An Exclusive Interview With Dr. Phyllis Chesler
Dr. Phyllis Chesler has long been involved and identified with the feminist movement. She is the author of Women and Madness and coauthor of Women, Money and Power. Her forthcoming book is entitled All About Men: A Psychosexual Meditation. A psychologist, she is a founding member of the Association for Women in Psychology, the recently constituted National Women’s Health Lobby, and the Woman’s Institute for Alternative Psycho-therapies, a doctoral and post-doctoral program of feminist education. Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, the interviewer, is Acquisitions Editor of Lilith and a founding member of the Socialist Zionist Union.
AVIVA: Most people know of you as a feminist leader and theoretician. But you are also involved with Jewry and Israel. What are you doing, why, and how did your involvement start?
PHYLLIS: My involvement began at least three times. The first time was about 5,000 years ago; I remain a remnant and a witness. The second time was shortly after I was born into a relatively Orthodox Jewish family in Boro Park, Brooklyn. I was sent to a Talmud Torah where we learned in Yiddish. When I was five-and-a-half, I insisted on learning Hebrew. I was very enamoured of the Old Testament, of philosophy. I thus managed to steal some very sacred Jewish male fire, to acquire some Jewish “male” characteristics, namely a divine obsession with the Book, with words . . . with justice. The reason I am a feminist has very much to do with the passion for justice and the irrational belief that reason can prevail, that I learned as a Jew.
I worked for Israel for the first time between 1948, when I was 8, and 1952, as a member of Hashomer Hatzair (the Socialist Zionist youth movement) and then Ain Harod, which was even further left. At one point in Ain Harod we were packing machine gun parts for Israel.
As the “smartest boy” in my Talmud Torah, I assumed I would certainly be a rabbi. Of course I did not become a rabbi. I was not Bar Mitzva’ed. There was nothing for me to do with my early education and my passion for learning but to put away these childhood toys, and I forgot, more or less, about being Jewish.
I remembered, again, that I was Jewish after I became involved in causes for social justice. Many Jews living in large cities are involved in such causes, for intrinsically good reasons and because, as marginal aliens, performing good works for others allows Jews to feel both rich and psychologically secure. Their security resides in how well they understand, and empathize with and are altruistic towards the needs of the “other”—blood dues for being considered inferior, a way of shuffling by being “better” or being “good.”
In this sense, being Jewish is somewhat analogous to being female. When my friend Naomi Weisstein published her paper “Woman as Nigger,” I told her, “Try ‘Woman as Jew’ ” because that would take us back 5,000 years of being without land, in exile, without any means of self-defense or self-support—outside the Family of Man. Woman-as-Jew or Jew-as-Woman is a fruitful analogy but only up to a point. For example, unlike Jews women do not live in enclosed ghettoes without men, nor do they have a religion or a preserved legacy of historical power. Unlike Jews, women have no rabbis, no bet dins (law courts), no financial empires … and no parachutists from feminist kibbutzim to drop behind the lines in Saudi Arabia or in Westchester to encourage fleeing to or funding a feminist refuge or Holy Land.
AVIVA: When was the third time you became involved with being Jewish?
PHYLLIS: It was within the bosom of the feminist movement, when I found that I was treated and recognized as a Jewish feminist, and not as a feminist-in-the-abstract. I learned again about being a Jew the way Jews have always learned: because of anti-Semitism.
I had found that non-Jewish men treated me the way white men treat black women—as more “sensual,” earthy, sexually accessible; as Rebecca of Ivanhoe. I experienced the same treatment from feminists, when I was singled out by some comrades as somehow fleshier, earthier, sexier, pushier, more verbal: “Jewish.” My response was to start wearing extremely large Jewish stars.
When I spoke in public as a feminist—and at radical-left-socialist forums that were not necessarily feminist—many New Left eyes crossed in amazement because I wore a large Jewish star and called myself a Zionist. I discovered that most Jews involved in left politics in America don’t have any facts about Israel or the Palestinians but that their own desire to deny discrimination, to be rid, finally, of their all-too-cumbersome Jewish flesh, and their self-hatred and anti-Semitism, expresses itself best by a mindlessly self-destructive alliance with non-Jews or other Jews in anti-Zionist statements.
