An Interview with Phyllis Chesler:
American Feminist and Zionist Activist
“Where there’s a will there’s a halakhic way,” says Phyllis Chesler in an answer below to a question on the rights of Orthodox Jewish women who can’t get a religious divorce. Halakha is the way, the path, that Orthodox Jews follow. Chesler has a will and is working to redirect that path as she has worked to change the way that women are viewed and view themselves in society. She has also been writing in defense of Israel, and her recent books, The New Anti-Semitism [reviewed in Midstream February/March 2004] and The Death of Feminism [reviewed in Midstream January/February 2007] have been concerned with that issue.
There are also Muslims who have the will to change the way that women are viewed and to open Islamic society to modernity and democracy. Chesler attended a conference held in St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 4 and 5, 2007. She chaired the opening panel there. Thirteen of the speakers had been born and raised as Muslims; two were Arab Christians, and Chesler was Jewish. We can read her report, “Two Days Among Heroes,” on her website, www.phyllis-chesler.com.
Phyllis Chesler and I were both colleagues at the College of Staten Island, but we hardly knew each other. We were in different departments and our paths rarely crossed. Recently, we have been getting to know each other better, and the interview below is part of that process.
GJ: You became famous as the author of Women and Madness. You are now writing about Israel. There is no contradiction, of course, but was the transition easy, or was there a moment of internal conflict?
PC: I became a Zionist in 1948, when I was 8 years old, and on my own in Boro Park, joined Hashomer Hatzair. My orthodox parents were horrified, and they brought a rabbi in to thunder at me that I had joined a Godless communist organization and they thundered enough to persuade me to join a group that was to the left of Hashomer Hatzair, which was called Ain Harod, which had a vision of Jews and Arabs living collectively on the land together. What a utopian, mystical vision! And I packed machine gun parts for Israel. As a child and as a Jewish woman Zionism seemed a vision of liberation, liberation from family life the many curfews and demands and perhaps spiritual liberation as well. I believe that even though I was very influenced by my Afghanistan experience [described in The Death of Feminism] and by my involvement in the 1960s civil-rights movement, my feminism was also influenced by my Zionism. I was a very radical feminist and always perceived as such, but I always identified myself as a Jew.
.....I knew Muslims, I knew Palestinians, I knew some of the issues which many ideologues did not know, so I was wrestling with issues of Jew-hatred on the Left, and on the lesbian feminist left, from the 1970s on. So what did this mean? It meant that I organized Jewish feminist conferences early on, when most of the feminists who have since forged careers based on their Jewish identities didn’t believe me that anti-Semitism or Judaism were issues and said then that they weren’t issues or weren’t important. In the 1970s, together with Aviva Cantor and Cheryl Moch, I organized the first Jewish Feminist conferences. I was also one of the founders of one of the first feminist Pesach seders, which got a lot of attention, and I was involved with creating and participating in feminist versions of Jewish life-cycle rituals. Again, it got a good deal of newsprint. So it’s not as if I was not fighting as a Jew while I was a radical feminist.
.....In 1979, I was working at the United Nations. I organized what I hoped would be a great conference, identifying leaders from around the world, 1979-80. I held the conference in Oslo, so that we could all travel easily to Copenhagen where the second world conference on women would take place. That conference, as you may recall, was a psychological pogrom against the Jewish state and I literally went without sleep. I worked with the Israeli mishlachat. Let me give you a poignant anecdote. Weeping in my arms in Copenhagen was a small woman, Mina ben Tsvi, who was the commander of Chen, the Israeli women’s armed forces, in 1948. She was the founder of an influential Haifa-based institute to train women in certain technical scientific career areas, mainly in Africa and Asia. Mina was saying, “What is it? I thought we were done with this. Is it back?” And indeed it was back because that was now the fruit of all the Soviet-choreographed and Arab-League-funded demonization and isolation of the Jewish state, and I saw it so clearly. There were goons interrupting each unofficial panel. They would come in women marching like a goon squad, like brown shirts. They didn’t have bayonets but they did have male cheerleaders and they would say “Israel kills Palestinian babies; Israel has to die.” They did various versions of Zionism equals racism.
