The music of Dana International, a transsexual singer committed to queer issues, often parodies mainstream Israeli culture. Her latest song, “Diva,” was recently selected by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority to represent Israel at this May’s prestigious European song competition, Eurovision. [1] As Dana prepares for Eurovision, Michal Eden, another member of the Israeli queer community, is running in Meretz’ primaries for the Tel Aviv city board elections. Representing Tel Aviv queers in general and Klaf [2] (the Kehila Lesbit Feministit [the Lesbian Feminist Community]) in particular, Eden will run as a member of Meretz, the left Zionist party in Israel. If elected, Eden will be Israel’s first openly queer elected politician. The careers of Dana and Eden, both Mizrahim or “Eastern Jews,” [3] illustrate the ways in which Israeli queerness functions in relation to Zionist conventions and practices. While Eden portrays herself and her community as subjects and citizens entitled to political rights, Dana and her music repeatedly challenge normative conventions of obedient citizenship.

Queer Nationalism

After six years of Knesset lobbying, appeals to the Supreme Court and negotiations with the army, Israeli queers have secured remarkable rights. [4] Since 1993, a Knesset subcommittee established to deal specifically with gay and lesbian issues has held an annual Gay Pride ceremony. In 1997, it celebrated Klaf’s tenth anniversary. [5]

Given that Israeli democracy is not fully accessible to minorities, the privileged status of queers is surprising. The same Supreme Court that shows little concern for Palestinian or Mizrahi appeals for social justice, [6] has been consistently gay-friendly. This is due to the ways in which official representatives of Israeli queers have imagined and positioned their community to conform to the ideological contours that shape Ashkenazi Zionist imaginings of Israel. [7] Queerness is less threatening than racial or national identities that cannot be reconciled with Ashkenazi Zionism. By aligning themselves with hegemonic national interests, queers enable the Zionist establishment to perpetuate the myth of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” even as it brutally oppresses occupied Palestinians as well as national “minorities,” including Mizrahim, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Ethiopian immigrants and guest workers.

Whereas Michal Eden’s political career as a Mizrahi lesbian functions within this hegemonic framework, Dana International’s career has not been contained by it. A Mizrahi transsexual, Dana sings not only in Hebrew but also in Arabic. Her music is a rich mix of cross-cultural genres and allusions. Dana’s career, which started in marginal gay clubs in Tel Aviv, is not easily incorporated into the Israeli pattern of Ashkenazi success, which must retain its distance from the “Arab.” Her selection by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority to represent Israel in Eurovision can be explained not only by her talent and popularity, but also by a politically correct trend that makes queers fashionable. It also shows how her music, subversive both sexually and politically, is often misread.

The difference between the queerness represented by Eden and that of Dana manifested itself in December 1996, when President Ezer Weizman made a homophobic statement. [8] A queer demonstration demanded Weizman’s resignation. Through the intervention of Knesset members Yossi Sarid (Meretz) and Yael Dayan (Labor), representatives of queer organizations (including Klaf) accepted Weizman’s apology on the grounds that “Weizman is [still] the representative of the secular sane majority” [9] Dana, however, rejected the apology, saying, “Today it’s us, tomorrow it will be other people. Such a president is not my president.” [10]

Dana’s response deviated from the position of the “secular sane majority” in whose name many Israeli queers are often unconcerned with Dana’s “other people.” The term “secular sane majority” implicitly refers to the Ashkenazi left minority which continues to perceive itself as a majority due to its cultural and political power. Motivated by liberal political correctness, this “majority” is willing to accept select tokens from the (implicitly insane) “minorities” and to offer them some form of equal opportunity. The Ashkenazi left’s efforts to coopt obedient Mizrahi tokens is guided by a new color-awareness (replacing its former “color-blindness”), rather than any sense of its own political responsibility for or recognition of institutional racism. [11] Eden is the perfect target for such gestures. She is a Mizrahi lesbian who belongs to the “sane majority” by virtue of her party and lesbian-feminist affiliations. Meretz, the most gay-friendly party, is identified with an Ashkenazi middle- to upper-class electorate and can only benefit from having a Mizrahi candidate for the Tel Aviv city board.

