Prof. lecture on sexual violence in Israeli culture

April 12, 2019

A Brandeis professor spoke about her discoveries from the research she conducted in preparation for her second novel, which “explores literary articulation of sexual assault in modern… Israeli culture,” she said.

Professor Szobel, Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature on the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Chair, started the lecture by bringing up examples of sexual violence against women in Hebrew literature from the 20th century and then spoke about her book, “Flesh to Flesh: Sexual Violence in Hebrew Literature.”

She focused most on “Beer Sheva, the Capital of Negev” by Amalia Kahana-Carmon. A sexual encounter is mentioned, but she states that all readings express the scene as romantic, proving the main character’s loyalty to the love interest. Professor Szobel brings up the idea that this scene describes a forced encounter, pointing out predatory language used in the scene and in other places throughout the novel. She states, “the fact that sexual violence was excluded from the readings tells more about the research… than about the literature itself.”

Szobel acknowledged that modern day Israeli culture is trying to be more sensitive to sexual violence than they were in the past but that even today’s response still isn’t perfect. As an example, she brought up a 2016 issue of “Lalsha” magazine, which featured 22 women speaking up about their sexual assault experiences. She said that while it was great to empower women to come forward with their stories and portray themselves as survivors rather than victims, society has unintentionally marginalized the group of people who still do feel like victims or who aren’t able to discuss their trauma.

Szobel explained this pressure that society has placed on sexual violence victims to publicly come forward and bare all the gory details, making that the only acceptable coping mechanism, refusing to acknowledge that repression or reflection may be valid methods for others.

“I take no issue with speech but cultural dominance in relation to other voices and experiences of victims.” She argued that this massive dominance of speech “works against the transgressive nature of victim’s speech” by still putting stress on women.  

Most of the stories told about survivors are by those who have started to heal from the traumatic experiences. She mentioned that mainstream media “rarely tells stories of women who are still suffering from abuse.” Mainstream media also often fails to address minorities in Israeli culture, creating a “deafening silence.”

Issues with media coverage, she explains, can come from anxiety about the randomness and helplessness of assault. She mentioned that a lot of coverage involves speaking about how this assault could have been prevented, usually on the victim’s end rather than the perpetrator’s end. This narrative is “more comforting than living with the fear of the uncontrollable,” she argued.

Towards the end of the lecture, Professor Szobel spoke about why most of the narratives focus on one type of assault (as in stories from non-minority survivors). She said, “writing about multidimensional aspects of sexual violence… raises questions about moral, ethical and legal implications of Israeli supremacy.”

Professor Szobel brought up again that 2016 issue of “Lalsha.” Rotem Elish is one of the 22 women featured, and she had the opportunity to light the torch at the Israeli Independence Day ceremony in 2016. She comments that this is ironic, since it practically “expose[s] the unspoken connection between Zionist ideology and violence against women.”

The floor then opened up to questions, where she developed this idea more.

She spoke about how the body is manipulated in Zionist ideology, how this ideology emphasizes masculine people, able-bodied people and Ashkenazi people (referring both to the religion and the light skin tone). People that do not fit this criteria become super vulnerable, but there is little material about their stories. “We know it [violence] happens, but it’s not represented in Israeli literature.”

When asked about how Palestinians fit into that narrative of vulnerable minorities, she mentioned that Israelis have created an “eroticixation of the occupation [of Palestine].”

She further explained how even the original Zionist pioneers were violent people, who committed asks of abuse—both sexual and nonsexual—even when Israel was being founded. She noted that she found it interesting that this violence did not change these victims’ Zionistic values.

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