Copyright © 1990 by Andrea Dworkin.
All rights reserved.

(Continued from PREVIOUS PAGE)

1. The Law of Return

Jewish women attended the establishment conference from many countries, including Argentina, New Zealand, India, Brazil, Belgium, South Africa, and the United States. Each woman had more right to be there than any Palestinian woman born there, or whose mother was born there, or whose mother's mother was born there. I found this morally unbearable. My own visceral recognition was simple: I don't have a right to this right.

The Law of Return says that any Jew entering the country can immediately become a citizen; no Jew can be turned away. This law is the basis for the Jewish state, its basic principle of identity and purpose. Orthodox religious parties, with a hefty share of the vote in recent elections, wanted the definition of "Jewish" narrowed to exclude converts to Judaism not converted by Orthodox rabbis, according to Orthodox precepts. Women at the establishment conference were mobilized to demonstrate against this change in the Law of Return. The logic used to mobilize the women went as follows: "The Right is doing this. The Right is bad. Anything the Right wants is bad for women. Therefore, we, feminists, must oppose this change in the Law of Return." Fight the Right. In your heart you know the fight is for the sake of women, but don't tell anyone else: not Shamir, not the Orthodox rabbis, not the press; but especially not the American Jewish boys who are sponsoring your conference, who are in Israel right then and there to lobby Shamir and to keep an eye on the girls. Fight the Right. Find an issue important to Jewish men and show up as the women's auxiliary. Make them proud. And don't offend them or upset them by making them stand with you—if they want you there—for the rights of women.

Protesting the change in the Law of Return was presented at the establishment conference as "taking a first step" against the power of the Orthodox rabbis. Because the power of these men over the lives of Jewish women in Israel is already vast and malignant, "taking a first step" against them—without mentioning any of the ways in which they are already tyrants over women—wasn't just inadequate; it was shameful. We needed to take a real step. In Israel, Jewish women are basically—in reality, in everyday life—governed by Old Testament law. So much for equality of the sexes. The Orthodox rabbis make most of the legal decisions that have a direct impact on the status of women and the quality of women's lives. They have the final say on all issues of "personal status," which feminists will recognize as the famous private sphere in which civilly subordinate women are traditionally imprisoned. The Orthodox rabbis decide questions of marriage, adultery, divorce, birth, death, legitimacy; what rape is; and whether abortion, battery, and rape in marriage are legal or illegal. At the protest, feminists did not mention women.

How did Israel get this way—how did these Orthodox rabbis get the power over women that they have? How do we dislodge them, get them off women? Why isn't there a body of civil law superseding the power of religious law that gives women real, indisputable rights of equality and self-determination in this country that we all helped build? I'm 44; Israel is 42; how the hell did this happen? What are we going to do about it now? How did Jewish feminists manage not to "take a first step" until the end of 1988—and then not mention women? The first step didn't amount to a feminist crawl.

2. The condition of Jewish women in Israel is abject.

Where I live things aren't too good for women. It's not unlike Crystal Night all year long given the rape and battery statistics—which are a pale shadow of the truth—the incest, the pornography, the serial murders, the sheer savagery of the violence against women. But Israel is shattering. Sisters: we have been building a country in which women are dog shit, something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe. We, the "Jewish feminists." We who only push as far as the Jewish men here will allow. If feminism is serious, it fights sex hierarchy and male power and men don't get to stand on top of you, singly or in clusters, for forever and a day. And you don't help them build a country in which women's status gets lower and lower as the men get bigger and bigger—the men there and the men here. From what I saw and heard and learned, we have helped to build a living hell for women, a nice Jewish hell. Isn't it the same everywhere? Well, "everywhere" isn't younger than I am; "everywhere" didn't start out with the equality of the sexes as a premise. The low status of women in Israel is not unique but we are uniquely responsible for it. I felt disgraced by the way women are treated in Israel, disgraced and dishonored. I remembered my Hebrew School principal, the Holocaust survivor, who said I had to be a Jew first, an American second, and a citizen of the world, a human being last, or I would have the blood of Jews on my hands. I've kept quiet a long time about Israel so as not to have the blood of Jews on my hands. It turns out that I am a woman first, second, and last—they are the same; and I find I do have the blood of Jews on my hands—the blood of Jewish women in Israel.