The roots of Eden’s political career can be traced to Klaf. Founded in 1987 by Haya Shalom, Klaf emerged from Shalom’s conviction that if “lesbians from Asia [and] the Third World” can organize and struggle in “societies [which] are not very different from [our]…Middle East [sic] culture…[then] we can do it in Israel.” [12] Klaf’s development, however, had little to do with “Middle East[ern] culture.” Klaf’s political concerns have been confined to purely lesbian and feminist issues. Klaf’s feminism emerged from a marginalized Israeli feminist culture which sought to overcome its marginality by operating within the Ashkenazi Zionist left. [13] Klaf’s self-portrayal can be summarized thus: “We are the salt of the earth: kibbutz natives, distinguished officers in the IDF, youth counselors, academics, career women, independent and gifted” [14] — all positions connoting Ashkenazi privilege.

Eden’s self-definition as a “white Mizrahi” argues that “the discrimination [against Mizrahim] is not deliberate.” [15] Such non-confrontational beliefs are necessary for her to represent Meretz. Since lesbianism is perceived as an Ashkenazi category, Eden cannot be an “authentic” Mizrahi representative. Asked whether “as a Mizrahi-lesbian [she] could draw Mizrahi votes,” she said:

Undoubtedly, as a lesbian I’ll be less popular in certain sectors…. Mizrahi society is more traditional…and has a hard time accepting the gay-lesbian sector. This is the society I come from and it has negative and positive parts. Our society tends to take the negative parts and turn them into a culture’s main features. Like people saying, “Do you support Mizrahi culture which oppresses women?” [16]

By contrasting the “Mizrahi” sector with the “gay-lesbian” sector, Eden implicitly equates Mizrahim with heterosexuality. When she contrasts “the society [she] come[s] from” with “our society,” her positioning is clear. Unwilling to imagine belonging simultaneously to both communities, Eden falls prey to that which she criticizes. Her analyses of oppressions are embedded in her position as a supposedly deracialized Ashkenazi by default. [17] “During the years,” she confesses, “due to meetings with women from various sectors…I found that my experiences of oppression, based on my sexual orientation, are very similar to those of other groups. I became more open to identifying with other oppressions.” [18]

Her openness, however, has definite limits. As co-editor of Klaf Hazak, Eden attempted to censor an interview with Nadine Naber, an Arab-American anthropologist who criticized Israel’s occupation of Palestine. [19] Eden protested that:

This would provide a stage for criticizing our very right to live our peaceful lives within the bounds of the state of Israel when the Palestinian people suffers…. There is no place in Klaf Hazak for…this kind of [extremist political] opinion, which has no direct contact with the lesbian or feminist experience. [20]

While “Mizrahi” conflicts with “lesbian,” the “Palestinian” here is totally irreconcilable with either the “lesbian” or feminist. Klaf is imagined as occupying a certain “space” within “the bounds of the state of Israel” that is radically separated from the Occupied Territories. [21]

Since Klafz’s lesbian-feminist discourse is based on normative assumptions about sexuality, gender, race and nationalism, its definition of “lesbian” is inseparable from that of “woman.” By grounding lesbianism in the naturalized category “woman,” Klaf claims normativity, a prerequisite for legal regulation and rights. This ideology has led, for instance, to a series of interviews with “exemplary [successful straight] women” in Klaf Hazak, [22] as if these women were models for lesbian feminism.

