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The Brownshirts of Our Time

By Phyllis Chesler


November 19, 2003

On Saturday evening, November 8, 2003, the eve of Kristallnacht, I addressed a woman’s “networking” conference of mainly African-American and Hispanic-American womanists and feminists at Barnard College. The conference was described as a grassroots, multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-disciplinary organization for women in the arts. Indeed, the women seemed to range in age from 20-65 and were dressed in corporate business suits, ever-colorful African/ethnic attire, youthful jeans.

Booths were arranged in a semi-circle–it was as if the panels and performances were taking place in an African marketplace. Scented candles, beaded drums, sleek handbags, photographs, Citi-banking for women consultants, African skirts, all vied for my attention. In addition to my son, who had driven me there, and myself, there were a handful of white people, including a photographer from whom I bought two prints and a psychologist who identified herself to me as an admirer and as someone who had suffered a brain injury in an car accident.

The conference was closed to men–but one of the organizers made a split second decision to allow my adult son in and seated him by himself at the very back of the room on a chair set apart. Growing up in a feminist household, he was used to this. Privately, we both sighed and wondered when feminist men would finally be welcome at a feminist conference.

I doubt that the organizers of this conference knew anything of my background but they were more than welcoming. They had real class and great soul. For example, when I’d explained that I was just in the midst of both a major move into Manhattan and a book tour, one organizer said: “We understand what it’s like when a woman is jammed up doing too much. We’ll love you anyway. You can let us know at the last minute.” She was so damn upbeat and understanding that I decided I’d come no matter what.

In retrospect, I realized that I should have known what was coming; perhaps I chose not to know.

A few days before the conference I had the following conversation with one of the organizers. She asked me what my most recent book was and I told her it was The New Anti-Semitism. I explained that Jew-hatred was a form of racism–only it was not being treated as such by anti-racist “politically correct” people. The organizer did not say: “I don’t agree with you” nor did she say: “This won’t play well to our constituency.” She only said: “We need you to explain the ways in which women sabotage each other and remain divided so that we can understand and overcome it in order to come together. We need you to talk about your book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman. Your speech will precede our big Unity panel.”

When I arrived, performers were rapping and singing and dancing and the energy was fabulous. They were running late and I waited patiently and happily. I whispered to my son: “There’s still a whole world out there. And in ways, it’s quite wonderful. Perhaps I have become too obsessed with The Jewish Cause, with Israel. Maybe I need to remember that I am also connected to more than one issue.”

I had been asked to talk about what women can do, psychologically and ethically, in order to enact sisterhood and to work in productive, even radical ways. As I spoke, the women in the audience sighed, cheered, applauded, nodded in agreement, laughed, groaned, nudged each other–it was a half hour of good vibes.

And then my first questioner blew it all to Hell. All it took was The Question and it only required one Questioner. I could not see who was speaking. A disembodied voice demanded to know where I stood on the question of the women of Palestine. Her tone was forceful, hostile, relentless, and prepared. I could have said: “The organizers have specifically asked me not to address such questions.” I did not say that. I could also have said: “I am concerned with the women of Palestine but I am also concerned with the women of Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, who have all been gang-raped by soldiers who used rape as a weapon of war; I am concerned with the poverty and homelessness of women right here in America; I am concerned with the women of Israel who are being blown up in buses, at cafes, in their own bedrooms.” I did not say this.

Instead, I took a deep breath and said that I did not respect people who hijacked airplanes or hijacked conferences or who, at this very moment, were trying to hijack this lecture. I pointed out that the subject of my talk was not Israel or Palestine. I did not want us to lose our focus. She grew even more hostile and demanding. “Tell this audience what you said on WBAI. I heard you on that program.” Clearly, she wanted to “unmask” me before this audience as a Jew-lover and an Israel-defender.

I took the question head-on. “If you’re really asking about apartheid, let me talk about it. Contrary to myth and propaganda, Israel is not an apartheid state. The largest practioner of apartheid in the world is Islam which practices both gender and religious apartheid. In terms of gender apartheid, Palestinian women–and all women who live under Islam–are oppressed by “honor” killings, in which girls and women who are raped are then killed by family members for the sake of restoring the family “honor;” forced veiling, segregation, stonings to death for alleged adultery, seclusion/sequestration, female genital mutilation, polygamy, outright slavery, sexual slavery. Women have few civil, legal, or human rights under Islam.”

I continued; “Islam also specializes in religious apartheid as well. All non-Muslims (Christians, including Maronites and Melkites, Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, Jews, Assyrians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, animists) have historically been viewed and treated as subhumans who must either convert to Islam or be mercilessly taxed, beaten, jailed, murdered, or exiled. The latest al-Queda attack in Saudi Arabia was primarily directed against Lebanese Christians and Americans.”

