Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews 2003-2015

by NORMAN SIMMS May 19, 2015

living history

What follows is an expanded version of a brief set of reader comments entered on the page for Chesler's new collection of essays.

Phyllis Chesler's new book  brings together eighty-six of her essays over more than twelve years which as they came out one by one have always been powerful, frightening and shocking exposés of the truth suppressed by mainstream media, intellectual elites and institutions of higher learning.  Above all, she brings her own personal witness to bear on her arguments.  These days anyone who stands up for Israel, the Jews or America risks-rather, invites-the opprobrium of peers, colleagues and friends.  We have entered one of the darkest days in world history since the end of World War Two.  When a new dawn will break through remains uncertain. 

After 9/11 Chesler became aware that as a feminist, a liberal, a Jew, a human being she was alienated from former professional colleagues and the political groups she once was an honourable member of; but alienation is actually too soft a word for what she faced and still does, since she has sometimes been required to hire bodyguards to protect her when she goes to speak, if she has not been dis-invited to talk on radio, address university forums, or participate in seminars and workshops.  She is, of course: many pro-Israel and pro-American intellectuals have had to confront a new reality.  These honourable spaces of public discourse and academic discourse have been politicized; many have been squashed under the weight of ideological fanatics, self-deluded so-called intellectuals, and poorly-educated students.  These events are filled with screaming mobs, threatening thugs, hate-filled partisans of terrorism, trivializers of mass murder, and rationalizers of anti-Semitism and western democracy.  Organizers of such events usually prove unwilling to control the mobs; police, fearing the consequences of a riot, turn on the proponents of liberal and democratic causes as agents provocateurs, and, so, gradually, surely, and increasingly, the airwaves, the print and electronic media are closed off to debate, and propaganda substitutes for fact and debate. Under such conditions, it is no wonder that many either run away or try to defend themselves with strident polemical voices.  As Conrad Black said in a recent editorial in The Sun, what most threatens western democracy and civilization is less the rantings of fanatics faraway or even their random, spectacular but generally ineffective acts of terrorism, is our own loss of faith in each other as well-intentioned participants in dialogue and debate.  That has allowed immature minds to gain control of many university functions and to fill the airwaves with shrill voices of meaningless jabber.  It is all indeed very frightening.

To speak the truth about Israel or America or about western civilization today is often to be stigmatized as a racist, a colonist, an imperialist. Chesler calls this a process of bullying and exclusion one of Palestinianzation, Stalinization, and Fascism.  It is not just likely to happen everywhere in a surge of irrationality, but it is happening too often to be comfortable with, and in many places it has already happened and the battle has gone to the side of bigotry and evil.  Where?  If Chesler is to be believed, on university campuses, on major television news networks, in feminist organization, in synagogue community centres-on the streets, in private homes, in the minds of too many people. Not everyone, to be sure, but way too many for comfort.

To read the essays in On the Front Lines, some of which have been tweaked, trimmed and condensed to avoid repetition, is to relive her experience of watching former close friends reject her, feminist organizations she helped found turn against her and the ideals they once had, Jewish leaders who used to live by the principles of rabbinical tradition in her eyes scurry away to hide behind politically correct chicanery.  Though she is not a journalist and her essays are not meant to be objective reports from the front lines, she is a cogent commentator on events as they occur.  This is not an easy task.   Events do not all at once reveal their origins or consequences.  Yet someone must react quickly.  Words must be spoken-and this precisely where wisdom and experience of a lifetime should come into their own.  In a sense the little essays are polemical responses to outrageous things done and said; in another, they are sometimes welcome meditations and reflections on these disturbing things, providing them with historical contexts, juxtaposing them to meaningful analogies drawn from Jewish history, literary texts and real-life anecdotes and memories, providing a sustained and developing commentary on a world in the process of falling apart. 

Thus, to go through all the essays  in one long session is also to force oneself to relive the past dozen years and to feel again, only more intensely, with greater horror and deepening premonitions of doom, the loss of integrity in our major news media and educational institutions.  The world falls apart in a general historical sense as it loses its way and its so-called moral compass spins wildly out of control.  It also fragments one's own social world by causing gaps to develop where long-time friendships once seemed to guarantee support and standards of trust.

On a much lower level of intensity, I have had analogous experiences, from snide comments from former colleagues, icy silence and cutting stares from one-time friends, removal of professional privileges from a place I worked at for over forty years and sometimes to threats of hostility hacked into the internet.   I grew up with Phyllis in Boro Park, a Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn during the 1940s and 1950s, but where she became an activist and continued throughout her career to stand boldly for many liberal and radical causes, I moved away from the centres of intellectual activity, literally down to the very bottom of the universe, in New Zealand, and into the sanctuary (as I thought) of academic scholarship but then I discovered, even before 9/11, that who was standing in the way of my career advancement were the very people that once seemed to be my mentors and ideals.  It is not a very pleasant experience.

When I first perused Chesler's op-ed pieces, blogs and essays they did more than shock me by the violence they portended and the revelation of violations all the essential values of Jewish morality and Enlightenment insights. Her voice is usually persuasive and vivid, occasionally irascible, always important.  Often I could find confirmation of her insights and observations in the various media available to me; she also reported on people and events absent from the local press and television news.  My own experiences are too far away for me to judge everything. When the chips are down, I depend on her.

Just as I always took pride in noting her accomplishments as an academic and her fame as a feminist-and took reflected pleasure in her contact with so many important and influential people-I feel the agony of her rejection, exclusion and alienation. I sympathize with her heart-felt cries of pain and her calls to arms.   I wish I knew how to cleanse the world of such indignities and insults to truth and justice.

This new book witnesses to a world gone mad.  I have to thank Phyllis Chesler for having the gumption, the chutzpa, the strength of character and the sharpness of mind and pen to say what has to be said-and in a language I don't have the skills or the courage to use.  For those who have the health, the strength and the energy, read this book.  It is encouraging and depressing at the same time.  Too many bad things have happened, but it may not be too late to re-take control of universities, media outlets and community organizations.  Chesler has laid down the gauntlet-she asks us all to do something now before it is too late.  Don't let any lie go by unchallenged. 

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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