Policing Borders

Klaf’s promotion of strict gender roles contrasts with Dana’s play with gender, sexuality, race and nationality. Her Eurovision song “Diva” [23] is about a woman “bigger than life” who has unique personal “senses” and a “stage which is all hers.” By referring to supposedly natural, yet unique “senses,” Dana mocks essentialist notions of gender. This denaturalization of “woman” is intensified by Dana’s past as Yaron Cohen and by the song’s praise for “Marlene” (Dietrich) and “Sophia” (Loren), icons of gay camp who are irreducible to Klaf’s “exemplary women.” A similar denaturalizing occurs in Dana’s “Betula” (“Virgin”), where she sings: “I’m almost a virgin,” and “[I’m] a virgin in mind.” [24]

Klaf’s perceptions of the contours of “woman” and “lesbian” and their racial and national delineations can be charted, as in Eden’s use of “space,” in accordance with the policing of national borders. Returning from the last International Lesbian and Gay Association conference in Germany, where she represented Zionist lesbianism, Eden was convinced that Israeli queers should be proud of their state. She lamented that “only Meretz” officially shows up at Gay Pride events and expressed her hope that in the future “the Labor party, the Likud, Gesher, the Third Way, everyone,” [25] would try to attract queers. This “everyone,” however, is limited to the political center. Similarly, Eden defines her feminism as “aspirations for equality within reasonable limits,” [26] that keep her political vision within the loyal nationalist framework. Instead of using queerness subversively, Mal and Eden support an institutionalized Zionist ideology that polices gender, sexuality and race.

Dana International, by contrast, mocks nationalist loyalty, her very name suggesting a rejection of Eden’s limitations. In the early 1990s, as Yaron Cohen, she participated in a Tel Aviv drag show version of the “pre-Eurovision,” the Israeli song contest in which the Eurovision contestant is chosen. Ofer Nissim, Dana’s manager, wanted to “have Whitney Houston in concert in Saudi Arabia,” where she would “have to sing in Arabic.” Nissim recruited Yaron Cohen, and then invented the name Dana International. [27]

In the song “Dana International/Shushu ya Shushu,” a flight from a “Saudi Arabian airport” to “Monaco” ends — surprisingly — in “Ben Gurion Airport.” [28] This international incident, on flight number “six-o-sex,” is charged with sexual overtones. After a sexually adventurous flight, “five minutes before landing in Ben Gurion Airport,” the flight attendant announces: “No kiss kiss/no miz miz and no business allowed — shukran.” [29] The song parodies the state’s role in policing sexuality and shows how state borders parallel sexual limitations.

“Nosa’at LePetra” (Traveling to Petra), [30] a sophisticated political-sexual parody of the heroic nationalist pathos of Arik Lavi’s canonical song from the 1950s, “HaSela Ha’Adom” (The Red Rock), is also about crossing borders. Lavi’s “HaSela Ha’Adom” tells of legendary, courageous young Israeli sabra (non-immigrant) men who cross mountains and desert to arrive at a place from which they would not return alive. The song is based on real efforts by Israeli males to penetrate Petra, Jordan. [31] Dana turns this Ashkenazi Israeli myth, with its implicit sexual imagery of a heroic masculine penetration of a feminized Orient, into an explicit sexual encounter with a desert that she returns to rather than from. In this parody, she “crosses the river / and returns to the desert / like the wild tiger / [for] a night in the desert;” where “Asia,” undressed, “touches the space / …your lips kiss the tranquillity / passion’s drums are beating.”

In 1994, Dana was almost selected for Eurovision, for “Layla Tov Eropa” (Good Night Europe). [32] The song invites Europe to “dance with the whole planet,” implicitly suggesting a redeployment of global imperialist relations. Asia is on the rise, Africa and America “are dancing coast to coast,” Australia shows up “like a desired woman,” and all engage in a “prayer for the human spirit.” Europe must choose either to join the dance or the world’s rhythm” or go to sleep. The song challenges European notions of a (white) “human spirit” constituted through dehumanizing the inhabitants of other continents but can easily be (mis)read as a homage to Europe. Now, with Dana going to Eurovision, the same irony is played out again. Israel’s participation in the contest flatters a state that wishes to be perceived as Western. Framed by such eurocentric aspirations, Dana’s presence at Eurovision mixes popular, representative Israeli music with resistance to ordinary nationalist representation.