I continued. “Today, the entire Middle East is judenrein, there are no Jews left in 22 Arab countries. And, the Arab leadership has backed the PLO strategy in which the 23rd state remains under constant and perilous siege. Historically in general, but specifically since 1948-1956, Arab Jews were forced to flee Arab Islamic lands. Most are living in Israel, the only Middle Eastern state in which Jews are allowed to live. Jews cannot become citizens of Jordan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, for example and yet no one accuses those nations of apartheid.

I said that Israel was not an apartheid state. I talked about real gender and religious Apartheid, as practiced by Muslims. I told the truth. Clearly, they had not heard it before. The audience collectively gasped. Then, people went a little crazy.

Someone muttered darkly, coarsely, in a near-growl: “What about the checkpoints? What about the fence?” As if checkpoints and fences are the same as being killed by your brother or father or, most recently, in Ramallah, in the Rofayda Qaoud case, by your mother (!) for the crime of having been raped–in the Qaoud case, both raped and impregnated by your mother’s two sons. I asked the audience if they thought that being detained at a checkpoint was really the same as having your clitoris sliced off, the same as being stoned to death for alleged adultery. The only response I got was from the first questioner who demanded that I denounce Ariel Sharon–but not Yasir Arafat–as a murderer.

I absolutely refused to do so.

The lightning rod of “Palestine” was enough to turn a very friendly audience quite hostile and a bit unhinged. Two or three women proceeded to ask aggressive questions in which they tried to get me to say that I had somehow “disrespected” poor women in my remarks; I had said nothing of the sort.

As I left the podium, a young African-American woman stopped me to say that I’d “hurt” her by how I had “disrespected” a “brown” woman. “What brown woman?” I asked. “Your first questioner was a brown woman” she said “and so are Palestinian women.” I said: “Jewish women, especially in Israel also come in many colors including brown and black.” She stopped me. “But you’re a white Jew.” As if this was proof of a crime.

I did not bother to tell her that without my glasses I could not see the face or color of a questioner so far away, that my answer to the question would have been the same no matter what color the questioner happened to be.

As I was trying to leave, one woman, who said her name was “Lupe,” (she was dressed in a button-festooned serape, and had a cross tattooed between her eyebrows) loped after me and continued to demand that I deal with the Palestine question. She kept trying to get at me physically. One of the organizers kept putting her own body between Lupe and me. Lupe behaved like a trained operative, her rage was legitimized, empowered, by her politics.

The three young African-American women who had invited me were VERY supportive of me, they hugged me and thanked me for coming and looked rather embarrassed about what had happened.

What’s important is this: Not one of them tried to stop what was happening, not one stood up and said: “Something good has just turned ugly and we must not permit this to happen.” Thus, the “good” people did nothing to disperse the hostility or to address the issues. Perhaps they were simply unprepared on the issues; perhaps they agreed with the view that Israel is an apartheid state and that anyone who would dare defend it was supposed to be treated as a traitor and enemy. Perhaps they simply lacked the courage to stand up to the fundamentalists in their midst.

Afterwards, my son told me that he was on his feet the minute The Questioner spoke and although I could not see him either, I was glad to know that he was in the room. Things could easily have turned much uglier. (By the way: Talk about gender apartheid! The conference confined him to his men-only single chair section).

It seemed that The Questioner had at least one, and possibly two henchwoman with her. Clearly, she wanted to “get” the pro-Israel white Jew.

I couldn’t help reflecting on my life’s work against racism. For example, in 1963, I joined The Northern Student Movement and tutored Harlem students. This was the Northern branch of the civil rights movement. In the late 1960s, I was involved with both the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. I marched outside the Women’s House of Detention when they jailed Angela Davis. I was involved in the Inez Garcia case and have written extensively about the cases of both Joanne Little and Yvonne Wanrow, two women of color who, like Garcia, had killed (white) men in self-defense. In the mid-70s, I interviewed Jews from India, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Africa, and Jews who had fled Arab lands about “cultural” or “ethnic” racism in Israel. By the early 1970s, I also began organizing against Jew-hatred on the left and among feminists in America. Over the years, I have lectured on the complexities of both racism and sexism in the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and in Japan. For nearly 30 years, I taught working-class and students of color at a public university. I admired and loved them and was sometimes able to help them in ways that changed their views and their lives.

Here’s what’s sad. Clearly, my speech touched hearts and minds; there was room for common ground and for civilized discourse. But not once the word “Palestine” was uttered, not when “Palestine” is seen as a symbol for every downtrodden group of color who are “resisting” the racist-imperialist American and Zionist Empires. Once the “Palestine” litmus test of political respectability was raised, everyone responded on cue, as if programmed and brainwashed. It immediately became a “white” versus “brown” thing, an “oppressed” versus an “oppressor” thing.

These are the Brownshirts of our time. The fact that they are women of color, womanists/feminists is all the more chilling and tragic. And unbelievable. And to me: Practically unbearable.

Afterwards, my son, ever-wise, said: “Well mom, you have your answer. The Jew-haters will never allow you into their wider, wonderful world. You can’t go back.

“Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D, is the author of twelve books, including the international bestseller WOMEN AND MADNESS. Her most recent book is The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It.