The camera focuses on a soldier standing at a checkpoint inspecting Palestinians entering Israel to work. He has a rifle in his hand and is in full uniform and protective gear, but he couldn’t care less. He counts the minutes until he ends his reserve duty and can get back to his life in a liberal bubble in Tel Aviv. “All men, stand in two rows and take off your shirts slowly”. Ashraf picks up his shirt and shows his bare chest to the soldier examining him. They exchange long glances, longer than necessary, and the soldier’s interest is piqued.
This scene opens the film “The Bubble”, a tragic love story between two Israeli and Palestinian men whose relationship is intertwined with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film shows how the interdependent and protracted nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects all aspects of Israeli and Palestinian society, including love, sexuality and popular culture. “Forbidden love stories” between Israelis and Palestinians are widespread in Israeli culture, but they receive outraged reactions and go so far as to ban such books in schools (Kashti 2015). The Israeli narrative of interracial relationships is dominated by heteronormative assumptions that focus on the procreation and protection of innocent women from devious men (Engelberg 2017: 232). Hence, gay depictions of Israeli-Palestinian encounters form a unique narrative that can shed light on the role of ethnonationalism and normativity within the Israeli gay community. The following paper discusses cultural representations of gay relationships between people from opposite ethnic and national groups. I will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a case study and answer the research question: How are homosexual relationships between Israelis and Palestinians represented in Israeli cinema?
This paper will contribute to a growing body of popular culture and world politics literature to highlight the relationship between cinematic representations and gender discourse production. Hence, this paper refers to a broader attempt to broaden the international relations research agenda beyond a narrow understanding of power and politics (Weldes and Rowley 2015). In this article, I will examine Israeli gay discourse on interracial relationships and focus on depictions of power differences between occupation, sexuality, and masculinity.
Feminist scholars have long argued that gender and sexuality are inextricably linked to conflict and security studies. However, the academic discussion of sex and conflict has so far failed to address consensual sex and romance across conflict lines, as such relationships are viewed as private and irrelevant for conflict studies. In addition, most of the existing literature uses heteronormative framework conditions and neglects the experiences of the LGBTQ community in conflict situations (Hagen 2016: 325). To fill this literature gap, I will discuss the key concepts relevant to the research question and examine the existing literature on sexuality, conflict, and popular culture.
This paper is based on a post-structural feminist approach that aims to understand social meanings and uncover underlying power structures. Post-structuralism argues that knowledge and science are never neutral, but reproduce hegemonic interests and ideas. According to poststructuralists, the discursive production of gender is a political practice that creates hierarchical binary categories and heteronormative notions of masculinity and femininity (Shepherd 2015: 12). Post-structuralists criticize mainstream IR for disregarding popular culture as “low” politics and instead emphasize the importance of cultural artifacts in the production of national narratives (Weldes and Rowley 2015). Weldes and Rowley argue that popular culture not only reflects reality, but constitutes world politics through discourse production (ibid.). For example, states use pop culture to brand nations and shape the global image and position of the state. Laura Shepherd defines television as a particularly important place for “production, dissemination and sometimes the exploration of meanings” (Shepherd 2013: 2). Critical reflections of television therefore aim to understand the construction of knowledge and social categories (idem: 3).
In this article, I examine the concept of masculinity (namely, non-hegemonic masculinity) from a post-structuralist perspective. Feminist research is paying increasing attention to the role of masculinity in building political power and militarized violence (Duriesmith 2014: 239). Masculinity structures the expectations of men and creates a hierarchy in which men who do not achieve the ideals of masculinity are subordinated to other men (e.g. gay men who do not meet heteronormative expectations) (idem: 242). Gay men are traditionally excluded from the male power structure of the state. Poststructural scholars focus on the constructed meanings of masculinity, arguing that the performance of masculinity is full of contradictions (idem: 241). In this article I will examine how subordinate male identities are constructed and portrayed in a violent conflict context that depends on militarized masculinity.
The Queer Fellowship also seeks to broaden the IR research agenda by examining the relationship between sexual norms and international power structures. Queer theories aim to destabilize the binary understanding of gender and sexuality and to examine the role of heteronormative framework conditions in world politics (Richter-Montpetit 2018: 225). Richter-Montpetit distinguishes between a queer perspective, which represents a radical commitment to the destabilization of norms, and an LGBT perspective, which focuses on inclusion in citizenship regimes (idem: 223). Therefore, in this article I distinguish between queer and gay communities, with the former group disrupting hetero-cisnormative assumptions and the latter representing homonormative ideas (I use the term gay because this paper mainly examines the community of gay men, not the broader LGBT) Community).
