The Fern Sidman Commentaries:
July 23rd, 2007: "JUSTICE, JUSTICE SHALT THOU PURSUE" (Deuteronomy) An Interview with Dr. Phyllis Chesler
So, how does a nice Jewish girl from Boro Park become a prominent leader in the Second Wave feminist movement of the 1960's and an internationally renowned left-wing ideologue and icon? And more to the point, how does she renounce the falsehood and totalitarian thinking of those ideologies that were once such an integral part of her core being? How does she become a Bush supporter, a neo-conservative thinker who has the respect of the political and religious right?
Only Dr. Phyllis Chesler can answer that. Dr. Chesler, who also happens to be a Boro Park native, prolific author, psychotherapist and feminist dissident, is a person who does not mince words. And while we may or may not agree with her on all of her positions, she is one voice that is worth listening to. And as with all tenacious individuals who dare speak the truth, who sound a clarion call against injustice; comes a unique and fascinating personal story. Her curriculum vitae reads as a veritable cornucopia of academic and personal achievements:
Dr. Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York. She has lectured and organized political, legal, religious and human rights campaigns in the United States and in Canada, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. A popular guest on campuses and in national and international print, television, radio and online media, she has been an expert commentator on the major events of our time. She has lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, and in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Dr. Chesler has appeared on The Today Show, The O'Reilly Factor, Oprah, Nightline, CSPAN, 700 Club, CNN, Court TV, The Dennis Prager Show, Donahue, Geraldo, The History Channel, Israel National Radio, Al-Hurrah, The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, MSNBC, NPR, and Washington Journal and on network and local radio and TV programs all over North America and Europe. For three years, she was a regular contributor to NPR's program At the Opera. In the last few years, she has been interviewed hundreds of times in the media about anti-Semitism, Jihadic terrorism and Islamic gender and religious apartheid and has delivered many lectures on these subjects.
Over the years, Dr. Chesler has been published and interviewed in the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the Washington Times, the London Guardian, The Times of London, Science Magazine, etc. More recently, she has published steadily in FrontPagemag.com, The Jewish Press, The National Review, The Washington Times and The World Jewish Digest. Her archives reside at Duke University.
Dr. Chesler's thirteen books and thousands of articles and speeches have inspired people on many diverse issues. Her books include: Women and Madness; Women, Money and Power; About Men; With Child: A Diary of Motherhood; Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody; Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M; Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness; Feminist Foremothers in Women's Studies, Psychology, and Mental Health; Letters to a Young Feminist; Woman's Inhumanity to Woman; Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism's Holy Site; The New Anti-Semitism. The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It; and The Death of Feminism. What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom.
Phyllis Chesler was born on October 1, 1940 to working class Orthodox parents in Boro Park. As a young child, she rebelled against her faith and joined the Socialist-Zionist, anti-religious youth movement, HaShomer Hatzair. Her parents were nonplussed and appalled at her decision and called in a bevy of Rabbis to counsel young Phyllis. They informed her that her involvement in such an organization was tantamount to committing heresy. Phyllis then joined an even more radical and even further left-wing Zionist youth movement called Ain Harod.
Her college years saw her at Bard College, the second most liberal college in the country and one that has traditionally attracted artists and performers. It was there that she met her college sweetheart, Ali, a thoroughly Westernized Muslim man from Afghanistan. He had spent 14 years in private schools in Europe and the United States. Both intellectuals of the highest caliber, they enjoyed discussing the works of Proust and Fellini and other acclaimed authors.
Phyllis was eager to set out for a "big adventure" and Ali provided that opportunity. Before departing for a European tour, they married in a civil ceremony in 1961 in New York State. Phyllis really didn't want to get married but Ali told her that his parents, devout Muslims, would not tolerate him traveling with a girlfriend. After journeying throughout Europe, they arrived in the Middle East and visited Beirut and Teheran before arriving in Ali's birthplace, Kabul, Afghanistan.
