Israel's latest war of words against Palestinian women
As the bombs have been falling on Gaza over the past four weeks, another war has been ongoing for the hearts and minds of the global public.
Although less deadly, this war of words offers a telling look into ongoing intellectual shifts in the Israeli and Zionist mainstream, revealing what experts argue is an increasingly violently racist and sexist Zionist worldview.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and a former member of the PLO negotiating team, told Ma'an that in the weeks since the Israeli assault began she has received a deluge of hundreds of hateful emails and violent threats. Although she is accustomed to hate mail, she said that the tone and quantity is "unprecedented."
"In the past I used to get messages calling me crazy or out of my mind, but now they're telling me things like 'kill all Muslim scum,' along with organized groups of Israelis who regularly send me emails swearing at me."
She said that every single one of the hundreds of emails she has gotten in the last few days have used either racist or sexist language -- including rape threats -- and a total of 0 expressed polite disagreement or substantive arguments.
Buttu told Ma'an in a Skype interview that she thinks the shift in language and the rise in sexualized violence as a metaphor for war is indicative of broader trends in the Israeli public.
"When you have a prime minister calling people who killed three Israeli settlers 'human animals' or you have (Knesset member) Ayelet Sheked who calls people 'snakes' to be 'exterminated' … It gets reflected in the level of comments and hate mail we receive."
Buttu argued that as Israeli government propaganda has increasingly painted the Palestinian cause as an "offshoot" of Boko Haram, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and "basically anything that is bad happening around the world," the idea that the Palestinian "struggle is a nationalist one and a struggle for freedom is completely gone."
The second trend Buttu noted in the hate mail was violent sexism, which she argued had become mainstream in Zionist discourse.
Buttu argued that a central irony of the discourse is in the explicitly sexist language used against pro-Palestinian figures, even as Zionists claim Israel to be a supposed "paradise" for women's rights.
She highlighted recent statements by Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli scholar of Arabic literature and a lecturer at the religious Bar-Ilan University, who said that the "only way" to deter Palestinian "terrorists" was threatening to rape their mothers and sisters. He made the statements as part of larger comparisons between Israel and "Arab societies," suggesting that sexual violence was the only language Arabs understood and thus suggesting Jewish soldiers needed to use it.
"Because they believe that women's rights are being protected and enhanced in Israel, it gives them permission to use this type of sexist violence language against women," Buttu said. "In the belief that because they are so liberal and fantastic, this is a considered part of discourse and women just need to learn how to accept it."
"It is completely different vitriol from before … Israeli hasbara has systematically over course of the past 6 years focused on dehumanizing Palestinians," she said.
"The hate we receive is a sheer reflection of what's going on in Israel."
Simona Sharoni, Chair of the Gender and Women's Studies Department at SUNY Plattsburgh and a specialist on on gender and militarization in Israel/Palestine, told Ma'an via email that in comparison to before, the images of gendered violence being deployed during the ongoing assault are "more extreme, cruder, and bordering on pornography."
"In the context of the Israeli assault on Gaza, Palestinian women are occupied and violated both as Palestinians and as women. It is clear that the objectification of Palestinian women's bodies is a metaphor for the brutality of this operation, the vulnerability of its victims and the lack of accountability for the perpetrators," she argued.
Although not new, "this horrific attack has legitimized the use of racist, homophobic and sexist threats against anyone who opposes it," she added, highlighting that in times of war such attacks gain wider legitimacy, even against Jewish Israelis who express opposition to the assault.
She also stressed that sexualized violence was "embedded in Israel's highly militarized culture," highlighting that the calling up of soldiers to engage in violence in the name of "national security" as well as their deaths in that cause had made the phenomenon more visible.
Sharoni pointed out that since Israeli soldiers had begun dying in the assault, a number of facebook groups had proliferated that featured Jewish Israeli women exposing themselves on social media to "support the troops." Women submitting photographs of part of their bodies with messages in support of the Israeli military to groups like "Standing with IDF", she told Ma'an, is a new phenomenon.
"The fact that Israeli soldiers felt entitled to women's bodies, especially in times of war, is not a new phenomenon ... What is new is the fact that this entitlement is embraced publicly by women."
This public embracing of the discourse of sexualized violence appears to be related to the wider public support for the assault, as well as to the increasing deployment of the image of Israel as an "outpost of Western civilization" and women's rights that allows for a self-conscious embrace of liberalism combined with a simultaneous unleashing of intense violence against the Palestinian "other."
Although these trends have been an integral part of Zionist ideology since even before 1948, the post-9/11 intellectual atmosphere stressing a war between the West and Islam has markedly changed the framework, and many say it has unleashed a novel kind of hate that applauds a more brazenly racist and sexist worldview while simultaneously claiming to defend liberalism.
Youssef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Palestine Center in Washington D.C., told Ma'an in a telephone interview that over the last 10 years of working on Middle East-related issues, the trend toward sexual violence had become much more explicit.
Munayyer noted a cartoon that had been widely circulated on Israeli social media over the last month, showing a woman in niqab with the word "Gaza" written on her laying on a bed with the caption: "Bibi, finish inside this time! Signed, citizens in favor of ground assault."
"There has been a more explicit shift that not only likens the situation to rape, but also accepts those power dynamics and applauds them," he added. "This is a level of evil we have not seen before."
"The roots are deep," he said, "but it's at the surface now, and it's noticeable in a way that it wasn't before. It's really disturbing."
"At the same time that they talk about being defenders of women's rights, the kind of language used toward Palestinian women and Palestinian people more broadly has very little concern for women at all."
Munayyer linked the shift in increasingly sexually violent rhetoric to wider trends in racism in Israeli society, highlighting the increasing "nativism" that has targeted and dehumanized not only Palestinians but also African migrants. He argued that evidence of the shift was also visible in campaigns in Israeli society to "protect Jewish women from Arab men," such as the notorious anti-miscegenation group Lehava that patrols public spaces to prevent racial mixing.
"It's not just about protecting Jewish women, it's about protecting the tribe as well as the constant battle for demographics that is at foundation of the state … and the worry about how many Palestinian and Jewish babies are being born."
"When you talk about human beings as an existential threat, it legitimizes everything you could do to them -- racism, sexual violence, and so on."
By Alex Shams
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