Divorce and Battery

In Israel, there are separate religious courts that are Christian, Muslim, Druze, and Jewish. Essentially, women from each group are subject to the authority of the most ancient systems of religious misogyny.

In 1953 a law was passed bringing all Jews under the jurisdiction of the religious courts for everything having to do with "personal status." In the religious courts, women, along with children, the mentally deficient, the insane, and convicted criminals, cannot testify. A woman cannot be a witness or, needless to say, a judge. A woman cannot sign a document. This could be an obstacle to equality.

Under Jewish law, the husband is the master; the woman belongs to him, what with being one of his ribs to begin with; her duty is to have children—preferably with plenty of physical pain; well, you remember the Old Testament. You've read the Book. You've seen the movie. What you haven't done is live it. In Israel, Jewish women do.

The husband has the sole right to grant a divorce; it is an unimpeachable right. A woman has no such right and no recourse. She has to live with an adulterous husband until he throws her out (after which her prospects aren't too good); if she commits adultery, he can just get rid of her (after which her prospects are worse). She has to live with a batterer until he's done with her. If she leaves, she will be homeless, poor, stigmatized, displaced, an outcast, in internal exile in the Promised Land. If she leaves without formal permission from the religious courts, she can be judged a "rebellious wife," an actual legal category of women in Israel without, of course, any male analogue. A "rebellious wife" will lose custody of her children and any rights to financial support. There are an estimated 10,000 agunot—"chained women"—whose husbands will not grant them divorces. Some are prisoners; some are fugitives; none have basic rights of citizenship or personhood.

No one knows the extent of the battery. Sisterhood Is Global says that in 1978 there were approximately 60,000 reported cases of wife-beating; only two men went to prison. In 1981 I talked with Marcia Freedman, a former member of the Israeli parliament and a founder of the first battered-women's shelter in Israel, which I visited in Haifa. At that time, she thought wife-beating in Israel occurred with ten times the statistical frequency we had here. Recent hearings in parliament concluded that 100,000 women were being beaten each year in their own homes.

Marcia Freedman was in Haifa when I was. I saw only some of what she and other feminists had accomplished in Israel and against what odds. There are now five shelters in Israel. The shelter in Haifa is a big building on a city street. It looks like the other buildings. The streets are full of men. The door is locked. Once inside, you climb up several flights of steps to come upon a great iron gate inside the building, a gate you might find in a maximum-security prison for men. It is locked all the time. It is the only real defense against battering men. Once the iron gate is unlocked, you see women and children; big, clean, bare common rooms; small, immaculate rooms in which women and their children live; an office; a lounge; drawings by the children who live there—colorful, often violent; and on the top floor a school, the children Palestinian and Israeli, tiny, young, perfect, beautiful. This shelter is one of the few places in Israel where Arab and Jewish children are educated together. Their mothers live together. Behind the great iron bars, where women are voluntarily locked in to stay alive, there is a living model of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation: behind the iron bars that keep out the violent men—Jewish and Arab. Feminists have managed to get housing subsidies for women who have permission to live outside the marital home, but the process of qualifying can take as long as a year. The women who run the shelter try to relocate women fast—the space is needed for other women—but some women stay as long as a year. At night the women who run the shelter, by now professionals, go home; the battered women stay, the great iron gate their lone protection. I kept asking what if—what if he comes? The women can call the police; the police will come. The cop on the beat is nice. He stops by sometimes. Sometimes they give him a cup of coffee. But outside, not too long ago, a woman was beaten to death by the husband she was escaping. The women inside aren't armed; the shelter isn't armed; this in a country where the men are armed. There isn't any network of safe houses. The locations of the shelters are known. The women have to go out to find jobs and places to live. Well, women get beaten—and beaten to death—here too, don't they? But the husband doesn't get so much active help from the state—not to mention the God of the Jews. And when a Jewish woman is given a divorce, she has to physically back out of her husband's presence in the court. It is an argument for being beaten to death.