.....I flew to Israel unexpectedly, right after this conference, and I had meetings with the foreign ministry, and I persuaded them to let me organize a real feminist conference and they agreed but then they annexed East Jerusalem, which made it too problematic for me to invite women from Muslim countries. They wouldn’t be allowed to come. I instead did a series of front-page interviews in Israel about anti-Semitism, which Israelis didn’t think was their problem. I came back here and ran into some feminist challenges: Why did I care so much about Israel? Was I paranoid about anti-Semitism?
.....I did an interview in Lilith magazine about Copenhagen under a pseudonym: Regina Schreiber. This was how Aviva Cantor chose to describe me. I said to several major Jewish organizations: The cultural war, or the curricular war, is very hot and it’s going to get a lot hotter. What’s needed is to work on combating the lies that have been coming our way. Nobody quite saw what I saw. Maybe if I were a man, maybe if I were wealthy. Maybe if I had lots of disposable time and could have used it to get to know organizational Jewish leaders, then in a few years people might have let me do a pet project. But they didn’t see what I saw. Also they hadn’t looked at the United Nations closely, and I had; I had encountered an enormous amount of hatred of Americans, women, feminism, Jews and Israel. Horrendous. So I went back to my intellectual, academic and feminist life, and I published a series of books.
.....I began writing a series of introductions to works by Jewish feminists. I was going to do a book on the resurgence of anti-Semitismin 1981. I also presented the case to the National Women’s Studies Association. I put together a panel and I thought, I don’t want to say that feminists are anti-Semites, which is a form of racism, without giving my people, so to speak, a chance to consider this. I came out as a Zionist at this time. All hell broke loose. Some women of color didn’t like that the Jews, one more time, were stealing their thunder about persecution and oppression. White women, both Jews and Christians, didn’t like pushy Jewish women who dared to present themselves as victims, when indeed they were seen as too pushy to begin with and maybe as too intellectually talented My agent at that time didn’t think a book about anti-Semitism was worth trying to sell. I did, because I visited the bombed-out synagogues in a number of European capitals, in Rome, Vienna, and Paris. And I stood there, and I thought: it’s coming back. Why else would we need to have police guards outside our places of worship?
.....The real heroes, who understood feminism, Zionism and Judaism of the l970’s, were quickly forgotten. Aviva Cantor Zuckoff was onea major hero. Her book, Jewish Men, Jewish Womenis the best of the lot.
.....So now we can fast-forward to 2000. I had just published Letters to a Young Feminist. When the two reservists were lynched in Ramallah that fall, and they were shown over and over on television, the demented barbarians’ bloodstained hands, crazy grins, the media talking heads displayed no affectnobody drew back in horror. Nobody called it barbarism. Then I knew that the bloody beast was back. I didn’t think of it as a potential second Holocaust as yet. And I knew that I’d have to start doing something. The first thing I wrote was a very simple piece which was published in Haaretz, translated by a friend of mine, the poet Raquel Chalfi. She’s a major Israeli poet. She interviewed me on anti-Semitism, in Yediot Achronot. All I did in this piece was say, “Could we, the good people, we progressives, could we have as much compassion for Jewish victims of terrorism as we have for Palestinians who are, quote, occupied?” I got some vicious email, and some amazingly negative phone calls from Israeli left feminists. They said, “How could you betray us?” And all I was asking for was rachmones even-handed rachmones.
.....I published two books in 2002. I had been working on them both for many years. Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman and Women of the Wall. Nevertheless, I also started reading everything, on the subject of anti-Semitism. I became somewhat I was going to say obsessed, but I wasn’t obsessed, I was passionate. I decided that I had to do a book. I didn’t focus on the feminist betrayal of the truth, I focused ultimately on the betrayal of the truth and of the Jews by intellectuals, some of whom were Jews, some of whom were feminists. It was the first of my books that did not get a review or lead to an interview in the New York Times. And also, by the way, once this 2000 Intifada started, I did not do any publicity for the Women of the Wall anthology, which is a very important anthology, which I co-edited with Rivka Haut. We didn’t promote it. We didn’t want to criticize the state of Israel at this time. The only places that reviewed The New Anti-Semitism, and very favorably, were conservative places, venues that I’d never read before, but which I’ve been reading ever since. I was among the first who said that anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism, and among the first to say that it’s coming to us from the Islamic world. And it’s an indigenous Islamic racism, against the infidel other. It’s not something that’s transposed from Christianity or Nazism.
