Sex, War, Social Media and the Israeli Imagination

Image: facebook

The war in Gaza, known in Israel as Operation Strong Cliff, may have wound down. But memories still linger of the parallel Facebook campaign called Girls Keeping the Cliff Strong.

The Facebook campaign, which drew tens of thousands of clicks during the fighting, highlights the often troubling implications during war time of the relationship between sex and violence.

Girls Keeping the Cliff Strong offered photographs of anonymous young Jewish women from Israel and around the world, appearing with “I ♥ IDF” written over their scantily clad or sometimes naked bodies. The social media campaign went viral within minutes of its introduction in late July.

The social media campaign’s name is a sexual pun on the military campaign’s Hebrew name; Israeli officials gave the military operation the English name Operation Protective Edge in an effort to project it to the world as a defensive action.

Girls Keeping the Cliff Strong was taken down from Facebook after about four days, apparently because of objections by scores of women. But it succeeded in generating passionate discussions, as well as dozens of [spin-offs][1], such as Standing with the IDF, Russian Girls for the IDF and Gays for the IDF.

Soldiers on the battlefield commented on the photos and shared them by the thousands; anti-Israel Internet users flooded the pages with exhilarating hate comments; feminists reached a blogging boiling point, and Israeli news outlets were handed a patriotic excuse to publish racy photos during wartime.

Most large Israeli news outlets — such as Mako and Walla — covered the trend positively, and the curiously articulate uploader of the page, Gavriel Bio, was interviewed everywhere.

When asked by an Israeli journalist, “Would you publish photos submitted by ugly women?” Bio replied: “I don’t understand your question. There are no ugly women.”

As a matter of fact, in most cases there is no way to determine what the women in Girls Keeping the Cliff Strong even look like: Few of the pictures show the girls’ faces.

And this aspect of the campaign — the women’s facelessness — seems somehow related to a broader phenomenon evident in Israel’s current atmosphere: political misogyny.

This round of war has seen an extremely harsh reaction to female public figures. Beloved female Israeli celebrities, such as Orna Banai, Orly Weinerman, Gila Almagor, Rona Keinan and Shira Geffen, have all — in one way or another — spoken out publicly about their concern for the cost the war has taken on civilian lives.

Most of them took care to stress that they were making a nonpolitical statement of humanitarian concern and showed equal concern for both the Israeli side and the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, they all received a flood of threats: of rape, of having their children killed, of losing their jobs. Some did lose their jobs: Orna Banai, star of the Israeli “Saturday Night Live” analog “Eretz Nehederet,” issued a forced apology after being fired from her position in an advertising campaign.

The July 18 quotation that caused Banai to lose her job was surprisingly innocuous. “Bibi should hold it,” she said. “We all are suffering from this situation. Us and the Palestinians. On their side women and children were killed today, and it makes me feel terrible. I am not jealous of the people who live in Southern Israel, either. I know how much they suffer. The reality of living around sirens and shelters is awful. The leaders on both sides are impotent.”

In Israel now, the faceless women of Girls Keeping the Cliff Strong are publicly cheered, while the expressive women of Israeli culture are forcefully silenced.

On the surface, the phenomenon of Girls Keeping the Cliff Strong is nothing new. The twin urges of sex and violence are believed to be related in the brain, rising simultaneously from the hypothalamus.

The human struggle to control and sublimate the primitive urges arising from this part of the brain has become, over the course of history, the foundation of our civilization: It unleashes hunger, and we control it by the slow preparation of food, which we eat with a fork and knife; it tells us to relieve bladder stress, and we control it by going to the toilet; it tells us to vent sex and violence, and we control it by institutionalizing sex on the Internet and violence through the military. During times of war, as more violence is vented through the military, more sex is vented through the Internet.

The pairing of sex and violence took on many forms throughout history: from the relatively benign photos of pin-up girls found in First World War foxholes to the so-called “doll houses” of World War II, where selected female concentration camp inmates were coerced into sexually servicing non-Jewish forced laborers as an incentive to get them to work hard. There were also, of course, the famous brothels in Thailand to which American soldiers swarmed when sent on breaks for rest and recreation, and the Islamic promise of 72 virgins for warriors and martyrs.

A 2011 study conducted in Hong Kong exposed half of the study’s participants to pictures of attractive women and half of them to pictures of unattractive women, and then asked them questions on a seemingly unrelated topic: China’s relationships with foreign countries. The majority of participants who were shown pictures of unattractive women suggested negotiations and cultural exchange; the majority of those shown pictures of attractive women saw no other choice but war.

But there is a crucial difference between these cases and modern Israeli military-erotica: In the latter, most of the girls’ faces remain unseen. They are a kind of selfless selfies. Previous wars were based on the Trojan formula where fighting is stimulated by the face of some Helen or another; the current war in Gaza is stimulated by a crowd of virtual, faceless women.

Women’s faces play a major role in male psychology. Boys who have moved to a coed school after spending their first school years at an all-male establishment often describe a radical change in their perception of themselves. The presence of women increases their self-consciousness.

Looking back, they describe their all-male school days as deprived of moral awareness and enforcement. In one form or another, all men experience this: We examine our own actions only when we are confronted by the expression they bring to the face of our mother, sister or loved one. Avoiding the face of the other sex, we discover, may be avoiding the sharpest mirror.

Contact Gon Ben-Ari at feedback@forward.com

[1]: [parallel Facebook campaign]( https://www.facebook.com/StandingWithIDF?fref=photo

Written by

Gon Ben-Ari

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