A draft of Israel's newly proposed "Fundamental Human Rights Law"—a contemporary equivalent of our Bill of Rights—exempts marriage and divorce from all human-rights guarantees.


You have to see it to believe it and even seeing it might not help. I've been sent it over the years by feminists in Israel—I had seen it—I didn't really believe it. Unlike in the United States, pornography is not an industry. You find it in mainstream magazines and advertising. It is mostly about the Holocaust. In it, Jewish women are sexualized as Holocaust victims for Jewish men to masturbate over. Well, would you believe it, even if you saw it?

Israeli women call it "Holocaust pornography." The themes are fire, gas, trains, emaciation, death.

In the fashion layout, three women in swimsuits are posed as if they are looking at and moving away from two men on motorcycles. The motorcycles, black metal, are menacingly in the foreground moving toward the women. The women, fragile and defenseless in their near nudity, are in the background. Then the women, now dressed in scanty underwear, are shown running from the men, with emphasis on thighs, breasts thrust out, hips highlighted. Their faces look frightened and frenzied. The men are physically grabbing them. Then the women, now in new bathing suits, are sprawled on the ground, apparently dead, with parts of their bodies severed from them and scattered around as trains bear down on them. Even as you see a severed arm, a severed leg, the trains coming toward them, the women are posed to accentuate the hips and place of entry into the vaginal area.

Or a man is pouring gasoline into a woman's face. Or she's posed next to a light fixture that looks like a shower head.

Or two women, ribs showing, in scanty underwear, are posed in front of a stone wall, prisonlike, with a fire extinguisher on one side of them and a blazing open oven on the other. Their body postures replicate the body postures of naked concentration camp inmates in documentary photographs.

Of course, there is also sadism without ethnicity, outside the trauma of history—you think Jewish men can't be regular good ol' boys? The cover of the magazine shows a naked woman spread out, legs open, with visual emphasis on her big breasts. Nails are driven through her breasts. Huge pliers are attached to one nipple. She is surrounded by hammers, pliers, saws. She has what passes for an orgasmic expression on her face. The woman is real. The tools are drawn. The caption reads: Sex in the Workshop.

The same magazine published all the visual violence described above. Monitin is a left-liberal slick monthly for the intelligentsia and upper class. It has high productions and aesthetic values. Israel's most distinguished writers and intellectuals publish in it. Judith Antonelli in The Jewish Advocate reported that Monitin "contains the most sexually violent images. Photos abound of women sprawled out upside-down as if they have just been attacked."

Or, in a magazine for women that is not unlike Ladies' Home Journal, there is a photograph of a woman tied to a chair with heavy rope. Her shirt is torn off her shoulders and upper chest but her arms are tied up against her so that only the fleshy part of the upper breasts is exposed. She is wearing pants—they are wet. A man, fully dressed, standing next to her, is throwing beer in her face. In the United States, such photographs of women are found in bondage magazines.

For purists, there is an Israeli pornography magazine. The issue I saw had a front-page headline that read: ORGY AT YAD VASHEM. Yad Vashem is the memorial in Jerusalem to the victims of the Holocaust. Under the headline, there was a photograph of a man sexually entangled with several women.

What does this mean—other than that if you are a Jewish woman you don't run to Israel, you run from it?

I went to the Institute for the Study of Media and Family on Herzelia Street in Haifa: an organization built to fight violence against women. Working with the rape-crisis center (and desperately fund-raising to stay alive), the institute analyzes the content of media violence against women; it exposes and fights the legitimacy pornography gets by being incorporated into the mainstream.