GJ: How do you explain the fact that there aren’t more feminists who speak against the repression of women in Islamic countries?
PC: Oy! At some level, I would have to say that I was not a good enough teacher. At another level, it’s very simple, because of the theory of victimization über alles, which we in the beginning subscribed to, I think for good reasons, because the theory that victims require liberation could take you a good way. Then Edward Said came into the picture, and the academic world was swept off its feet by ideas that said we could forget about women. It’s really brown-skinned men of Arab origin mainly who call themselves Palestinians who are the real victims, (they’re not criminal terrorists and thugs they’re oppressed freedom fighters) and the Orientalists are the real villains. His work was one Big Lie. My friend and colleague Ibn Warraq has a magnificent work coming out on this subject: Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’.
.....At that point the Stalinists, the Maoists, the revolutionary party-niks, the Socialists all got tenured in the universities. Some were feminists, many were not, but everyone called themselves feminists because it was politically correct. They really were concerned with imperialism, colonialism, andthey saidracism. They were staunchly anti-American, and they began rooting for whatever fascist tyrants, whether in Cuba or in China, could do their dirty work for themwork they were unable to do or that they didn’t want to lose their tenure for doing, so they weren’t about to bring down Wall Street by coming at it with machine guns. They were happy to say let’s wear T-shirts of Che Guevara. The professoriat became increasingly mesmerized by the image of the nobility and holiness of the victim. They decided that Israel is the racist Nazi state, that the Palestinian terrorists are not really terrorists, that their grievances are just, that it is our fault, especially the fault of Israel, that they have been cooped up, penned up, made to be so humiliated. It was this jinxed combination of both Stalinization and Palestinianization grafted onto a grass-roots feminist vision that became pandemic.
.....Most feminists are multicultural relativists. They no longer have a vision of a single standard of universal human rights. They don’t want to judge one culture over another, so they ultimately favor equal rights for cannibals. We’re talking about honor murders, the stoning of Muslim women, the veiling of women so that they can’t breathe or see, they can’t drive, they can’t go out of doors, they can’t vote. They’re forced to marry their first cousins or whoever is chosen for them. Many are not allowed to go to school, although there are many exceptionscaste, class, and country exceptions. Many are genitally mutilated. When I say that multicultural relativism is anathema to feminist human rights, they call me a racist. I understand that people who are not courageous don’t want to stick out, they don’t want to step out of line. If they’ve heard it’s “Islamophobic” to tell the truth, then they’re not going to do it, even if it is the truth.
.....There’s a British feminist journal that is publishing a piece that attacks The New Anti-Semitism and attacks me as a white supremacist. The author also attacks two other American feminists, and guess what: we’re all Jews. This got my attention and so I took it on, and I worked with the editorial board. It was a huge undertaking. This August, for the first time ever in an academic feminist journal, my ideas about Islamic gender apartheid and Muslim-on-Muslim violence will appear. It’s a rebuttal to my being attacked by someone who didn’t, in the draft they showed me, talk about women’s plight or intellectuals’ plights under Islamist tyrannies. The feminists right now are in a very strange place. They would rather desert the cause of women than be seen as racists. They would rather obscure the truth of jihad than be called racists, because now racism has trumped gender among feminists.
.....In October of 2005, in a lecture, I said that the occupation of Palestine, a country that doesn’t exist, is far more important to most feminists than the occupation of women’s bodies world wide. And WBAI taped me and tried to challenge me and then did a one-hour program which made me very sad because these were mainly young women of color who were being given a platform to display their utter ignorance. To them multicultural relativity is the same as multicultural diversity. That means that if one opposes the relativism that justifies barbarism then one is a racist. The forces of darknessvarious left feministswho claimed that McCarthyism was a force against themworked very hard to wreck my reputation.
