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The Brownshirts of our time.

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 to 65 and were dressed in corporate business suits, ever-colorful African/ethnic attire, and youthful jeans. 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.

In retrospect, I realized that I should have known what was coming. 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," or "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. 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. I whispered to my son, "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. 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 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. 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 practitioner 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"; by forced veiling, segregation, stonings to death for alleged adultery, seclusion/sequestration, female genital mutilation, polygamy, outright slavery, and sexual slavery." I continued, "Islam also specializes in religious apartheid as well. All non-Muslims have historically been viewed and treated as sub-humans who must either convert to Islam or be mercilessly taxed, beaten, jailed, murdered, or exiled. The latest Al-Qaeda attack in Saudi Arabia was primarily directed against Lebanese Christians and Americans."

I further 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 19481956, Arab Jews were forced to flee Arab Islamic lands. Jews cannot become citizens of Jordan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, for example, and yet no one accuses those nations of apartheid."

I told the truth. Clearly, they had not heard it before. The audience gasped collectively. Then, people went a little crazy. Someone muttered darkly, coarsely, in a near-growl: "What about the checkpoints? What about the fence?" 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.

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.

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 an enemy. Perhaps they simply lacked the courage to stand up to the fundamentalists in their midst.

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. 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. For nearly 30 years, I taught working-class people 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 was the word "Palestine" 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, room, you have your answer. The Jew-haters will never allow you into their wider, wonderful world. You can't go back."

In her recent piece for, <>, "The Brownshirts of Our Time," Phyllis Chesler gave an account of her address to a woman's "networking" conference at Barnard College. Due to her refusal to legitimize Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians, the author was shouted down and almost physically accosted. Barnard has officially responded to the incident and Chesler's article. The first letter below is written by Penny Van Amburg, the Director of Development Communications at Barnard. It places equal blame on both sides. Chesler's response follows.

--The Editors, Frontpage magazine

PHYLLIS CHESLER, a prominent feminist intellectual, is the author of 12 books. Her most recent book, The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It, is reviewed in this issue 0f Midstream on p. 40. The above pieces first appeared online in on November 19, 2003 and December 4, 2003, and are reprinted by permission.

Statement by Barnard College on the Phyllis Chesler speech

On November 8, the feminist author Phyllis Chesler spoke on the Barnard campus at the invitation of an outside group that held a conference to celebrate women in the arts. Ms. Chesler was asked to give her thoughts on feminism and women's advancement around the world based on one of her recent books. The event was organized by Women Empowered Through Revolutionary Ideas Supporting Enterprise or W.E.R.I.S.E, which is an international organization of women artists. The Barnard Center for Research on Women served as the campus host of this event, as it had for two previous years, but the Center itself was not directly involved in planning or supervising the conference, and its role was limited to advance coordination of the group's logistical needs for the event.

Concerns have been raised about Barnard's responsibility for what occurred during Ms. Chesler's talk. In an article about the event that Ms. Chesler wrote for a Website, she gave an account of an exchange with a member of the audience over her position on the Israeli-Palestinian question. She describes being badgered while onstage and contended that no one in the audience attempted to restore reasoned discussion that might have shed light, rather than heat, on their diverse views.

Barnard, like all serious academic institutions, insists on civil discourse, especially on divisive issues. We seek to foster an atmosphere in which fair and respectful discussion can occur on even the most sensitive and politically charged issues. Moreover, we are guided in our discussions of critical issues by our commitment to respect diverse opinions by people of all backgrounds.

Just as important, discussion and debate must be informed by facts and reason, particularly on a matter of such importance and high passions as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This standard apparently was not met on this occasion, certainly not by those who heckled Ms. Chesler and/or did nothing to guide the discussion back into its appropriate channels, but also not by Ms. Chesler herself. Regrettably, by attacking Islam in a culturally misleading and historically uninformed way, Ms. Chesler undermines her position as a compelling voice on this issue. Moreover, the resurgence of antisemitism in various parts of the world and also on some college campuses is a serious matter that deserves responsible discussion. Invoking Kristallnacht in this context is hyperbole and highly irresponsible. All in all, the evening represented a failure of the most basic elements necessary for an enlightened discussion of issues.

This event has led administrators to re-examine Barnard guidelines for events by outside groups and their responsibility to honor the College's basic framework for free and fair discussion. This policy will be clarified over the coming weeks.

Lastly, this episode raises the question of whether an event of this kind at Barnard should ever be closed to men. The answer is no.

November 26, 2003


Penny Van Amburg

Director of Development Communications

Barnard College Office of Development

Phyllis Chesler's Response to Barnard College

Dear Penny Van Amburg:

Greetings! I would have appreciated a call or a note directly from you but privately. I did not want to take what happened on the evening of November 8, 2003, to another level--hence, I did not call or write you or President Shapiro. Perhaps I should have, but I did not have the heart to do so, given how charismatic and hardworking the organizers of the conference were. The fact that they did not stand up to the bullies in their midst--or to the brainwashing by propaganda that has so afflicted the academy and the media left me sad and thoughtful.

However, now that you have written about this publicly, allow me to say a few words.

I am certainly glad that, because of what happened to me and my son on November 8, Barnard now has a formal policy in place that will allow both (or all) genders to gather for conferences or classes at Barnard. I must say that sometimes women-only spaces are pedagogically desirable, and I hope that you remain open to this possibility on a case by case basis.

However, there were not two rights here, nor were there two parties at fault here. I delivered a fairly inspiring speech. I failed in no way. (Or so the organizers assured me.) I brought facts to bear on the Israel-Palestine matter. Perhaps you are entirely uninformed about historical Islam. If you were expert, you would understand that Islam has always persecuted dhimmis, non-Muslims, and that these included Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. If you were familiar with the works of Bat Ye'Or, Ibn Warraq, Robert Spencer, etc., you might understand that I did not "attack Islam in a culturally misleading and historically uninformed way."

You might also understand that Arab honor killings, the stonings to death of women for alleged adultery, veiling, sequestration, etc., is gender apartheid, and that as Westerners, we are not bound to view such customs as "multiculturally correct," but rather as the gross human rights abuses they truly are.

However, perhaps the sister-university to a university that for years funded and lionized the anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli views of Edward Said--and to this day refuses to reveal the funding sources of the endowed Said Chair--might see anything other than a pro-PLO and anti-Israel point of view as misleading and inaccurate, and even provocative. I spoke the truth about both gender and religious apartheid. In my article for Frontpage magazine, I invoked Kristallnacht because, afterwards, I simply realized that that is when I spoke. If you construe truthful and forceful parallels as "hyperbolic" or "irresponsible"--what can I say? Perhaps you might wish to hear me lecture or better yet, read my book The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It.

If you think that the "evening was a failure," I suggest that you have a campus-wide teach-in on the subject of Israel, Palestine, Jew-hatred, Islam, and Apartheid. I would consider speaking at such an event if civility and expertise were present and if those assembled understood that a campus is not a gladiatorial arena, or a boxing match but rather a place to soberly consider serious subjects in an informed, tolerant, and reasonable way.

Sincerely yours,

Phyllis Chesler
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Author:Chesler, Phyllis
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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