There is outrage on the part of women at the Holocaust pornography—a deep, ongoing shock; but little understanding. For me, too. Having seen it here, having tried to absorb it, then seeing stacks of it at the institute, I felt numb and upset. Here I had slides; in Israel I saw the whole magazines—the context in which the photographs were published. These really were mainstream venues for violent pornography, with a preponderance of Holocaust pornography. That made it worse: more real, more incomprehensible. A week later, I spoke in Tel Aviv about pornography to an audience that was primarily feminist. One feminist suggested I had a double standard: didn't all men do this, not just Israeli men? I said no: in the United States, Jewish men are not the consumers of Holocaust pornography; black men aren't the consumers of plantation pornography. But now I'm not sure. Do I know that or have I just assumed it? Why do Israeli men like this? Why do they do it? They are the ones who do it; women aren't even tokens in the upper echelons of media, advertising, or publishing—nor are fugitive Nazis with new identities. I think feminists in Israel must make this why an essential question. Either the answer will tell us something new about the sexuality of men everywhere or it will tell us something special about the sexuality of men who go from victim to victimizer. How has the Holocaust been sexualized for Israeli men and what does this have to do with sexualized violence against women in Israel; what does it have to do with this great, dynamic pushing of women lower and lower? Are Jewish women going to be destroyed again by Nazis, this time with Israeli men as their surrogates? Is the sexuality of Israeli men shaped by the Holocaust? Does it make them come?

I don't know if Israeli men are different from other men by virtue of using the Holocaust against Jewish women, for sexual excitement. I do know that the use of Holocaust sex is unbearably traumatic for Jewish women, its place in the Israeli mainstream itself a form of sadism. I also know that as long as the Holocaust pornography exists only male Jews are different from those pitiful creatures on the trains, in the camps. Jewish women are the same. How, then, does Israel save us?

All the Other Good Things

Of course, Israel has all the other good things boys do to girls: rape, incest, prostitution. Sexual harassment in public places, on the streets, is pervasive, aggressive, and sexually explicit. Every woman I talked with who had come to Israel from some other place brought up her rage at being propositioned on the street, at bus stops, in taxis, by men who wanted to fuck and said so. The men were Jewish and Arab. At the same time, in Jerusalem, Orthodox men throw stones at women who don't have their arms covered. Palestinian boys who throw stones at Israeli soldiers are shot with bullets, rubber-coated or not. Stone throwing at women by Orthodox men is considered trivial, not real assault. Somehow, it's their right. Well, what isn't?

In Tel Aviv before my lecture, I talked with an Israeli soldier, maybe 19, part of the occupying army in the West Bank. He was home for Sabbath. His mother, a feminist, generously opened her home to me. The mother and son were observant; the father was a secular liberal. I was with the best friend of the mother, who had organized the lecture. Both women were exceptionally gentle people, soft-spoken and giving. Earlier, I had participated with about four hundred women in a vigil in Jerusalem against the Occupation. For a year, feminists in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv had held a vigil each week called "Women in Black," women in mourning for the duration of the Occupation. The father and son were outraged by the demonstrations. The father argued that the demonstrations had nothing to do with feminism. The son argued that the Occupation had nothing to do with feminism.

I asked the son about something that had been described to me: Israeli soldiers go into Palestinian villages and spread garbage, broken glass, rocks, in the streets and make the women clean up the dangerous rubble bare-handed, without tools. I thought the son would deny it or say such a thing was an aberration. Instead, he argued that it had nothing to do with feminism. In arguing, he revealed that this kind of aggression is common; he had clearly seen it or done it many times. His mother's head sank; she didn't look up again until the end. What it had to do with feminism, I said, was that it happened to women. He said that was only because Arab men were cowards, they ran and hid. The women, he said, were strong; they weren't afraid, they stayed. What it had to do with feminism, I said, was that every woman's life, for a feminist, had the same high value. Feminism meant that the Arab woman's life was worth as much as his mother's. Suppose the soldiers came here now, I said, and made your mother go out on the street, get down on her knees, and clean up broken glass with her bare hands?