In the club mix version or “Maganuna” (Crazy Woman), [33] sounds of police sirens are followed by Dana’s shouting and crowing, as she exclaims in Arabic: “I’m not crazy!” The juxtaposition situates madness in the state’s policing institutions. One of the first occasions when Dana sang “Maganuna” was at the Tel Aviv Gay Pride event in June 1996. As the sabbath was approaching, the police ordered the show to come to an end. Dana, however, held onto the microphone for another moment, singing the first line of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva.” This act defamiliarized the anthem and turned it into an internal political joke, an implicit criticism of police and city officials who could only tolerate queers within certain limits.

Whereas Eden willingly accepts these limitations, Dana uses her ambiguous sexual identity and racial-cultural location to violate them. However, because Dana articulates her challenges to heterosexist Ashkenazi Zionism indirectly, they are frequently misread. The misreading involved in Eden’s political power, however, is different. Ashkenazi self-righteous anxiety over racial tensions led to an embrace of Eden, whose political obedience and self-imposed limits pose no threat to the political mainstream. Relieved that self-defined Mizrahi politicians are eager to join the “secular sane majority” the Ashkenazi Zionist left can feel trendy and open because it accepts queers, Mizrahim and Mizrahi queers.

It may be argued that Dana’s transgressive interventions can only work in cultural production, but not in Eden’s political practice. Suggestions, however, about minorities’ relations to state power can be made in various locations. Official Israeli queer representatives could have chosen Dana’s option, but like the Israeli broadcasting authority, they prefer to hear her songs without listening, lest their privileged position be undermined.

