The character of Ziva David on the TV show NCIS is a classic stereotype of the Israeli women. Via Wikicommons
When you google “israeli woman,” the first thing you see is the images.
Sexy, tough, military, or all three. After the images, you get the expected results: a Wikipedia page for “Women in Israel,” an article in The New Yorker. And then, unfortunately, a piece about “Israel’s Sexiest Women.”
This is the stereotype: Israeli women as hot gun-toting warriors. Israeli women are aggressive because they served in the military, because they learned how to shoot guns, and served as commanders ordering others around. Another stereotype is that they’re in control, powerful, confident, and effortlessly equal to men in all things. The illusion of equality to men probably comes from the early days of secular immigrants to the land occupied by the British Mandate; the men and women who came to Palestine back in the 1930s and 1940s — and who remained the backbone of Israel once it was declared a country — were quite a Marxist, Communist, socialist bunch, and they believed that women and men were to be equal in all things. This didn’t remain the case for very long.
These stereotypes paint an inaccurate portrait. As an Israeli woman myself, I do not fit these descriptions, despite my therapist occasionally telling me that I’m “so Israeli.” I did not go to the army, the only time I held and fired a gun was in a high school field trip to a shooting range (yes, a field trip), and the only time I’ve commanded anyone has been ironically. I am not in control, I am not powerful, and both here in the US and in Israel, I am not equal to men as far as society sees it.
In reality, many Israeli women don’t fit the stereotype. There is a Facebook group, שיח פמיניסטי, which translates as “feminist conversation,” that is reviled by many Israeli millennials, by men and women alike (but men especially). Men hate it because they think it’s full of what people call “feminazis,” misandrist women whose only goal is to be angry and mean. Women hate it because it is associated with the “feminazi” idea that they don’t want to be associated with. The Facebook group is actually a place of intellectual discussion and, yes, some griping about the patriarchal society we still live in. The term “feminist” in Israel is still often equated with being a lesbian, a bra-burning radical, or an uptight bitch, all of which are perceived as bad things for many. There are still many sexist assumptions and practices in the workplace, in romance, and in the military. While this is changing, it is a slow and gradual shift that is based on education, socio-economic status, and the ability to be open-minded.
In pop culture too, Israeli women are perceived as gorgeous, sexy, and exotic. In one prominent and recent example, Meital Dohan plays a character named Yael Hoffman in the second season of Weeds. She’s the sexy and domineering administrator at the rabbinical school where one of the main characters, Andy, goes in order to get out of his Army Reserves duty. Hoffman doesn’t want to date Andy because, she says, “I could flip you like a pancake.” The last time we see Hoffman is when she does, indeed, flip Andy like a pancake, puts on a strap-on, and pegs him. Another example is the non-Israeli actress playing Ziva David, introduced as an agent of the Mossad who ends up liaising with American intelligence in the TV show in NCIS. The woman who plays her, Chilean-born Cote de Pablo, told U-T San Diego that her character has “been around men all her life; she’s used to men in authority. She’s not afraid of men…she’s very strong.” De Pablo won awards for her portrayal of the badass Ziva David and reception her character was largely positive; she was both feminine enough for audiences and masculine enough to fit in with the Israeli stereotype.
Earlier still is Masada, a comic book character from the 1980s and 1990s. This Israeli crime-fighter’s superpower is her ability to change her size due to the souls of the Jews who fought bravely at Masada (if you say so, Image Comics).
Dangerous and sexual; that’s what we Israeli women are supposed to be. And yet when these same qualities are exemplified by “unexotic” women, they are stigmatized. It is as if the exoticism of Israeli women allows them to be bossy, bitchy, domineering, and sexual without being judged for it. They are fantasy fulfillers, not true people.
But of course, Israeli women are people, and they do not fit into these stereotypes within Israel for the most part. Clothing stores are full of hyper-feminine clothing, not holsters. Not all women in the IDF keep guns on them at all times. Most, as exemplified in the comedic film Zero Motivation (which was stereotype breaking here in the US, while in Israel it represented a wholly familiar experience), spend their service in offices, working in administrative positions. Most people in the IDF, not just women, are bored out of their minds, whether cleaning bathrooms, maintaining proper sprinkler repair, serving guard duty, or working in offices. Even the elite tier soldiers in intelligence units, who spend their days reviewing top-secret information and either relaying it to others or keeping it under wraps, need to do plenty of mundane, boring work.
The continued stereotype of Israeli women is perpetuated by mostly American — and only to some extent the Israeli — media. In the realm of social media, there is an Instagram account called hotisraeliarmygirls that includes both women in bikinis and women in IDF uniforms holding or shooting guns. In mainstream media, Israeli actress Gal Gadot is going to star as Wonder Woman in the 2017 film of that neglected superhero. She looks strong, sure. But she’s also incredibly sexualized.
Another well-known Israeli woman is Bar Refaeli, another model and actress, known to Americans mainly because she dated Leonardo DiCaprio. Others are also models. Less known are women like Yael Naim, a folk musician, and Merav Michaeli, a feminist journalist, activist, and now member of Knesset (the Israeli parliament).
This is not how it always was. People knew of Golda Meir, a powerful politician in her time; of Dana International, a groundbreaking transwoman pop star who represented Israel in the Eurovision in 1998 and attained Israel’s third win in that competition; of singer Ofra Haza and writer Leah Goldberg, who were also known for their artistic talents.
Unfortunately, one of the many ways Israel has become so Americanized is its adaption to Western standards of beauty and fame when it comes to the “export” of Israeli women. Paradoxically, ideas regarding feminism in Israel and the ideas of Israeli women in America are slowly changing, helped by books like “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid ” (which follows three Israeli women through high school, the IDF, and their twenties) and movies like “Zero Motivation.”
For years, in college, there was a guy who only called me “Israel.” Even now, when I tell people where I’m from, they look at me differently and say, “That’s so cool.” It’s not cool; it just is. But like any stereotype, it is hard to break the wall between what people believe they know and the actual truth.