One would think that if contemporary leftist feminists supported all of their own ideals, they would today be wholeheartedly behind Israel, since it's the only society in the Middle East where feminism actually exists. But radical feminists today side -- ferociously -- with the Palestinians, whose society practices a ruthless form of gender apartheid. Why?
To discuss this issue with us today, Frontpage Symposium has the pleasure to introduce:
Tricia Roth, a feminist activist who spent 10 years with the National Organization for Women (NOW). She has worked to defeat anti-gay and anti-affirmative action proposition campaigns, and is the author of successful California legislation prohibiting the introduction of the victim’s manner of dress in rape and sexual assault cases. She is currently one of the producers of KPFK radio’s weekly program, Feminist Magazine. For the last 2 years, her focus has been on the Left's depiction of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the anti-Semitism of its anti-Zionist ideology;
Elinor Burkett, a former leftist whose travels throughout the Muslim world made her change her ideological views. She is the author of So Many Enemies, So Little Time. An American Woman in All the Wrong Places;
Phyllis Chesler, an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies and the author of twelve books including the best-selling Women and Madness and most recently, The New Anti-Semitism. The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It (Jossey-Bass/John Wiley). She may be reached at her website www.phyllis-chesler.com.
FP: Tricia Roth, Elinor Burkett and Phyllis Chesler, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Ms. Roth, let me begin with you.
First and foremost, let’s crystallize that in this symposium we are not talking about feminists, but leftist feminists. There are obviously feminists who are not radicals.
So let’s start with the heart of the matter:
Why do leftist feminists support a society where they themselves would be oppressed?
Roth: Many feminists are torn in 2 directions. On one hand, it’s hard to deny the discrepancy in the treatment of women in Israel as opposed to the surrounding Arab countries. I’m not sure about the position of women specifically in Palestinian society, but I know that some issues central to feminism are handled terribly under the Palestinian Authority. The treatment of gays for example – who run the risk of execution simply based upon their sexual orientation.
On the other hand, after 9/11, many feminists became very protective of Muslims and Arabs, fearing a backlash against these groups. But in their attempt to address injustice, some have made the rights of Palestinians (their uber-underdog) their dominant concern. When this is done, the rights of women, particularly those living in Arab countries, tend to get ignored. To do otherwise would challenge a precarious and rigid ideology – an ideology based on absolutes.
And Israel, just like any other country, has its own problems with women’s rights. But when compared to the status of women worldwide, Israel is doing pretty good on many fronts.
FP: Ms. Burkett, Ms. Roth brings up an issue that illuminates the essence of the problem here. Homosexuals face terrible persecution under the Palestinian Authority and yet, there are actually groups like "Queers for Palestine" that go to anti-Israel demonstrations to shout slogans in support of Palestinians and then they get roughed up and shouted down by the Muslims at the demonstration.
There is something very mind-boggling here, and it is connected to the radical feminist who shows up almost nude at an anti-war demonstration taking the side of militant Islam, when the fact is that if she even showed her face under some of the regimes she supports she would be mutilated or raped or killed or burned alive. What is behind this dementia? Is it a death wish?
Burkett: Dementia and death wishes can be cured, or at least treated, with therapy and the right drugs. A puerile understanding of oppression and history cannot. And I fear that's what we're dealing with. You're talking about people blinded by their own need to define themselves according to their own perceived oppression. They look around the world seeking "victims" to identify with to reinforce their own sense of victimization, to afford themselves the psychological and moral satisfaction of joining hands with the world's other oppressed. Unfortunately, since they're ultimately acting out of narcissism, they blunder into the most embarrassing possible contradictions without even seeing them. Then, when they're called on their inconsistency, they get the added benefit of feeling misunderstood and persecuted yet again.
FP: Dr. Chesler, welcome. I would like to zero in for a moment on Ms. Burkett's point about these radicals acting out of narcissism and needing to feel like they are victims. You are a psychologist. Could you zero in on this dynamic for us?
Chesler: I agree with some of Elinor’s and Tricia’s points. However, a certain degree of narcissism is normal, healthy, and common among human beings. Feminists are human beings too. I will not pathologize feminists by assigning them a pseudo-psychiatric diagnosis. But, people who are themselves both privileged and aware of the world’s enormous suffering may fend off feeling guilty about their freedom, status, education, health, etc. by viewing themselves as “oppressed;” they may hope to both elevate and (secretly) redeem themselves by battling for the “oppressed” and by presenting themselves as “oppressed” too. People who are not fighting for themselves but on behalf of persecuted others, altruistically, self-righteously, can be exceptionally fierce. There is something excessive, almost pathological about the established left feminist obsession with Israel as the source of the world’s every evil and with the Palestinians as the noblest of victims.
While Israel stands head and shoulders above the Islamic regimes that surround it ethically, politically, and socially, it is still far from a feminist paradise. Women do not earn what men earn nor do they have equal rights religiously, militarily, or politically; the trafficking of women into brothels in Israel remains a serious problem, single mothers are over-burdened with child care. Nevertheless, contrary to myth, Israeli soldiers do not publicly gang-rape, torture, enslave, amputate, be-head, or ethnically cleanse those with whom they are at war. Arab armies routinely do all this and more, (to their own citizens as well), including hostage-taking and suicide bombings of innocent civilians. Israel is not praised for it’s higher ethical standards, the Arab armies are not condemned for their pre-medieval standards.