I went to Israel for the first time in January 1973. It was a long overdue visit.
AVIVA: How did you feel in Israel?
PHYLLIS: At home. Alive. Vibrant. Lighter. I was not carrying the invisible burden of anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, or rather, I now had (collectively speaking) an army, navy and air force to fight anti-Semitism. In America, I don’t have this. Only Israel rescued Jews from Entebbe. No other nation on earth did so.
I visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust and Resistance Memorial and Museum) and stood for a long time in front of the showcase of the Evian Conference (where, on the eve of World War II, the nations of the world denied refuge to the Jews trapped in Europe). Standing there, I knew in my gut that I could never really be safe or live with honor as a Jew in a Christian or a non-Jewish state.
Unwillingly but quickly, however, I realized that I was living in a Jewish version of the Vatican, a theocratic state which is unalterably opposed to some of the deepest values I cherish as a Jew, as a feminist, as an anarchist; a state in which I am effectively excluded from religious life, discriminated against politically and economically.
On a subsequent trip with a Zionist-organized tour which I partially helped shape, I was asked to say a few words to the group about what I “felt.” I said that as a Jew I have no home outside Israel; as a feminist I have no home inside Israel. And my parts are indissoluable. I am not an abstract entity. I am real and where am I to go? Which desert should I now wander through and for how many years to find my homeland?
Then an Israeli novelist, a man who had spent 10 days bowing and scraping and smiling to all the anti-Semitic Christian men in the group, jumped up and said, “lam tired of all you neurotic Jewish American Princesses. Why don’t you stay in America where you belong? Don’t make any more troubles for Israel.”
AVIVA: As a feminist, how do you view the situation of the Israeli woman?
PHYLLIS: It’s analogous to that of women in many developing countries and to that of poor women and black women in America. They have already had drudgery—in the fields, the factories and the home—with low pay or no pay; it has aged them quickly; and the men always prefer younger-looking women. Traditional women living on the edge of survival have all they can handle being wives and mothers. Having full-time “careers” is both a luxury— and a ton to break the camel’s back. The Israeli women who do have “careers” are superwomen. They have to be. At the end of a long day of incredibly hard overwork (job and housework), they have to climb up panting to the top of the pedestal and pose as a geveret (lady of leisure).
My friend’s daughter, a captain in the Israeli Army, like many Israeli women, wears an extremely short skirt, has very long, well-manicured, painted fingernails and much makeup. She was set up as a Barbie Doll for the same reason that women on the kibbutz were set up as maternal Barbie Dolls: because the Israeli men want it that way. They want everything they used to have before the destruction of ancient Israel and everything that non-Jewish men have had or are perceived to have had, since then. They have even more need to have it—analogous to the desires of American black men and poor men throughout the world: because they have been without the patriarchal definitions of manhood. Such “manhood” is based on a “femalehood” that is infantile, parasitic, dependent and maternal.
When I gave a lecture in Haifa, an Israeli woman, about seven months pregnant, asked, didn’t I really think that men did most of the suffering in Israel, men and not women? I looked directly at her belly—I addressed her belly—and I said, “You mean that if you give birth to a boy, he will be sent to fight and kill and die—after you’ve spent 18 years nourishing him, loving him, teaching him, sacrificing yourself for his good? Aren’t you going to shed blood to produce him? Aren’t you going to spend the next 20 or 50 years of your life caring about him? Aren’t you going to be plunged into incredible suffering as a mother of dead children?”
And then I went on to talk about war as one of the main methods of patriarchal genocide against women. War is a direct hit on the fruits of female labor—children—and women do not sit in the councils that declare war or peace. Women do not own or control the means of production—or of reproduction.
