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 herlatest 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 coverof 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, postedher video on its Web site.

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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.

In the modern world, though, normal nations do not give any credence to such religiously based claims in their political proceedings, nor in their courts of law. If the Israeli government and courts were adhering strictly to law -- especially international law -- the settlers would have been gone long ago.

No, a substantial majority of the settlers are not there for religious reasons, but because their government is pursuing power in the seemingly normal way -- using whatever method works to extend the reach of its dominance.

The specific method the Israelis hit on back in the 1970s was to use tax dollars to build whole modern towns in the West Bank, call them "settlements" (which sounds benign enough), and rent them out at far-below-market rates to any Israelis who wanted cheap housing. Ever since, lots of Israelis feeling an economic pinch have been tempted to move to the West Bank to ease the strain on the family budget.

Once they are there, many have children, and even grandchildren. Israel calls it "natural growth." Well, the settlers are doing what Rafaeli seems to encourage us all to do -- what comes naturally. But when Israeli leaders insist they must expand settlements to accommodate this "natural growth," they are obviously using disingenuousarguments to justify political expansionism.

Yet, in their most honest moments, they can fairly claim that extending power is just doing what comes naturally to leaders of any nation-state. What could be more normal and natural than using the human body for pleasure or power -- and having a hard time, at least occasionally, distinguishing between the two?

Henry Kissinger, national security adviser for the strongest nation on earth, supposedly said that power is the greatest aphrodisiac. President Bill Clinton, who was destroying Serbia while being sexually served in the back hallways of the White House, seemed to prove that in America the feeling is bipartisan.

Clinton, like other American presidents, thought he could teach the Israelis a few things about making peace. But perhaps rather than listening to presidential words, Israelis leaders and West Bank settlers have learned more by observing and imitating presidential actions -- just as Rafaeli has observed and imitated the great American supermodels -- and succumbed to the pleasure of exercising power.

Now, as President Barack Obama attempts to orchestrate the grand peace agreements that has eluded his predecessors, he must face up to the questions that they evaded: Can he expect anyone in the Middle East to listen if he only talks the talk without walking the walk? Can he expect the Iranians to drop all thoughts of nuclear weapons when the U.S. made them the world's symbol of national strength? Israel followed suit long ago, and both nations maintain and modernize their nuclear arsenals, as if that were normal.

Can Obama expect the Palestinians to heed his call to stop their violence, because "resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed," while U.S. planes and drones drop bombs on Afghans and Pakistanis nearly every day, as if that were normal?

Can he expect the Israelis to heed his call to stop expanding settlements when U.S. oil companies are expanding their power in places like Iraq, demandingthat the producing nations pay their price, while U.S. military forces, with global reach, stand ever ready to remind the producing nations who is boss, as if that were normal?

The Pentagon can claim that it is doing what all normal nations do -- merely doing it better. The oil companies, too, can claim that they are just doing what comes naturally to any major corporation, in a capitalist economy devoted to transforming nature into private profit, with no moral rules demanding an equitable distribution of the profit. But can they expect Israelis, Palestinians or any Arab countries to do any different?

None of this excuses the horrendous occupation policies that the Israelis have imposed on Palestine for some many years, nor the settlers who have taken advantage of those policies and added some horrendous excessesof their own. But Rafaeli's nude video, a perfect symbol of Israel's aspiration to be a normal nation, can serve to strip bare not only some of the motives behind Israel's support for the settlers, but also some of the hypocrisy of U.S. policy.

If the U.S. hopes to bring Israel and the Arabs to the negotiating table and emerge with some success, we might start by making ourselves, if not a supermodel, at least a bit more of a model for the kind of changes we are asking from them.

Otherwise it's we, the emperor, who are standing there without any clothes -- as stark naked as Rafaeli, though not nearly so attractive -- for all the world to see.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog.