Tag Archives: gender

Gender and Nation at War

A couple of weeks ago, the Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, in the context of a conversation about what could stop terror attacks like the recent murder of three Israeli teenagers, suggested that “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.”  Kedar, as he himself pointed out in the interview, was not suggesting the use of such a tactic, but rather pointing to what he felt was the only possible deterrent to terror attacks: the threat of violence against women.

Judah Maccabee

Judah Maccabee

Regardless of whether one agrees with Kedar or not, his comments, taken together with other recent events related to the Israeli military, the current campaign in Gaza, and internal Israeli protests for and against the war, point to the gendered discourse on which Israeli culture and society was built.  Contemporary definitions of an Israeli Jewish masculinity dependent on military domination arose out of 19th-century conceptions of the European Jewish diaspora.  In this formulation, adopted by early Zionists and promulgated by Theodor Herzl’s colleague Max Nordau, European Jewish culture had become, by the late 19th century, “abnormal,” particularly with regard to gender relations.  In enlightenment critiques, Jewish women, who were traditionally (even if not always actually) breadwinners for their scholar-husbands, were portrayed as emasculating tyrants, and traditional Jewish men as weak, impotent sidekicks to their powerful wives.  Nordau and other early Zionists picked up on this critique, and claimed one of the goals of Zionism as the “normalization” of gender within the Jewish community, such that Jewish men would be restored to their rightful status as heirs to Jewish heroes like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, whom Nordau claimed were “the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.”  This desire to re-gender Jewish men was at the heart of the image of the New Jew, modeled on Nordau’s ideal of a Jewish national body made up of “deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”

This image of the New Jew is deep at the heart of the Israeli self-image and social constructions of gender in Israeli society.  The connection between militarization and masculinity is inextricably entwined with the ideological roots of Zionism.  Kedar’s comments generally reflect the way in which gender and power are conceived in Israeli culture and specifically reflect the way in which rape, or the threat of rape, functions not just as a tool of war but as a mode of constructing and maintaining the ideal of the male Israeli soldier-citizen, an image crucial to Israel’s national identity and self-consciousness.  I am not discussing here the way in which individual Israelis or individual men or women understand themselves within these ideological and historical terms, but the way in which Israeli self-image as a whole has been discursively constructed – through speech, image, and ideology – on the basis of a particular, and dangerous, conception of gender.

Kedar’s comments reveal the basic assumption that the bodies of women are in some fundamental way identified with the nation, and that their violation would thus constitute an act of war.  As the scholar Susan Sered notes in her study What Makes Women Sick?, “…what lies behind the determination to keep women out of combat positions is a sense that because women symbolize the collective, rape of a woman – unlike rape or torture of a man – is an affront to the honor of the state….The rape of a woman soldier is construed as equivalent to the rape of the Jewish people.”  Kedar simply reverses this formulation, assuming the same logic applies to the terrorist enemy.

stand with idfBut in constructing women as inherent victims, by making their bodies contiguous with the battlefield, the role of women in war is relegated to that of sex object.  Indeed, recent photos posted on the Facebook page “Standing with IDF” of partially naked women with messages of support for the Israeli army scrawled on their bodies is consistent with the notion that women’s bodies support the war effort through a deployment of their sexuality, not through their service.

In a parallel example, when the young recruit Udi Segal recently refused his service in the IDF, protestors at the draft office where he was due to report for service taunted him by calling it his “gay coming out party” and yelled at his supporters to “Go get fucked in the ass!”  The same gendered logic that relegates women’s role in war to that of victim or sex object cannot reconcile the image of a man who refuses to be a soldier.  Since masculinity is synonymous with military service in Israeli culture, a man who does not serve, must, by this logic, be gendered or sexed differently.

