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.
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.
Boianjiu’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.