A Feminist for Zion
Phyllis Chesler's unlikely assault on the new anti-Semitism.
Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
The New Anti-Semitism
A FUNNY THING happened to Phyllis Chesler on the way to the Hall of Fame of radical feminism. She was a shoo-in, even though she is a practicing Jew who finds in Judaism more than a myth fostering patriarchal oppression. Such a liability pales when set beside the fact that Phyllis Chesler is the author of "Women and Madness." Published in 1972, the book is now available in a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition. In the author's own words in a new introduction, it has sold "more than two and one-half million copies" and been "translated into many languages including Japanese and Hebrew." A sprawling work of almost four-hundred pages, it is a "classic" in the literature of feminism.
But then, at about 11 A.M. on September 11, 2001, she walked over to her computer and typed the sentence, "Now, we are all Israelis." In the resulting book, "The New Anti-Semitism," Chesler has in mind a more intimate connection between Israel and the United States. It is not only that in the diseased minds of the terrorists the two countries are virtually indistinguishable evils. It is also that--in an astonishing number of places around the world--the Jews are being blamed for the destruction of the World Trade Center: either because of some conspiracy theory that Zionists planned the attack, or because of some root-cause theory that the sinful existence and history of Israel is the reason behind the attack. The name of this sick and sickening belief is anti-Semitism.
Chesler's analysis of what she calls the "old anti-Semitism," traditional murderous hatred of Jews, is entirely conventional and not entirely convincing: Anti-Semitism consists of scapegoating the Jews for all that is wrong in the world. What is more, in pointing to the cruelties Christianity has inflicted on Jews, she does not do enough to explain pre-Christian anti-Semitism. It can be said on Chesler's behalf, however, that nobody has ever understood the phenomenon perfectly, certainly not the Zionists with their noble delusion that a Jewish state would solve the Jewish problem. So mysterious is it that one can sympathize with those Jews of the nineteenth century who took refuge in irony and said anti-Semitism consists of disliking Jews more than is reasonable.
In any event, Chesler hits her stride only when she turns to the new anti-Semitism, which she identifies as "the most virulent anti-Zionism, which in turn has increasingly held the Jewish people everywhere, not only in Israel, accountable for the military policies of the Israeli government." She admits and even asserts that it is possible to oppose particular policies of Israel and even the idea of a Jewish state without being guilty of hating Jews--though anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have always overlapped more than anti-Zionists admit, and in practice there is scarcely a difference any longer. Only anti-Semitism can explain the ceaseless special and unjust treatment of one nation among the nations.
A further novelty of the new anti-Semitism is that "it is being perpetrated in the name of antiracism and anticolonialism." In other words it speaks the language of the left. The left's historical record is by no means pure (Chesler might have mentioned Karl Marx's repulsive rhetoric in "On the Jewish Question"), but traditionally, anti-Semitism has been more often on the right than on the left. Today, hatred of the Jews unleashes its intolerance in the name of toleration, seeks the exclusion of Jews in the name of inclusivity, and spreads hate in the name of universal brotherhood.
Chesler makes no bones about the fact that this new anti-Semitism is rampant among feminists and other radicals; it infects a number of her former comrades in arms and friends. Her former allies will find in her a formidable opponent, for she backs up what she says with a wealth of factual material. What is more, she has impeccable credentials for now defending Israel, for she has criticized the nation in the past. She fought vehemently for the equality of women praying at the Western Wall. She has been, and she continues to be a harsh critic of the role of the settlements in Israeli life. She writes, "I regret nothing. I am not recanting my ideals as a civil-rights worker, as a member of the antiwar movement, or as a feminist." Nevertheless, both her friends and her enemies will be tempted to shout, "You've come a long way, baby." She does not lose her composure when she speaks of Ariel Sharon, and she is capable of mentioning with approval such writers as Daniel Pipes, Yoram Hazony, Charles Krauthammer, and the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (whom she resembles in certain respects).
Unfortunately, "The New Anti-Semitism" is something of a mess. The prose frequently falls victim to dubious grammar and syntax. What is more, Chesler can be maddeningly repetitive, and her book conveys the impression of having been haphazardly thrown together rather than organized. This is a pity, for "The New Anti-Semitism" is a genuinely useful and even noble book--first of all because it is a compendium of material relevant to the case for Israel. It contains a summary of Arab attacks against Israel, the details of Islamic terrorism against the United States from the 1970s on, the sorry record of European anti-Semitism in our time--and lots more. If one wants "the goods" on media bias against Israel, this is the place one can turn to as an introduction. If one wants to find out what really happened at Jenin, one can find out here.
The book is also useful as a compendium of sensible advice. Chesler's suggestions are specific and down-to-earth. She counsels men and women to expose the lies about Israel (that is surely steady work). She urges Jews--and not only Jews--to set aside their schismatic instincts and doctrinal splits; she does not hesitate for a moment to urge those of her persuasion to "make common cause with the Christian left, right, and center, with whom we may disagree on other fundamentals."
When all is said and done, this book is bound to impress impartial readers by its author's courage. True courage does not so much consist in taking a stand against the majority as in taking a stand against one's peers; it is a willingness to forsake the cozy warmth of one's intimate group when integrity demands it.
This proud radical feminist has done just that. It behooves those of us who are neither feminists nor radicals to welcome her to the good fight.
Werner J. Dannhauser is a visiting professor in political theory at Michigan State University.