Endnotes

[1] Despite its geographic location, Israel regularly participates in the Eurovision competition and has won it twice and hosted it once.
[2] Klaf is the only lesbian-feminist and the only official lesbian organization in Israel. Ktaf’s quarterly Klaf Hazak, is the only Israeli lesbian magazine.
[3] Mizrahim are Jews of non-European, mostly Middle Eastern and North African descent. See Ella Shohaf’s “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims,” in Social Text 19/20 (Fall 1988), pp. 1-35, for a history and analysis of Ashkenazi Zionist oppression of Mizrahim. Ashkenazim are Jews of European descent who control, as a group, much of Israel’s cultural and political resources.
[4] Since 1992, discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal. Similarly, around the same time the army changed its official attitude toward gay and lesbian soldiers. Appeals to the Supreme Court by gays and lesbians on issues related to rights in employment, in the army, in state sperm banks, and to censorship-free public media (in relation to gay issues) were all successful and created precedents that changed gays’ and lesbians’ legal status in practical ways.
[5] Michel Eden, “Lehitga’ot Be’Israel, Tartey Mashma,” (“To Be Proud In and Of Israel”), Hazman Havarod 11 (August 1997), p. 2.
[6] Mizrahim, and even more so Ethiopian Jews, are systematically discriminated against in various sectors, especially in education. HILA (the Public Committee for Equal Education in Poor Neighborhoods, Development towns and Arab Villages) has made numerous appeals to the Supreme Court regarding the massive and illegal transfer of Mizrahi and Ethiopian elementary school students from regular to special education. The Supreme Court has dealt with specific cases but has not provided a sufficient legal solution or precedent to the problem. My knowledge of the subject is derived mostly from personal communications with Mira Eliezer from HILA. See also “HILA News” 2 (Summer 1996), and Dafna Baram, “Lo LeAshirim Bilvad” (“Not Only for the Rich”), Mitsad Sheni 10 (September 1997), pp. 8-10.
[7] Benedict Anderson discusses nationalism in terms of imaginary constructs in his Imagined Communities (London and New York: Verso, 1991).
[8] When asked about his attitude toward homosexuals, Weizman said, “I am against…everybody’s coming out of the closets…. I like a man who wants to be a man rather than a man who wants to be a woman, or a woman who wants to be a man. This is a complicated issue…. I personally see it as negative. The treatment of homosexuals should be determined by law.” Yediot Aharonot, December 22, 1996.
[9] Gal Ohovsky, “Kvod HaNasi” (“Your Honor the President”), Hazman Havarod 4 (January 1997), p. 7.
[10] Haxman Havarod 4 (January 1997), p. 1.
[11] Ruth Frankenberg defines “color-blindness” as an attitude “asserting that we are all the same under the skin; that…we have the same chances and that any failure to achieve is…the fault of people of color themselves” in White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 14-15. The color awareness to which I refer constitutes another form of racist “blindness,” where racial differences and oppression are explicitly acknowledged by Ashkenazim, yet no responsible action is taken.
[12] See interview with Haya Shalom in Tracy Moore, ed., Lesbiot: Israeli Lesbians Talk about 
Sexuality, Feminism, Judaism and their Lives (New York and London: Cassell, 1995), pp. 313-314.
[13] Smadar Lavie discusses Israeli feminism and its relation to Ashkenazi hegemony in “Silenced from All Directions: Third World Israeli Women Writing in the Race/Gender Border Zones of Zionism,” talk given at the Center for Asian Studies, Amsterdam School for Social Research, conference on “Colonial Ethnographies,” June 14-16, 1993.
[14] Oma Osheri, “Nim’as Lanu Leha’amid Panim” (“We’ve had Enough of Pretending”), Ma’ariv, December 18, 1995.
[15] Eden’s column, “HaMo’omedet” (“The Candidate”), Hazman Havarod 16 (January 1998), p. 3.
[16] “Ha’Isha Shelanu Lamo’atsa” (“Our Woman to the City Board”), Klaf Hozak 20 (Fall-Winter 1997), pp. 23-27.
[17] I equate “deracialized” with Ashkenazi identity and, with Frankenberg’s definition of whiteness in mind, as a “cultural void” (122), but a “void” charged with power.
[18] Eden, “HaMo’omedet.”
[19] I conducted the interview, which was published in full as “Arviya, Amerika’it, Feministit, Streitit” (“Arab, American, Feminist, Straight”), Klaf Hazak 17 (Fall 1996), pp. 10-12.
[20] Under her maiden name, Michal Levi Nahum, with her partner, Ira Rader (now Ira Eden), “Inyanim Mediniyim-Lo BeKlafHazak Bevakasha” (“No Political Matters in Klaf Hazak, Please”), Klaf Hazak 17 (Fall 1996), p. 12.
[21] It is only recently, nine years after Klaf Hazak was founded, that a token Palestinian lesbian was finally published in its pages. See Mansiya (pseudonym), “Sipur Nishkah” (“A, Forgotten Story”), Klaf Hazak 18-19 (Spring-Summer 1997), p. 14.
[22] See Klaf Hazak 18-19 (Spring-Summer 1997), pp. 19-22.
[23] Words by Yoav Ginai, music by Zvika Pik.
[24] On Umpatampa (IMP Dance, 1994). Words by Dudu Barak, music by Dana International.
[25] Michal Eden, “Lehitga’ot Be’Israel,” p. 2.
[26] “Ha’Isha Shelanu LaMo’atsa,” Hazman Havarod 16 (January 1998), p. 26.
[27] Yair Kedar, “Thank You for the Music,” Hazman Havarod 12 (September 1997), pp. 5-7.
[28] Words by Dana International and Ofer Nissim, music by Ofer Nissim. On Ofer Nissim Featuring Dana International (IMP Dance, 1993).
[29] “Miz miz” is probably derived from the Hebrew slang “mizmooz:” meaning physical flirting. In Egyptian slang, it means snacking.
[30] Words by Yoav Ginai, music by Ofer Nissim. On Umpatampa (IMP Dance, 1994).
[31] The song was banned for a time by Israeli radio lest it encourage young men to cross the border and die outside the conventional framework of heroic death — military service.
[32] Words by Yoav Ginai, music by Zvika Pik. On Umpatampa (IMP Dance, 1994).
[33] Words by Dana International, music by Ofer Nissim. On Magarwna (Helicon, 1996).

How to cite this article:

Yael Ben-zvi "Zionist Lesbianism and Transsexual Transgression," Middle East Report 206 ( ).
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