Handsome Men as Hasbara

Eliad Cohen is Israel’s top gay icon / Haaretz

Some people visit Israel for the holy sites. Some visit Israel as a political statement. Some visit Israel because they think Israelis are “hot.”

Disagree? Well, the Israeli Tourism Ministry and City of Tel Aviv do not. Recently, Israel’s economic capital held a Winter Gay Festival advertised using not just a sand-snowman, but also posters and videos replete with muscular Israeli men, armed with bursting biceps in tank tops. You could be forgiven for thinking Israel was advertising the virility of its menfolk, from both the posters and admiring European tourists on the city’s beaches this winter.

This trend is not just a one-time fluke. Witness the various posters and advertisements it has produced replete with the images of the strong, muscular, Israeli men of the IDF, or the beautiful women of Tel Aviv’s beaches. Of course, many countries use the attractive bodies of their citizens to invite tourists — but in many ways, this effort for Israel is political as well: it is sexy hasbara.

It is no secret that a certain type of hasbara operates below the belt buckles of Jews and Gentiles alike from Brooklyn to Birobidzhan. From the shirtless, muscular frat brothers in Birthright ads to the landscapes of bikini-clad female combat soldiers in the IDF, Israel not infrequently uses its sex appeal to garner support. The goal? Well, it seems to be that if enough people have “hot” associations with Israel, they will then support its government’s actions.

How does this effort work on non-Jewish audiences? At the outset, it’s the same story as many other countries — think Italy, Sweden and Brazil — that use the beauty of their citizenry as tourist-attracting mechanisms. Israel hopes to attract the money of European tourists by showing them some of the “sights” of Israel — the sculpted abs and bikini bottoms of the country’s great beaches. Tel Aviv’s gay tourism initiatives (controversial in and of themselves) partly rely on these images, as do a series of ads created by Israel’s Tourism Ministry a few years ago.

My own anecdotal evidence from chatting with European tourists at Ben-Gurion Airport and walking around the country indicate that the “sexy Israeli” plays no small role in bringing tourists to the country — especially from Germany and the Czech Republic.

But let’s look closely at who is getting sexualized, and in what context.

First, attractiveness and sexual idealization in Israel is closely aligned with Ashkenazi identity — it’s no accident that the supermodels and “sex symbols” in the country’s media are mostly white, sometimes “Mediterranean.”

Second, the sexual objectification of men in Israeli media is closely connected with the idea of Israel as a military society: The “hot,” “handsome” Israeli man is also the soldier, the defender of Western civilization and an example of virile masculinity. Note which images of the sexy Israeli are sent abroad: Whereas Spain and Italy popularize their metrosexual “European” fashionistas, Israel offers us Eliad Cohen and other muscular, “manly men.” (Admittedly, Eliad is beautiful.)

So in a way, “sexy Israel” creates a “good image” for a Western, virile, military country. In a wider context, the aim could be to change the image of Israel in the minds of Europe’s lustful young men and women into a country of beautiful warriors fighting for the good of the West. Even the IDF — in its advocacy posters — often uses soldiers who are, ahem, highly aesthetic.

But in a more real — and very much physical — sense, you can spot another aim: for Europeans to have good sexual memories of Israel. It’s only natural to assume that if you make an attractive citizenry a tourist draw, you also want sex with said citizenry to be a “tourist activity” of sorts. If visitors are to market Israel as “Greece, but warmer,” or “Malta with hot men,” then it would help for sure if the talk in the bars of Berlin and Barcelona was of the sexual prowess of Israeli men, or the allure of Israeli women. (Just like in Birthright.)

My own conversations with the tourists next to me on recent flights to Israel, or at coffee shops, more than once indicated that this idea had some effect. A friend recently gushed to me about his own “magnificent encounters” with Israeli soldiers — and though it was far too much information, it was also fascinating.

Sexiness — or, more accurately, the presentation thereof — acts as a form of hasbara. It transforms Israel, quite physically, into a place of great pleasure and much fun. A place for winter festivals rather than guns.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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