“The feminists have deserted Jewish women. And it wasn’t just Jewish women. There were Arab Muslim women, and there were Thai Buddhist women. No doubt many Christian women or some Christian women who were also raped, murdered, and kidnapped.”
drawing attention to the treatment of women in many Muslim-majority nations such as when it comes to honor killings. In their discussion, Dr. Chesler and Mr. Church examine how women have been victimized during and after October 7th; the reaction by many in the modern feminist movement; and what feminism means more broadly.n December 5th, Phyllis Chesler, an Emerita Professor of Psychology at City University of New York, joined Merion West contributing editor Jonathan Church for a discussion about violence against Israeli women during the ongoing conflict. The author of 20 books Dr. Chesler, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology from The New School for Social Research, is well known for her work on feminism and issues affecting women and girls. She co-founded the Association for Women in Psychology in 1969 and has been vocal about the interests of women both domestically and globally, including
Editor’s Note (12/16/2023): A video of the conversation can be found at the bottom of this page.
Thank you very much for agreeing to an interview. You have had an extraordinary career in terms of longevity, prodigious output, and impact, having to do with feminism. The first question is very basic—it may even seem frivolous—but, as an entry point, how would you define feminism? Or, in other words, what do you see as its main aims and purposes?
What it was—and has been—is the belief that women are human beings and, therefore, worthy of human rights and equal rights in all areas. That’s very simple and not complicated. That is not what feminism is now. That is not what feminism became. I’m, of course, thinking of the 19th century. And I’m thinking of the 1960s and 70s, and maybe part of the 1980s. Then everything took a turn south for the worst. Feminism became concerned not with sex-based rights, but with identity-based rights and with LGBTQIA+ and transgender rights, leaving behind any passionate concern with the battering of women, the raping of women, the sexual harassment of women, the honor murder of women, polygamy, and child marriage. These were forbidden and uninteresting subjects, for feminists in the academy, because these violence-against-women issues cut across every race, every ethnicity, every geographical region, every religion. Were they to focus on it, they might find themselves having to name men of color, Muslim men of color, men of color who were previously colonized, quote unquote. And that became increasingly forbidden.
Just last night, I read the lineup of an event (which I did not attend) at Barnard. The Center for Research on Women at Barnard had an incredible panel titled “Feminism and Palestine.” Of course, what else? Palestine is now about everything. Of the six people on the panel, only one had any experience whatsoever in the Middle East. The others were totally engaged in prison abolition, queer Caribbean literature, etc. I’m not exaggerating, and I’m not even mocking it. Maybe it was good work. Who knows? But it’s all about the prison industrial complex. It’s against Western imperialism, Western capitalism. And I think, all right, fair enough. But do they not understand that Islam, Muslim countries are the biggest practitioners of both gender and religious apartheid, and that they are waging a war on a Western civilization that includes the progress, little as it may be or great as it may be, that has been made in terms of women’s rights? Psychologically, this is proof of herd instinct, of conformity, of cowardice, of indoctrination. It’s true not just of feminists. It’s true of many so-called intellectuals, and it is a tragedy of immense proportion.
In terms of how we define feminism, how do you think about, or describe, first, second, third, and perhaps, if there is such a thing as, fourth-wave feminism, and how do you see yourself fitting into them?
First wave was suffrage oriented, but there were also abolitionists who were against slavery, black slavery, and against sex slavery. That was first-wave feminism, and it was glorious. And there were the women in England, unlike American women but like the current women in Iran who put American feminists to shame, and dissidents as well. They went to jail. They were brutalized in jail. But that was when everything was for the vote, only for the vote, for this one thing. It took Susan B. Anthony sixty years, for the movement she pioneered and women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to get the vote. Now we have the vote. That’s not enough. We, in America, certainly need an equal rights amendment which we don’t have. We still do not have this. Instead, now feminist icons and the Democratic Party are pushing for a gender rights amendment, which is completely crazy.
Then I’d say the second wave, of which I was once a passionate and proud member, leader, raised every burning issue. Looking back, we began, innocently enough, the downward slope, the slippery slope to there’s an oppressor and therefore an oppressed person. It was binary thinking. There’s an occupier; there’s an occupied person. Initially, because I founded Women’s Studies, I didn’t want to cut men out. I wasn’t interested in getting rid of the white male dead canon.
No, I wanted to add to it the most brilliant, the most important works by women that had been forgotten, that I certainly had never heard of when I was in high school or in college or in graduate school. That was in the 1950s and 1960s, not a word, we didn’t know that women had ever fought for women’s rights, not a clue. We discovered—I discovered—that our most radical and visionary activism and theory making, lecturing and teaching, had been systematically disappeared. By the mid-1980s, we had disappeared. A brilliant scholar from Australia who’s just died, Dale Spender, wrote a book in which she documented the systematic disappearance of feminist knowledge century after century, decade after decade.