.....Nonie Darwish came to visit me after she spoke at Lincoln Square Synagogue. She’s a Palestinian woman who has a book out, Now They Call Me Infidel, and she said that after she spoke on campus the first person who came up to her to complain about her lecture was an American feminist who said, “Why don’t you talk about the oppression of American women? We’re oppressed. Why are you only critical of Islam?” I think there’s a long history of both pacifism and xenophobia among American intellectualsisolationism: we don’t want to get involved, it’s not our place, we’re against crusades, we do not want to spend out time and money on them. And so isolationists are predictably without compassion for those who suffer in other regions, and so we could say that they are quintessentially racist. I’m not saying that we can send the Marines everywhere, but intellectuals should say “This is what’s clear; this is what’s ideal; and this is what exists.” They’re not saying it.
GJ: Was it unusual for someone of your background to go to Bard College?
PC: Oh yes, yes, yes. I wanted to go to a college where there were no required courses because I was desperate to read. Plus, they gave me a full scholarship. And together with a Regents scholarship and together with working as a waitress, I was able to go. My family was working class and religious and did not want me to live away from home until I was properly married.
GJ: Is there any word or category to describe your affiliation with Judaism today?
PC: I study Torah regularly, and I would say that I’m meta-denominational, and I’m religious. I keep a kosher home. I observe Shabbat. I have come now to understand that you can’t get everything you want in one place. Some feminist oriented synagogues are very ambivalent or even hostile to Israel. I can’t pray there at this moment in history. A half a block away from where I live is a beautiful, small Orthodox shul whose rabbi is a prince of Torah and Talmud. He, his wife and the community are very warm and welcoming. There’s a balcony. The women don’t have access to the Torah and don’t participate in the ritual. The community, however, is so stable and so upright and so very dear, and this gives me great consolation. Now I study with the rabbi in a group of men and women. I would say I’m a committed and passionate Zionist despite the fact that my second marriage to an Israeli did not go well. I have often jested that my Zionism is therefore a miracle. I also want to say that I feel a family-like connection to people from the Middle East and from Muslim countries so I don’t automatically feel, “Oh, the enemy has just entered the room.” On the contrary, I have a very easy flowing relationship interpersonally.
GJ: I have always thought that a reason that Jews are open to so very many ideas is that they are privileged, that being privileged as a child leads one to be an original thinker and a daring thinker.
PC: I think you’re right about education, but I’m thinking about all the intellectuals who are so fuzzy-headed now about jihad. They are living in free societies that support their right to this tomfoolery. Meanwhile, heroes are arising in the midst of the most profound tyrannies. We can say anything; we’re lucky if someone notices it, let alone publishes it. They say the smallest thing and they can be beheaded.
GJ: You have spoken about the plight of agunot [women whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce]. Is there any possibility that Orthodox Judaism will be able to deal with this question?
PC: Where there’s a will, there’s a halakhic way. The sin is on all of our heads collectively. Women’s groups can’t change this. Women’s groups can try to console or not shun or can choose to remain connected to agunot, but it is male Orthodox rabbis who are allowing criminal misogynists to get away with soul murder and to keep martyrs of the faith imprisoned, because if they were Conservative or Reform they wouldn’t need this kind of get [religious divorce]. Here are women who are being faithful to a system that is tricking them and chaining them. Evil merely requires that good people do nothing. There are issues of gender injustice within Judaism that I have certainly not forgotten about. There are many halakhic ways to solve this, but there doesn’t seem to be a will to do so.
GJ: Conservative Judaism has accepted the possibility of gay marriage and gay rabbis. Do you think this will ultimately effect a major change?
PC: I think it’s wise when Judaism finds a way to be connected with not just strangers and foreigners but with our own who have been marginalized or stigmatized. Everybody’s different from everybody else. If the rabbis, whether they’re gay or straight, are rabbis first and their identity politics are checked at the door, then I think it’s a great good thing. If I became a rabbi and I basically used the pulpit to preach feminism, if I brought in a secular agenda and called it Judaism, there would be something wrong with that.
