Chesler Chronicles

Israeli Memories. The Price for Supporting Israel Grows Higher by the Minute

Dear Readers:

Greetings! I am recovering rather slowly from a non-life threatening surgical procedure but will begin posting new material together with the ongoing retrospective of some of my writing.

The distinguished editor and author, Leo Haber, asked me to contribute an article about my memories of Israel for the venerable magazine Midstream’s lead section “Israel at Sixty: Reminiscences and Reflections.” I joined Elie Wiesel, Itamar Rabinovich, Edward I. Koch, Ram Belinkin, Vera Stern and Leo Haber. Here is part of what I said. The entire issue will appear online in the near future at www.midstreamthf.com.

ISRAELI MEMORIES. THE PRICE FOR SUPPORTING ISRAEL GROWS HIGHER BY THE MINUTE. By Phyllis Chesler

I can’t remember a time when Israel was not central to my imagination both as a model for heroism and as a transcendent, miraculous, reality.  From childhood on, Zionism was an ever-evolving example of political, theological, historical, and personal liberation.

I was born in 1940 and grew up in an Orthodox family in Borough Park.  In 1946, I started learning Hebrew. And, in 1948, I “rebelled.” I joined Hashomer Ha’Tzair, a left-wing socialist Zionist youth group. Within a few years, I joined Ain Harod, a group to the left of Hashomer. In the early 1950s, I packed machine gun parts for Israel.  Both Hashomer and Ain Harod shared a vision of Jews and Arabs living together in the Holy Land.  This utopian, agrarian vision, this defiant form of idealism, got me embroiled in dangerous adventures in the Islamic world but in Israel too.

In 1972, after having wrestled with anti-Semitism on the left and among feminists, I traveled to Israel for a long overdue, first-time visit.  I was newly famous–and I needed to go “home,” live anonymously, without having to give a speech or an interview. I instantly loved the land. I reveled in the beaches and cafes of Tel Aviv, the mountain-down-to-the-sea views of Haifa, the mystical desert of the Negev, the hot coral colors of Eilat, the radiantly golden Jerusalem.

At first glance, “everyone” (bus drivers, prime ministers, police officers, soldiers, farmers, physicians) were Jewish.  Jews seemed to occupy all the niches. Certainly, I saw Christians and Muslims too, (I also saw Arab Jews); what I mean is that, in Israel, Jews had crashed through all the occupational restrictions of exile and this consoled and uplifted me.  It also struck me as funny. Oh, how I did not want to return to America!  My dear friend, Molly Oren, who worked at the Weizmann Institute,  persuaded me to leave  the night before I was due to teach my university classes.

On this fateful trip, I met a Jewish-Israeli Prince. He was born after 1948, and he was a descendent of the Bal Shem Tov. He was innocent and beautiful and had no idea that I was a firebrand feminist. He followed me back to America.

Reader: I married him. He became an American citizen (perhaps my gift to him)–but we also had a wonderful son together (perhaps his gift to me). He did not want to live in Israel and so I never made aliya. He remained here and we divorced when our son was two years old.

I have often joked that my Zionism is a miracle because it both pre-dated and has survived even marriage to an Israeli!

Israel-related memories include: Housing and feeding some young Israelis who were pressed into government service in New York City during the 1973 Yom Kippur war; delivering feminist speeches in Tel Aviv and Haifa that galvanized what became the Israeli feminist movement; trying to get American celebrities and progressives to sign letters protesting the United Nations Zionism=Racism resolutions; choosing and accompanying journalists to Israel  in 1974-1975 in the hope that their views of Israel might be  somewhat tempered by reality; working with the nascent Israeli feminist movement–standing in Haifa with Israeli feminists and envisioning a future shelter for battered women and a rape crisis center where indeed, one now stands; working with Palestinian feminist for “peace.”

In addition: Walking with the late Meir Levin for hours in Netanya as he described the cruel reactions to his view that the Anne Frank story had been “hijacked” by Jews who wished to de-Judaize her story (he was obsessed, but he was also right); working with the Israeli delegation (Tamar Eshel, Mina Ben Tzvi, Yael Etzmon, Nitza Libai, and my own guest, Shula Aloni) at the United Nations conference in Copenhagen in 1980; flying to Israel immediately thereafter and meeting with David Kimche in the Foreign Office; trying to explain what anti-Semitism is and does to uncomprehending Israelis; being interviewed for Yediot Aharonot by the poet, Rachel Chalfi, on this very subject. We became close friends thereafter.

I remember davenning at the Kotel (Western Wall) with the women who did so for the first time in 1988; co-leading a delegation of American Jewish women who donated a Torah to the women of Jerusalem which became the basis for our entering the lawsuit on behalf of Jewish women’s right to pray at the Kotel.

In 2000, with the advent of the Intifada, I became an advocate for Israel and have been documenting Israel’s demonization by fairly lethal propaganda ever since. I have lost nearly all of my politically correct friends and allies, including other Jews and feminists, because I do not view Zionism as a form of racism; indeed, I view anti-Zionism as a form of racism and as the new anti-Semitism.

Once one is deemed a “traitor” to an ideology by ideological loyalists, funny things begin to happen to you. Your body of work gets “disappeared,” it is no longer mentioned or remembered where most appropriate. You yourself no longer get invited to events nor are you allowed to speak at such events. If you attend anyway–backs are either turned, or greetings grudgingly growled. When videographers have been hired to document the collective memories at Memorial Services for beloved, departed friends, you are not allowed to speak; this has already happened to me twice. In a third instance, I was slated to speak last, after four hours of speeches had already taken place and after many of the assembled had already left.

I am talking about Memorial Services for dear and long-time friends who also happened to be feminist pioneers.

I stand by my support of Israel with pride. My superlative education about how intolerant ideologues can be continues unabated.

While I know that Israel is far from perfect: Many of its leaders are arrogant and deluded and have not pursued justice on behalf of women or on behalf of other vulnerable citizens, I also see that Israel, alone among nations, is existentially endangered.

I understand more than ever how a Holocaust can happen. I hope and pray that God continues to watch over tiny Israel and that humanity refuses to collaborate with radical evil and chooses instead to resist it in heroic and principled ways.

Israel: Happy Sixtieth Birthday!