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Andrea Dworkin comes clean in a dirty world.
on June 15, 2000
In "Scapegoat," Andrea Dworkin comes clean. For the better part of her career, she has been dropping hints about the connections, or parallels, or metaphorical affinities between the Holocaust and violence against women. These hints have always had a meretricious quality in the absence of a detailed argument. "Scapegoat" comes as a true surprise. This book is not "Intercourse" plus the well-worn Holocaust analogy as an indicator of oppression: it is a serious monograph on the comparative lot of stateless peoples, including women. Dworkin's quotes from Jewish and non-Jewish writers are respectful and attentive, though self-indulgent in sheer number. Her analysis of Jewish religion and culture is critical but fair and reflective of great pride. The apocalyptic kitsch which the reader has a right to expect from Dworkin is less often on display here, and though men don't come off too well, there is relatively little time spent on deconstructions of "male" sexuality as the root of violence. Dworkin here is far more pragmatic: she blames any form of entrenched power and its abuses. This book is the closest Dworkin has ever come to mainstream cultural studies. If there is any justice in same, she will receive the readership "Scapegoat" deserves: people who sit through 600 pages a throw of Lacan, Foucault or Donna Haraway ought to be able to stomach this book with no trouble at all. In a perfect world.
But though this is Dworkin's best, most lucid and readable nonfiction book, it finally suffers by promoting just that which it argues to defeat, and what its existence calls into question almost by definition: presumptions of the ontological "uniqueness" of the Holocaust. The comparison to the abuse of women is not meant to relativize either, though the book's anthology of quotes offers a good deal of evidence for doing so. It is, instead, meant to assign to women an ontological specialness equivalent to being Jewish. Quite apart from the morally problematic nature of any such specialness, Dworkin falters badly on the necessary follow-through. The specialness of suffering results from a landless status which Dworkin is right in assuming not to be uniquely Jewish. By her own admission, there is no equivalent in specific female experience to the Jewish religion, which she correctly identifies as the unifying factor that has allowed even secular Jews to experience themselves as "chosen." Her alternative may be feminist ethical consciousness, but the analogy suffers from the fact that this is by definition a consciousness meant to transcend national boundaries. Like many other Jewish feminists, she identifies with Zionism and offers a severe yet forgiving analysis of its treatment of the Palestinians. She makes a fascinating parallel between Jewish ghettoization of Palestinians and feminist disdain for sexually abused women. Yet this analogy finally does not wash either. After four hundred pages devoted to the concept of both women and Jews as stateless people, the reader must be skeptical about prostitutes as an ethnicity, or "Zionism for women." Dworkin wants the possibility to exist and her understanding of the uniquely pained Israeli consciousness earns respect; all the same, she is too invested in the idea of nationalism as masculine and statelessness as female to propose a feminist separatist nationalism in credible terms.
"Scapegoat," then, tries hard to break new ground, both for feminists and for diasporan peoples, but finally ends up exposing the author's terrible and very Jewish dilemma: unable to choose either nationalism or statelessness in good conscience and yet left with the inescapable sense of chosenness and its burdens. All the same, it is a memorable summa by this country's best-known Jewish feminist, sacrificing her often tendentious originality for a reiteration of the Jewish question that honors its often-ignored sexual politics. Whether it does justice to them is a whole other question. "Scapegoat" can be read as a tissue of cliches on the subject; but people do think in cliches, and Dworkin does an adequate, sometimes uncanny job of describing how people tend to think about things. She will tell us that it is up to us to decide if that is how they are--with deeds as well as words. And words, as she has so often said, are deeds. It is in its reflection of the power of words about crimes and their victims that "Scapegoat" is most valuable as word and deed.