Upon arriving in Kabul, her US passport was confiscated and she was never to see it again. It was in Kabul that Phyllis lived in what she termed, "a posh purda" existence. It was in Kabul that she witnessed horrific abuse of women and girls, a polygamous father-in-law and a bitter and resentful mother-in-law who would often beat the female servants. She also witnessed the forced veiling of women, the calamitous effects of arranged marriages and the oppression of women's psyches. Her once beloved "Westernized" husband, Ali, suddenly morphed into a Muslim man; cynical, overbearing and tyrannical. As Phyllis stated in her book, The Death of Feminism (page 94), "I had been sent back to the tenth century and placed under house arrest."
Phyllis was forced to wear the traditional garb of the Muslim woman, including the veil. She expressed her vehement opposition to this form of dress and was met with tremendous pressure to conform by her husband and his family. Her mother-in-law attempted to convert Phyllis to Islam, yet Phyllis would not hear of it. She was still a Jew and would not submit to the religious coercion that was foisted upon her.
She desperately tried to escape the confines of Kabul, with no help at all forthcoming from the US Embassy in Kabul. Finally, it was through the efforts of her father-in-law, who so resented her, that she attained the freedom to leave.
After returning to the United States, she returned to college and pursued her Masters and Doctorate degrees. The year was 1967, and Phyllis immersed herself in the nascent Second Wave feminist movement. The catalyst of her personal political trajectory was precisely the abuse of women that she had witnessed first hand during her captivity in Afghanistan. She began to speak and write about the oppression of women both in the Middle East and in the United States as well, with a zeal and fury. She organized conferences, seminars, protests and teach-ins to help spotlight the cause that she felt so passionate about. As a result, she began to emerge as a prominent and sought after feminist leader. She also became an advocate for a whole host of other anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and anti-racist causes and could often be found at anti-Vietnam war demonstrations as well as speaking out vociferously for the civil rights of America's minorities.
Throughout it all, something pressing was gnawing away at Phyllis. She was always proud of being a Jew, proud of being a supporter of Israel and often wore a big Jewish star to the many feminist and left-wing events that she attended. The reaction of her left-wing comrades to her overt Jewishness and her support of Zionism was indeed troubling to Phyllis. Over time, she took notice of an increasing hostility towards Israel, as voiced by both American and European academics and intellectuals and from her contemporaries in the feminist and anti-war movements. She began to take heed of the half-truths, gross distortions and outright lies directed against Israel that were being extolled by those individuals and organizations with whom she shared a close alliance.
Phyllis stoically challenged the dogma of the left, liberal dominated world of academia and began to expose the hypocritical "totalitarian groupthink" that pervaded their ranks. By rejecting cultural relativism and political correctness and speaking about the "hijacking" of the causes that she championed, she was verbally attacked in the most brutal form, threatened and shunned by her esteemed colleagues.
Phyllis was now considered to be a persona non-grata in her once formidable circle of feminist academics. As she states in The Death of Feminism, "I often held the minority position among feminists on most issues and was never a true-blue Marxist-Leninist. My kind did not prevail in the (feminist) academy or in the media. Today, what young people and outsiders may think feminism is really about is not the feminism that many of us once fought for."
Her truth telling did not stop there. Concerning the dangers of Islamic terrorism and her support for Israel in this post-9/11 world, she states, "I think al Qaeda is only an annihilating force that has nothing to do with justice but instead represents a totalitarian war against western ideals such as freedom and democracy; we are in the cross-hairs of the Islamist desire to rule the world. I view Osama bin Laden and the late Yassir Arafat and their minions of mullahs as radically evil, not as noble representatives of their own people - people whom they themselves have tortured, tyrannized and impoverished."
"Saying things like this, coupled with my spirited defense of Israel, has gotten me into trouble with nearly every politically correct good person I know and has resulted in my being severely ignored or criticized in the liberal, left, secular, and feminist media and led to my being perceived as a right-wing, conservative, reactionary turncoat."
"The way I see it: Everything is at stake, it is all up for grabs, this is no time for nihilistic rhetoric and tedious party lines. This is not the time to think in ways calculated to please or to least offend one's peers. My goal is quite the opposite. I do not want to offend my good feminist friends; on the contrary, I would like to bring women and men together - from both the right and the left - in order to make a real difference. This is a time when we, the good people, have to think clearly, creatively, boldly and morally."
