Will ‘sex in the toilets’ really renew Zionism?

Israel/Palestine
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Ari Shavit. (Photo: Spiegel & Grau/NPR)

Ari Shavit. (Photo: Spiegel & Grau/NPR)

We have given a lot of attention to the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, because so many leading American media have embraced his revivalist-Zionist themes, from the New York Times to NPR. Just the other night, PBS News Hour interviewed him and described his book as “acclaimed.”

The problem I’ve hammered on is that Shavit is a provincial: an excellent reporter of the Israeli Jewish scene, he operates completely inside the Israeli mindset. And so, as Jerome Slater showed in this devastating post, Shavit is an unreliable narrator when he claims that the Arabs have always wanted to destroy Israel. Or when he states that Syria and Iraq and Iran have threatened another “Holocaust” by building nuclear reactors.

These political stretchers need to be taken on strongly.

But here I wanted to focus on another aspect of the book that threatens Shavit’s role as an unreliable narrator: the sex reports. Shavit introduces his book by saying that Israel is a “powerhouse of vitality, creativity, and sensuality”– my emphasis– and at several points in the book and in interviews, Shavit lauds promiscuity in nightclubs as a healthy sign of Israel’s vitality. Myself, I have nothing against promiscuity in nightclubs. What’s unsettling about Shavit’s detailed observations is that they verge on prurience and worse, they are offered as a measure of Israel’s cultural promise. When it’s just young Jews having anonymous sex.

Indeed, the emphasis on anonymous sex brings to mind the Weimar Republic and Christopher Isherwood’s stories of licentious Berlin. But Shavit never really raises questions about what the sexual activity means. He’s like Tony the Tiger about it, he thinks it’s g-r-r-r-eat! Especially when compared with cultural repression in Arab societies. Except for comments he makes near the end of his sex report– the last part of my excerpts below.

Shavit has brought up the sex in interviews. When he talked to Sally Quinn at the Washington Post, he said that Israelis are uniquely sexy. On Terry Gross’s show, he said “being hedonistic is perfectly OK as long as you are moral and realistic.” With Margaret Warner the other night, he described Israel’s success story as one in which Israelis “have chosen life and are celebrating life.”

What follows are excerpts of Shavit’s sexual reports. Cool or creepy? Judge for yourself.

Michal Nadel [velvet rope woman at Tel Aviv club Allenby 58] says it feels like a tribe… She thinks it’s all very primitive and wonderful. When she gets into it and closes her eyes and moves her head from side to side, she can actually hear in the music the beating drums of ancient African tribes, the hooves of wild horses….”And everybody is together in this sexy, insane thing.”…

In an extravagant getup, with her provocative mannerisms, she tells the bouncers who to let in and who to turn away, all the while looking for the guy she’ll have fun with at dawn…

“Sometimes thousands crowd the doors. Guys in leather pants, girls with their breasts half bare. Because everyone knows that I will only let in the gorgeous ones.”

Ravid Zilberman [25-year-old barwoman]:

“It’s incredible to watch the soldiers. Water and oranges, that’s all they have–they don’t even drink alcohol. But even so, from midnight to six a.m., they never stop. They give everything they have on the dance floor. And when the night is over they go straight from Allenby 58 to the buses that will take them to Lebanon or to the territories or to some godforsaken skirmish Really, Israel is such a crazy place. And when these kid soldiers kiss their girls goodbye and put on their uniforms and go, I can’t help but get emotional. It really breaks my heart.”

Ori Stark, owner of the club Allenby 58:

Ori tells me they are now a movement….”Because this nation is all about war and death. Even our religion is very sad,with its Yom Kippur and all, always telling you to suffer and sacrifice… But here we have something very powerful that says ‘Fuck it.’ We don’t have to suffer and sacrifice anymore. Because now we are a fifty-year-old nation, and the armies of the surrounding Arab nations won’t invade us.”…

“We deserve it,” Stark continues. “Of all the people in the world, we deserve it.. So let us live….

“Now there is no shame, no pretense, no pressure to say anything. You don’t sing about love, you have sex. Sex now, sex right now, sex in the toilets. And this new physical authenticity is what’s real, this need for stimuli and pleasure and excitement. This is what Israel is about. Forget the Zionist crap. Forget the Jewish bullshit…

“And when they leave the toilets after a quarter of an hour, I watch them: there is no embrace, no affection, no tenderness. He goes this way, she goes that way. That’s it. We came, we came, we went.”

Shavit in his own voice:

They are very good looking, these youngsters. Here is an Israeli success story few write about. … And the closed intense space of Allenby 58 makes this sexy beauty all too apparent.

Without uttering a word, they make a statement through their liberation, though their sexual openness and their rhythmic ritual. They make it in trying to create a space of their own that is ritualistic, lustful, and fun….

Something extremely poignant happens when all these different sexual energies collide in one space, under one roof. Wiry boys with shaved heads hug each other by the stage. Gorgeous girls in diaphanous shirts dance by the bar. … And every minute, some couple goes off to do it in the other room. Boy-girl. Boy-boy. Girl-girl….

[A]nyone who thinks the new Israel is a fundamentalist theocracy doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about…

I end the night at a hip underground club in Tel Aviv located in a cellar, its walls painted black. Straight stuff, gay stuff, mixed stuff. A lot of dark stuff. “People really need it hard,” a twenty-five-year-old blond psychology student tells me as she offers me a tiny vial of cocaine, which I politely refuse….

The kids are good-looking all right, as sexy as ever. Lustful and provocative.

…What will happen to these beautiful dancers and to this sexy Tel Aviv when some of our really powerful rivals decide to strike? Returning from a quick encounter, the twenty-five year old blonde rejoins me at the bar. Looking around with glazed eyes and a bewildered smile, she says to no one in particular, ‘It’s a bubble. It’s an amazing bubble. It won’t last.”

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