I lived through it. Then what came after us, there was a lot more focus, if you will, third wave, more focus on lipstick, lesbianism, the right to be sexually free, even if that meant opening the floodgates of pornography and prostitution. That was a huge, huge battle and one that the abolitionists lost.
That’s when the understandable concern with women of other races, disenfranchised, marginalized, women of color, became the way to attack everything about white history. Again, with no understanding that these patterns among humanity take place on every continent and among people of every color. America, for all its imperfections, we fought a bloody civil war to end slavery. I don’t see that happening in Muslim countries. In any event, that wave was also about we can have everything, we can do it all, which is not possible. I mean, I gave birth to one son. I don’t regret it. But boy, if I’d had five or six, it would have ended my career for sure. I don’t know how women do it. God bless them, those who do.
Finally, I have to admit, I am not obsessed with the transgender issue. I hope I don’t get you in trouble. Men and women are not the same. We may indeed be entitled to equal rights, but not because we’re the same; we’re different. At least there are genetic, biological, anatomical differences. But that is so forbidden to say these days. You have no idea. Maybe you do. Do you?
I’m quite familiar, but that leads me to the next question. I first got interested in these types of issues, feminism and broader cultural issues, as a teenager. I remember reading a book by Christina Hoff Somers, Who Stole Feminism? She made a distinction between equity feminism and gender feminism, which is akin to first and second wave feminism, or liberal versus more radical versions of feminism. One of the concerns she expressed was that she had been investigating a lot of media reports on things like, just to cite a few examples, like an alleged 40 percent increase in domestic violence on Super Bowl night, or that 150,000 women were dying every year of anorexia. Obviously, domestic violence and anorexia are serious concerns, but Somers’s concerns were that sometimes media reports exaggerated or misreported the facts. She wanted to point that out.
She got a lot of resistance from other women, feminists saying that this is not a very good thing to say. It betrays the cause. This gets to where I want to go with this, which is this notion of identity politics, what some of us call Critical Social Justice and others call “wokism.” It’s the idea that the center of focus should be power and privilege. You get what is called, pointed out in a book called Cynical Theories, what is called intersectional feminism, a kind of third or fourth wave feminism, which essentially is what you’re talking about. The issue is that power is a function of the system, and the system is expressed through language and performativity. We live these social roles that are a function of these intersectional, marginal identities. The idea seems to be not simply to defend women’s rights, not to defend universal rights, but to destabilize the whole concept of gender. That’s what is coming up in the trans movement, in intersectional feminism. One of the major consequences of that seems to be the eclipse of women’s studies by gender studies.
Oh, yeah. It’s gone. It’s not only gender studies. I did a survey a couple of years ago of what the Ivy League [colleges] were teaching. There’s no women’s studies. It’s gender and sexuality. And within those categories, it’s about queer and gay, sometimes lesbian, but lesbian has disappeared as well. And womankind is being disappeared and taken over by other forces and other interest groups.
Walt Whitman said he contains multitudes, and we all do. To reduce ourselves to one dimension, who I sleep with or who I used to sleep with, to define myself purely as a sexual being is insane. In fact, I had a chapter on this subject in Politically Incorrect Feminist, which the publisher rejected. I understand why. But I really tried to say, “Okay, so who am I?” And I ultimately ended with: All right, you might find me in one of my books, but once I’ve finished it, I’m no longer there. I’ve moved on to a new perspective, a new subject. Then I said, it seems that the world is demanding that I learn that I’m a Jew. What that may mean can vary enormously. But that is a fact that you don’t get asked, “Are you a peacenik or a politically correct person?” before Hitler sends you to the gas chamber. You know, if you’re a Jew, however so defined.
I think what you were talking about, though, also has everything to do with such hubris that human beings can do a lot better than God. God doesn’t exist. We can construct; we can perfect; we can improve all social reality, no matter how many hundreds of millions we have to kill to do that, to perfect it. And we’ve seen that tried, and yet that ideal remains. Also, there’s a disbelief in evil, an absolute refusal to see that, “Oh, evil does exist and can’t quite be legislated away with money, without money.”
So, I think partly a religious point of view would not look at any of these subjects the way an anti-religious person would. I think you’re right, though, this also the performative, the Judith Butler stuff, you can’t understand a line that they’re writing. They have no courage. They don’t wish to be understood because then they might have to pay some consequence for what they’re saying. And it’s so affected the mandarin language that it’s hopeless. But there’s this belief that the narrative on the page, the performance of self or of narrative, trumps reality. It’s quite a bubble that is not good to be in. I never was. But it has certainly taken over the academy, hasn’t it?