Her views on the latest version of anti-Semitism, as outlined in her 2003 book, The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About, also drew a substantial criticism from former colleagues and associates.
As Dr. Chesler states: "This is a book about the new anti-Semitism - a virulent epidemic of violence, hatred, and lies that are being touted as politically correct. Islamic reactionaries and western intellectuals and progressives who may disagree on every other subject have agreed that Israel and America are the cause of all evil. Israel has fast become the Jew of the world - scorned, scapegoated, demonized, and attacked."
"Now Israel is the Jew of the world; its citizens are being ghettoized and isolated just as Jews once were in Europe and under Islam. The Jews of Israel are facing the gravest danger, but Jews elsewhere - especially in Europe, but also in South America, Africa, and Asia - are also increasingly at risk. Today, the new anti-Semitism speaks a hundred languages. The mob's infernal, heart-stopping chants, flag burnings, bombings, and executions are shown on television over and over again. The demonization of the Jews and of Israel has created an atmosphere in which the unthinkable and the horrific are becoming possible."
"I knew it from the moment the two Israeli reservists were lynched in Ramallah in the fall of 2000. The Palestinian crowds cheered when the smiling murderers proudly displayed their hands smeared with Jewish blood. I saw them dancing in the blood of my people, partying, like ghouls. No one on the airwaves drew back in horror; they showed these scenes but did not condemn them. International human rights activists and intellectuals remained silent, as did the United Nations. I wept because I understood that Jewish history was, once more, repeating itself. How foolish I'd been to think that we had finally escaped it. But will six million more have to die before the bloodletting stops?"
Over the last several years, Dr. Chesler's writings have found a new home in more right-wing, conservative web sites and publications. Her articles appear regularly on David Horowitz's (a former left-wing academic) web site, FrontPageMag.com as well as IntellectualConservative.com, The Jewish Press, The National Review, The Washington Times and The World Jewish Digest. Dr. Chesler has also spoken at events sponsored by Americans For a Safe Israel and the National Women's Republican Club as well as a wide variety of other right-wing and religious functions.
Speaking the truth and expressing support for Israel in the bellicose world of those who ostensibly profess to adhere to the tenets of "tolerance, diversity and freedom of speech" requires a thick skin and great intestinal fortitude. Dr. Phyllis Chesler does not shirk from her responsibilities in the realm of intellectual honesty and speaks in a voice that is unequivocal, as her message exudes the kind of clarity and forthrightness that is rarely displayed.
I sat down with Dr. Chesler to discuss her book, The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It (Jossey Bass -2003) and her other writings.
Ms. Sidman: Could you tell us about the genesis of this book? Did you encounter any resistance to its publication?
Dr. Chesler: My editor at Jossey Bass challenged me. Are you sure you ought to say this? Are you really sure that you're right? And I said, yes. I've understood that in the past one can criticize Israel and many people have done so and they weren't necessarily anti-Semitic, but now the way in which Israel has been completely demonized and the attempts to isolate and punish only Israel in a world filled with so much greater evil prompted me to write this. And it's the evil doers who are telling big lies about Israel. Anti-Zionism today is anti-Semitism. So it took from the time I wrote this book in 2002, until it was published in 2003 in the summer to about the spring of 2007 for Jewish organizations to begin to say this. This is too slow. This is not fast enough.
Ms. Sidman: What is your opinion of how Iran's nuclear capability will affect Israel and the West?
Dr. Chesler: Iran has to be stopped. There is a threat from Iran which is right near Israel's border in terms of Hizbollah and Hamas, both. I would only wish for an Entebbe like action, which I'm assured is not quite possible because the nuclear plants that are in the process of being built in Iran, and there are at least 100, are buried all over the country in heavily populated areas.
Ms. Sidman: Do you feel that the United States should engage in direct negotiations with Iran to help curtail the threat of a potential nuclear holocaust?
