Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Woman's Liberation

by Andrea Dworkin: The Free Press, xi + 436 pp., $28.

In 1979 or 1980, I was talking to a friend of a friend — let me call her "Jane." Jane was rejoicing over the victory of Ayatollah Khomeini. "But what Khomeini has done to restrict the freedom of Iranian women is the worst setback to women in recorded history," I said.

"He has to consolidate his revolution," replied Jane.

Leftists, typically, are insensitive to the acts of terrorism and the suppression of women advocated and practiced by Islamic militants. The Left licks Islamic ass. To be sure, recently some feminists have made an exception in the case of Taliban, which denied women the right make a living and to receive medical care. Khomeini, however, has never been recognized by feminists as the man who totally destroyed the rights granted to women in Iran.

Andrea Dworkin has written a passionate, partisan, and occasionally shrill book. Nevertheless, it is sometimes hard to tell which side she is on. She is a radical feminist, and like so many people on the far left, she is anti-American and anti-Israel. Unlike most radical leftists, she is sometimes anti-Islamist and occasionally even anti-Palestinian.

For Dworkin, all injustices against women are equally atrocious: "The fact is that men still make the most important decisions in women's lives: will she be circumcised; will she be raped; will she be beaten; will she be sold into prostitution; this is as true in New York City as it is in the Sudan" (235). This is not merely silly; it is an excuse for the Islamist regime in Sudan. Yet Dworkin, unlike Jane, is acutely troubled by the status of women in Islamic societies. In particular, she informs us that between 1987 and 1993, of the 800 Palestinians executed by Hamas for collaborating with the Israelis, two-thirds were not collaborators at all but "were women who wore slacks and other 'prostitutes,' as Hamas called unveiled women" (327).

Dworkin is both a woman and a Jew. She feels that these two aspects of her identity reflected a similar spirit for much of history: "Jews, like women, were passive, pure, and frequently martyred: world-class champions at suffering." At the same time, there was a contradiction between these identities: "Jews had God; women had children" (176). Then came Israel. Jewish men turned into oppressors, just like other men. Jewish women, on the other hand, remained passive and pure, like other women. The contradiction between the identites grew.

Dworkin is ambivalent about her Jewishness, generally anti-Israel, but totally loyal to her gender: "Israel both embodies and protects male Jews; but the Jewish women inside the state have been disarmed - the pattern for women in liberation struggles that succeed" (xi). There is something missing from Dworkin's account here; she doesn't seem to know about the unique status of Golda Meir, the first woman head of government in history who was neither the wife nor the daughter of a previous ruler. Queens and empresses have always existed. Sirivamo Bandaranaike became the world's first woman prime minister in 1960, but she was the widow of the previous prime minister. Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1966, but she was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Golda Meir, who became prime minister in 1969, was not related to anyone anywhere who had ever held office.

Dworkin's book is well documented, with quotations, notes, and bibliography. How did she miss Golda Meir? We saw above that Dworkin thought the situation of women was the same in New York City and Sudan. Dworkin doesn't seem to able to notice gradations, distinctions, or even outright differences.

Rape is a running theme throughout the book. She asks, "[W]hy isn't a raped woman the symbol of the Holocaust - and why isn't rape part of all the exhibits and all the memorials?" (315) There is a simple answer. Rape was but one example of Nazi cruelty, which included killing pets while the children watched, smashing children's heads against the wall while their parents watched, rounding up patients in hospitals and transporting them to the death camps, etc. The Holocaust wasn't about rape.

Dworkin even writes about the rape of men: "Another part of the Arab code, coexisting with the obligation of the father or brother to kill the sister for sexual impurity, is the rape of a defeated foe, soldier, male. Israeli prisoners of war in Arab custody will be familiar with this form of Arab revenge, practiced, for instance, against an earlier generation of Israeli soldiers" (58). Never does she tell of Israelis raping Arabs, although she mentions cases of sexual threats and harrassment. If there were a documented case of an Israeli raping an Arab woman, surely it would have found its way into the book.

Dworkin opposes freedom of speech: "The beauty, the power, the complexity, of The Merchant of Venice requires one to ask the question: for how many Jewish corpses is Shakespeare responsible? one? ten? fifty?" (145) The answer to Dworkin's question is the fact that Jews are not massacred in societies with freedom of speech - nor are women. Dworkin claims that "women cannot be free of male dominance without challenging the men of one's own ethnic group and destroying their authority" (xi). No. Women and men; Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and atheists; all will be free in a democracy, where everybody can have power.

A version of this review appeared for a time in the late summer of 2000 in National Review Online.