One of the things that I was thinking about when you were talking about God and then this basic point about the academy is Nietzsche saying, “God is dead.” The idea being the transvaluation of values and Nietzsche as a kind of forefather of postmodern philosophy where you have the end of meta narratives and so on. And people have taken me to task for saying that his sort of perspectivism, rather than ressentiment, is a forerunner of all this. But it comes to mind in terms of the relativism, which is a point that you make, about the difference between universal rights and multicultural relativism. I definitely would like you to expand on that if you want.
But the point is that in the context of this obsession about power and privilege, it is absolutely true that the West has its sins as other countries and cultures have their sins. That is an objective reality. You need to acknowledge that. But there seems to be this focus on trying to delegitimate rather than to illuminate. So, if you want to talk about honor killings or if you want to talk about patriarchy in Afghanistan or any of the things that you’ve written about, these are objectively, factually verifiable things that happen and things that you can confer moral judgment upon. But there is resistance to this because it seems you’re critiquing some marginal identities and so on. And so the issue is not to illuminate injustices, but to delegitimate anyone and anything associated with sources of power and privilege that are alleged to lie behind injustices.
To bully and shame and silence. There’s a good deal of paranoia and envy that goes into that. This is equivalent to saying the rich people should all become poor, and then we’ll have only poor people and we’ll all be equal; we’ll be the same.
Let me give you just something that happened last night. I’m an opera lover. For years, I was on NPR at the opera program and really loved doing it. Then, it lost its funding. But I was an interviewee. I didn’t run the program. So, when I heard that climate activists for 22 minutes interrupted an opera at the Metropolitan Opera with people in different seats with banners flung down, I thought, well, at least it wasn’t a pro-Palestinian group. There’s some kindness in that. And so I made it a point, as soon as I could, to watch 30 minutes of Tannhäuser on the Metropolitan Opera Channel. And I’m thinking, this is a direct hit on Western culture. I understand their point. Their point is they want to make the evening news. They want to be important. They want to make the evening news.
Their point is that there won’t be an opera if the planet is gone. It’s a good point. But is there no other way? Or are they really after destroying the arts and culture, Western style? Which brings me to another thought.
There’s been a lot of hubbub about restorative justice. I’m sure you’ve heard this. It’s partly fueled by a desire not to have so many men of color put in prisons in America. And, I mean, if these are only property thefts and not violence against a human being, okay, I’m open. But I’m thinking this is insane, too. This is foolish. Because the vision is that we see people and there’s a moral community that witnesses the victim speaking of his or her pain. I see. A la South Africa, which didn’t work. But then, I’m thinking…can we get Hamas to apologize and repent? Is this going to work? This restorative justice? Or do we rather need a Nuremberg-like trial so that Jews everywhere, you know, are safer in the universe? What about the Taliban? I was in Kabul a long time ago. And I’ve done a lot of work with Muslims who now understand Israel’s importance. I’m not going to work with anybody who doesn’t at this moment in history.
But, what, are we going to have the Taliban repent and apologize? Is that going to work for the women who they won’t let go to school and who they’re beating and lashing and stoning, supported by Qatar, who’s in turn in cahoots with Iran? I’m thinking these ideals at this moment in history don’t have a firm footing. I don’t want to get off feminism or off the academy. But here we are in a moment in history where I’m expecting not just the attempted extermination of the Jews again but of infidels.
That means of white folk, Christians, Sikhs, maybe Hindus. Another kind of 9-11. How can our administration not be concerned? How can our administration, which is not a feminist administration, but arguably is for women’s or gender rights or for abortion rights, how can they not see the danger? How can we continue to fund Iran and to appease Iran? I don’t hear many feminists sounding like this.
One of the things that concerns me is that we live in an age of relativism in the sense that you have this postmodern idea that it’s not about trying to debate who’s right, but instead we fight it out. There is this grievance industry on the Left. Now, we have a grievance industry on the Right. Trump, Trumpism, Magi-ism is the obvious manifestation of that. So, you have a version of power politics, and it’s essentially defending identity versus defending truth, which is perhaps why it’s so hard to condemn honor killings in the Islamic world, for fear of being labeled Islamophobic because Islam or Muslim identities are considered to be a marginalized identity.
Well, you can assume it’s Islamophobia. That’s such a crock.
I’m inclined to be skeptical of the Islamophobia claim because I think those who make it perhaps are not fully aware of what they’re saying. They’re reflexively parroting a narrative. But if we want to transition to Israel here, I am supportive of Israel’s war against Hamas. Hamas is obviously a barbarian terrorist group. What concerns me is the difficulty of people on the Left or essentially a lot of people, the difficulty they have in acknowledging the catch-22 that Israel is in. In other words, if they withdraw, then that’s a sign of weakness that is exploited by other Arab regimes. It’s exploited by Hamas and so on. They obviously have to carry on this war, and then they have to do so as carefully as they can, to minimize civilian casualties.