In this connection, as meshu-genneh idealist, I am interested in opening up communication and diplomacy between Jewish and Arab women in the Middle East, both of whom are oppressed by patriarchy, both of whom are forced to send their sons to die, to become killers in fratricidal wars. The main beneficiaries of these wars are multinational corporations, oil profiteers, more often Christian men than Moslem or Jewish men.
AVIVA: Has there been any “diplomacy” along these lines?
PHYLLIS: Marcia Freedman and Joanne Yaron of the Feminist Movement of Israel (FMI) were at the Brussels Tribunal on the Crimes Against Women last March (see letter—Ed.) Women living under Islamic patriarchy talked about bride price, crimes of honor and clitorectomy. Israeli women talked about the Rabbinate, discriminatory marriage and divorce laws, wife abuse, rape and prostitution.
The Israeli government has only recently admitted to the problem of the Jews from Arab countries, the Sephardic Jews. But they have never, to my knowledge, dealt with the plight of the Sephardic sister. The government and supposedly the Rabbinate stop at the door of the family. If a husband is beating his wife, it’s her problem and probably she provoked it; if the daughter is not allowed to go to school and develop a career or works as a prostitute and is beaten up, it’s not the government’s business. There are no massive rehabilitation projects like kibbutzim for battered wives, battered daughters, for victims of rape and of psychiatric and gynecological misogyny. The government and the people do not yet realize or cannot cope with the enormous waste of human resources, not to mention the brute injustice and evil that such conditions signify.
AVIVA: You mentioned rape several times. I’m surprised to hear of it in connection with Israel.
PHYLLIS: In 1975 I spoke in Tel Aviv to about 100 women at a meeting called by the FMI. I asked the women what was the greatest problem they were facing, fully expecting to hear about war or the high cost of living. Many women answered: rape.
After the meeting I was interviewed by an Israeli woman journalist who asked me about what should be done to rapists. I said, “First tell me, what are your feelings about terrorists?
How do you think terrorism has affected border settlements and the Israeli mentality in general?” I said, “You get a terrorist raid striking one kibbutz. What is the effect? Kibbutzim have to have guards, the people are always tense, they cannot go out as freely late at night and just wander anywhere they want. People in the interior of the state are also more guarded, more aware, more anxious about the possibility of terrorism.”
As we were sitting, I started to put my knees close together, and I said, “So kibbutzim become like women under siege, with self-imposed curfews, not taking up too much space in the male universe. Because of the fear, the threat of rape, women marry, stay indoors, live close together, move outdoors only with others and wear long skirts, long sleeves and veils.
“Terrorism functions to keep a state under wraps and operating at one-quarter of its creative level. Rape is world-wide continuing terrorism committed against the female body politic.”
AVIVA: What has been the response of American Jews when you voice criticism of Israeli society?
PHYLLIS: Understandably, there is an incredible resistance to hearing anything like the facts about Israel. I think that for Establishment Jews, Israel functions the way Cuba functions for some American leftists: it’s a vacation spot, a Potemkin village, a way of not having to really deal with making effective changes where you are actually living.
Many wives of Establishment Jews are organized into relatively powerless but status-granting organizations. When I occasionally speak to such women about feminism, about women in Israel, they sadden me first by how contemptuous they are of each other, how jealously they guard, their own little pseudo fiefdoms (much like men do); by their harem mentality. Then, depending on how I’m perceived—as a threatening, independent, “younger” woman, as a feminist whose name they need for a pro-Israel petition, as a beloved but terribly misguided daughter, as a viper at the breast of Judaism—a chorus of Babel erupts: “Do you hate men? Are you a communist, an atheist, don’t you know which side the bread is buttered on?” Or more darkly, “Are you against the Jewish family? Flow are we going to survive without the family? They’ll kill us left and right.”
AVIVA: The family is generally viewed as the haven from all the horrors on the outside. Of course, a haven created by the woman. . . .
