By Leanne Gale
I have never been more conscious of my womanhood.
1. I stood and looked on in the center of Zion Square. A bizarre scene unfolded before my eyes. Orthodox men (both modern Orthodox and Haredi) stood in large crowds, facing off against solitary left-wing Jewish Israeli men. Compared to the violent mobs of the day before, this was child’s play. But their voices were loud.
I feared for my friends’ safety, each one standing alone encircled by crowds of angry Kahanists. The crowds began to close in. I prayed it would not come to blows. But as a woman, I felt excluded from this manly exchange. There were no women arguing in the crowd. I couldn’t help but wonder – if these men began to attack my friends, could I somehow use my woman-ness to intervene?
As we were about to leave, a Haredi man began another argument with my friend. I stood by, silent, safe in my status as an onlooker. But then he turned to me, unexpectedly, and said,
I stood there, shocked for a moment. I had said nothing to provoke this, but I suppose my association with other left-wing men was provocation enough. I attempted to use “I” statements and the communication techniques I had learned to defuse tension in difficult conversations.
And again, excluded from the political conversation because of my womanhood. This man felt the need to tie my left-wing political views to his perceptions about my sexuality. And he felt justified in voicing his assumptions about my sexuality as an insult to my face. Not to mention that his very first words to me were a comment about my physical appearance. That’s patriarchy, and it’s dangerous.
But then, I had already known that the insults hurled at left-wing women in this country are always much more sexualized than the insults hurled at men. While men are generally called “traitors,” women are more often called “sluts” who like to “fuck Arabs.” Unless men are insulted by being likened to women.
2. I walked home to Nachlaot with Jacob, my very tall friend. As bands of Kahanist youth roamed the streets at night, he sought to tear down their stickers and paste messages of peace on lamp-posts and empty walls. While I would have certainly done this in broad day light (and often do), the darkness and violence in the air terrified me. But Jacob was unfazed, and I felt safer in his presence.
Each time he ripped down an anti-miscegenation sticker, or a “Kahane Was Right” sticker, my heart bopped in anxiety. I would hold the stickers as he would climb high to find a good, safe spot to stick them. My neck would twitch back and forth, eyes darting crazily around the streets, looking for possible trouble. The first few times, we were fine.
I was starting to feel good. We found a “Kahane Was Right” sticker pasted to the sidewalk and leaned down to peel it off. As we kneeled to the ground, it felt like we were simultaneously mourning and building. The act of peeling, digging into the cement with our finger-nails, felt like a prayer. Until I felt a hard kick against my arm.
A young Kahanist teenager stood above us. He had actually kicked my arm. Now, his shoe was resting squarely over the sticker, blocking our prayerful fingers. Afraid, I edged away while Jacob stood (sat) his ground on the sidewalk.
I looked the aggressive teenager squarely in the eyes.
Terrifying. The terrifying knowledge that violent men know full well that society will protect them if and when they attack women. The terrifying knowledge that this man was unashamed to use this knowledge against me.
I started to walk away, beckoning to Jacob to follow. We didn’t finish peeling off the sticker. As the aggressive teenager walked away, he yelled out, “I hate you!” I yelled back, “It’s not mutual!” But over the din, I don’t think he got my message. I somehow wish I could have told him I loved him. I know that might sound strange.
3. I decide to walk past Zion Square on my way home from work. I am leaving the office at 10:00 pm…things have been busy. I know that Kahanist and Lehava activists have been gathering on Zion Square each night for the past few days, and I’m curious as to what they are up to. I also know that left-wing activists have been discreetly (and not so discreetly) roaming the area in an attempt to prevent incitement and violence. Some people have been patrolling all night, into the early hours of the morning, desperately trying to protect the unfortunate Palestinian who might be walking around West Jerusalem at night. The police have been, needless to say, ineffective.
