The Chosen Body: The Politics of the Body in Israeli Society (review)
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Modern Judaism 24.1 (2004) 91-93

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Meira Weiss, The Chosen Body: The Politics of the Body in Israeli Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002). Xii + 176 pp.

The study of the body as an indicator of cultural difference began with the rise of modern anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century. At that point, anthropologists such as Arnold van Gennep and Franz Boas showed how the body presented universals of human evolutionary or cultural development. What is true about the body in any given society, they argued, is true of all bodies—at least potentially. Foucault's arguments have much the same thrust. If power exists, then it deforms the body in similar ways in all societies, at least after a certain point in history. Post-Foucauldian scholars, however, have made exactly the opposite argument. They argue more and more that the very specifics of a culture (however defined) deform the idea or representation of the body in ways particular to that society, without, in general, any ability to extrapolate from these particulars any general rule of the body.

Meira Weiss, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, treads a fine line as she presents the reader particulars about Israeli society and its presentation of the body in the context of what she (using classic feminist discourse) calls "malestream" views. Within feminism (especially certain Continental versions) there has been an argument that Judaism as a religious practice and the Jews as a culture were and are the litmus test for patriarchal society. Israel, for Weiss, provides a test case for how true this is. It is the construction of masculinity that deforms and exaggerates Israeli ideas of the body. Weiss looks at case studies from the response of parents to birth defects, to induction intothe army, to the memorialization of dead soldiers and discovers that (1) Israel is typical if not exaggerated in its "malestreamness" and (2) Israel is a rather unique case for the complexity of a new, hybrid society dealing with contradictory and ambiguous images of the body.

This does not shock the reader. Indeed, had the end result been anything else it would have surprised. That there are overarching patterns in human society concerning the body and that these alter and change based on the practices and beliefs of any given moment of history cannot surprise. That the ultra-Orthodox societies that are in charge of burial in most of Israeli society will only bury circumcised, untattooed men (and untattooed women) means that postmortem circumcision and the removal of tattoos take place in modern Israel. Is this much different from the cosmetic reconstruction of the dead in [End Page 91] American society, with its open-casket funerals? That no autopsies or experiments are undertaken on the bodies of dead soldiers in a society in which the soldier's body has an iconic place, embedded as it is in the very promise of Zionism to restore the sick Jewish body, also does not shock. What is interesting in the Israeli setting is how the religious and secular views on the body are negotiated. No one, says the head of forensic medicine, has ever forbidden us to work on the bodies of the dead soldiers, but it would not be right.

Israel is in Weiss's image both a unitary society—defined and constructed by the army experience—and one that is highly fragmented and contradictory, not only in the secular-religious divisions about the body but also in the long traditions of the various groups, whether from Europe, North Africa, or Ethiopia, about the meaning of the body and its attributes. In a "melting pot" society such as Israel these affects, beliefs, and notions haunt the world just below the surface. In Weiss's discussion of the abandonment of children with birth defects itis not clear, except in her case studies, whether there is a difference in response between "Western" and "Arab" Jews—both of these categories complex and changing over time. (Today the Russian Jews, who are heavily secular, are the...