Ballistic Bodies: Gender, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Palestine/Israel

Virginia Woolf once described woman as ontologically stateless. Because women were denied equal protection under the law, she said, and because history treated them as slaves, women should be indifferent to the project of nationalism: “for as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” (Woolf 129) Andrea Dworkin echoes this sentiment in her essay “Whose Country Is It Anyway?”, as she discusses the interlocking matrix of oppression which furthers the cause of nation-building and how ethnicity, gender, class, and trauma are exploited to justify the aggressive domestic policies of the state of Israel. This post will present an examination of  Dworkin’s essay as well as the state of Israel through the lens of feminist security theory. I will first discuss how the identity of the state, like the identity of the subject, is performative. I will then examine the importance of narrative and cultural memory in the project of nationalism. I will then conclude with two examples illustrating the use of both Israeli and Palestinian women as weapons of war.

The project of nationalism often depends on the reification of patriarchal relationships to provide the appearance of legitimacy and security of the state and its subjects. It is in this way that the concepts of nation-building and gender are actually closely related: while nation building is a political process by which a national identity is constructed, gender is a political process which helps construct our identity as subjects within the state. If gender and identity are performative, or something one “does”, it follows then that viewing the project of Israeli nationalism through a gendered lens could help us to understand more about the performativity of the state’s identity as well.

Jonathan Wadley says that “states can be observed reifying themselves through performances of security, particularly those which establish them as stable and masculine protectors…it becomes evident that by “being” masculine protectors, states can position themselves favorably and gain legitimacy from domestic audiences.” (Wadley 40) Thus, war and occupation are not only performances of the protector/protected identities, but are also often seen as ways to masculinize a people and legitimize the state. In her essay, Dworkin says that the demasculinization of the Jews led to the need to reassert their masculinity through the creation of the State of Israel (Dworkin 165), and that this assertion of masculinity is reproduced in Israeli domination of women and Palestinian people. Establishing this kind of patriarchal protector/protected relationship between the state and its subjects is problematic to begin with: the subjects will be considered subordinate to and dependent upon the superior and masculine power of the state. Even within a “democracy”, this reconstruction of the patriarchal household leaves half of the population extremely vulnerable. According to Dworkin’s essay, approximately 100,000 Israeli women are victims of domestic violence each year: if these women wish to retain their rights as citizens, they must remain with their abuser until given permission to leave. (Dworkin 163) This relationship is mirrored in the relationship of the Palestinians to the state of Israel. The Palestinians have no voice in the Israeli court, are not granted their freedom of movement. If they fight back, they are beaten more harshly. But they are never quite divorced from Israel and cannot leave without express permission.

Another way that gender and ethnicity are manipulated to justify oppression is through the appropriation of narrative and the erasure of cultural memory. The control and development of a specific cultural memory is important in nation-building for several reasons. First, a cultural memory defines the “we”: it establishes the collective through the narration of shared history, reified ideals, and sometimes collective trauma. It is important to note that while the “us” is established, so is the “them”. It is in this way that cultural memory serves to create a hierarchy of binary oppositions, a group to be excluded, feared, and fought. Dworkin says that the Palestinians, considered “primitive, uneducated, dirty”, fill this role to the state of Israel, and rightfully predicted at eleven years old that they would always be “second-class by definition”. (Dworkin 157) By characterizing the indigenous people as “nothing in the most literal sense”, it is easy to justify the occupation of Palestine. Dworkin alludes to a similar rewriting of history in the North American celebration of “Thanksgiving”: neither Americans nor Israelis, she says, can “afford to face” that the land they occupied was taken by force.

Finally, the collective Jewish (and global) trauma of the Holocaust is almost as important a narrative as the one which claimed that Palestine was barren and free for the taking. For just as the latter renders the suffering and displacement of Palestinians invisible, the former brings the persecution of Jewish people to the forefront of every conversation about Israel’s “right” to exist. For Dworkin’s family, and for many Jews, the persecution of Jews (which is not limited to the Holocaust alone) is fundamental to their shared identity: to even have a sense of identity or self, Dworkin says, she must be “pulled into the mass grave” with the victims of the Holocaust. (Dworkin 156) This creates another justification for the racial paradigm comprising Israel’s identity: that in order to not be like the dead, to not be like the Jews on the trains, “Israel had to become either a fortress or a tomb”. (Dworkin 157)

I would like to conclude this paper by examining the ways in which both Palestinian and Israeli women are used as literal and figurative weapons of war. Dworkin describes the importance of egalitarianism and gender equity in the cultural memory surrounding the birth of Israel: from the kibbutz, to Golda Meir, to the women conscripted alongside men to serve in the IDF, Israel has perpetuated the narrative conflating Israel with progressive and egalitarian values. Though Dworkin’s essay discusses the actual legal rights and living conditions of Israeli women (and how they contradict this narrative), what she does not mention is that by conflating women’s rights and nationalism, Israel has turned women into what Kelly Oliver calls “defensive weapons in the propaganda war”. (Oliver 11) Regardless of how women are treated by Israeli courts and domestic policy, their safety and happiness are used as justification for the creation and fortification of the state  of Israel. In this way, I see them as a figurative weapon in war.

Palestinian women, too, have been used as weapons of war and nationalism. In another bizarre interpretation of “equality”, Yasser Arafat declared to over a thousand female supporters in Ramallah that “men and women are equal…you are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks.” (Oliver 8) Hours later saw the death and detonation of Wafa Idris, the first female shahida, or suicide bomber, in the cause of Palestinian statehood. While we cannot dismiss the political agency of Wafa Idris or the shahidet who followed her, it is important to note that they live in a society which will pay lip service to gender equality when it serves the cause of nationalism. In this way, the body of the Palestinian shahida becomes a literal weapon in war.

Toward the cause of nationalism, Virginia Woolf would say that woman might “find herself in possession of very good reasons for her indifference.” (Woolf 129) And while Woolf and Dworkin would agree that women must always be women “first, second, and last”, Dworkin might accuse Woolf of having some blood on her hands. “The low status of women in Israel is not unique,” she says, “but we are uniquely responsible for it.” (Dworkin 162) To be a feminist, Dworkin says, is not to be indifferent to nationalism and to hierarchy but to fight it. To be indifferent, to turn a blind eye to the abject living conditions of those living under Occupation, is to have blood on one’s hands: not only that of Palestinians, but of all women.

Works Cited

Dworkin, Andrea. “Israel: Whose Country is it Anyway?.” Ms Magazine September 1990. Print.

Oliver, Kelly. Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex, and the Media. Columbia University Press, 2010.

Wadley, Jonathan. “Gendering the State: Performativity and Protection in International Security.” Gender and

International Security. Ed. Laura Sjoberg. London: Routledge. 38-54. 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas (Annotated). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.