of fifteen books, including Women and Madness, An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award and the updated version of The New Anti-Semitism

(Gefen Publishers).

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