PHYLLIS: And only a temporary haven of illusion for the men. I would like to know how much the traditional Jewish family and the Jewish religion were able to do against the threat of Nazism. If indeed this social vehicle—without a state and without land—is what counts for Jews, then why did it fail for the Jewish masses during the Holocaust? And if it failed because at its very heart is a grave fault, then we have to be open to looking for more viable means of survival. . . .
Ask yourself, how effective is the Jewish family in dealing with Jewish economic poverty in America—and in Israel? With the problems of the Jewish aged, of Jewish youth and with the problems of the Jewish woman? Has the Jewish family been able to eliminate wife-beating, wife abandonment, female depression, sexual frigidity, insecurity and a pathological degree of female dependency and self-sacrifice for men and small children? Has the Jewish family been able to teach women how to mother and nurture daughters and each other as they do sons? To show compassion for female suffering? To understand the enormous burden and unfortunate consequences of being responsible for keeping a family together—and for then being blamed as a castrating “matriarch,” a Spider Lady, a vindictive and bitchy “human cleaning machine”? A butt of Jewish male comics? Of mother-in-law jokes, Jewish Mother jokes, Jewish Princess jokes?
There’s nothing funny about the pain felt and caused when women are consigned to powerlessness. Women do not become the Chief Rabbis of Jerusalem; women do not own and control Wall Street, or even the Rothschild empire; women cannot become Chief Commander of the American or Israeli armed forces. Women do not control the American Congress or the Israeli Knesset—no matter how much they may seem to have psychological power as mothers of individual children for a limited number of years.
The patriarchal family is an imperfect but viable method of social regimentation and material survival that the human race has devised during recorded history. It has been purchased at the price of liberty, honesty, real love, individuality, dignity and freedom—for men, for children and overwhelmingly for women. The family promises all the above, but for most women, it remains a promise, an illusion, a delusion, a mirage.
AVIVA: How is the Jewish woman in America faring, in your view?
PHYLLIS: Most adult Jewish women are married mothers with only a secondary commitment to paid labor, a “career,” or to “charity” work. Increasingly, Jewish-American women are suffering from depression, anxiety, apathy, guilt, or a sense of purposelessness. Many “privileged” women are isolated, divorced and abandoned in the suburbs without alimony, child-support, friends or meaningful work. Yes—Jewish men drink, have extra-marital affairs, pay prostitutes for sex, beat their wives, abandon their families: on the way “up” or down the ladder of assimilation. The “empty nest syndrome” has been written about by Pauline Bart as “Portnoy’s Mother’s Complaint: Depression in Middle Aged Women.”
With the exception of truly wealthy Jewish families in which daughters were allowed or even encouraged to obtain an advanced and specialized education, most Jewish American women are one generation removed from our Biblical Foremothers, namely, from their own mothers and/or. grandmothers who preferred sons to daughters, who had no secular higher education and very little Hebrew education, who experienced sweatshop working conditions in the New Land. . . .
Younger Jewish women may be forced into college, but mainly to meet a better or equal class of husband, or to have something respectable on the side, something for after the children are grown—a “little something.” Jewish women are still expected to marry doctors rather than become doctors. Jewish women under 30, with many exceptions, of course, are still involved in country-club life, sorority life and travel-mania, and have an obsessive concern with appearance. I find this spectacle distressing, appalling, and shocking.
AVIVA: Why are so many women—Jewish women, too—anti-feminist? What are they afraid of?
PHYLLIS: There’s a sex war going on. Men always win it; women always lose it. The war is so all-pervasive, it remains invisible—and it’s each woman for herself. Traditional, anti-feminist women feel that the patriarchal family, either nuclear or extended, is the safest shelter for the woman.
All women are ashamed of revealing their emotional and economic vulnerability, their inability to be strong. They prefer, instead, to rattle their chains high in the air and say, “Look! Mine are made of gold; yours are only silver: I am therefore better than you; my master has more slaves than your master. Therefore, I am in the bed of a powerful man; I can whisper in his ear about the color of the curtains I want to buy in the morning. The fact that I don’t tell him whether to declare war or peace is simply a matter of my choice: I’m not interested in these matters.”
