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My Jewish Wars: A Dispatch From The Front


When a people is under siege it matters more, not less, how the besieged treat each other. Perhaps I am wrong, or only partly right, but it seems as though too many Jews are treating each other in a manner that is hardly loving, ethical or even minimally civil.

This worries me more than do the forces of irrational hatred arrayed against us.

No matter how poor or how rich we as individuals may be, all Jews have the power to uplift and inspire each other – or to humiliate and discourage each other. This power, which we may use for good or for evil, holds the key to Jewish survival.

Many Jewish individuals and organizations are doing amazing work: Selflessly, valorously, humbly, they fund and staff hospitals, soup kitchens, and other humanitarian projects, both here and in Israel. I salute them. I adore them.

And then there is the problem that dares not speak its name.

We have all heard about raised voices and raised fists, soul-scorching sarcasm, terrible threats, theft, corruption, adultery, incest, wife-beating, child-abuse, addiction within the Jewish community. I despair – not because of what non-Jews may think, but because of what God may think and what our collective punishment might ultimately be.

Now imagine what happens when similarly amoral and arrogant Jews fight each other to become King of the Jews. Imagine their vices writ large as they strut and thunder across the stage of Jewish and Israeli history.

I will name no names (the punishment would render me far less effective as an advocate for Jewish survival), but I must, finally, share some anecdotes about the exceedingly bad behavior of all too many Jews who claim to speak for the Jewish community. (It matters little if such behavior is also common among non-Jews; we Jews are so few in number and have more at stake, more to lose.)

In the summer of 2003, when I published my book The New Anti-Semitism, I became the “new kid on the block” in the organizational Jewish world. A friend of mine at a large Jewish organization asked for “many” advance galleys of my book and invited me to deliver a workshop on this subject for his organization. I was honored and agreed at once. I did not ask for a fee.

In time, however, my friend, mortified, got back to me. “I am so embarrassed,” he said, “but I must withdraw my invitation for your lecture. I have just been told that you are persona non grata and the ‘enemy’ at my organization.”

“There must be some mistake,” I said.

“No,” he said. “My organization feels that it must have the final word on this subject. I have been informed that you are the competition and must be crushed. Our publicist used those exact words.”

This was my initiation into the organized Jewish world. My education would continue.

A few months later, when I was about to deliver a major fundraising lecture for Israel for another major Jewish American organization, the lecture agent called me.

“Phyllis, would you consider changing your subject from anti-Semitism to any other subject, and would you be willing to talk to the sisterhood only?”

It seemed that my Supreme Educator, the very same Big Shot who viewed me as “competition” and who presides over an annual organizational budget in the millions, had just rented a large public space to deliver a lecture on the same topic in the same city at the same hour and had invited the very same major donors to hear him.

I called my aforementioned friend at the Big Shot’s organization. My message: ”For God’s sake, tell him we should deliver this lecture together and send all the money to Israel.” He never got back to me.

I was the one who did not speak in that city that year; only The Big Shot did. It is my opinion, shared by many others, that almost every decision and public statement this man has made on behalf of Jews has been painfully, dangerously, almost hilariously wrong. Nevertheless, like so many other Jewish leaders, he seems to have a death-grip on the Jewish funding dollar and therefore on the destiny of our people.

During the course of this latest Palestinian intifada, I received my first two disinvitations – courtesy not of some pro-Islamist university (that would come later) but of another Jew who also opposes anti-Semitism. Eventually I came to understand that in the world of Jewish organizations and professional Jews, each Big Shot competes against all the other Big Shots for the right – and the funding – to be the only Jewish voice authorized to sound the alarm and ride to the rescue.

And such behavior, unfortunately, is not limited to Jewish men.

Years ago, I interviewed a female Jewish professional who held a Ph.D. and who had years of government and lobbyist experience to her credit. For idealistic reasons, she took a lesser-paying position at a large Jewish women’s organization. She told me that the wives of the wealthy men who ran the organization treated her as if she were their servant – indeed, treated her in ways that servants should not be treated.

“Perhaps this is how their husbands treated them,” she said, “or maybe they watched how their husbands treated their employees, but it broke my heart and I had to quit. These wives had no job experience, they could not even keep themselves in pantyhose, but they consistently forced me to do wrong things that would hurt the organization’s objectives. And they always took the credit for the work that I did.”

Does this sound familiar? Such behavior demoralizes and shames Jews who often end up leaving the Jewish organizational world.

I have some religious female friends who have been exploited by Jewish religious women’s organizations. What do I mean? Simply that their brilliance, experience, and noble devotion were harnessed and exploited for the greater glory of the wealthy women who ran the organization and who liked to be congratulated for accomplishing things they had not truly accomplished.

My friends – tireless workers all – were not treated with respect by these women, who reserved such emotions only for major male rabbis and wealthy male donors.

Many volunteers have fled such organizations heartbroken and cynical.

One more unpleasant personal experience: At an organizational event, a major Jewish donor said to me shortly after I’d been introduced to him (and I’m paraphrasing here because his exact words were a lot more graphic): “You’re Phyllis Chesler? How would you like it if I kissed you as if we were a married couple all alone, and not two strangers in public?”

I was shocked and disgusted. I responded, “Sir, why would you say such a thing to me?” His comeback: “Well, I was thinking about the Chaim Ramon case and his excessive sentence.” Said I: “Surely, you could put your concern into words.”

He gave me the blankest of stares and walked away. In his remarks to the audience later on, he freely mocked them and the Jewish religion. It mattered not to his rapt listeners. They still bowed, scraped, and curtsied before him. After all, he had money – lots of money.

Bad behavior is not limited to Jewish millionaires and billionaires. Those who seek their funding trample over one another. The badmouthing is surreal, as is the paranoia. Friends and allies are often seen as enemies and huge blow-ups occur over minor matters. The pettiness is bloodcurdling.

And I am not talking about political differences, only interpersonal behavior.

Living as we do in a time of growing anti-Semitism, and with Israel seemingly adrift and lacking strong leadership, we must, for the sake of Jewish survival, follow Hillel’s timeless maxim: That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.

About the Author: Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a professor emerita of psychology, a Middle East Forum fellow, and the author of fifteen books including “Women and Madness” (1972), “The New Anti-Semitism” (2003), and her latest, “An American Bride in Kabul” (2013). Her articles are archived at www.phyllis-chesler.com.


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