Tag Archives: Israel

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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Violence and its Ends

Many, many friends of mine have been posting on Facebook recently about the conflict in Israel-Palestine, the bombs falling on Gaza and the rockets falling on Israel, and other aspects of the situation, including recent violent attacks on left-wing protesters in Israeli cities. These posts tend to fall all over the political spectrum: some of them resolutely defend Israel, some of them express sympathy with Gazans and Palestinians more generally, some of them are critical of both Israel and the Palestinians, some of them are critical of only one side or the other. I don’t agree with them all, although I am often curious to read even those opinions and ideas that I am inclined to automatically reject. Generally, I don’t comment unless I feel I can add something to the conversation and the conversation is respectful and thoughtful (this automatically disqualifies many posts, sadly).

Golda Meir

Golda Meir

Yesterday, a quote attributed to Golda Meir (which as far as I can tell is legit) popped up several times in my news feed. Printed against the backdrop of a photo of Meir speaking, the quote read, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” This quote raised my hackles in a way that nothing else has, and after starting a conversation about the appropriate response to racist and hateful posts, I was inspired to comment (more on what those comments were in a moment). But it also occurred to me that this quote, and my response to it, is at the center of recent events, far flung and mostly unrelated, that have created a sick knot in my stomach over the last week: the crisis in Israel-Palestine, the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane, the botched execution of an Arizona man, and the horrifying murder of my college classmate Dan Markel. I had an anxious sense that all these things were related, but until I thought deeply about the Meir quote, I didn’t know why.

If we look more closely at Meir’s claim, we can see that it depends on the assumption of a faceless group called “the Arabs,” who act and feel as one monolithic entity.  This monolithic entity, she claims, loves its children less than it hates Israeli Jews.  If it is an inherent quality of human beings that we love our children unconditionally and above all, then to love one’s children less than one hates someone else is necessarily to be somewhat less than fully human.  Of course, as with any essentializing claim about humanity, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  If even one Arab loves his children above all, then Meir is wrong.

But proving this claim wrong is not enough; we have to understand why it is so dangerous. Examining its insidious mechanism reveals the way that generalizing, monolithic claims about religious, ethnic, and national groups dehumanize individuals and enable both the kind of mass killing we see now every day in the news – in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Sudan and elsewhere – and the kind of personal violence that killed Dan. Statements like these dehumanize whole groups of people, reducing them to nameless, faceless Others who are not like us, whose actions are the cause of our suffering (and their own), whose deaths are incidental to the larger human drama of which they are not a part.

I am thinking here not only of the Golda Meir quote, but also of the pro-Russian rebel commander who, when asked why a civilian plane would be flying over Ukraine, allegedly answered, “It means they wanted to bring some spies to us. Fuck them. They should not fly, we are at war here.” The people on the plane were not vacationers, scientists, children – they were spies. Spies who don’t belong, who, by flying inadvertently into a war zone, brought their deaths upon themselves. I am thinking of a professor friend who told me of an Iraq war vet in one of his classes who explained that the only way to kill someone is to convince yourself you are not killing a person, by persuading yourself through racism or other forms of magical thinking that your target is not human, but less than. I am thinking about the heinous murderer Joseph Wood, who was left gasping on a gurney for nearly two hours as the state of Arizona experimented with a new combination of lethal drugs for execution, and his victim’s brother-in-law, Richard Brown, who asked, “Why didn’t we give him Drano?” Without in any way minimizing Wood’s crimes or the suffering he caused, his prolonged execution and the subsequent suggestion that his death should have been horrible smacks of the kind of human experimentation that has only been carried out by the most abhorrent regimes in history against those deemed unworthy of life. I am thinking about the person who put a gun to Dan’s head, who in order to pull the trigger must have thought that his own grievances superseded Dan’s very humanity, his right to continue to live on this earth as a father, a son, a friend. I am thinking about Dan himself, whose field of study was retributive justice, a form of punishment that repudiates vengeance, and whose opposition to the death penalty was well known.

namesonwall.tumblr.com

namesonwall.tumblr.com

This is why I think it’s so important, right now, to fight the twin reactions of despair and silence. We have to speak out when we see dehumanization occurring, in speech or in deeds, point to it, disarm it with more speech, with dialogue, conversation, and respect. And we have to hope that our words will have some small effect, even if only to strengthen our own commitment to humanity and to humanism. We must remember the names of the victims of violence regardless of whether we feel the violence against them was justified, as in war, or not. We must commemorate and analyze and create beauty from destruction. We should mourn and rebuild what was destroyed when we can, strengthen community and human ties, move forward and go on.  The Israeli journalist Haggai Matar posted a reflection yesterday titled, “A Few Optimistic Thoughts in a Nearly Empty Airport.” (Sorry, it’s only available in Hebrew.) He wrote, “Despite the despair and pessimism all around, I stubbornly believe that there is still hope here….I know there are those who will say that this is naïve, but it’s not.” It may be naïve, actually, but if it is I will accept this naïveté as the price I pay for a world in which we never stop fighting for an end to violence.

 

Dan Markel.  This photo seemed more like him than the posed one that's been reprinted everywhere.

Dan Markel. This photo seemed more like him than the posed one that’s been reprinted everywhere.