.....I think some Orthodox people are changing. Many modern Orthodox are sometimes gay-friendly, on an individual basis. Serious works on the subject exist. One has been written by an openly gay Orthodox man. But these are very deep questions. Think of the Hebrew language, how gendered it is, how maniacally gendered. To then be confronted with a male who’s male but who also is with another man, not with a woman, brings back the resistance, the terror, the fear, the connection between homosexuality and avodah zara [idol worship]. Whatever sexual rites were practiced openly and publicly in pagan settings is what Jews opposed, despised, and forbade. For that reason alone reencountering it even at a different time and in a different way can be terrifying.
.....Even though the Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist movements allowed women to be ordained, women rabbis still can’t get congregations as easily, they don’t the same salaries, they don’t get the most prestigious congregations except in assistant roles and only temporarily. Now the Conservative movement says it’s going to ordain gays and lesbians. I think it’s a good thing, but what will it mean? If the cultural prejudice and bias remains anyway, what’s going to happen? It’s a good thing to take a principled stand, but you can’t always bring people along with you.
GJ: Do you remember the National Conference for the New Politics in 1967? Bella Abzug spoke, and there were statements made that were quite strikingly anti-Semitic. Do you remember the teachers’ strike in New York City in 1968 over Ocean-Hill Brownsville? That was not anti-Zionist at all; it was simply anti-Semitic.
PC: Yes, and I remember the Crown Heights riots, much later, in 1991, which was a pogrom, out and out. But the Democratic Party and the Left were parties to covering it up.
.....I’m a psychologist. How can I possibly explain Norman Finkelstein, or Noam Chomsky, or Tony Kushner, or Blanche Wiesen Cook, or Alisa Solomon, who coauthored the book Wrestling with Zion together with Tony Kushner, or Jacqueline Rose, who’s Jewish and a psychoanalyst in London and who defends Edward Said’s deeply flawed work? And now there’s a new group of Jews in Britain who reserve the right to criticize Israel and they refuse to be silenced or treated as anti-Semites by other Jews in England.
GJ: On February 12, I read in the Jerusalem Post online that a member of the Egyptian parliament, Mohamed al-Katatny, had called for the nuclear destruction of Israel on the grounds that Israel was trying to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque. I haven’t seen the story elsewhere. Is the mainstream press justified in not bothering to report these statements since they are simply repetitions of what we know already?
PC: No. They’re remiss in that field. The information is actually in from Islam: They want to kill us (non-Muslims) and many of them have been saying so for quite some time. But the mainstream media denies and minimizes this threat and scape-goats Israel for trying to defend herself.
GJ: Which issue is more important to you, women’s rights or Israel’s security?
PC: Both. Israel’s security is the symbol of the democratic, pluralist and tolerant West, which has led to the rise of movements which espouse women’s rights. So if Israel is under attack, then women’s freedom shortly thereafter will be under major attack, so I don’t see it as having to choose between one or the other. It just so happens that Islamic gender and religious apartheid is the real problem, and since I am an anti-racist, it works for me in theoretical terms. Every group has the right to self-determination and to self-defense. The Jews also have a Right of Return.
GJ: Are there any other public feminists as supportive of Israel as you are?
PC: There are, but they don’t go on record about it.
GJ: Do you have any comments about the feminist Muslims Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Irshad Manji?
PC: The left-wing media have attacked Hirsi Ali as a racist herself, and Irshad Manji as a trouble maker. I think it’s good that they and Nonie Darwish are recognized. Most Muslim feminist scholars are like their western anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist counterparts.
GJ: Do they get attention and nothing more than attention?
PC: Well, Irshad is working on a film and she’s based at Yale, in residence in some way. Hirsi Ali is based at the American Enterprise Institute. They are getting more than attention. A handful are getting some support.
As we can see from her words and actions, Phyllis Chesler has the will and knows the way. She is a Jewish feminist with Muslim friends who has lived in Afghanistan. If anyone can be a link between these worlds, she can.
This interview appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Midstream.
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