Dr. Phyllis Chesler, Emerita Professor of Psychology, is the author of sixteen books, including An American Bride in Kabul, which won a National Jewish Book Award, a 2014 edition of The New Anti-Semitism, and Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews 2003-2015. She has published pioneering studies about honor killing, and is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Institute for the Global Study of Anti-Semitism.
The following excerpt has been adapted from Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews 2003-2015, released on May 6, 2015.
On Saturday evening, November 8, 2003, I addressed a free-standing feminist “networking” conference of mainly African-American and Hispanic-American women at Barnard College. The conference was sponsored by WERISE (Women Empowered through Revolutionary Ideas Supporting Enterprise), which was described as a grassroots, multi-cultural, multi-generational, and multi-disciplinary organization for women in the arts. The women ranged in age from 20 to 65 and were dressed in corporate business suits, colorful African and ethnic attire, and youthful jeans.
A few days before the conference one of the organizers asked me about my most recent book and I told her it was The New Anti-Semitism. I explained that Jew-hatred was a form of racism—only it was not being treated as such by anti-racist “politically correct” people. The organizer did not voice her disagreement nor did she say that the subject wouldn’t play well to her constituency. She only said that they needed me to explain the ways in which women sabotage each other, so that women could understand and overcome them in order to come together. They wanted me to talk about my book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman. “Your speech will precede our big Unity panel,” she said.
I had been asked to talk about what women can do, psychologically and ethically, to enable sisterhood and to work in productive, even radical ways. As I spoke, the women in the audience sighed, cheered, applauded, nodded in agreement, laughed, groaned, nudged each other—it was a half hour of good vibes.
And then my first questioner blew it all to hell. I could not see who was speaking. A disembodied voice demanded to know where I stood on the question of the women of Palestine. Her tone was forceful, hostile, relentless, and prepared. I could have said that I am deeply concerned with the women of Palestine, but I did not.
Instead, I took a deep breath and said that I did not respect people who hijacked airplanes or hijacked conferences, or who, at this very moment, were trying to hijack this lecture. I pointed out that the subject of my talk was not Israel or Palestine. I did not want us to lose our focus. She grew even more hostile and demanding. She said, “Tell this audience what you said on WBAI. I heard you on that program.” Clearly, she wanted to “unmask” me before this audience as a Jew-lover and an Israel-defender.
I took the question head-on. I said if she was really asking about apartheid, I’d talk about it. I said that contrary to myth and propaganda, Israel is not an apartheid state. The largest practitioner of apartheid in the world is Islam, which practices both gender and religious apartheid. Palestinian women—and all women who live under Islam—are oppressed by “honor”/horror killings, daughter-beatings, forced veiling, segregation, being stoned to death for alleged adultery, and suffer from female genital mutilation, polygamy, and sexual slavery.
I told them that Islam also practices religious apartheid. All non-Muslims (Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahá’í, Zoroastrians, animists, etc.) have historically been treated as sub-humans and must either convert to Islam or be mercilessly taxed, beaten, jailed, murdered, or exiled. Today, the entire Middle East is Judenrein; there are no Jews in 22 Arab countries. Between 1948 and1956, 850,000 Arab Jews were forced to flee Muslim countries. They can only live in Israel, the only Middle Eastern country where Jews are welcome.
I told the truth. They had not heard it before. The audience collectively gasped. Then, people went a little crazy.
Someone muttered darkly, coarsely, in a near-growl, “What about the checkpoints? What about the fence?” As if checkpoints and fences are the same as being killed by your brother or father or, most recently in Ramallah in the Rofayda Qaoud case, by your mother (!) for the crime of having been raped—in the Qaoud case, raped and impregnated by your mother’s two sons. I asked the audience if they thought that being detained at a checkpoint was really the same as having your clitoris sliced off, the same as being stoned to death for alleged adultery. The only response I got was from the first questioner who demanded that I denounce Ariel Sharon—but not Yasser Arafat—as a murderer.
I refused to do so.
The lightning rod of “Palestine” was enough to turn a very friendly audience quite hostile and a bit unhinged. Two or three women proceeded to ask aggressive questions in which they accused me of somehow disrespecting poor women in my remarks.
As I was trying to leave, one woman, who said her name was “Lupe” (she was dressed in a button-festooned serape, and had a cross tattooed between her eyebrows), loped after me and demanded that I deal with the Palestine question. She kept trying to get at me physically. One of the organizers kept putting her own body between Lupe and me. Lupe behaved like a trained operative; her rage was empowered by her politics.
The questioner had at least one, and possibly two, henchwoman with her. Clearly, they wanted to “get” the pro-Israel white Jew.
A young African-American woman stopped me to say that I’d “hurt” her by how I had “disrespected” a “brown” woman. “What brown woman?” I asked. “Your first questioner was a brown woman,” she said, “and so are Palestinian women.” I said, “Jewish women, especially in Israel also come in many colors including brown and black.” She stopped me and said, “But you’re a white Jew”—as if this was proof of a crime.
The three young African-American women who had invited me were very supportive: they hugged me and thanked me for coming and looked rather embarrassed about what had happened.
What’s important is this: Not one of them tried to stop what was happening, no one stood up and said, “Something good has just turned ugly and we must not permit this to happen.” Thus, the “good” people did nothing to disperse the hostility. Perhaps they were unprepared or agreed with the view of Israel as an apartheid state. Perhaps they simply lacked the courage to stand up to the extremists in their midst.
Clearly, my speech had touched hearts and minds; there was room for common ground and for civilized discourse, but once the word “Palestine” was uttered—“Palestine,” the symbol for all downtrodden groups of color that are “resisting” the racist-imperialist American and Zionist Empires—everyone responded on cue, as if brainwashed. It immediately became “brown” versus “white,” “oppressed” versus “oppressor.”
These are the Brownshirts of our time. That they are women of color and womanists/feminists is all the more chilling and tragic. And unbelievable. And to me, practically unbearable.
Afterwards, my son, who was the only man present and who had been told to sit “apart,”—my ever-wise son, said, “Well mom, you have your answer. The Jew-haters will never allow you into their wider, wonderful world. You can’t go back.”