comments_image Comments

Forbidden Israel: Sex and the Settlers

If the Israeli government and courts were adhering strictly to the law, the settlers would have been gone long ago.

Who is the most famous person in Israel? It's not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or any other politician; not a war hero, nor a singer or a sports star.

No, the winner, hands down, is supermodel Bar Rafaeli. Well actually, Rafaeli has her hands up in her latest video, covering her breasts. She has her legs up, too, and just about every other part of her.

She's wearing far less than she did on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue that made her famous. In fact, Rafaeli is wearing nothing at all. And she's so famous that even Israel's most prestigious, intellectual newspaper, Ha'aretz, posted her video on its Web site.

Or perhaps Ha'aretz was just following the advice my mother gave me when I was writing my dissertation on ancient rabbinic Judaism. "Put sex in it," Mom said, "and it'll sell."

It's taken me nearly 40 years, but with Rafaeli's help I've figured out how to combine sex and the scholarly analysis of Jewish culture, or at least sex and Zionism.

Sex and Zionism? My mother's mother must be turning over in her grave. In her old age, my grandma saw a photo of a prostitute in Tel Aviv's red-light district. "Can't be Jewish," she said. Assured that the prostitute was indeed of the people of Israel, she refused to believe it.

I always tell that anecdote when I teach about the origins of Zionism. The early Zionists assumed what all Europeans of their day assumed: Every nation-state is the political expression of a specific ethnic group -- France for the French, China for the Chinese, etc. In their day that was not considered racism. It was just common sense.

So they concluded that the Jews would be normal only when they had their own nation-state, with Jewish prostitutes, Jewish pimps and Jewish police to arrest them (or take bribes to look the other way). For most of these early Zionists, the important point was not morality but nationalism. They wanted all the roles in their new society, moral or immoral, to be played by Jews. Had they know about supermodels doing nude photo shoots, they surely would have demanded buck-naked Jewish supermodels, too.   

Had they known about nuclear weapons and F-22s and all the other high-tech weaponry of today's warfare, they would have done whatever they could to obtain them, as later generations of Zionists have done, and are still doing.

After all, what does it mean to be "normal" in the world of modern nation-states, all modeled on the states of Western Europe and North America? It means not merely to have cops and criminals but to have governments that get the most power they can, by any means necessary.

At least it would be hard to blame Zionists for seeing it that way. Waterboarding, anyone? No? Then how about secret prisons in Afghanistan where no one will ever know whether a president's firm strictures against torture are followed?

Normal governments in the modern world use their power for lots of reasons, but ultimately it's always about extending their control over both their own people and others. Or at least, again, it's easy to see why many Zionists would see it that way.

Which brings us to the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the quarter-million or so Jewish settlers who live there. Some of those settlers are socially conservative Orthodox Jews. They may be as distressed as my grandmother at the blatant sexuality flaunted in their society by Rafaeli and the many who aspire to follow in her bare footsteps. The Orthodox settlers may also be sincerely convinced that the one and only God of the universe gave their ancestors all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

See more stories tagged with: