Dr. Phyllis Chesler, in her own words, was once a “firebrand” of the feminist movement, admired for her books and articles on divorce, child custody, pornography, incest, second-wave feminism, and economic gender inequality.
Then, she said, she began to turn her attention to what she saw as one of the biggest crises facing women internationally: the systematic abuse of women in the Islamic world.
At the same time, she began writing and speaking about the rise of anti-Semitism, becoming among the first to warn that “anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.”
“After a long and productive history, I have been disappeared,” said Chesler during a program Dec. 1 at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick. According to Chesler, numerous invitations to major conferences have stopped, and publishers are less interested in scheduling book signings.
“I was attacked as a warmonger and racist, privately, not publicly,” said Chesler, professor of psychology emerita at City University of New York and veteran of the civil rights movement. “I was called a ‘Zionist bitch’ by close feminist colleagues.”
In her talk, she recalled the 2003 publication of her book The New Anti-Semitism, followed by The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom. In the latter she argued that intellectuals and feminists, including many who consider themselves liberals, have discarded Western values in favor of multicultural relativism.
Such attitudes, she said, led to a rise in anti-Semitism and to an abandonment of women and religious minorities in Muslim countries, where they are subject to honor killings and a trend toward more gender “apartheid,” including coercion to wear the burqa and the veil.
Chesler cited the decision the week before by the National Women’s Studies Association to support an academic boycott of Israel while ignoring the injustices toward women in the Islamic world.
Such actions demonstrate a “complete Stalinization and Palestinization of intellectual reality,” she said. Pro-Israeli professors have been marginalized and bullied on campuses across the United States and Canada, including being physically threatened and having their jobs put in jeopardy, she said.
Meanwhile, anti-Zionism has become “a big part of campus life” and pro-Israel students “are afraid to rebut it.”
“These are dangerous times in the classrooms of American-Jewish professors, which are being invaded by jihadists who are obstructing all truth about Israel and Islam,” said Chesler. “The only speech allowed there follows the Palestinian narrative.”
Chesler admitted she herself once believed that hatred of Jews had ended in the Islamic world, but declared, “I was wrong.”
“Jews are being attacked because Israel exists and dares to defend itself,” she said. “When traditional Islamic Jew-hatred is joined by politically correct views that demonize Israel, we have the perfect storm.”
Chesler is the author of 16 books, including the landmark feminist classic Women and Madness, and Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site.
Raised Orthodox in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, Chester rebelled early, joining the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. When her parents protested, she joined an even more radical left-wing Zionist youth movement.
While studying at Bard College she met and married a Westernized Muslim Afghan student and agreed to go live with him and his upper-class family in Kabul. Her passport was confiscated upon arrival and she experienced firsthand the gender discrimination Muslim woman live under. Chesler “escaped” when she contracted hepatitis; her father-in-law arranged for her to get an Afghan visa to travel to the United States for medical treatment.
In addition to becoming the basis for her book An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir, which won the National Jewish Book Award, the experience also sparked Chesler’s decision to become a radical feminist.
In the early 1970s Chesler said she first experienced anti-Israel strains in some corners of the movement and saw it grow in ensuing years. She said she tried to warn American-Jewish organizations that anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism was on the rise, but both they and Israeli officials brushed her off.
Now in the 21st century, she said, racists can bring their “Jew hatred” into the open under the cloak of anti-Zionism, while Israel is classified as “an apartheid Nazi state, and human bombs are considered victims.”
Chesler warned that “victims are always more haunted by what good people failed to do than what the evil people did,” and called the “soul-eating” acquiescence of much of the world an invitation for jihadists to continue their wave of destruction.
“As Jews we are commanded to stand against evil in our time,” said Chesler. “As Jews we are members of a nation holy unto God. We must never forget ours is an eternal struggle.”