The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis
by Phyllis Chesler. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003, ix + 307 pp., $24.95.
How is this anti-Semitism different from all other anti-Semitisms? Phyllis Chesler tells us that "for the first time it is being perpetrated in the name of antiracism and anticolonialism" (p. 87). She tells us that "the new anti-Semite may also be Jewish and female" (p. 88). In fact, one of Chesler's main points is that anti-Semitism, which used to be thought of as an aspect of rightist politics, is now associated with the left.
Leftist anti-Semitism is closely connected with anti-Zionism. It is possible to be an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite, and indeed Chesler points this out: "Critiquing the Jewish state has never been proof that the critic was an anti-Semite" (p. 176). On the other hand, when leftists abandon all their principles in order to oppose Israel, we must conclude that anti-Semitism is at work. Chesler tells us that "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" (pp. 3-4).
America is the most powerful country on earth, and it is not too surprising even if it is illogical when those of varying persuasions unite to oppose America and forget the other issues that matter to them. Israel, on the other hand, is a small and unimportant country, a fact that nobody seems to know. When feminists, gay rights groups, and civil rights activists choose to support Islamic countries where women are subject to honor murders, where homosexuals are imprisoned and sometimes executed, and in the case of Sudan today and Saudi Arabia before 1962 slavery is practiced, something irrational is at work. Only anti-Semitism can explain this weird Marxist-Islamic alliance.1
The precursor of the Marxist-Islamic alliance was probably the conference of African and Asian states held in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955, when third-world countries defined themselves as a group a group from which Israel was excluded. My personal awareness that there was an irrational antipathy of leftists against Israel occurred in the days before the Six-Day War, when I used to spend time at a table at Columbia University where literature opposing the Vietnam War was distributed. When there were indications that Israel was in trouble, after Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran and asked U.N. peacekeepers to leave the Sinai Peninsula, my friends at the Vietnam table rejoiced at Israel's difficulties. When the war took place and Israel won, the antipathy increased.
A few months later, I learned that this hostility was not restricted to a few Columbia students who opposed the Vietnam War. A conference was held in Chicago at the end of the summer called The National Conference for the New Politics. The big issue at the time was the Vietnam War. Among the resolutions, however, was one against Israel.
A front-page story in the New York Times appeared under the headline "Parley on New Politics Yields to Militant Negroes' Demands."2 Somehow the world has forgotten about the ferocious anti-Zionism of 1967. Let us consider some passages from this news story:
It would have been very easy for the participants in the conference to blame the United States for the Six-Day War. Together with the Soviet Union, America had forced Israel to give up all the territory it had conquered in the Sinai Campaign. In return for this withdrawal, troops of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) were stationed in Egypt and at Sharm el-Sheikh to keep the Straits of Tiran open to Israeli shipping. The enforcement of this agreement was not, strictly speaking, an American responsibility. When Egypt's President Nasser ordered UNEF out of Egypt on May 16, 1967, the United States did not react. On May 22, Nasser closed the Straits to Israeli shipping. U.S. officials wished to avoid alignment with Israel. In other words, the United States felt no obligation to enforce an agreement it had imposed eleven years earlier.
Needless to say, the leftists at the National Conference for the New Politics did not add the charge of breaking an agreement with Israel to their list of indictments against America. The left had become anti-Israel, and that was that. An overtly anti-Semitic cartoon appeared in The Realist in June 1967.3 The cartoon showed a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews walking down a street in what looked like a small town in Bavaria. Men in lederhosen were watching them from the side. The Jews carried signs with stars of David. One of them had a sign saying "Israel über Alles," echoing the German national anthem Deutschland über Alles, thus identifying Israel with the Third Reich. To this day, Jews are described as being as bad as Nazis.