Dr. Chesler: Think of it from a woman's point of view, or a psychologist's point of view. If a man is a batterer you want him arrested and removed and sentenced, or do you want to sit down and talk to him? Sometimes, talking, which I don't think is going to work, is something you have to do. Is there another way to deal with Iran, without a nuclear holocaust? I don't know. I don't think so.
Ms. Sidman: What are your views on the US policy of defeating terrorism?
Dr. Chesler: The enemy is not terrorism. The enemy of today is Jihad, fundamentalist Islam. That's the enemy. Terrorism is an effective tactic that they've been using and they've not been made to pay the slightest consequence. If you really want to stop terrorism you do terrible things. You do terrible, terrible things. And that's a question that Jews, especially have to wrestle with. Do you wipe out cities? Do you wipe out villages? You know, for every one of ours that's taken, we take a hundred of theirs. All the terrorists in Israeli jails never had it so good. First, they have each other and they all pray together, and they hang out together. They don't have to work and they have three meals a day and they have visitors. I think, what's wrong with this picture?
Some people say that these monsters who hate us so were so deprived of a real childhood and Israeli shrinks are studying them. Will they change anyway? No, I don't think so. Maybe you have to kill them instead of giving them a hundred life sentences, because then what they remain is perennial bargaining chips.
Ms. Sidman: In your opinion, are there any Arabs or Muslims who truly want peace with Israel and are willing to speak out against Islamic terrorism?
Dr. Chesler: There are Arabs who are pro-Israel and strongly so. Let me praise Nonie Darwish who's written a book called Infidel¯ and whose father was a leading military man. You have Walid Shoebat for Israel. You have Bridget Gabriel, an Arab Christian for Israel. You have Wafa Sultan. But we can't count on these individual charismatic figures popping up with a movement, who are just for themselves. We have Ibn Wariq with whom I've been working. That's a pseudonym. Now, I know people who not only have bodyguards and live in exile or live in hiding, but they have to write under pseudonyms. When you tell the truth about Islam, you're a marked person, especially if you were once a Muslim. They're all pro-Israel and we have Israeli Jews who are so savagely critical of Israel. We have American Jews on the unbalanced left of the left who are so against Israel. We, therefore, have to recognize our friends and we have to risk making, at least conversations, if not making alliances with friends from the Muslim and Arab world and friends from the Christian world. For Jews to begin to make alliances, serious alliances with Christian Zionists is very important. I've been on the Pat Robertson show (The 700 Club) twice and I took holy hell for it from my former feminist friends.
Ms. Sidman: What is your opinion of those feminists and western intellectuals who have criticized and shunned you?
Dr. Chesler: Once you stand up for the Jews and for Israel, and once you tell the truth about Islam which includes the mistreatment of women and independent thought under Islam, then you are libeled or you're slandered or you're branded a racist, neo-conservative reactionary, right-wing nut. And so you've got a choice. You have to either sign on to the entire liberal left-wing agenda which demonizes Israel or at least blames Israel first and then you have a whole set of women's rights issues that I have pioneered.
Then, you have the liberal Jews, my people the feminists, who care more about the right to an abortion than the right not to have a second Holocaust. I'm serious. This is the balance and this is wrenching. There are wonderful feminists who are doing such important work for women. I mean, frum feminists, totally frum feminists. I just recently met the director of the shelter for battered women in Jerusalem. She had heartbreaking stories and she's doing G-d's work in my opinion. She is not frum, but there are others who are, who are similarly looking for gender justice for women within Judaism here and in Israel.
Concerning feminists, there is such a phobia about the Republican Party, about the Christian right wing, about the Jewish right wing and the phobia mainly comes from a secular world view as well as being Palestinianized, sort of mentally hijacked. So secular people have a very different world view. One feminist reviewer of this book happens to a Jewish woman. She wrote that I grossly exaggerate the danger coming to us from Islam which is not really the problem in her opinion. The real problem is her opinion, get ready to laugh, because it's true, is the danger that Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and the Lubavitcher Rebbe pose. Now, where is she coming from? She's a well educated woman. She's a secular Jewish person and she really sees the anti-abortion agenda as so heinous, as so atrocious, so horrifying. These people are not going to care about Israel. To them there is no G-d. They don't care about Israel.
