Chesler's 'Anti-Semitism': making friends enemies


The New Anti-Semitism, by Phyllis Chesler. Jossey-Bass. 320 pages. $24.95.

Phyllis Chesler's latest book is personal and provocative. Strongly identifying herself as a Jewish writer, she argues that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have, ironically, increased the breadth and depth of global anti-Semitism to extreme levels. Just recently, Jewish thinkers were wondering whether Jews would destroy themselves by assimilating too comfortably in America, but now Jews are facing a renewal of outrageous claims no more credible than the "blood libel" that Jews kill Christian children for ritual.

Citing example after example of historical and contemporary anti-Semitism, ranging from the Dreyfus affair to the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl, Chesler has a compelling case to make. Identifying the cultural origins of scapegoating, she is right that all of us should be troubled by these trends.

She is factually accurate and morally justified. Anti-Semitism is rising and is wrong. Much of it is based on crackpot ideology that has become mainstream. The comparison of Jews to Nazis is beyond the pale.

Explicitly equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, however, and comparing calls for boycotts of Israeli companies with the most extreme forms of hatred, Chesler is prepared to make enemies and lose the "friends" to whom she speaks in asides. She is angry that liberals and academics, especially feminists and secular Jews, who once identified with Israeli Jews, are sympathizing with Palestinians. Chesler herself is best known as the author of the influential feminist study Women and Madness, but she believes that her former allies are persecuting religious Jews for the sake of "political correctness."

Chesler's presentation is not helped by her rhetoric. She is much less persuasive than she could be.

Her anecdotes suggest that she believes almost all points of view can be explained by the religious or racial background of the people espousing them and that individuals do and should represent groups. She says, for example, that she cannot be "a simple-minded apologist for the state of Israel" because "I was once married to an Israeli -- need I say more?" She adds about her other former husband that his "European sophistication and charm could not hold its own against the forces of repression and misogyny that ruled his Afghan Muslim heart and mind."

Tragically, Chesler may be correct that we cannot transcend our backgrounds. Her analysis is frustrating, because even though she is right, she is not likely to be persuasive. A reader could well agree with her that Israel is held to a standard of perfection unlike any other nation and that much criticism of it barely disguises raw anti-Semitism, but also be unwilling to condemn Arabs and Muslims, if only for the hope of peace.

In comparing African-Americans and Jews, Chesler suggests that "African Americans ... are the Jews in America, but Jews are the world's niggers." Perhaps Abraham Lincoln's approach to ending slavery would be useful in addressing anti-Semitism. As a candidate and then president, Lincoln's opinions changed from the common prejudices of his era to the justice of the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet all along, he understood that he must be both right and persuasive. Great leaders of democracy in conflict have the duty of convincing the open-minded.

Frank H. Wu is a professor of law at Howard University and a member of the District of Columbia Human Rights Commission. He is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, and co-author of Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment. He reviews law-related books for a wide range of periodicals.

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