Hamas is a barbarian terrorist organization. It is a death cult. What they did on October 7th represents who they are and not so dissimilar from what Iran does to its dissidents and its women. These are not people that we can support or glorify or look up to or respect. And yet all across America, because this has been so long and so carefully strategized, organized and funded, we have demonstrators in the streets of America demonstrating for a death cult as if it’s a liberation cult, demonstrating gays and transgender included with the pro-Palestinian kafir wearers.
They are demonstrating for a Hamas-controlled reality in which everyone is a human shield, a casualty in the making. What is going on in America and in Europe, in the West? Clearly, a lot of propaganda for a long time has gone unaddressed. The cognitive war has not been fought. Groups of us begged the powers that be to take the cognitive war, the propaganda war against Jews in Israel and against the West seriously and to go on the offensive, not merely the defensive, which is where we are.
I just read a report in The Jerusalem Post. I’m not even going to go into the details. I mean, just atrocious stuff, sick stuff. What are Americans and Europeans doing in the streets in their favor? What are they really saying in their demonstrations? That they want to die, that they want us to die, this civilization to die?
This is, again, to reiterate the point I was making, is that the critique of the West, so to speak, or the critique of the United States or Israel or, you know, the white male privilege or the canon or what have you, is seemingly geared towards trying to delegitimize those institutions.
And destroy. And destroy.
As opposed to illuminating the wrongs that have been done. For instance, instead of saying that the canon has been overly restrictive, and we want to have Mary Wollstonecraft and we want to have people like that in the canon. The issue is not to illuminate those wrongs, but to delegitimate the system itself. This is the idea behind de-centering whiteness and that sort of thing.
But that said, why is it so difficult, it seems, to see that? It is perfectly obvious that the Israel Defense Forces goes through extraordinary measures to minimize civilian casualties: leaflets, letters, designated safe areas, and so on. And then you hear reports about how Hamas blocks the roads and shoots civilians who flee and so on. And yet, it’s so hard to acknowledge Hamas’s responsibility, or it just seems so reflexive to say that Israel is still in the wrong. And, obviously, I want to make it absolutely clear that we should not ignore the horrific images that we see of Palestinians, children and women and people who are, you know, wounded in war. Cities leveled and so on. It is a humanitarian crisis, and I think that is something that we need to be serious about.
Well, it could end very quickly. Hamas could hand back all the hostages, which they have not done and have refused to do. That’s number one.
Number two, it could end if Hamas turned itself in for their crimes against humanity and stood trial. But the tricky thing is that the majority of the Palestinian people have been as indoctrinated as the rioters and demonstrators have been in the West. They voted for them. Now, of course, if they didn’t, they might have been killed. And they knew that and feared that. They’ve been living under a terrorist totalitarian regime. Look how hard it is for Russians to protest or end the war against Ukraine. Look how hard it is for the Iranian protesters to end the rule of the theocracy. Ditto the brave Afghan women I’m privileged to have worked with. Then there’s Turkey. And China. Who’s doing Tiananmen Square now? So, it would be very hard for the Palestinian people to break free mentally. They need rehab, deprogramming rehab. But then so do the crowds demonstrating for Hamas against their own. Well, it’s all a death cult. There’s this unconscious belief that if the Jews are killed, it will redeem the world. People love dead Jews.
But let me say something about feminism. Very, very, very few feminists, have gone public, as I have, in support of the women raped and brutalized on October 7th. So #MeToo is the slogan unless you’re a Jew. Even this event at the U.N. the other day…it was sponsored by the Israel mission to the U.N. Not by U.N. women, not by the secretary general and the International Criminal Court. Forget them. They’re not going to do justice. Israel and America are not member states for good reasons.
The feminists have deserted Jewish women. And it wasn’t just Jewish women. There were Arab Muslim women, and there were Thai Buddhist women. No doubt many Christian women or some Christian women who were also raped, murdered, and kidnapped. They are afraid. And I’m now thinking, do I have to write a “goodbye to all that” piece? Because I know who I am. I’m a feminist. I don’t know who they are if they can’t speak up for all women. They spoke up for the rape of the women of Bosnia; those in Sudan; those in Rwanda, as did I. I was going on about the rape of the Bangladeshi women by Pakistani soldiers in 1971 because I knew what would happen. They would be impregnated. Their families would kill them, or they’d kill themselves.
So, these feminists or these women who are still standing…they are leftists. They are Stalinists. They have been totally Stalinized and Palestinianized. They are obsessed with the occupation of a country that has never existed: Palestine. And not with the occupation of women’s bodies in Gaza, by Hamas or on the West Bank, by the British Mandatory West Bank, under the Palestinian Authority.
What kind of feminists are they?.