I do think that the work that has been done in terms of rape, battering, incest, employment discrimination, prostitution, pornography and the trafficking mainly of women and children is holy work. It's holy work and it's being done, historically by mainly totally secular women. Totally secular. And with the secularity comes interesting beliefs such as human beings can make a perfect society and then you get communists and they believe you can kill hundreds of millions to try to make it really perfect. That's the problem.
Ms. Sidman: In your book and your writings you speak of a concept called multicultural relativism that is espoused by the media and the world of academia. Can you expound on that?
Dr. Chesler: It's easy to say, yes, the Muslims are against everyone who is not a Muslim. And it's true. I mean, that's part of what Jihad is about, that's part of the history of Islam. But, it also doesn't account for the feuds among the Muslim tribes, amongst the religious, bloody, deadly - Here's the thing. The West, and that means Jews and Israelis, we would like to lead sweet lives and peaceful lives. We're up against an enemy now that is dying to kill us and lives to kill and lives to fight at its best, that wishes to impose the most triumphal imperialism to dominate the entire world.
Now I see this very clearly. I turn to people like Amy Goodman of WBAI or people who are tenured professors at universities in the West which are our Achilles Heel, our Trojan Horse. I turn to people on the airwaves and tell them what I just said. They say I'm a lunatic. Completely biased, completely racist. Their point of view is that America is to blame and that the way we make up for our many errors in crimes is to become multicultural relativists, meaning that all cultures, you see, are equal or should be treated equally and we should have equal rights to cannibals.
Ms. Sidman: What is your opinion of the recent influx of Sudanese refuges seeking political asylum in Israel? In your book you speak of gender apartheid in the Sudan. Notwithstanding, do you think Israel should absorb these refugees?
Dr. Chesler: What a good and difficult question. First, there is gender apartheid in every Muslim country; it's not just in the Sudan. In the Sudan they're doing what I call gender cleansing and it's Muslim on Muslim violent crime and it's Muslim on Muslim genocide. The Arab Muslim militia is repeatedly raping women and children who have been genitally mutilated, which means that it is torture upon torture and they are often outcast and shunned by whatever might be left of the ability to have a family. This kind of apartheid is characteristic of Islam. What should Israel, already so burdened, so under siege with its own settlers still unsettled from the Gaza pullout do? What should we, the bearers of the light and the truth of G-d, what should we do with these terrible refugees. Perhaps many of whom hate Jews and hate Israel.
We, who were slaves in Egypt, we who were liberated from slavery, obviously the ethical thing, the Jewish thing, the right thing would be to throw wide our doors to everyone in flight from Islamic persecution. Alas, who's going to pay for it? Can Israel afford to do it? Can it do it only symbolically or for hasbarah purposes, so that it's good propaganda that the Jews are helping their enemies. Jews are very good at that. We're very good at subsidizing those who are trying to kill us, giving them a second chance. We're practically Christian in this turning of the other cheek, still bent on negotiation.
Ms. Sidman: You've commented on and written articles about films and documentaries that are exceptionally biased against Israel and the effects they have as propaganda. Can you tell us more about that?
Dr. Chesler: One of the things that I speak and write about is the war of ideas, the cultural war. It is a propaganda war and I don't understand why the West - and now it's bigger than the Jews, it's bigger than just the Israelis, why the West is not winning this war. I mean, one answer is that the West to some extent has been hijacked by its own beliefs about poverty justifying terrorism. Misery, which is presumably caused by America and Israel is then leading to the so-called resistance of terrorism against us, as if Bin Laden is poor. As if the 9/11 hijackers were uneducated, illiterate, poor men, which is not the case.
Films and visuals are used as such sophisticated propaganda. The prime example of what the new anti-Semitism is all about includes a film done by Mohammed Bakri, entitled, Jenin, Jenin. This film is a fake documentary with plenty of doctored footage. So maybe Muhammed Aldurar wasn't killed by the Israelis, for sure he wasn't. Maybe he was definitely killed by Palestinians. Absolutely. Maybe Palestinians killed him on purpose. No, wait. Maybe they staged the whole thing as a piece of political theater which is now what the evidence seems to lead us to.
