Well, well….a bona fide member of the progressive clan has penned a book about anti-Semitism, and it’s not a whitewash of leftist nastiness toward Jews and Israel.
How unfortunate then that veteran feminist Phyllis Chesler’s effort to define, document and decry what she calls "The New Anti-Semitism," has produced such a deeply flawed book.
It would have been illuminating to read an analysis by someone with Chesler’s credentials of how and why anti-Semitism has once more become acceptable in polite progressive society, particularly in Europe.
But instead, out of the depths of her anguish over the rising anti-Semitic wave, Chesler has done little more than provide documentation of all the recent dreadful incidents that have raised the age-old antenna of Jews tuned in to every nuance of anti-Jewish expression.
Large sections of the book read like an Anti-Defamation League report, with chronological listings of egregious statements or deeds by one Jew-hater or another. Most are well known by anyone vaguely interested in Jewish matters and have done the rounds of the Internet. Remember the Finns who refused to sell gas masks to Israel, and the French diplomat who called Israel “that shitty little country.”?
The book is so poorly written and edited that the phrase “according to…” appears five times in two pages of a country-by-country rundown of European anti-Semitism.
Chesler’s entire venture is couched within the parameters of the September 11th terror attacks on America. For some reason she feels the need to regale the reader, in the first three pages of the book yet, with a blow-by-blow rundown of events of that day –as if any American alive then needs to be reminded of the horror.
But her opening sets a tone of unrelenting hyperbole that persists throughout the book. “’Tis a season of blood that’s upon us,” she writes. “But, will six million more have to die before the bloodletting stops?” she continues. “Events are spinning out of control…” and in another chapter, “It’s as if Hitler’s Brown Shirts have returned from the dead.”
Any right-wing writer who used such language and images most likely would be swiftly dismissed as an uneducated alarmist, but Chesler views herself as part of the intellectual elite—even going as far as to ponder, “Am I the only intellectual in America to feel this way?” about Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s condemnation of Jews.
Chesler defines the new anti-Semitism as “a virulent epidemic of violence, hatred, and lies that are being touted as 'politically correct.' 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.”
To her credit, Chesler does take on two of the more notorious of this band—Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, and even performs a credible mea culpa as she admits that her efforts to focus on “the psychological effects of discrimination and violence on oppressed, colonized, and racially despised peoples,” might have had something to do with “the politically correct madness [that] seems to have hijacked most North American universities.”
What are some of Chesler’s solutions to the outbreak of this madness? Well, for starters, says Chesler, in her chapter entitled, "What We Must Do," how about telling “our friends, students, neighbors, leaders and opponents that, contrary to propaganda, that (sic) the Jews and the Zionists do not control America, the banks, or the media.” My, doesn’t that sound effective?
Chesler is at her best in her retelling of an astonishing array of anecdotes about blatantly anti-Semitic feminists—although most of them go unnamed. One wonders how she could go on considering feminists “my people” after some of the diatribes she was subjected to by her sisters.
After Shabbat services in a New York synagogue, Chesler announced that the United Nations had voted to condemn Israel again. Chesler recounts how a woman came up and harangued her with enormous rage. Chesler’s reaction? “I tried to appease her by reminding her that I was still a Jew, still a progressive.”
No doubt it takes courage for a confirmed leftist like Chesler to disavow the positions of so many of “her people.” There’s a section of her book where she defends the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and writes realistically about the tiny number of IDF reservists who have refused to serve in the territories.
But she can’t quite wrench herself away from her radical roots. After more than 200 pages of righteous outrage, Chesler slips in the following sentence: “Thus, although I have criticized pro-PLO Jewish, left, and feminist views in this book, let me say that I also see merit in these views too.”
Still, it’s not these kinds of sentiments that make this book so maddeningly unsatisfying. It’s the sense that one is reading a first draft about a compelling topic that needs serious revision and editing.
Judy Lash Balint is an award-winning Jerusalem based writer. (www.jerusalemdiaries.com)