The Folly of Feminist Anti-Zionism

The Death of Feminism:
What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom

by Phyllis Chesler: New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, ix + 241 pages,
$24.95 (paperback, 2006, $14.95).

Phyllis Chesler is a Zionist. She writes, “Zionism is not racism; ... anti-Zionism is racism” (p. 107). However, Chesler is much more famous for being a feminist than for being a Zionist. She has written a number of books on the subject, starting with the one that made her famous, Women and Madness.

Chesler has found that there is a conflict between these two identities. “Most feminist magazines, newspapers, and spokewomen have continually, routinely, and loudly condemned Israel as a colonial, apartheid, and misogynist state and have taken the left-Stalinist position in favor of the PLO” (p. 105). In the chapter of her book entitled “The One-Sided Feminist Academy,” she tells of feminist academicians who side with the Arab world against Israel and America, thus in effect “choosing tyranny and gender apartheid over democracy and human rights for women” (p. 103).

Chesler is especially sensitive to the quesion of women’s rights in the Islamic world because she once lived there. When she was an undergraduate at Bard College, she married a fellow-student, an Afghan, and went with him to Afghanistan. Her experiences there were simply horrible. She experienced the same sort of oppression that Afghan women experienced. What’s more, she learned that persecuted women persecute other women. Her mother-in-law, Beebee Jan, would routinely beat her personal servant, Daw-Daw. “Beebee Jan would hit Daw-Daw hard with her fist or with a steel pot, a broom—with just about anything she could lay her hands on” (p. 90). Victims of persecution typically go on to persecute others. Kindness begets kindness; cruelty begets cruelty. Perhaps the reason that Jews are charitable is that Jewish children are pampered. Kindness may even be the reason that Jewish children do well in school; their tolerant and loving parents allow them to express their opinions even if their views differ from those of their elders.

With the aid of her father-in-law, who had never approved of his son’s marriage, Chesler was able to return to America, experienced and wiser. Still, at first she did not understand just how Islamic culture could be so merciless. “What kind of culture produces suicide killers and human bombs, glorifies mass murderers, and mandates revenge honor-killings?” (p. 142) She concludes that it is a culture overwhelmingly based on blood relationships, where a mother may be known by the name of her eldest son, such as Om (or Umm) Mohammed, the mother of Mohammed. It is also true, although Chesler does not mention it, that fathers similarly are known by their sons’ names. Perhaps the most familiar case is Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestine Authority, who is generally known as Abu Mazen, father of Mazen. Chesler tells us that cousins regularly marry each other, and that sisters are exchanged in double marriages—you marry my sister and I’ll marry yours. She goes on to say, “Muslims live in a shame and honor society that demands a human sacrifice to expiate the shame and the consequent public dishonor” (p. 158).

But what greater dishonor could there be than murdering your daughter or sister because she has been raped, or accused of being raped, or simply has exchanged a few polite words with a young man? Those who perform honor killings are the ones who disgrace their families, their communities, and their culture. Chesler tells us many stories of women who were murdered for trivial offenses or for no offense at all. One such story is the tragedy of Palestina (Tina) Isa, who was murdered by her parents, with the approval of three of her four sisters, in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 5, 1989. Tina’s crime was becoming too American. In particular, she had a (sexually innocent) friendship with an African American boy (p. 170). It is Tina’s parents who merit our scorn—they and the set of values that led them to commit their crime.

Feminists were silent. Chesler herself did not see feminism as a part of a misguided movement until 2000: “The reaction and non-reaction of western academics and intellectuals to the 2000 Intifada against Israel—and to 9/11—finally persuaded me that this group had become suicidally intolerant” (p. 67). Now her views are different, and she feels that progressives, including feminists, “will still regard you as a traitor if you are not sufficiently anti-American or do not strongly support the Palestinian cause” (pp. 24-25).

Chesler’s book is called The Death of Feminism. She doesn’t claim that feminism has died, despite the title, but rather that it has become a force fighting against individuality and tolerance, and in favor of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. A leftist-Islamic alliance makes no sense whatever. It is inexplicable. If feminists, by their silence, have formed a de facto alliance with those who commit honor murders, they are idiots.

How did feminists, academics, and leftists in general become idiots? They started out as being very intelligent indeed. They cared about the oppressed and the unfortunate. They recognized the plight of Palestinians living in refugee settlements. They knew that America had helped Pakistan to aid the Taliban rebels who took over Afghanistan after the USSR had been kicked out. But somehow, they didn’t recognize that whatever faults they might object to in American and Israeli policies were trivial compared to the outrages committed by the Taliban, by Iran, and by fundamentalist terrorist groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. They chose not to notice the intolerance, the honor murders, the attacks on civilians committed by these groups. Anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism became the definition of the Left, taking precedence over all other issues. This idiocy can’t be explained.

Nevertheless, idiots can learn. Chesler tells us that they can learn about “the psychological relationship between voting, gender, and democracy” (p. 184). As I wrote in Midstream long ago, “Democracy—questioning—is the political realization of the scientific method” (“The Blessed Human Race,” November/December 2002). Leftists and feminists can learn that America and Israel are democracies and therefore are countries committed to human rights, including women’s rights. Chesler is still a feminist. If other feminists read her book, the movement will come back to life as a force for good.

This review appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of Midstream.