I said feminism also had to do with him; what kind of man he was or was becoming, what hurting other people would do to him; how callous or sadistic it would make him. He said, with perfect understanding: you mean, it will be easier to rape?

He said the Arabs deserved being shot; they were throwing stones at Israeli soldiers; I wasn't there, I didn't know, and what did it have to do with feminism anyway? I said that Orthodox men were throwing stones at women in Jerusalem because the women's arms weren't covered down to the wrist. He said it was ridiculous to compare the two. I said the only difference I could see was that the women didn't carry rifles or have any right to shoot the men. He said it wasn't the same. I asked him to tell me what the difference was. Wasn't a stone a stone—for a woman too? Weren't we flesh; didn't we bleed; couldn't we be killed by a stone? Were Israeli soldiers really more fragile than women with bare arms? Okay, he said, you do have a right to shoot them; but then you have to stand trial the same way we do if we kill Arabs. I said they didn't have to stand trial. His mother raised her head to say there were rules, strict rules, for the soldiers, really there were, and she wasn't ashamed of her son. "We are not ashamed," she said, imploring her husband, who said nothing. "We are not ashamed of him."

I remember the heat of the Jerusalem sun. Hundreds of women dressed in black were massed on the sidewalks of a big public square in Jerusalem. "Women in Black" began in Jerusalem at the same time as the Intifada, with seven women who held a silent vigil to show their resistance to the Occupation. Now the hundreds of women who participate each week in three cities are met with sexual derision and sometimes stones. Because the demonstrations are women-only, they are confrontational in two ways: these are Israelis who want peace with Palestinians; these are women who are standing on public ground. Women held signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English saying: END THE OCCUPATION. An Arab vendor gave some of us, as many as he could reach, gifts of grapes and figs to help us fight the heat. Israeli men went by shouting insults—men called out insults from passing cars—the traffic was bumper to bumper, with the men trying to get home before Sabbath Eve, when Jerusalem shuts down. There were also men with signs who screamed that the women were traitors and whores.

Along with most of the demonstrators, I had come from the postconference organized by the grass-roots, secular feminists. The postconference was chaired by Nabila Espanioli, a Palestinian woman who spoke Hebrew, English, and Arabic. Palestinian women came out of the audience to give first-person testimony about what the Occupation was doing to them. They especially spoke about the brutality of the Israeli soldiers. They talked about being humiliated, being forcibly detained, being trespassed on, being threatened. They spoke about themselves and about women. For Palestinian women, the Occupation is a police state and the Israeli secret police are a constant danger; there is no "safe space." I already knew that I had Palestinian blood on my hands. What I found out in Israel is that it isn't any easier to wash off than Jewish blood—and that it is also female.

I had met Nabila my first night in Israel, in Haifa, at the home of an Israeli woman who gave a wonderful welcoming party. It was a warm, fragrant night. The small, beautiful apartment open to the night air was filled with women from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa—feminists who fight for women, against violence. It was Sabbath Eve and there was a simple feminist ceremony—a breaking of bread, one loaf, everyone together; secular words of peace and hope. And then I found myself talking with this Palestinian woman. She talked a mile a minute about pornography. It was her field of study and she knew it inside out, recognized herself in it, under it, violated by it. She told me it was the focus of her resistance to both rape and sexualized racism. She, too, wanted freedom and it was in her way. I thought: with this between us, who can pull us apart? We see women with the same eyes.

In Israel, there are the occupied and the occupied: Palestinians and women. In the Israel I saw, Palestinians will be freer sooner. I didn't find any of my trees.

"Israel: Whose Country Is It Anyway?" Copyright © 1990 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.