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More Historical Learnin’: Keep Making Those Babies

Alyssa Goldstein
January 10, 2012

by Alyssa Goldstein

So in my last blog post, I wrote about the role of Jewish masculinity in early Zionism and how individual bodies had such an important role in the building of a national collective that the strength of those bodies became synonymous with the strength of the collective. Now, Nordau and his ilk were very focused on masculinity in particular, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t think women couldn’t be “muscle Jews” too. But before you go thinking “awesome!” keep in mind that Nordau didn’t want to create an army of super-ripped, butch Jewish women. The reason women had to strengthen their bodies was so that they could bear healthy children for the continuity of the nation.

Any collective that considers itself only as strong as the bodies that constitute it is going to have to take measures to make sure those bodies stay strong -- be those measures official policies like mandatory military service or societal ideals like that of the sabra. Add to this being a woman in a state whose existence hinges upon demographic supremacy: Not only does your patriarchal society thinks it owns you and your precious ladyflower to begin with (not singling out Israel here, the vast majority of societies are patriarchal), but you need to keep making those babies or else this whole Jewish state thing just isn’t going to work. So childbirth is sometimes viewed as “women’s national service,” equivalent to mens’ army service. Married women and mothers are exempt from army service (not so for married men and fathers). Israel didn’t legalize contraception until the late 1950’s, and abortion until 1976 (though it is still restricted).

Now, this is all quite a different story if you happen to be a Palestinian woman in Israel, in which case your village might have a family planning clinic -- and ONLY a family planning clinic. (See Birthing the Nation by Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh for a fascinating in-depth and less snarky account of Israeli reproductive policy.)

All this sets the stage for understanding why Israel has an active, flourishing anti-miscegenation movement, even when the number of Israeli Jews and Palestinians who marry is extremely small and civil marriage is not even possible for them. Women often embody nations, their values, and their continuity, so a foreign man who sexually “penetrates” a woman has penetrated the boundaries of the nation itself. As I write in my thesis,

If women are perceived as weaker and more vulnerable with inherently seductive bodies, associating them with the nation can make the nation itself seem fragile and urgently requiring constant watch and protection. For example, when Meir Kahane states that Palestinian men are trying to ‘steal our wives and daughters,’ Raz Yosef argues that ‘the Israeli female body is perceived in this context as national property beckoning to the enemy within. Like the “primitive” male other, the woman is seen as a threat to the very existence of the Jewish nation.’

Despite the fact that women are supposed to embody the nation, their supposed weakness and sexual vulnerability also makes them a danger to it.

To be continued...