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  • Yarden Shestopal

Muscle Gays and Muscle Jews

I might not be the best at small talk, but my conversations with strangers reliably lead to veritable revelations. Example: I was getting to know a classmate after the first at-home football game.

“Football is the gayest sport,” I said. As an out queer, I thought a straight man would find this apothegm funny, which he did. “Each player has a special jig,” I continued, “and the game is continually interrupted by a fabulous cheerleading performance.”

“Football?” my classmate said. “Not wrestling?”

I chuckled and walked away, shaking off the simultaneous triteness and provocativeness embedded in this question. Aside from eroticizing homosociality, this exchange troubled me by compelling my self-reflection. As an American Jew with complicated connections to Israel, I often feel the need to defend various aspects of my culture, including wrestling.

Combat sports, martial arts, and other grappling practices are not just popular in Israel, but they also constitute part of the state’s national identity. Krav Maga, for example, is a uniquely Israeli self-defense method, designed for use against an (implicitly Arab) attacker on the street. In international settings, like the Olympics, Israel sends judo teams to compete with other countries on equal footing. In fact, my Dad first came to the United States from an Israeli high school to play judo in college. In the diaspora, physical combat is a way for Jews to assert prowess. It makes us feel like we are more than our intellect, our money, and our hereditary health problems. In popular memory, the Israeli boxer Rafael Halperin represents a transgression of anti-Semitic stereotypes, continuing to uplift Jews and make us feel closer to the Holy Land.

Importantly, this urge to transcend anti-Semitism through the “regeneration of the Jewish body” is rooted in early Zionist ideology. In his monograph on Muscular Judaism, the historian Todd Samuel Presner details the campaign to, as the Zionist leader Max Nordau said, “awaken[] Judaism to life … in order to create a lost Muskeljudentum once again.” In the early twentieth century, Jews––men and women alike––took up this masculinist call to (stronger) arms, founding sports associations and competitions in Europe, the Americas, and Palestine. Though not all Zionists, many proponents of Muscular Judaism explicitly depicted Jewish athletes as symbols of the future Jewish state.

Ultimately, to say that wrestling is gay is a simplistic way to denote the homoeroticism of nationalism. As Presner explains, for advocates of male bonding as a way to regenerate the state, “homosexuality is in no way effeminizing or weakening; rather it is the culmination of masculine strength. In effect, women reproduce the species, while men reproduce the state.” When one says that wrestling is gay, one ignores the heterosexual reproduction required for nationalist projects, emphasizing instead what one sees on face value: male touch, the absence of women, one’s own body as one compares it to that of the competitors. In other words, wrestling is about as gay as you are, and about as gay as the nation-state. And the nation-state is extremely gay.

The gay nation is evident in the discourses of pinkwashing, which present the state as exceptional due to its putative support of gay rights. In the case of Israel, the occupation of Palestine is justified through statements such as “Even a freak like you would be safe in Tel Aviv.” In other words, Israel is supposedly saving Palestinian queers from brown Muslim barbarity by subjecting them to second-class status at best and military siege at worst. In this article, I want to discuss a particular component of Zionist pinkwashing––its muscular side, which employs the poetics of physical health to serve settler-colonial ends.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was at its highest, the muscular poetics of regeneration came to a head in the Jewish diaspora. One instance was in a May 2020 article by Shimon Apisdorf, published by the Orthodox Union, lamenting the “cancellation” of Lag BaOmer due to COVID-19, while celebrating the “redemption of the Jewish nation” through the establishment of the Israeli state. Contriving an alternative history of Jews, Apisdorf presents the Jewish body as a hallmark of exile. First, he presents a nostalgic view of the Jewish nation before it was “destroyed.” “For almost two millennia,” he writes,

Jews were very attuned to their souls, naturally and actively strove for a deep connection to God, and lived with a keen awareness that reality and life were far deeper than what they appeared to be …. During that time, people were as keenly aware of their souls longing and reaching for God, as we are of our longing to ascend the ladder of professional accomplishment.

Tellingly, Apisdorf invokes the trope of the career-driven, ambitious Jew in his romanticization of the past and essentialization of mysticism.

Next, Apisdorf’s writing on Rabbi Akiva, a religious scholar who was killed by Roman officials in second-century Judaea, dichotomizes spirituality and corporeality even further:

The great teacher was tortured to death in front of his students. While his skin was being flayed from his body, Rabbi Akiva was immersed in a deep recitation of the Shema. “But how?” his stunned and broken hearted students asked. And his astonishing reply: “All my life I waited for an opportunity to attach myself to God in total love, and this is it.”

