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Phyllis Chesler: My Jewish Feminist Problem

Why my sisters can’t think straight about Israel.

These days, Israel is far too dangerous a word to pronounce in a Western intellectual or social setting. Say it—and you risk uncivil argument.

For example, it’s ten months after Sept. 11, and I am having dinner with a friend and colleague of many years. We are talking up the usual storm, laughing a lot, enjoying each other’s company when one of us uses the word: “Israel.” My friend, an independent and sophisticated thinker stops talking. Suddenly, the air becomes thin. She takes a deep breath. Her tone is no longer light; it has become dark, coarse, mocking.

“Israel?! It deserves exactly what it’s getting. And more. And don’t think America doesn’t deserve what it’s getting too.”

We are sitting a mile away from Ground Zero in New York City.

“Have you no compassion for the innocent?” I say, shocked by her cold, driven, vehemence.

“Innocent? No one is innocent. We are all guilty. Don’t tell me that you would dare to defend the Zionist apartheid state or the multinationals.”

Her dear face has been utterly transformed into the face of a one-woman lynch mob. I do not want to fight: I can’t bear the ridicule and intimidation. I know that I must say something; I am tired of having to do so. I do not want this friendship to shatter over the Jewish Question, that perpetual elephant in the living room of the world.

My friend is a Jew, a feminist, a leftist, and she prides herself on being an independent thinker. “According to you,” I want to say, “only Americans and Israelis deserve to die for the sins of their leaders? I don’t hear you wishing a hellish death upon Chinese or Iraqi civilians because you disagree with their government’s policies.” But my heart is not into “making points.” My heart is beating too fast. I am afraid of her anger.


I have been talking to a number of Arabs and Muslims from around the world. They are all educated and worldly people. One man, let me call him Mohammed, came for dinner. He is fluent in five languages, tells charming stories, and knows “everyone” in the Islamic world. He enjoys unmasking the hypocrisy of tyrants and mullahs. He shocked even me as he described the foibles of major Islamic figures who are cocaine and opium addicts, alcoholics, liars, thieves, incredibly stupid, vain, insane, and so on. They shall remain nameless since I have no way of knowing whether this information is true or not.

Mohammed joyfully zeroed in on hypocrisy. For example, according to my friend, “The Saudi princes use religion; they themselves are not particularly religious. For example, they drink. [Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol.] Once, when I was in Pakistan, my host and I went to five black market liquor stores. They were all sold out. And why? Because a world Islamic conference was taking place in town!”

This man—so charming, so well-informed—earnestly pressed upon me three Internet articles that “proved that the Zionists really do run America.” The fact that he understands that America is the world’s supreme super-power does not stop him from believing that the Zionists—who run a country about the size of New Jersey—also control both America and the world. Nothing I said could change his mind. Eventually, he politely, wisely, changed the subject.

If I cannot persuade him that the Zionists really do not run America, how can I hope to persuade other educated Muslims?

Another friend, an elegant woman from an Islamic non-Arab country who has lived in exile in Paris for a long time, unsettled me with a long and eloquent diatribe against America. She reminded me of Europe’s colonial past, the untold grief it caused, the arrogant carving up of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France, and of America’s long and ugly history of funding corrupt and sadistic tyrants in every Islamic country. She is, by and large, correct. (Strangely, she was not angry at the French whom, I have been told, “went native” in a way that the British did not).

She tells me: “Please understand, what is going on is that the frustration of the people has finally boiled over. It has come time to pay the price for America’s having backed the Shah of Iran, a man who was not even royal, just the son of an army colonel, bought and paid for by the Americans. The Shah stole $36 billion from his people when he fled Iran—and who protected him and his money? The Americans. The American oil companies—that’s who runs the American government! They wanted to create a pipeline running through Afghanistan and they wanted to stop the Soviets. That’s why they approached and funded the Pakistanis who are hardcore religious zealots, who turned around and created the Taliban out of the illiterate and impoverished Afghan refugees. The Taliban were originally supposed to ride shotgun and protect the new gas and oil pipeline that would run through Afghanistan. Well, that did not work out. So now, America has put a new puppet, Hamid Karzai, in place. Everyone knows that Saddam Hussein is a blood-thirsty animal. But who put him there? The Americans. Again, the reason was oil and gas. If the Americans get rid of him they’ll only put another puppet in his place. That’s why 9/11 happened.”

She pauses, briefly, then says, “And that’s why America has got to stop backing Israel. When and if it does, that will signal to the Islamic world that America is interested in brokering some justice.”

I am somewhat speechless but quickly say, “Assuming America abandons Israel to its enemies, assuming that another sacrificial bloodbath of Jews takes place, how will that change the historical record or improve matters in the rest of the Islamic world?”

She answers me by coolly saying that “15 percent of the United States Senate is Jewish. The American Jewish Israel Lobby is very powerful. They will never allow America to broker a just peace in the Middle East.” Actually, the 108th Congress (which includes both the Senate and the House) has 535 members of whom 37 or 7 percent are Jews. But no matter.


I have lived and loved both in the Islamic and in the Jewish-Israeli world. My son’s father is an Israeli who now lives in America, and I have remained active in Israeli feminist politics, first as a secular activist, then more recently as a religious rights activist. But I also remain close to my first husband, a Muslim from Afghanistan, who also lives here, and to his second wife and grown Turkish-Afghan children. Both husbands are soft-spoken and charming; each has deep black eyes and an olive complexion. I think of them as the sons of Yishmael and of Yitzhak. I also understand that, unlike their Biblical prototypes, these half-brothers are now worlds apart.

I first learned how different the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic East really are long ago, in the early 1960s, when I was a bride living in Afghanistan in an era of pre-Taliban gender apartheid. Afghanistan had never been colonized, so there were no Westerners to blame. It was there that I learned how not to romanticize wily, colorful, third-world tyrants.

Scholars do not often gain access to insider information for years. When they finally do gain access, they also tend to disagree with one another about what the documents mean. Today, one scholar tells us that Jews flourished under Islam. A second scholar strongly disagrees and insists that Islam persecuted Jews, Christians, and all infidels on a continuous basis. A third scholar tells us that the truth is more complicated than that and may lie somewhere in between “savage persecution” and “robust flourishing.” A fourth scholar says that what is happening today bears little resemblance to what happened five or ten centuries ago…. [to continue reading, please click here]


— by Phillis Chesler writing for Tablet


One comment on “Phyllis Chesler: My Jewish Feminist Problem

  1. evelinamarie
    May 13, 2015

    I remember teaching a class at Saint Cloud University on Prostitution and Pornography as institutionalized violence against women from a radical feminist perspective in the Women’s Studies Department at St. Cloud State University about twenty years ago. An early “epitaph” used to discredit my work was to call me a “New York Jew Dyke.” I’ll never forget that.


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