Sexual Violence in Israeli Literature

Book Cover of Flesh of My Flesh: Sexual Violence in Modern Hebrew Literature

Nov. 3, 2021

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter

By Lawrence Goodman and Susie Seligson

They're not subjects you normally associate with Israeli literature — prostitution, rape, incest and sexual harassment.

But, writes literary scholar Ilana Szobel in her latest book, "Modern Hebrew literature is saturated with various forms of sexual violence."

Szobel, an associate professor on the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Chair in Hebrew Literature, published "Flesh of My Flesh: Sexual Violence in Modern Hebrew Literature" earlier this year.

In it, she explores how oft-neglected writers like David Vogel and Shoshana Shababo depicted the horror and trauma of what remain taboo subjects even today.

Szobel finds that the authors' response to sexual violence is intertwined with their views on gender relations, Zionism and nationalism and Arab-Israeli relations.

Modern Hebrew literature, Szobel writes, doesn’t treat acts of sexual aggression as private matters between victims and perpetrators. It portrays them as inextricably connected to larger political and social issues.

“Sexual violence is not perceived as a personal trauma but rather as an insidious trauma,” Szobel writes. She defines insidious trauma as “an experience that takes place as a result of ongoing conditions of oppression.”

Szobel first began thinking about sexual violence while in college in Israel when she helped create the country's first campus rape crisis center.

In "Flesh of My Flesh," she takes what she learned back then and combines it with close literary readings to explore what she said is the "power of words to create more violence, but also the power to heal and to create a new kind of culture."

The Victim’s POV

It's unclear when the early 20th-century Zionist writer Rivkah Alper published her short story, “Mistake,” but it's likely the first account of rape in modern Hebrew fiction told from a survivor's perspective.

Alper emigrated to Palestine in 1926 from Lithuania, working at times as a farm laborer, kitchen staff, teacher and editorial board member of Devar ha'Po'elet, the magazine of the women worker's movement.

Her friend, the Hebrew poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (known as Zelda), described her as subservient in outward appearance — "a devotion to the point of giving up the kingdom of her selfhood" — but deep down, a free spirit — "in her demeanor there was always the freshness of the sea."

In “Mistake,” the central character is a trailblazing Zionist pioneer who gets raped by a young Jewish man. The result is her desire to flee and find what Alper describes as "your private bed."

"It is a desperate plea," Szobel writes in her book, "deeply aware of its own powerlessness, to create a private and safe space for women."

Streetwalkers

In his 1929 novel, “Married Life,” the Ukrainian-born Jewish writer David Vogel offers one of the first accounts in modern Hebrew letters of female prostitution.

The protagonist, Rudolf Gurdweill, is solicited on the streets of Vienna by a sex worker and "could not overcome this disgust, and was angry with himself because of it. They were poor, miserable creatures, and there was no reason to be disgusted by them."

Amidst this mix of revulsion, self-disgust, and perhaps even sublimated arousal, Szobel spots an emotion that she says is particular to Hebrew writing from this period — compassion.

Again and again, she finds that male Jewish authors in the early 20th century saw prostitutes as society's victims, a marked contrast with contemporary gentile male European writers who romanticized and idealized them.

In the Russian-born Yosef Haim Brenner's novel "Around the Point" (1904), the central character walks the streets until he encounters "a woman well on in years, selling her withered body for scraps of bread and a few sips from the bottle." He decides to give her all his money, thinking, "She is my sister."

Szobel attributes this sensitivity to the marginalized status of Jews. They could empathize with another downtrodden and oppressed group.

She also sees the influence of rabbinical teachings that treated sex work as mainly the fault of men's lustful desires, not anything the women did.

Not Your Grandfather’s Samson and Delilah

Though she rose to some prominence in Palestine in the 1930s and 40s, Shoshana Shababo has largely been forgotten.

There were many obstacles to her success: She worked in a field dominated by men. She was Sephardic, of Middle Eastern descent, in a country dominated politically and culturally by Eastern European Jews. And she was a fierce critic of the way Zionist Jews treated Palestinians.

In her story, "Samson at the Harvest Season" (1932), she turns the traditional interpretation of the Samson and Delilah story on its head. Samson is "burly, violent, with brave arms, iron muscles, and a big hollow head."

The Delilah character is transposed to the Arab worker Fatima, who "obeyed him [Samson] out of surrender, did not defy Samson for his exploitation and did not slip away from his arms when needed. "

The story was written when justification for a Jewish state was fueled by nationalism and pride in Jewish identity.

But Szobel writes that what Shababo "sees is not a national trauma (the revival of the Jewish people) but sexual and financial exploitation — namely, yet another variation of the way in which national/masculine interests establish themselves through gender-based violence."

Trauma and Ambivalence

The most disturbing chapter in Szobel's book deals with memoirs about incest. In bracing, honest accounts of their past, the writers Szobel studies acknowledge mixed feelings towards their abusers.

In her 2002 memoir, "Captive: Chronicle of Professional Incest — An Autobiographical Story," Maya Reed writes about her dad: "When he was wearing the mask of sanity there wasn't a nicer and lovable and more entertaining person than him."

The incest survivor Ziv Koren writes about her abusive uncle, “He wasn’t just a monster and for me [as a child], he wasn’t a monster at all … Yes, there was evil. And yes, a part of him was a monster, but not all of him …” (Ellipses in original.)

Szobel says accounts like these require us “to abandon the polarized division between ally and foe" when addressing the voices of incest survivors. The memoirs take us deep inside the victims' psyches, helping us understand how the abuse was felt and experienced.

The memoirs' power, Szobel writes, is that they transport the reader to "a nightmarish world, where everything is reversed, the abuse is perceived by the victim as evidence of love, and so, paradoxically, there is fear not only of the thing itself but also of its absence."