It took another year for the left to become simply anti-Semitic, as distinct from being merely anti-Zionist. In 1968, there was a teachers' strike in New York City. Anti-Semitic sentiments against the teachers were expressed openly, and no attempt was made to link this prejudice to the situation in the Middle East. The Village Voice, where some of this hostility was explained and excused, agreed to print an article of mine in response, "The Left Is Soft on Anti-Semitism," the first time I wrote anything for publication outside of the field of linguistics.4
I grew up in a left-liberal home. My father had belonged to Hashomer Hatzair when he lived in Poland. I always associated being liberal with being pro-Israel. I didn't realize that leftism and liberalism were very different from each other. In 1968, I used the words "soft on anti-Semitism." Today, I would simply say that the left is part of the Marxist-Islamic alliance, which is defined in part by its anti-Semitism. I did not understand that Marxism was not an economic theory but rather a faith about an economic theory until I lived in China for five months in 1984, when I learned that the cruelty of Marxism comes from the opposition to individuality expressed in all the writings of Marx. I lived in China again for four months in 1989, when I saw the results of that cruelty with my own eyes after the Tiananmen Massacre.
Phyllis Chesler, like me, had a change of heart as a result of her own experiences and her commitment to her Jewish identity. Chesler is a noted feminist who is the author of twelve books, the first eleven of which are about women. It makes perfect sense for a feminist to be pro-Israel, the first country to have a head of government, Golda Meir, who was neither the widow (like Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka) nor the daughter (like Indira Gandhi of India) of a previous head of government. Furthermore, Chesler had her own experience with life in an Islamic country: "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." (p. 14)
Nevertheless, as we know, feminists have not been pro-Israel. The World Conference of the International Women's Year, held in Mexico City from June 19 to July 2, 1975, called for "the elimination of colonialism and neo-colonialism, foreign occupation, Zionism, apartheid and racial discrimination in all its forms."5 Five years later, Chesler had her own experience with a similar conference: "I coordinated a conference in Oslo that took place right before the 1980 United Nations World Conference on Women in Copenhagen. I saw with my own eyes how the entire agenda, both officially and unofficially, was hijacked by the PLO" (p. 53).
If it makes no sense for women to side with the Marxist-Islamic alliance against Israel, it makes even less sense for homosexuals to do so. Chesler explains, "In Palestine and in the Arab Islamic Middle East, real homosexuals are tortured and murdered and must flee for their lives, as must girls and women whose sexual purity is suspect" (p. 159). Yet placards reading "Queers for Palestine" have appeared in demonstrations against McDonald's and elsewhere. Leftists, in Europe and elsewhere, have been insensitive to the loss of life suffered by Israel. "In one instance," writes Chesler, "a Norwegian medical researcher refused to sell certain medical materials to her Israeli counterpart; in another instance, Finland refused to sell the Israeli government gas mask kits" (p. 226). When Islamic clerics call for the death of Jews everywhere, when Jews are attacked not only in Israel but in Europe, leftists don't notice. The following dialogue, for all intents and purposes, has been taking place for years between jihadists on the one side and leftists on the other:
Attacks against Jews in Europe are anti-Semitic, but they have the effect of increasing immigration to Israel, and are thus pro-Zionist. Chesler tells us, "The Israeli government released figures that showed that the emigration of French Jews to Israel record heights of 2,326 in 2001" (p. 125).
What's to be done? Perhaps feminists can be persuaded by Chesler's book and by more information. Would it help if feminists knew this fact? "On the Israeli side, 80 percent of those killed were noncombatants, most of whom were women and girls. Israeli female fatalities outnumbered Palestinian female fatalities by either 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 [emphasis in original]. ... Of the Palestinian deaths, more than 95 percent were male. In other words, Palestinians purposefully went after women, children, and other unarmed civilians, and Israelis fought against armed male soldiers who were attacking them" (p. 115).
Feminists, gays, and all threatened and marginalized groups should admire Israel for its commitment to human rights during a half century of mortal danger. Will Chesler's book personal, emotional, yet filled with facts change any minds? Will it be read by those who disagree with it? Only time will tell.
1. See my "Marx and Islam," Partisan Review, 1988, pp. 437-444.
2. September 3, 1967.
3. p. 3.
4. March 6, 1969, pp. 25, 52, and 53.
5. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly as Resolution 3379, November 10, 1975.
A version of this review appeared in the February/March 2004 issue of Midstream.