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Emerging Zionism embodied ideological sexual conflict
STANFORD -- Though the myth lingers, Zionism was a failure as an erotic revolution because the young Jewish pioneers were torn between conflicting needs and desires: free love and puritanism, autonomy and parental connection, erotic liberation and affirmation of the family, historian David Biale has concluded.
"The ambiguities of Zionism as an erotic revolution for the bodies of Jews prefigured the larger political question . . . of how to constitute a Jewish national body in the modern world," said Biale, speaking on "Zionism as an Erotic Revolution" at Stanford April 29.
Biale is director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and Koret Professor of Jewish History. He delivered the 22nd annual Aaron Roland Lecture in Jewish Studies as part of the "People of the Body/People of the Book" conference.
The story of Zionism as an erotic revolution is not at all straightforward. "The new nationalism was accompanied by a strong sense of respectability," he said, dedicated to goals higher than the happiness of the individual.
One of the central claims of Zionism, he explained, is that "Jews lived a disembodied existence in exile and that only a healthy national life could restore a necessary measure of physicality or materiality." Biale argued that this political ideology was not only based on the body as metaphor but sought to transform the Jewish sexual body itself.
"Zionism promised an erotic revolution for the Jews: the creation of a virile New Hebrew Man," as well as rejection of the inequality of women in traditional Judaism, he said.
Biale examined the writings of two waves of Eastern European immigrants to Palestine, the Second Aliyah (1903-14) and the Third Aliyah (1918-24). Although the pioneers who created communal farms (Kibbutzim) represented a very small proportion of settlers, they were idealists who articulated the dream. "Their importance outweighs their actual numbers," he said. "Their memoirs and literary efforts created a collective memory that serves as Israel's myth of its own origins."
Biale found evidence that many of the young idealists had difficulty establishing mature erotic relationships. The explanation was multifold: The men far outnumbered the women, for one thing, and their ideologies had many inherent conflicts. For example, the rejection of traditional marriage clashed with the need to procreate in the new nation.
Aharon David Gordon, a major ideologue of the Second Aliyah, declared that the only true basis for creating a new Jewish nation was a new form of family life that would meld human forces with the forces of nature. Other writings suggest a struggle for new forms of love in the setting of the intimate commune, Biale said, sometimes meandering in a Jewish soap opera of menage a trois or a quatre, with attempts to give sexual experience an ideologial veneer.
Despite the free-love ideology, members of the Second Aliyah tended to be quite reticent in writing of sexual matters. The Third Aliyah was a different story.
"The period immediately following World War I saw the sexual experimentation and frankness that characterized Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia," Biale said.
Meir Yaari, a leader of the radical social movmenet Hashomer Ha-Tzair (Young Guard), described the commune as based not only on economic cooperation but also on the erotic.
"Bourgeois domestic eroticism is the enemy of the commune," he wrote. "The commune cannot exist without a deeper connection between its members."
Very little is heard from the women pioneers, Biale said, but there is some evidence that not all the women were so eager to embrace the new sexuality. One writer complained that men were only interested in women for sex; another demanded that every man regard her as a sister.
Oddly, Biale said, even among the proponents of an erotic Zionism there was a strong tendency toward abstinence and restraint. This was even reflected in child-rearing philosophy of the kibbutz movement, where parents exhibited little physical affection toward their children, and children had to sleep apart from the parents to avoid the trauma of exposure to adult sexuality.
One ongoing theme in Third Aliyah writings was the idea that one had to sacrifice family life and erotic relations in order to fulfill national goals. This was often expressed, Biale said, "in the notion that the halutzim (pioneers) were creating a new family in which they were all brothers and sisters. To have an erotic relationship with a comrade in such circumstances was both akin to incest and a betrayal of the national ideal."
But the main instrument for neutralizing sexual obsession, Biale said, was overexposure.
"Nudity was thought to lessen sexual stimulation rather than encourage it," he added, noting that communal co-educational showers for children often continued through high school.
Although kibbutzniks said they were creating a sexual utopia, Biale said, what they really intended was to suppress sexuality altogether.
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