FP: Dr. Chesler, one moment please. When you say that Israel is "far from a feminist paradise" I think it is vital to counter by saying that there is no feminist paradise on this earth, or any other kind of paradise for that matter. And to blame Israel or America for that is ludicrous, but the Left does it all the time.
And that is exactly the point. Leftists consistently hold up the freest societies to a utopian ideal and find them wanting. The "problems" you pinpoint in Israel (i.e. women do not earn such and such, etc.) are not problems exclusive to Israel, but problems worldwide that have no easy and perfect solutions. The "problems" in Israel are ones that no society can perfectly mend.
I think this is essential to state, since we have to delegitimize any premise that assumes that a perfect "equality" can be found among human beings, or genders, anywhere. If we do not negate that premise, then more Stalins, Maos, and Pol Pots are always on the potential horizon.
Chesler: You are so right. Neither Israel nor America have to be “better” than other societies but the truth is that, imperfect as we may be, we are actually further evolved along democratic and humanitarian lines than most other cultures. I just think it’s important to admit imperfection, limitation, rather than deny it.
FP: Ms. Roth, first I’ll let you comment on what has been said.
Roth: Many leftists do criticize the freest societies for not living up to utopian standards, but many also bring to our attention legitimate concerns. Just because Americans enjoy pretty much unparallel freedoms, doesn’t mean we should ignore our nation’s or the world’s ills.
I’d like to go back to feminists. I don’t want to characterize them all as lunatics advocating contradictory causes. I know wonderful feminists, radical and otherwise, who don’t adopt this knee-jerk, anti-Israel stance.
Unfortunately, it’s the larger progressive movement that’s adopted this anti-Israel position. It’s a fairy-tale-like romanticizing of a whole peoples - - Arabs. There’s even reticence to assign responsibility to the Sudanese Arabs who are butchering Sudanese Black Muslims.
This simplistic view of the world is a comforting one. To see things in black & white terms, to categorize people as evildoers or saints - - I think it appeals to us on a deep level. It’s an ongoing theme in our entertainment and our politics. But to buy into this type of thinking (whether from the left or the right), is not engaging in a thoughtful analysis of our world.
And though many feminists have adopted a hateful position against Israel (and against Jews really) I still laud feminism, not for demanding unrealistic utopian ideals, but for insisting upon equality for women… and men too. That is a noble cause.
FP: Ms. Roth, could you expand a bit on the Left’s impulse to romanticize the Arabs? What do you think lies behind this new call of the Left?
Roth: Other than what’s been said, I’m not sure how to explain it. Part of it is tied with hatred of America’s foreign policies, and identifying with the enemy of those policies. I agree with Burkett’s analysis about needing to associate with an oppressed group. My experience parallels what Dr. Chesler describes in her book… that any dissenting opinion is met with this over-the-top, blind rage, superseding any room for dialogue. That indicates to me people over-identify, linking their own identity to their ideology.
I don’t know why many progressives have gone down this path right now. Maybe it has something to do with our current political situation. But I’m somewhat hopeful because Leftists are starting to organize against this. And they’re starting to speak out about it being anti-Semitic as well. That is a huge part of it.
Burkett: I think Ms. Roth has led us into the heart of the matter: that the feminists who have embraced the anti-Israel cause are responding to the zeitgeist of the wider so-called progressive movement, its romanticization of Arabs as a group and its antipathy to nuance and grays. The latter, of course, is hardly unique to the Left. But if the Left insists on holding itself up as more reasoned and intellectual, then it must be held to those standards.
I don’t think we can tease out the rising tide of leftist anti-Semitism without addressing in some fashion the changes both in Israeli politics and in the political climate of the U.S.
First, to Israel: The election of Begin was bound to alienate U.S. radicals, not only because he was a “rightist,” but because he was the embodiment of Jews who refused to behave, to talk, even to think like victims. Jews on the offensive proved less enticing to American leftists than Jews who reminded everyone of our long history of persecution. If what the Left earlier found sympathetic about Israel was the Jewish history of victimization, Begin clearly wasn’t going to garner much support.
And I don’t think we can possibly overestimate the impact of the dramatic polarization of U.S. politics either. I was in Central Asia on 9/11 and traveled throughout that region, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan over the course of the following year. Everywhere I went, Muslims insisted that the Jews had staged the World Trade Center attacks in order to turn Americans against Arabs. Ironically, when the attacks seemed to have that effect on conservatives, so-called leftists then felt a need to take the opposite position. In American these days, everything seems to reduce to being against what your perceived enemy supports. Bush attacks an Arab country, so that means that Arabs must be great.
But I also think we need to note that part of this phenomenon stems from the fear that 9/11 implanted in Americans and the connection that leftists are making between their fears and Israel. It still isn’t fashionable to admit what we all know: that hatred of Muslim fundamentalists for the United States is, in large measure, a reflection of their hatred of Israel. Certainly, one way the United States could reduce its susceptibility to attack is to sell out our only reliable ally in the Middle East. I’m sure not advocating such a position. But I think that a desire to return to the illusion of safety feeds the hostility to Israel since blaming Israel and the Jews provides a morally convenient route to security.
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