Feminism has the power to get all women out of the kitchen and into public places where only men are allowed. Now if they get there, they may act only in the interest of their class, or their religion or their race. They may act non-feministly, they may act as anti-feminists, but they will be acting in public places where women are not now allowed. That is a feminist action.
In the same way that we have a state of Israel and it turns out unfortunately not to be Utopia, does that mean that it should not exist? Because as long as you have Jewish people able to act just like other people, you have made a revolution. Then you can put your head in your lap and say, “Oh my God, is this where it’s going to be at? Are women going to be capitalists, are women going to be defenders of the ruling class, are they going to be fascists? These are the same kind of questions Jewish intellectuals and radicals have asked about Israel, and correctly. But anyone who says that it’s better for us to remain in exile, in a ghetto, is complicit in their marginality, is willing to walk into the gas chambers again.
AVIVA: Are you a Zionist?
PHYLLIS: Yes, I’m a Zionist. I’m very, very proud that the State of Israel exists. I am willing to do a great deal in honor of all the miraculous efforts that have gone into creating it. I think that any Jew in the twentieth century who does not relate to Israel as a psychological reference point is not fully conscious of either Jewish history or of the nature of racism (anti-Semitism).
Of course, Israel must be criticized at times and perhaps its failures must be mourned over, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s a revolution every bit as revolutionary as the creation of Soviet Russia and China and Cuba. It’s a miracle for us. It has been extremely difficult to bring about. It will be extremely difficult to keep.
I don’t feel that Israel has to be better in order to exist as a patriarchal nation-state among other nation-states. Ideally, all nation-states need reform and revolution. But Israel cannot be held up to ideal standards any more or any less than any other patriarchal state.
Feminism has never been tried on Israeli soil by Jewish women, although there were outcroppings in the past, of course. And what I felt so strongly in Israel was a sense of purpose and clarity of doing it there. When I go to the Western Wall, I know in my gut what I’m doing.
AVIVA: I heard that when you were in Israel, you wanted to “integrate” the Wall.
PHYLLIS: I was very moved by the Wall. I was surprised—I did not expect it. I stepped back with a sense of the sacredness of that place, of the power that it exerts, that spiritually is real.
Some Haifa feminists and I proposed a march to the Wall in the name of church-state separation, and of allowing women a full role in Judaism. I felt joy, ecstasy, seriousness. I began making placards in Hebrew. I was ready to fill my pockets with stones to return stone for stone for those I fully expected would be thrown at us. The march did not take place, partly because women were very frightened—understandably so.
In my own heart, I had wanted to do this march to allow women religious access to the Wall. “Separate” is not “equal,” not when the separation is imposed and not freely chosen by women, as is the situation at the Wall. I noticed, too, that when the men congregate, there is chanting in unison, there is bonding, there are perpetual torches. On the women’s side, each woman usually comes by herself, maybe with one blood relative, to weep, to prepare for her marriage, to put in her little note. There is no sisterhood.
What I had in mind was that we go up to Safed and rewrite the Halachah (Jewish law) in a way that makes it possible for women to participate fully and in an authoritative position in Judaism. I want a change in the meaning and the contents of ritual. An Israeli feminist, a self-proclaimed atheist, asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I said, “Yes, and therefore I find it the greatest sin imaginable that my spiritual access to ritual, to elevation is denied me arbitrarily through male injustice.”
AVIVA: Do you find any Jewish values you’d want to preserve?
PHYLLIS: Just the other day, I was rereading the Chumash (Five books of the Torah) and it’s not to be believed. When a man dies, it says he goes to lie with his fathers, never with his mothers. And what a classic and outrageous case of male uterus-envy the tree of male begats really is! Then, take the story of Solomon. The two women who were arguing over the baby were prostitutes living in a brothel. And the meaning of that story is that women-—who give birth to children, who shed blood, who often die to perpetuate the species— cannot be trusted, they are evil and they lie. Therefore, only men, with help from a male God, will be enlightened and “objective” enough to be the true mothers to sons and save them from the lies and infanticidal wishes of women. When I read the Chumash as a feminist, I can tear my hair and put ashes on my head. When I read it as Jew, I always learn from it.