It is when the rabbi’s flesh and skin separate that he achieves communion with the divine, suggesting that the body cannot be reconciled with religiosity.

More directly, a description of the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones represents the exilic Jew as physically weak:

Ezekiel is standing in Jerusalem where he sees a valley of dry bones. He is told that those lifeless bones represent the nation of Israel in exile. Then … Ezekiel is witness to the bones returning to life. Bone finds its’ [sic] way to match bone, skeletons reassemble, flesh and skin regenerate, until finally, the entire nation is back on its’ [sic] feet.

According to the author, the Jewish nation can be regenerated like a body.

Indeed, Apisdorf presents a laundry list of physical disabilities that recycles the diction of early Zionists. The diaspora, he explains, was marked by “disassociated limbs, spiritually comatose, in the grave of exile”; “a finger whose whole meaning is to be found in being a finger”; an “awful blinding of Jewish eyes.” Using a bodily poetics that recalls the apocalyptic tone of nineteenth-century Orientalist horror fiction, Apisdorf seems to be saying that exile is a condition of the body––one, I think, he would diagnose me with. However, he states that exile “is now drawing to a close. What once seemed the stuff of hopeless prayers and impossible dreams, is now unfolding before our very eyes; the Jewish people are returning home, to the land of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem.” Curiously, even though Apisdorf suggests that the physical is less important than the spiritual, he cannot help but align himself with a political movement (Zionism) that is tied to a specific area (Palestine). Ultimately, this article doesn’t just use medical vocabulary as a rhetorical tool. Rather, its verbiage embodies a Jewish-American commitment to literal muscular redemption.

Discourses of health in Jewish-American communities, as in the instances above, reach paramount significance in the sexual politics of Israel. In The Right to Maim, cultural theorist Jasbir Puar describes Israeli pinkwashing as the basis, not just of the claim that Palestinians are homophobic, but also of “a nation-building project of rehabilitation, reproductive biopolitics, and the capacity and debility of bodies; how ableism and hetero and homo reproduction are entwined.” She deems “eugenicist” Israel’s pronatalist regime, which restricts the cohabitation of Israeli Jews and Palestinians while supporting the reproductive endeavors of gay and trans couples. Indeed, cases of muscular pinkwashing are rife in the Jewish diaspora. For example, BlueStar, a nonprofit that spreads pro-Israel messaging, released a poster entitled “Iran: 80 lashes ‘for being gay.’” A vivid image of the lash marks is accompanied by text in jarringly homespun sans serif fonts, encouraging audiences to sympathize with the victims, “Farsad and Farnam.” More than a statement about Iran’s LGBT-rights record, this visual conjures up an image of the strong gay Israeli man in contrast to an injured homosexual Iranian counterpart.

Even though the figuration of sexual health contributes to Zionism, the Israeli apartheid regime’s disparate administration of sexual healthcare to Jews and Arabs makes Palestine a queer issue. Since 1993, restrictions on movement across borders in Israel/Palestine have crippled the Palestinian Ministry of Health’s attempts to create a national health system. Queer Palestinians under occupation, for whom sexually transmitted diseases are already stigmatic, have limited options when seeking out locations for testing. As of 2010, the Hadassah AIDS Center was the primary clinic for the vast central and southern regions of the West Bank. Only one clinic near Jerusalem offered free testing. A single pharmacy, in Ramallah, provided antiretroviral drugs. And good luck trying to obtain a border-crossing permit if you are referred to an Israeli hospital. In defiance of Israel’s debilitating neocolonialism, activist groups such as alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society have launched programs to educate and provide sexual healthcare to other queer Palestinians.

In this article, I intend to offer an alternative to mainstream queer organizing, which weaponizes the muscular/masculinist poetics of health to animate pinkwashing campaigns, most significantly in service of Zionism. I do not conflate Jews with Zionists, a trope that contributes to anti-Semitic violence. Rather, I want to challenge the Jews who are saying that support of Israel is a Jewish value, as well as the queers who are complicit in pinkwashing. Like many Jews, I believe that an Israel will exist that secures the rights of queers and non-queers, Arabs and Jews, people whose identity can and cannot be captured by a census form. All bodies. In fact, that Israel does exist, and I see it enacted every day––on campus at the University of Maryland, in DC, and elsewhere. Namely, I’m referring to Hamsa, an organization at the University of Maryland for queer Jewish students, where a Modern Orthodox lesbian can walk into an event wearing pants for the first time. I’m also referring to GatherDC, which enables Jewish millennials to attend a Yom Kippur event without being expected to sacrifice their health by fasting for a day. Gatherings like these show us what the future can be––a future where terms like “muscle gays” and “muscle Jews” don’t need to be uttered.


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