The Lehava is an organization set up to “prevent intermarriage” between Jews and Palestinians. They post stickers in Arabic all over East and West Jerusalem stating, “Do not even think about a Jewish woman.” They provide a hotline for Jewish women supposedly “trapped” in interfaith relationships, or for families and friends to “report” on Jewish women who may be dating a Palestinian. They insist that they can help. And they have been among the most active groups in Jerusalem of late, selling t-shirts that say “Jews love Jews” and setting up protests in the streets. Many of their followers are Kahanists. But they insist that they are not racist.
I walk to Zion Square and notice that the Lehava have set up a booth, complete with pamphlets, stickers, and t-shirts for scale. I spot my friend with his bicycle. He approaches me and says, “Look, the fascists have set up a booth!” His voice cracks with pain beneath the humor. I decide to get closer, maybe take a flier. Before I even reach the table, a Lehava activist hands me a sticker. It says, “The women of Israel for the nation of Israel.” I look up at him, smile, and say thank you.
What I really want to say is, “Why do you think my body belongs to you?”
And I know this is dangerous. I know that throughout history, women’s bodies have been used as markers of communal and political boundaries. That men have expressed their anxieties about social mixing through the policing of female sexuality. When law and society become more misogynistic, more controlling of women and their bodies, it is a sign of crisis. Not to mention that it is structural violence against women.
Not to mention that for much of history, it was considered dirty and offensive to have sex with a Jew.
4. A group of young men and women meet on the sidewalk, next to a low-key neighborhood bar. We have organized with a mission: to tear down the patriarchal stickers in Nachlaot. And, if need be, plaster them over with feminist stickers. We are tired of walking the streets of our neighborhood and feeling harassed and ashamed about our clothing choices. Women’s clothing and bodies should not be policed in the public sphere, and we are taking our neighborhood back.
I meet my roommate and her sister, and invite another young Israeli woman to join our team. We roam the streets of Nachlaot ripping down the so-called “modesty” stickers. It feels like guerilla feminism, and we are giddy in our power. It’s the first time I have felt powerful as a woman all week.
As we post one feminist sticker on a lamppost near the market (How Am I Dressed? Call 1-800-None-Of-Your-Business) a young woman approaches us. She stares up at our sticker intently, smiles, and asks if she can have one as well. We smile wider, flash our stickers like a deck of cards, and invite her to participate. One woman explains the rules.
Oh, fuck. My heart sinks as our moment is destroyed. As it turns out, this young woman is a member of the Lehava steering committee. She explains that there is nothing anti-feminist or racist about the Lehava. “What if they just want to protect Jewish women from Arab men?”
She looks at me dumbfounded. Silence. Then she turns to the Israeli woman next to me and starts to argue with her. Not another word in my direction.
As I walk home, I begin to contemplate the insanity of the situation. In the context of Jerusalem, and what has been happening in this city of late, this was a completely normal encounter. Lehava activists and Kahanists have been all over the streets every single day. But in the grand scheme of life, this was NOT normal. What if I had encountered a young woman in New York, affiliated with the KKK? Telling me she was not racist? And telling me that she considers herself a feminist? Perhaps this could happen in New York. But it would be abnormal at best. Traumatizing at worst. What kind of reality am I living?
I have never been more conscious of my womanhood. I have never been more conscious of the intersection between being a left-wing activist and a woman. I have never been more conscious of what this means specifically in Israel.
As I start to tiptoe around my fears and traumas, piecing together what this all means, I am reminded of something I once learned about fascism. In fascist political movements and societies, the authorities begin to determine and enforce traditional gender roles. Men are seen as warriors of the nation and women are seen as child-bearers. While this is typical of most societies, fascism takes it to an extreme. Sexuality is heavily policed, and deviant sexuality is punished with violence or death.
The deepest parts of myself know that I am experiencing the undercurrents of fascism in Jerusalem, and Israel. And I know that I must listen to myself. It is hard to grow and love in a place where I am so afraid. Often, I am tempted to silence my voice as a woman, especially a political woman.
But even as my voice wavers, still I speak. And write. I have too many stories to share.