Jasbir Puar (2007: 9), a queer theorist, coined the term “homonationalism” to define how the discourse on LGBT inclusion links LGBT rights with nationalist and imperialist agendas. Puar argues that homonationalism regulates normative homosexuality and strengthens national norms for inclusion and exclusion, thereby creating tight conditions for the inclusion of LGBT people (idem: 2). Therefore, national inclusion depends on the strengthening of white dominance and the exclusion of racist others and non-normative queers (ibid). Cynthia Weber claims that this leads to the national inclusion of a restricted gay figure, the normal or patriotic gays, who is considered respectable by the state (Richter-Montpetit 2018: 230). The nationalized gay figure is mobilized to exclude the “perverse gays” and to justify neoliberal and colonial agendas. Queer theories aim to dismantle such nationalized narratives and LGBT regulatory regimes.
However, there is an extensive academic debate among post-colonial scholars about the links between the LGBT community and colonialism. In his book Wish arabs, Joseph Massad criticized the international gay movement for exercising western colonialism and fetishizing gay Arabs. Massad argues that the “gay international” imposes western categories on Arab people of same-sex attraction, erasing the rich history of same-sex practices in the Arab world (Massad 2002: 364). Therefore, Massad criticizes gay Arabs for joining the Western discourse, which leads to state oppression. However, Massad has been heavily criticized for cultural relativism and the rejection of queer Arab identities. Rao criticizes Massad for monitoring sexual and gender-based utterance, while Birdal highlights Massad’s eradication of the Arab LGBT agency.
Ritchie (2010: 566) builds on Massad’s theory and argues that the Israeli LGBT community has a missionary approach towards LGBT Palestinians. Israeli LGBTs strengthen the liberal supremacy of the West and aim to “liberate” gay Palestinians from their “backward” oriental society (ibid.). Israeli gays try to regulate Palestinian gays by conditioning their acceptance of the liberal LGBT community according to a victim role (idem: 568). However, Ritchie also criticizes Massad for denying the queer Palestinian agency, arguing instead that queer Palestinians create radical alternatives to Palestinian and Israeli norms (ibid). Similarly, Byrne argues that Israeli representations are wiping out the agency of queer Palestinians by portraying them as victims of Palestinian society (Byrne 2013: 140). This victimization discourse is an extension of the Israeli occupation and homonationalism by twisting Israeli control over the Palestinian population through progressive terms (idem: 134).
Finally, theories of colonialism and orientalism are useful in understanding the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a unique and nuanced situation, theories of colonialism are useful in explaining the balance of power in the context of the occupation by Western settlers. Colonial scholars have extensively discussed the role of desire and sexuality within militarized colonial rule. According to Bryder (1998: 808), control over sexuality was a central political mechanism in British colonies and was used to maintain white privilege and the feeling of innate superiority. Social and legal norms of sexual and romantic segregation between races are used to maintain a binary hierarchy between the occupier and the occupied, the civilized and the barbaric (Yosef 2002: 553). Young, a post-colonial theorist who studied the concept of hybridity, argued that the colonial obsession with sex arose from the exoticization of black sexuality (Young 1994: 102). Young claims that the fear of hybridity mirrors a heterosexual fear, as it revolves around concerns about reproduction and racial purity (idem: 24). So “[racial] Hybridity and homosexuality coincide, namely as forms of degeneration ”(ibid.). Joseph, an Israeli queer scholar, claims that racist and heterosexual fears in Israel are heightened by the historical context of Jewish sexuality. In the Diaspora, the male Jewish body was viewed as inferior, and Jews were associated with homosexuality and perversion (Yosef 2002: 557). Therefore, the Zionist movement is obsessed with the normalization of Jewish sexuality and the construction of a new, hegemonic, Jewish masculinity (ibid.).
The paper uses a case study research design to analyze the production of gay discourse on security and conflict by popular culture. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed as a case study and is an extreme of a long and interdependent conflict that has far-reaching direct effects on all aspects of civil life, including culture and sexuality. With a case study design, I want to create a framework that is transferable to a wider population of violent conflict. However, I also recognize the value of nuanced, case-specific understanding and the contextualization of academic knowledge.
