By Ronit Lentin
Protest organized by Internationalist Queer Pride for Liberation, Berlin, July 22, 2023. (Photo: Montecuz Foto)
In July 2023, the Israeli Knesset passed a law setting stricter punishments for “nationalistically motivated” sex crimes. According to feminist legal scholar Orit Kamir, this law aims to defend the “purity of the Jewish race,” making Jewish womanhood central to the racial superiority of white European Jews compared with the racial inferiority of Palestinians. In view of the attacks by Netanyahu’s coalition on gender equality and LGBTQ integrity, colonial Israel’s gender politics should be understood within the broader context of race and settler coloniality.
Side by side with its claim of equality for women and LGBTQ+ people, including its boast of conscripting women and queers (albeit under stack by the 2023 government), obscuring the profound inequalities between Ashkenazi Jewish, Mizrahi Jewish, and Palestinian women, and between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian queers, stands Israel’s refusal to abide by international law. Refusal is perennial in gender terms as well, despite the highly sexualized nature of Israeli society, where gender-based violence, rape culture, and pinkwashing are normalized practices.
At one end of the refusal spectrum stands the hyper-sexualized pop star Netta Barzilai, whose winning Eurovision song “I am not your toy” expressed a quasi-feminist refusal to be patriarchy’s handmaiden, upholding the labored image of “Brand Israel” as a haven of women and LGBTQ+ rights. At the other end of the spectrum stands Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinians and its refusal to be anyone’s “toy” through its determined rejection of international law. Between the two stands the 2019 Cyprus gang rape case, when a group of Israeli men who raped a British tourist were given a heroes’ welcome, an illustration of Israel’s rape culture, which, according to Natasha Roth, is a direct consequence of the colonization of Palestine and of “Israelis living with the belief that one’s desire is worth more than what – or whom – may be harmed in the quest to pursue it.”
Zionism and sexuality
Zionism has employed sexual politics as a racializing strategy since the early twentieth century invention of the “new (muscular) Jew,” the Ashkenazi masculinized Zionist antithesis of feminized diaspora Jews that racialized Palestinian and Mizrahi masculinity and femininity. The use of sexual politics continues in present-day Israel, where gender segregation in Jewish public spaces such as schools and public transport is becoming the norm, and where Palestinian women, men, and queers are racialized in gender-specific ways. The Israeli myth of gender and LGBTQ+ equality has been strategically used to justify the colonization of Palestine, resonating with what Honaida Ghanim calls “thanatopolitics” — the management of death and destruction often directed at Palestinian women forced to give birth at West Bank army checkpoints. As Lana Tatour reminds us, Israel’s racialized sexual politics is evident in incentivizing childbearing in Jewish families while actively working to reduce Palestinian procreation.
Israel’s sexual exceptionalism also involves “pinkwashing” and what Jasbir Puar terms “homonationalism” — a form of national homosexuality — which racializes Palestinian queers, excluding them from the remit of LGBTQ+ equality. Pinkwashing functions to cast Palestinians as backward, sexually repressed terrorists, as opposed to Israel’s alleged gender and queer equality, and to subjugate Palestinians under settler-colonial rule.
Women are seen as key to reproducing nations, and in the case of Israel, only being born to a Jewish mother makes a person Jewish and entitled to the wages of (white) Jewishness, as per the 1950 Law of Return that initially granted people born to Jewish mothers automatic citizenship rights. The law was amended in 1970, extending this right to the children and grandchildren of a Jew, an amendment in danger of being reversed by the 2023 government. Both the 1950 law and the amendment are reminiscent of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, but sexual politics and the intersection of gender, race, and nation are played out in Israel, where the ruling Ashkenazi Zionist masculinity controls not only Palestinian but also Jewish women and Mizrahi Jews.
