Tangle of chains and guilt

June 1, 2001

Julie Neuberger is provoked by confused parallels of oppression.

Like much of Andrea Dworkin's work, Scapegoat is brilliant, infuriating, thought provoking and ultimately flawed. Yet her insight into widespread immorality, and the subjection of women in a variety of societies makes one's flesh crawl with horror. Her anger is always edifying.

This volume starts with an apologia that is the key to much of her text: "I am an enemy of nationalism and male domination. This means that I repudiate all nationalism except my own and reject the dominance of all men except those I love." She continues: "In this I am like every other woman, a pretender to rebellion because to break with patriarchy I would need to betray my own: the ones with whom I share group identity, Jewish, and a presumed history, in this case Jewish men." Of the three people to whom this volume is dedicated, two are Jewish males, her beloved father, Harry Dworkin, who died before the book was finished, and her godson.

These dedications, this introduction, are remarkable only because they fit so poorly with the rest, much of which repudiates Jewish males, especially those in pre-Israeli Palestine and those in the modern Israeli army. Dworkin is rightly critical of state violence against Palestinians, and the dehumanising effect of the political situation and, importantly, the discourse about the Palestinians that depicts them as the lowest of the low. She draws parallels between the idea of homeland and home, between Jew-hate and woman-hate, between pogrom and rape, between hate literature and pornography. And each time she does it, one is left thinking how there is an element of truth in what she alleges, coupled with an enormous number of "buts". Her arguments presume a simplicity in situations that is rarely the case. Her views about the position of oppressed women - which I share - make her unable to make real sense of the fact that many African Muslim women support female circumcision, despite the fact that to westerners it seems grotesque. "My very chains and I grew friends," that well-trodden line from Byron, somehow passes her by. Oppression can grow attractive, not only by familiarity.

In other areas her acceptance of ambivalence is much greater - in her analysis of Jews' feelings of belonging in Germany, Poland, Russia, the Balkans or wherever was called home, she accepts that Jews acquired affection for the countries in which they lived and also developed loyalty to them. But post-Hitler, Dworkin argues: "Being a majority became an ontological necessity; and the place where that majority would live had to have Jewish meaning - otherwise it would be a void. Only Palestine, the ancient homeland, the biblical homeland, had that Jewish meaning." She adds that well-fed American Jews developed the same sense at the same time - without knowing the truth of Auschwitz or Dachau. Yet the truth is more complicated. Many of those who were displaced would have loved to have remained in Europe. Though many who were not displaced thought Palestine was the answer, though those already in Palestine longed for more Jews to join them, displaced people did not all long for Palestine. Indeed, the backing for Palestine/Israel came at least in part because many of the world's nations reckoned that the Jews, after the horrors of the concentration camps and genocide, deserved a country of their own.

So "homeland" may be home to many Jews. But its reasons for becoming that homeland are more complex than Dworkin argues. And Dworkin's "homeland" now inflicts cruelty on Palestinians. She says: "The Israeli authorities seem to have discovered Palestinians' most sensitive nerve in their struggle to hold on to their land and homes, for the two harshest punishments meted out to the Arabs are deportation and the demolition of houses." But why does Dworkin consider this so remarkable? Is this not true of all occupying powers? Deportation and demolition are tried and tested weapons of oppression. Dworkin follows this with a disquisition on home as a place of entrapment, of horror, of fear, for many women. Are we to feel guilty about the Israeli treatment of Palestinian Arabs, as indeed we should? Or are we to link Israeli brutality to violence against women? And, if so, why? Her moral argument is compromised by drawing inexact parallels.

Within this confusing narrative there are some important insights. She suggests, for instance, that the Nazis' first war was against the human, and female, body - against prostitutes, often the first inhabitants of the concentration camps. Jewish prostitutes were the lowest of the low. The Jew had a deformed body in much of medieval mythology. Christians demonised the Jew as child-eater, particularly in the blood libel that Jews used the blood of a Christian child in the making of unleavened bread for Passover. The Jewish body was vile. The female body was vile. The Jewish female body was doubly vile. Dworkin may well be right here.

Or, again, in her analysis of women's liberation and its parallel to Zionism as Jewish liberation, she goes beyond the everyday interpretation of Daniel Deronda as a brave story about a romantic Jew to link its analysis of the powerlessness of women in the marriage story with the powerlessness of Jews: "Women in being the property of men; Jews in being displaced." For Dworkin, however, all this is reversed. Israel becomes the scapegoat. "Zionists-cum-Israelis are most compromised" in moral terms "for transferring populations of Palestinian Arabs outside the boundaries of the Jewish state". She continues the argument, "But for Jews themselves, in Israel and around the world... what made transfer an act that Jews could do?" Zionism had gone wrong. It was no longer liberation, but oppression, oppression of others, a blot on the Jewish conscience. Oppression of women and children, oppression of Palestinians by Israelis, oppression of blacks by whites. All oppressions are in her line of fire.

This is a book for those who want to understand how a Jewish feminist can also be a Zionist, how a Jewish feminist is loyal to Jewish men, how Hitler's war was against the body, women and prostitutes and how children, above all, suffer in all human conflicts. I read it with fascination and irritation, with glimmerings of understanding, and ended with an accolade for her conclusion, that "international law is extremely important to the future of women. Crimes against humanity are inevitably crimes against women and children as well as stigmatised men." But I wish her argument had been clearer, her understanding of Jewish religion deeper and the whole more of a treatise, less of a messy polemic. It might then appeal to a wider readership and have more influence.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger is chief executive, King's Fund, a healthcare foundation for Londoners.

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