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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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Remaking Israel

ImageIn many ways, the state of Israel is a relatively unique postcolonial experiment. Brought into being as a philosophical and ideologically utopian solution to the “Jewish problem” of nineteenth-century Europe; granted sovereignty by the United Nations as an emergency solution to the problem of what to do with all the Jews displaced by the Second World War and the Holocaust; and ultimately forged in the crucible of war with both a dispossessed indigenous populace and surrounding Arab states; the state of Israel has been largely stable, mostly democratic, and economically prosperous in a region defined by instability, authoritarianism, and low standards of living. However, as Gershom Gorenberg’s 2011 book The Unmaking of Israel points out, the conditions that have made Israel generally exceptional are increasingly threatened by the undemocratic nature of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the settlement enterprise in the occupied territories, and the dangerous entanglement of religion with both state and military.

ImageGorenberg, an Israeli journalist who has written frequently on Israeli domestic politics and the occupation for The Jerusalem Post, The American Prospect, and on his own blog, southjerusalem.com, is well known for his left-wing political stance both inside Israel and in the United States. And in many ways he is the ideal messenger for the bleak picture of Israeli democracy he paints in The Unmaking of Israel: an American-born Israeli, Gorenberg intimately understands the diaspora relationship to Israel and the history of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel; as a religious Jew, he also speaks with authority on questions of religion, and particularly the corruptions of Judaism created by religious entanglement with the state.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in Israel (I lived there for a year and have visited many times), is fluent in Hebrew, and does some work in the field of Israel Studies, I sometimes feel that I’ve heard all the arguments, on both sides, a million times. The positions are entrenched, and the primary actors never seem to budge much from their fixed stances. One of the brilliant things about this book is that it shakes up these traditional arguments and positions, presenting a novel and compelling perspective. Full disclosure: I am generally sympathetic to Gorenberg’s political positions and have been a fan of his work and his blog for a long time; a few years ago I helped bring him to speak at a synagogue of which I was a member. Many people might dismiss my positive feelings about this book as a product of my sympathies with Gorenberg’s views generally. But I think that would be doing this book a great disservice, because it reframes the question of “peace” as a domestic question about the character of Israel itself and the future of Israeli democracy, a shift in perspective that confronts the grave dangers Israel faces not from outside threats, but from within.

These threats, generally speaking, are divided into three broad categories that are, in turn, enmeshed with each other: the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, the settlement enterprise, and state and military entanglement with and support of religion. There are, of course, many cross-categorized sub-issues here: unofficial and off-the-books state support of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, the political radicalization of ultra-religious settler groups, state support for a growing Orthodox officer class in the military that is more loyal to its rabbinic leadership than its army commanders, a growing population of ultra-Orthodox youth and adults who have little or no secular education and live off of handouts paid for by the tax dollars of the rest of the population, and many more. Gorenberg expertly and concisely explicates the complex historical circumstances and political decisions that led to the current state of affairs.

Although The Unmaking of Israel is a meticulously researched, historically grounded argument, one of its strengths is the presence of Gorenberg’s voice of outrage. He is outraged about both the corruption of Israeli democracy and the corruption of Judaism, and writes eloquently and passionately about the way the occupation has given rise to specious arguments about the rule of law and about religion. For example, Gorenberg writes about a book written in 2009 by two rabbis from a politically radicalized Orthodox yeshiva (religious academy) in the West Bank that justified the killing of “enemy” civilians by the military, even children, in direct contravention to the Israel Defense Forces’ own rules of engagement. Gorenberg concludes, “Without mentioning the Israel Defense Forces, the book is a broadside against the army’s rules on avoiding harm to enemy civilians….this is a full volume justifying war crimes, desecrating the faith in whose name it is supposedly written.” This is only one of numerous examples detailing the complicated web of interactions between settlements and settlers, radicalized rabbis and religious leaders, the state, and the military that point to what Gorenberg calls the “split in Israel’s personality” between an ostensibly secular, democratic state and a supporter of both occupation and religion.

Gorenberg’s account is strengthened by the deep historical context he gives to this split personality, which he claims, plausibly, stems from the pre-state ideological commitment of Zionism to settle the land of Israel. Before the establishment of the state, various arms of the Zionist movement sought to create Jewish settlements in various parts of Ottoman and, later, mandate Palestine in order to lay claim to land that might eventually be declared a Jewish state. Gorenberg places the misguided settlement enterprise in the context of the drive for settlement, contending that the Israeli leadership never truly made the transition from thinking like national movement to thinking like a state actor, and therefore continued with the nationalist drive for settlement of the land even in contravention of its own laws (not to mention international laws) against settlement in the occupied territories. Although this makes the settlement enterprise understandable within the context of Jewish, and particularly territorial Zionist, history, it only makes both the settlements themselves and the very ideology that produced them seem more inseparable than ever from the mechanisms of the state.

Unlike many commentators and historians who have written about Israel and the occupation, in The Unmaking of Israel Gorenberg offers a clear prescription for what ails the country. The last chapter, titled “The Reestablishment of Israel,” consists of a series of programmatic solutions, many of them eminently fair and practical, designed to set Israel back on course toward democracy and the rule of law. Generally speaking, these fall into three categories that roughly correspond to his major criticisms of the current state of affairs: “For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes. First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue – freeing the state from clericalism, and religion from the state. Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.” Sounds beautiful, right? But as I read the specific steps Gorenberg outlines in order to move toward these goals, I became increasingly despondent. While they are all within the realm of possibility, especially since the last Israeli election, at this moment they seem more like a shimmering mirage on the desert horizon. Nonetheless, this thirsty traveler will continue to walk toward them, hoping that when I arrive they will turn out to be real after all.

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