The Zionist invention of the “new Jew” was both a racial, active, warlike antithesis of the feminized, “degenerate” diaspora Jew, and also a masculine concept drawing on historical images of biblical and post-biblical male heroism and on internalized antisemitic stereotypes of diaspora degeneracy. Zionist body ideals shared cultural, social, and intellectual elements with fascist body ideals, positing women as reproducing the species and men as reproducing the state, a gendered dichotomy deeply embedded in Israeli culture despite claims to gender equality. As a result, the militarization of Israeli society is key to controlling occupied and racialized Palestinian populations and is a central building block of the Israeli state and society. It also facilitates Israel’s rape culture, which is also weaponized against Palestinian men, often accused of sexually assaulting and harassing Jewish women for “nationalist motives,” as addressed by the 2023 law.
Though Israeli society and media have consistently denied the rapes of Palestinian women by Israeli soldiers ever since the 1948 Nakba, for racist reasons, raping Palestinian women during the Nakba was widespread, and though the rapes did not go unnoticed at the time, the denial continues. On the one hand, journalists, scholars, and writers, such as Adania Shibli, have documented these rapes. On the other hand, both Israelis and Palestinians have been denying these rapes, the latter due to traditional cultural barriers such as shame and trauma. According to Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian and Isis Nusair, raping Palestinian women by Israeli soldiers was tactically used during the Nakba and has been prevalent ever since. Having interviewed Palestinian women in Israeli jails, Nahla Abdo writes that many Palestinian women prisoners experience sexual abuse, molestation, threat of rape, and rape itself.
Ironically, though Palestine and the Palestinians were feminized in Israeli discourses in contrast with the hyper-masculinized Zionist Israeli Jew, Laura Khoury and her colleagues put forward the metaphor, “Palestine as a woman and women as Palestine” as found in popular Palestinian literature. Indeed, despite Israel’s racial regime, rape culture, and pinkwashing, Palestinian women and queers are employing gendered refusal strategies to resist Israel’s colonial rule.
According to Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, the bodies of Palestinian women become the occupation’s battlefield, where militarization often makes Palestinian women “punch bags” for men both inside and outside the home. Through Palestinian women’s narratives, the occupation itself assumes a gender, and Shalhoub-Kevorkian describes the embodied, gendered, social blockages facing women in occupied East Jerusalem as the “politics of militarized dismemberment,” showing that for most of the women refusing the occupation is not only about resistance but rather about survival and sumud.
Just as Israeli sexual politics must be understood in the context of race and settler colonialism, so refusal is a key component in the sexual politics of both colonizer and colonized. On the one hand, Israeli sexual politics as refusal is exemplified by female IDF soldiers participating enthusiastically in the racial subjugation of the Palestinians, as evidenced by Haaretz’s report of dog handling female soldiers forcing Palestinian women to strip naked in front of their family, or by the Handmaid’s protests, where a coil of Jewish women in crimson robes and white caps, dressed as characters from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” joined the 2023 “pro-democracy” protests against the Netanyahu coalition, stating their refusal of gender segregation. On the other hand, Palestinian sexual politics is epitomized by everyday acts of refusal by women and queers opposing occupation and colonization.
Perhaps the most poignant example of sexual politics as refusal is Palestinian queers opposing Israel’s homonational colonial regime and pinkwashing strategies. Outlining the struggle of the Palestinian queer (PQueer) movement, Lana Tatour examines the racialized and sexualized dimensions of Israel’s settler colonial violence as forms of sexual politics as refusal. PQueer refusal responds to both the violence of the settler state and the liberal politics of the global LGBTQ+ rights, and its strategies of refusal have also developed in relation to – and against – the Israeli LGBTQ+ community, the homocolonial practice of pinkwashing and the Gay International. PQueer believes that collaborating with the Israeli LGBTQ+ movement may erase their struggle, risk undermining PQueer autonomy, and divert attention and resources from the PQueer struggle for liberation as both Palestinians and queers. This is a useful illustration of the role played by sexual politics in both the racialization of the Palestinians and in the Palestinians’ refusal to partake in colonial Israel’s heteronormative performance of gender.
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