Feminist sees new threat
by Roberts Starcy McCain
It was the morning of September 11, 2001, about 11 a.m., Phyllis Chesler recalls. A few miles from her Brooklyn home, the World Trade Center was a heap of smoldering rubble. In Washington, the Pentagon was in flames. Terrorists in four hijacked jets had killed some 3,000 people in the United States.
Ms. Chesler, a veteran feminist writer, went to her computer and began by typing a single sentence: "Now, we are all Israelis."
The attacks of September 11, she says, represent a new kind of anti-Semitism - an unholy alliance between "Islamic reactionaries and Western intellectuals and progressives who may disagree on every other subject," but who agree "that Israel and America are the cause of all evil."
In campaigning against this new menace, Ms. Chesler has criticized her left-leaning colleagues - who she says are "romanticizing Islamic fascism" - and attracted interest from those not usually inclined to praise progressive feminists.
"Pat Robertson wants me - isn't that something?" Ms. Chesler says in a telephone interview, recounting an invitation to appear on the religious conservative's Christian Broadcasting Network.
A former professor of women's studies and a co-founder of the Women's Health Network, Ms. Chesler is, by her own estimate, "one of the founders of Second Wave feminism in the United States."
Yet the concerns she raises in her new book, "The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It," have put Ms. Chesler at odds with many of her former comrades in arms. For instance, while her leftist peers in academia oppose President Bush's war on terror, Ms. Chesler enthusiastically supports it.
"I put an American flag in my window right after 9/11, and I was challenged: 'Have you gone soft in the head and become a patriot?' " she says. "I see no problem between the kind of ideals I hold and the fact that I hold them in America. America has given me the kind of freedom that I would not have in Saudi Arabia, that I would not have in Afghanistan."
She knows about Afghanistan. Her first husband was an Afghan Muslim, and she lived with his family in Kabul in the early 1960s. For six months, she says, she "was pretty much held hostage." It was an experience that profoundly influenced her.
"I first learned how different the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic East really are long ago ... when I was a bride living in Afghanistan in an era of pre-Taliban gender apartheid," she writes. "Afghanistan had never been colonized, so there were no Westerners to blame. It was there that I learned how not to romanticize wily, colorful, Third World tyrants."
That experience helped forge her feminist views, and she sees a bitter irony in progressives' opposition to the war on terror, which began by destroying the repressive Taliban regime.
After the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, Ms. Chesler says, she privately implored several feminists to push for overthrowing the militant Islamic regime, which closed girls' schools and forced women to wear the burka. "But no one took it seriously. Then George Bush does it," she says.
"I didn't understand Americans who are progressives, feminists, liberals and leftists, why the day after we invaded Afghanistan, everybody began treating this as if we had just invaded Vietnam," Ms. Chesler says. "We were in a time warp, we were back in the '60s.
"You would think ... there would be some euphoria. Suddenly, women can go about and put their faces into the sun. It's a good thing. And girls and women can go to school and become literate. It's a good thing. And yet, the habit of criticizing one's own government was so deeply ingrained that they could not see this invasion as a good thing, even momentarily."
Anti-Jewish propaganda spread by Arab governments - Egypt state television last year broadcast a program based on the anti-Semitic forgery "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" - is increasingly echoed, Ms. Chesler says, by Western intellectuals, "people who are professors, who are leading lights and who teach the coming generation how to think."
On Internet message boards, she says, some left-wing academics espouse "a good deal of vitriolic anti-Zionism: All the world's problems are caused by Israel. If Israel could be destroyed, all the world could be saved and cleansed, and the oppressed and the colonized would be redeemed."
"It had that level of messianic fervor. Except the Western intellectuals only believe in a secular messiah, a social program that will fix human nature. They're making their alliance with terrorists, who are committed to destroying Western civilization, democracy, women's rights, human rights, freedom of thought, the First Amendment and freedom of worship."
Ms. Chesler sees psychological motives behind intellectuals' view of Palestinians and other Muslims as victims of oppression.
"When people here start identifying themselves as victims, and then identify themselves as righteous protectors of victims over there, then simultaneously they can fight for the victim over there and not fight for themselves here," she says.
"There's a good deal of romanticization ... of the Third World, as if it is the more colorful or the more noble because it's more oppressed."
Guilt and fear are also part of the equation, Ms. Chesler says.
"There is some desire to expiate some original sin by opening the gates to our destroyers. ... I think there is fear involved ... fear about terrorism that is not being dealt with rationally.
"Some Americans and some Europeans are acting as if their politically correct views will spare them from a suicide bomber - that they will be sorted out, and because they have the right views, they'll be spared. It's very irrational and very desperate thinking."
The post-September 11 world, Ms. Chesler says, is a time when the old labels may not serve us well anymore. She cites a speech in April by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, in which the conservative Texas Republican declared "Israel's fight is our fight: against terror, and for humanity," and branded Palestinian leaders "a gang of murderers."
"If Tom DeLay is to the right of the right, where does that leave me, if I like his speech?" she asks. "Freedom and terrorism cannot coexist. Tom DeLay says it, and I say the same thing in my book."
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I recommend this book be put on the reading list of every American school.
--Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Author of Infidel and Nomad
This is a bold book, intimate and rich in detail… Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She will never stop
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