The value placed on books, on education, on literature is a Jewish value, brought about mostly by exile and persecution. The hope that revolution can take place through education, through the use of the mind, is a Jewish value. By contrast, in the Catholic Church, the premium on education is secondary to the premium on faith and obedience. The Catholic Church treats its men like the Jewish church treats only its women, because as women we are supposed to have faith and obey, not to live by the understanding of our holy books.
If women have been and are killed and persecuted and segregated because they are Jews, let them at least know what Judaism is about. Teach it to them early. Let them have whatever comfort and whatever glory, whatever spiritual responsibility this particular religion has to confer on an oppressed people. So that if they must fight and if they must die, let them know for what; do not keep it a male secret. And if all the secrets are discovered and found enormously lacking, let us not keep that a secret. Let us find something that lacks not.
Another positive Jewish value is that the body is not separate from the spirit. Even Israel represents that principle: that a book and the spirit cannot be separate from the Land.
AVIVA: What are the implications of this attitude for Jewish women?
PHYLLIS: It means that we have only one way of expressing our religious longings, and that is to marry and to propagate and to keep kosher; that’s it. We don’t have the right to rewrite the Talmud, the Kabbalah (mystic texts), or to withdraw from family life to devote ourselves to religious contemplation or deeds as Buddhist and Catholic women can do.
The Catholic religion gives women convents to retreat to. If they give up all sexual, carnal, earthly pleasure and economic progress, they are allowed to have souls. On the other hand, Christianity has clearly cut women in half: you have the seductress, the temptress; and you have the Virgin Mary, who conceives without intercourse, who is the major role model for women in the Western world. So in Christianity, you can have a soul, but not a body, or a body but not a soul.
Now the Jewish insistence on a woman’s having to do with this world is healthy. It is still pagan. It gives, us the body. So it’s not an accident that Christian men have thought us to be more sensuous or more earthy; our ways command us to be of this earth. I accept the Jewish dictate to remain of the earth and not to leave it in some abstract ideal of transcendence. My soul definitely resides in my body. On the other hand, I’d like to have a place of retreat for my spiritual life.
AVIVA: How can we deal with-the fact that the Jewish God is male?
PHYLLIS: From the time I could read or see, I was taught that the rabbi, who was always a white man with a beard, had something to do with God, who was also a white man with a beard. I think most people believe this image of a male godhead.
But for me to celebrate, to be engaged in ceremony that has meaning, that does not make me humiliated to be in this body, female, I would have to begin to imagine with other women, not an androgynous godhead, but a godhead that is as intensely female as it has so far been pictured to us as intensely male. Androgyny at this point in psychological development misses the whole point. We can’t jump from extreme patriarchal representations to ethereal representation that is neither one nor the other. We must first graft onto it as intense a female pictorial representation—not just matriarchal: female—before we can then make a leap into a picture of the spirit that is not male and not female, that is not of this earth, that is not yet of the next world.
AVIVA: You talk about envisioning a female godhead, but how can you do this as a Jew?
PHYLLIS: You should know what the Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) were doing in Safed for 500 years. They discovered and experienced the female aspect of the Jewish patriarchal godhead. Later, it was devalued and limited to the Shechinah (the presence of God), the Sabbath bride.
AVIVA: A final question. Where is the women’s movement at today?
PHYLLIS: We are involved in the cultural phase of an international revolutionary movement. Within ten years, major shifts in perception, emotion and self-image have occurred in a multitude of female hearts. Now all this psychic and cultural “hachsharah,” preparation can be totally lost if certain material economic and political gains are not made, because culture can never exist in a vacuum. It can be destroyed and its history covered over and rewritten; this has happened many times, before with radical movements.