As a poststructuralist, I believe in the importance of self-reflexivity in conducting research. As an Israeli, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been of central importance in my life: I grew up in a Zionist, militarized environment, but I firmly reject the occupation. I refused to serve in the Israeli military to protest the oppression of the Palestinian people. I keep thinking about my identity and my privileges as an Israeli, just as I did when I was writing this paper. Therefore, I do not claim to represent Palestinian voices, but to critically analyze Israeli narratives. As a queer woman, I consider myself a member of the Israeli LGBT community. I have a deep appreciation for filmmakers like Eytan Fox and Amos Guttman (who will be discussed in this article) who have been instrumental in shaping an Israeli gay identity, but I can also criticize their use of nationalist tropes.
The paper focuses on representations within gay cinema, which is a key element in understanding the main Israeli gay discourse. According to Cohen (2011: 1), “cinema as the main source of gay cultural production in Israel has defined gay identity since the late 1970s”. Due to the lack of lesbian representation in Israeli cinema (let alone bisexual or trans representation), I can only focus on films that depict gay men. The films were selected on the basis of the following criteria: Commercial fictional films by gay Israeli men that show explicit relationships between Israeli and Palestinian men as (one) of the main relationships of the films. These criteria lead to three films:
Drift (1982) by Amos Guttman: Roby is a young gay man who lives with his homophobic grandmother and wants to make the first Israeli gay film. Roby’s life is very lonely, he is rejected by both Israeli society and gay organizations. Aside from his passion for filmmaking, he also loves men, frequently goes to gay cruise areas and brings strangers home. One day Roby brings home two Palestinian men who were injured, presumably while attempting a terrorist attack. Roby takes care of her and uses her to alleviate his loneliness, despite the disapproval of his helpless grandmother.
The bladder (2006) by Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky: Noam is a liberal gay man who lives in Tel Aviv with friends Lulu and Yali. When Noam meets Ashraf at a checkpoint, they fall in love and Ashraf moves into her apartment in Tel Aviv, assuming a fake Israeli identity. After his true identity is accidentally revealed, Ashraf returns to his family in Palestine, but Noam follows him and hands him over to his brother-in-law for jihad. Jihad, a violent extremist, is planning a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that injures Yali, and the Israeli military responds by killing Ashraf’s sister. When Ashraf realizes that he has no future in Palestine or Israel, he becomes a suicide bomber in an act of desperation. The film ends when Ashraf detonates a bomb and kills himself and Noam.
Out in the dark (2012) by Michael Mayer: Nimr and Roy meet in a gay bar and fall in love. Nimr hides his sexuality and relationship from his homophobic Palestinian family and uses his education permit to visit Roy in Tel Aviv. However, the Israel Security Agency finds out and threatens to leave Nimr to his family if he does not become an informant for them. Unfortunately, Nimr’s brother, a terrorist, finds out he’s gay anyway and throws him out and threatens to kill him if he comes back. Nimr escapes into Roy’s apartment, but they soon discover that the security authorities are looking for Nimr and that Nimr is forced to flee to France as a refugee.
In the analysis, I apply the theoretical framework to the films and discuss the discourse they reproduce about male expectations, sexuality and hybridity, and gay Palestinian identities.
The films in their historical context:
To fully understand the narrative of the films, I will first place them in their historical context and discuss how political changes can affect representation in pop culture. All three films represent different periods and phases of the occupation and show the changing understanding of Israeli-Palestinian relations from the 1980s to the present day. DriftThe agreement, published in 1982, preceded the 1993 Oslo Accords, which restricted the movement of Palestinians, granted some Palestinian territories autonomy and established the self-governing Palestinian authorities (Rosler 2016: 55). The vague borders of the 1980s made the occasional encounters between Israeli and Palestinian men possible in Drift. While Roby stays in his room, he stares through the window bars and watches as Palestinians sit openly on the street and speak in Arabic. This creates the image that Roby, as a gay man, is more restricted than the Palestinian (Avitzur 2007). In contrast to both The bladder and Out in the dark take place after the Oslo Accords and show the complete separation of Israeli and Palestinian societies and the severe restrictions on the movements Palestinians face. When organizing a party against the occupation, the young left group stepped in The bladder states that they know no Palestinians to invite or how to bring Palestinians to Israel.
The bladder was released not long after the end of the second intifada, a period marked by extreme violence against civilians. Hence, Noam and Ashraf are linked by the inevitable cycle of violence in the early 2000s: Ashraf’s brother-in-law planned a terrorist attack that injured Noam’s roommate, resulting in a military assault that killed Ashraf’s sister and turned Ashraf into a suicide bomber killing him and Noam. The conflict has ruled every aspect of Noam and Ashraf’s life since childhood, as Ashraf’s family was ravaged by house demolitions and Noam blames his mother’s illness for the difficulties of the conflict.