There are hundreds of examples of visual propaganda. I was just thinking about the new film about Daniel Pearl (the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded by al Qaeda). The film is not really about Daniel Pearl, it's really - he's missing from the film and the name of the film is called A Mighty Heart. It's a woman's film. It's about Daniel Pearl's wife waiting for him, while he's been kidnapped to return, and one has the feeling of being in an intimate family like setting. Angelina Jolie who plays, Mrs. Pearl, Marianne, I think her name is, has very pro-Palestinian politics in a Third Worldish point of view. This movie, in my opinion is very dangerous propaganda which I write about in my review called A Mighty Big Lie.
Then there was the film, Paradise Now, which was a brilliant movie. So here was a hugely funded film by a Palestinian who lives in exile in Europe and it presents two would be suicide terrorists. They're both so sympathetic, they're so cute, I mean, we really like them and the Israelis are only in the shadows, helmeted with bayonets, with guns, anonymous and Nazi-like. The bad guys who are really almost off camera are these really soulful characters, one of whom blows up a bus and himself ultimately. Now, it won all kinds of awards, people raised it, and I viewed it as a really very good film as a film goes, therefore very dangerous because it presents a whole series of lies and omissions.
There is a film that is not out as of yet, in which I interviewed terrorists who are intercepted and who are in jail, women as well as men. These people are not poor, and they're not crazy. They are merged with a culture which is empowering them to unleash hatred against the other, the woman, the Jew, the modern Western outsider, lethal hatred.
Ms. Sidman: You've edited a book, an anthology entitled, Women of the Wall - Claiming Sacred Ground At Judaism's Holiest Site. Could you tell us what inspired you to become involved in this project?
Dr. Chesler: I was in Jerusalem in 1988 for a feminist conference and I heard, like on the wind, I don't know how I heard, that women are going to daven with the Torah at the Kotel in the Ezrat Nashim in the morning. Right away, I found the woman whose idea it was and she's been my chavruta ever since. She was one of the leaders of the Orthodox women's tefilla groups and she thought, well, why not do it at the Kotel. They do it everywhere else. Instead of doing it at a hotel in Jerusalem, do it at the Kotel. So I thought it was psychologically historic and religiously historic and we formed a committee to support the women who wanted to continue to pray. Now, most of the women, the core group were far more learned than me and were far more religious than I was and they were not political types. They wanted to pray. It's unbelievable. For nearly 20 years, three Supreme Court lawsuits and we've witnessed terrible mistreatment of holy women, of sincere women, of religious women.
This book came out in 2002, when I'm busy with the work on anti-Semitism. I made a decision that I couldn't promote the book because I could easily have gotten into the pages of all the mainstream media criticizing Israel and its failure and I didn't want to do that. The book is dedicated to the State of Israel.
The women are not asking to be counted as a minyan. They're not trying to pray with the men. They're not part of a particular denomination. They follow Orthodox guidelines for women's prayer only in the women's section. I happen to daven in an Orthodox shul now with a balcony as the women's section. I trust their politics on Israel. I love the Rabbi. Life does strange things, you know.
Ms. Sidman: Concerning the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, you're aware that thousands of evacuees from Gush Katif are still homeless, living in caravans and are destitute. What would you say to the Jews living on other settlements in Judea and Samaria, such as Elon Moreh, near Schechem, who could also suffer the same fate?
Dr. Chesler: I think the settlement movement was idealistic and ideological, akin to the pioneering spirit of the first kibbutzniks. In the past I had demonstrated against the “occupation”¯, I will not do so now. If we owe the settlers anything, it's Schechem. If we have a history anywhere it is Schechem among other places. We see more clearly what the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has revealed and it could ultimately be a good thing because the world is forced to see who Hamas is.
Ms. Sidman: How can the readers of this interview, contact you or obtain your books and other publications?
Dr. Chesler: I welcome all comments and inquiries. Anyone can reach me by going to my web site at: www.phyllis-chesler.org