There are many different reforms that must occur from country to country, from woman to woman. But in order for women to live free of the threat of rape, sterilization, forced pregnancy, and sexual and surgical mutilation, a “shelter,” a feminist state, analogous in function to what the State of Israel is for Jews, will ultimately be necessary for women. Zionist efforts to secure greater rights for Jews within prewar Poland, for example, were important, but Zionsists understood the necessity of focusing energies on securing a shelter—a Jewish state.
We will first have to find this shelter, this space, psychically. Nothing, however, can exist too well or too long in a vacuum, not even the values of Judaism. Before we can talk about a feminist state, we also have to talk, as feminists, about money, and about learning how to fly planes, control technology and genetic engineering and how to defend ourselves and each other. As women and as feminists, we have just been born in terms of a world movement.
Of course, I have been called crazy and an idealist. They called Herzl these things, too. But let me tell you that there will be feminist territory if the world continues crazily dividing up into patriarchal nation-states. If men do not blow up the planet; if men do not leave a ruined earth for the poor to inherit as the wealthy make off to another planet; if there is enough time for an international feminist government-in-exile to become a reality, there will be a feminist state. Yes.
AVIVA: But is it possible?
PHYLLIS: Do you think the State of Israel seemed possible, in say, 1820?
PHYLLIS: I learned from the State of Israel that the impossible is possible.
Copyright © Aviva Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.
Aviva Cantor, a journalist, originated Lilith and served as the magazine’s Founding Co-Editor during its first decade. She is the author of Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life, a feminist exploration of Jewish history, culture and psychology (Harper, 1995), and of the self-published The Egalitarian Hagada.
I went to the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women conscious that almost everyone is pro-Zionist or anti-Zionist. Would the presence of two Israeli feminists cause tension?
Joanne Yaron of Tel Aviv spoke on the first day of the Tribunal, and w hat she had to say seemed to come as a shock to most of the audience. She denounced the persecution of women in the rabbinical courts, gave data about the exploitation of women workers, both as paid workers and as unpaid housewives, and scored the Working Women’s Council for their tacit consent to that exploitation.
There were four Arab women at the Tribunal. One, a Palestinian from the West Bank, remained anonymous and defied our efforts to make contact with her. The others were women who are not now living in Arab countries. Their spokeswoman was a Yemenite born in England and still living there, active in Arab nationalist organizations. There was no behind-the scenes tensions between us, and in fact we managed quite a bit of information-sharing.
The Arab woman spoke entirely about the often cruel enslavement of women by men in Arab societies, concentrating specifically on cliter ectomy, bride price and honor crimes.
After we, the Israelis, had heard her speech, we realized that this had probably never happened before— that Arab and Jewish women had each condemned their own patriarchal societies rather than condemning one another. This was also the first international conference in years where an anti-Zionist resolution had not been introduced.
We therefore proposed to the Arab women that we submit a joint resolution to the Tribunal; they refused, on the grounds that they couldn’t for political reasons, but we did ask them for, and received, their approval of the resolution that we submitted. It read:
“Resolved, that the dialogue between Arab and Jewish women that has begun at this Tribunal shall continue within the context of international feminism. As women, we understand that our oppression is by men and not by opposing nationalities.
“This Tribunal is the first international forum in which Israeli and Arab women each publicly condemned her own society for its oppression of women, rather than condemning one another. This action demonstrates that international feminism can rise above male-dominated nationalistic power politics.”
The resolution was adopted with great enthusiasm. I think that all of us had a sense that something had been achieved, not only by what did in fact happen, which was not much, but by all that didn’t happen and usually does. Certainly, against the background of Mexico City, the Arab-Jewish detente at Brussels was indicative of the implications of feminist internationalism. And since I believe that nationalist chauvinism, of any kind, is but an extension of male chauvinsim and a function of masculine values, I see this aspect of the Tribunal as feminism’s having passed an important test.
Marcia Freedman Member of Knesset