Representations of non-normative masculinity:
The films deal with questions about masculinity, sexuality and race and reproduce male expectations and homonormativity. in the The bladder and Out in the darkThe main characters all represent male gay men and do not question gender expectations. For example, Noam judges his gay friend for listening to pop music and boy bands and suggests the rolling stones instead. The Jewish protagonists Noam and Roy are both Ashkenazi (white in the Israeli context) and strengthen nationalist and neoliberal values - Noam as a reserve soldier and Roy as a successful corporate lawyer. Therefore, the main characters offer “easy-to-swallow” normative gay identities that do not question hegemonic masculinity and strengthen the patriotic and neoliberal gay figure. The films show the limits of national LGBT inclusion and representation in mainstream pop culture. Both films represent “female” gay identities only as secondary characters who behave “stereotypically gay”. in the Out in the dark Mustafa, a female queer Palestinian, experiences his tragic death at the hands of the Israeli security agency and homophobic Palestinian terrorists. in the The bladder, Golan, who is with Yali, is hyperfeminine and hyper masculine at the same time, creating a caricature image of gay and Sephardic stereotypes that is ridiculed throughout the film. Golan and Mustafa, as non-white female men denied happy endings, represent the racialized and gendered restrictions on national inclusion.
Drift, on the other hand tells the story of the “perverted” gay person who cannot be accepted into society. Gay life in Drift is portrayed as lonely and melancholy, and Roby struggles to find a place that makes him feel welcome. In his opening monologue, Roby reflects on his life as a gay man and the requirements for social acceptance: “Maybe if the hero were politically aware. At least he should be a soldier, come from the periphery, serve on a warship, be religious, be a war widow. But if he has to be gay, at least let him suffer. Don’t let him enjoy it. “Roby identifies a direct link between militarized masculinity and gay inclusion and criticizes the tropes it has to fit into in order to be accepted. As Weber argues, the normative homosexual stands up against the perverse homosexual and regulates the acceptable expressions of sexuality on the Basis of nationalistic narratives.
Tales of Racial Hybridity and Palestinian Sexuality:
In all of the films, Palestinian men are portrayed through the Israeli gaze, which often leads to superficial and stereotypical understandings of Palestinian sexuality. in the Drift, The Palestinian characters are believed to be terrorists and have hyper-masculine orientalist traits: they are dark, hairy, muscular, and mysterious. The sexuality of the Palestinians is never discussed and their names or backgrounds are unknown – they exist only to please the Israeli protagonist. The film evokes oriental tropes from Arabs who are fetishized by the West. By reinforcing stereotypes and securing Roby’s dominance in the scene, the film maintains the western-oriental binary hierarchies occupied by occupiers, even through sexual encounters. So, Drift corresponds to colonial and Zionist racial fear and maintains the predominance of the Jewish male body.
Similar, The bladder also reinforces the orientalist tropics of the masculine gay Arab. At the beginning of the film, the sexual roles of Ashraf and Noam are very clear, with Ashraf taking on the role of the top who pleases Noam. At the end of the film, after Ashraf lived under a fake Israeli identity and integrated into the liberal bubble of Tel Aviv, the sexual roles are reversed for the first time. This scene marks Ashraf’s inauguration into the western gay community when he committed to the Israeli gay lifestyle and left the gay Arab troop behind. Both films regulate Arab sexuality and determine how gay Arabs should express their sexuality and what behavior can be accepted by the West. The films illustrate how pop culture reflects and reproduces the discourse, how the Arab gay men are oversimplified and diminished and how the colonial power structures are strengthened.
Additionally, The bladder turns tragic violence into an inevitable end to affairs between Israelis and Palestinians and sends a warning signal against racial hybridity. The film is full of references to its violent ending, for example in a conversation between Noam and Ashraf after they have sex:
Noam: “We were explosive”
Noam: “You don’t know the word?”
Ashraf: “Yes, if you explode something, a bomb.”
Noam: “Explosion can also be something really good. Good sex is explosive. “
This scene predicts the deaths of Noam and Ashraf by explosion and creates the feeling that their relationship was doomed from the start. The film shows Israeli-Palestinian relations as dangerous and impossible, while maintaining the social taboo in such matters.