It appears that this logic also extends beyond just service in the military, but also to support (or criticism) of military actions.  Several recent accounts of demonstrations or attacks against peace protesters in Israel have noted similar language leveled at them for supporting peace.  The journalist Haggai Matar wrote that violent attacks against peace protesters in Tel Aviv were “accompanied by swearing and sexual threats”; Moriel Rothman-Zecher wrote that at the same protest counter-demonstrators shouted, as they did to Udi Segal and his supporters, “You all get fucked in the ass”; and Rebecca Hughes notes that she has seen “blue and white dildos waved threateningly at peace protestors” – a literalization of the idea of the masculine state using sexual violence as a means of domination.

All of these scenes are what naturally follow from the equation of masculinity with militarism in a society in which participation in the military is a condition of citizenship.  The scenario proposed by Mordechai Kedar does not need to be carried out in order for the danger to be real: for women, certainly, but also for a society precariously balanced on the assumption of women’s victimization and highly gendered conceptions of power.

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When Life Imitates Art

Yesterday it was reported that a group of female Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were reprimanded for uploading racy photos of themselves to Facebook.   There was a predictable amount of outrage, although some defended the young women and suggested that the photos were a representation of age-appropriate pranksterish behavior.  Perhaps most astutely, a couple of blog posts, one at the Forward and the other on Open Zion, have linked the photos and their interpretation to gender, and in particular to gender roles and expectations in the Israeli military.

Max Nordau.  Not so muscular himself, I'm afraid.

Max Nordau. Not so muscular himself, I’m afraid.

The link between masculinity and militarism in Israeli culture traces its roots to late nineteenth-century Zionism, and the physician Max Nordau’s Muskeljudentum movement.  Nordau advocated the transformation of the Jews from fearful, cloistered students into, as he wrote, “deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”  These new muscle Jews would be the heirs of Jewish heroes like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, whom Nordau saw as “the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.”  This image of the tough fighter became the basis for the ideal of the New Hebrew Man, and was later embodied by the macho commandos of the IDF.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that female bodies play a subversive role in the context of the Israeli military.  The idea that women and gender complicate Israeli military ideals is not new.   Shani Boianjiu’s 2012 novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, follows the lives of three young female recruits in the IDF, young women much like the half-naked soldiers holding machine guns that have circulated on the internet in the last two days. (I have written at length about the novel here.)  The protagonists of The People of Forever and their own motivations for similar acts of resistance reveal the ways in which these pictures comprise a challenge not just to military culture generally but to specifically Israeli ideals of masculinity and militarism.

people of foreverBoianjiu’s book cracks open the façade of the New Hebrew Man to reveal the misogynist rot at its core.  In one relevant episode, Avishag, a soldier serving on the border with Egypt, tries to stop a truck full of women she knows are being trafficked from crossing the border, but is prevented from doing so by her male commanding officer.  He, following military protocol, allows the driver through because all his papers are in order.  In protest, Avishag retreats to her guard tower, where she strips naked and lies down on the floor.  Her defiance might have gone unremarked, but for a curious Egyptian border guard who catches sight of her and sparks a “diplomatic incident.”  Avishag, like the soldiers in the recent photos, is lightly disciplined.

The form of Avishag’s protest – exposing the female body – reveals what is concealed under the monolithic uniform of the conscript.  By revealing her body, Avishag gives the lie to the masculinist ideal of the Israeli soldier as New Hebrew Man.  She refuses her role as soldier in a military that is itself complicit, both explicitly and implicitly, in the oppression of and violence against women.  In doing so, Avishag exposes the fragility of the fantasy of the militaristic, hyper-masculine Israeli.

Like Avishag’s nakedness, the recent photos of scantily clad female IDF soldiers strike me not as a youthful prank or thoughtless joke, but as a serious form of protest.  The women in the photos hold their guns to their chests, half-covering their bare breasts, but their real weapons are their own bodies.  These photos force us to acknowledge those bodies, and their difference, and consider what the very existence of the female Israeli soldier means for both the Israeli military and Israeli culture as a whole.

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