Pinkwashing and the Palestinian Gay Victim:
On her first official date, Noam took Ashraf to see a play about gay love in the Holocaust. “I liked the way they run their fingers over their eyebrows instead of saying I love you,” Ashraf tells Noam, referring to a secret signal of love between men that was used in the piece. “It’s good that we don’t need that anymore,” replies Noam. “Maybe not in Tel Aviv”.
This interaction between Ashraf and Noam illustrates the repetitive comparison between Israel and Palestine throughout the film. Israel (or more precisely Tel Aviv) is seen as extremely liberal, a place where the liberation struggle for homosexuals is no longer necessary. Palestine, on the other hand, is represented by everything illiberal: Ashraf’s family refuses to accept him, and he is surrounded by extreme politics and terrorism. A similar narrative can be seen in Out in the dark when Nimr fears for his life and has to flee Palestine to reach Israel’s “advanced” port. This representation undermines the Israeli occupation and seeks international support for the “progressive westerners” who fight against “homophobic terrorists”. As Byrne (2013: 136) argues, “Pinkwashing bypasses the human rights violations of the colonial and military occupation and instead focuses on the alleged gay rights violations perpetrated by Palestinians against Palestinians”.
In addition, the plot of Out in the dark relies on homonationalist norms that are taking over Israeli hegemony. Roy is Nimr’s savior, who offers him refuge when he needs to flee his family and arranges his escape route to France. Roy takes Nimr to lawyers who can help him get a travel permit and uses his father’s connections to help Nimr. While Nimr sits passively and helplessly in Roy’s apartment, Roy telephones and asks permission for Nimr. So the film victimizes gay Palestinians and reinforces a “white savior” narrative about gay Israelis. In fact, the film’s main criticism of the Israeli government is against the difficulties gay Palestinians face when trying to find refuge in Israel and ignores the oppression Palestinians experience under Israeli occupation. This narrative builds on other gender-specific colonial tropes – instead of Spivak’s “white men who save brown women from brown men” (Spivak 1994: 93) the film shows white gay men who save brown gay men from homophobia (white and brown). Men. This discourse is similar to Massad’s analysis of the “gay international” which claims to liberate oppressed queer Arabs. Nimr’s agency is taken away and he remains powerless and voiceless alongside his western partner.
Both The bladder and Out in the dark were shown to an international audience around the world to improve Israel’s global image. The Toronto International Film Festival, where both films were shown, is a well-known location for the “Brand Israel” campaign (Jankovic 2013: 101). Brand Israel was launched by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and emphasized the progressive and western elements of Israel in order to obtain international support (ibid.). The global context of the films therefore further proves their promotion of homonationalism and pinkwashing of the occupation.
In conclusion, this paper answered the research question: How are homosexual relationships between Israelis and Palestinians represented in Israeli cinema? To answer the research question, I applied theories about queer studies, colonialism, and post-structuralism to three Israeli films depicting gay relationships between Israeli and Palestinian men: Drifting, the bubble, and Out in the dark. Topics such as masculinity, LGBT inclusion, fetishization and homonationalism were discussed. The bladder and Out in the dark portray Israeli-Palestinian relations as tragic as the options they offer for such couples are limited by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The bladder dient insbesondere als Warnung vor dem gewaltsamen Ende, das für interracial schwule Paare erwartet wird, da sie dem Kreislauf der Gewalt des Konflikts niemals entkommen können. In allen drei Filmen reproduzieren Begegnungen zwischen schwulen israelischen und palästinensischen Männern koloniale und rassistische Machtstrukturen, wie von Young vorgeschlagen, und bestreiten nicht die israelische Erzählung der westlichen Vorherrschaft. Driften and Die Blase fetischisieren und exotisieren arabische männliche Sexualität und bestätigen Theorien des Kolonialismus über Verlangen und sexuelle Vorschriften. Darüber hinaus verstärken die Filme den Mainstream-Diskurs über LGBT-Rechte zur Inklusion durch bestehende Staatsbürgerschaftsregime, indem sie männliche, nationalistische und neoliberale schwule Persönlichkeiten vertreten. Zuletzt, Die Blase and Draußen im Dunkeln dienen homonationalistischen und orientalistischen Erzählungen des weißen Retters und des braunen Opfers. Die Filme spülen die Besatzung ab, indem sie ein fortschrittliches westliches Publikum ansprechen und Gewalt gegen Palästina rechtfertigen, indem sie sich auf Stereotypen palästinensischer Homophobie konzentrieren.
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