Anthropological Quarterly 76.2 (2003) 369-374
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Anthropological interest in Jewish bodies has historic roots in anthropometric measures used in German science between World Wars I and II to prove Jewish biological inferiority. Historian Sander Gilman, in The Jew's Body, traces efforts of pre-Nazi German science centuries back, referring, for example, to a medieval European physicians' correlation of Jews coming out of Africa black skinned due to syphilis, a condition shared with other Africans [1991:100]. Many sorts of "others" have been interested in scrutinizing Jewish bodies.
The Jewish religion scrutinizes the body. It requires the male be circumcised at eight days of age. The religiously observant Jewish male follows a regimen of rituals prescribed by halacha, Jewish law, surrounding bodily functions. The Jewish female body comes under Jewish law and ritual between the first menstruation and menopause, subject to intense scrutiny by rabbinic authorities over issues of purity and pollution.
Judaism is Israel's official state religion; in rites de passage, all Jewish citizens are subject to the fundamentalist interpretation of halacha. In recent years, anthropological interest has focused on the Israeli Jewish woman's body: Rahel Wasserfall on rules governing menstruation, Susan Kahn in Reproducing Jews on rules governing halachic interpretations for using modern technology to inseminate [End Page 369] single and married women. Most recently, Susan Sered's What Makes Israeli Women Sick? analyzes the reproductive body, the militarized body, the ritualized body, the scrutinized body and the resisting body to explain why Israeli women are far less healthy than Israeli men. The Chosen Body touches not at all on the contexts cited above.
Israel was born in 1948 in an uneasy balance of triumph and tragedy. It has existed in that perpetual uneasy balance, imposed and self-inflicted, since it was conceived as an idea in the 19th century. Meira Weiss is an acknowledged member of the socially privileged Ashkenazi sabra status group [native-born of European ancestry]. She has devoted her professional life to the dark, the tragic side of Israeli life and culture. She looks at the various ways in which "the chosen body" is constituted, and others, the tragic non-chosen, are rejected. She conducts a special kind of participant-observation: she is a participant, an actor vested in the system, perpetuating its darkness. She is an observer: using questionnaires to study different expressions of the tragic in Israeli public and private life, collecting poems, newspaper articles, television and radio broadcasts and other cultural artifacts to illustrate her research interest. At times I wondered if, unintentionally, she got answers she expected to hear, if she asked loaded questions. The actor with vested interests is methodologically problematic. For this reason, examples of her questionnaires, and allowing those questioned to speak to us directly rather than through her voice, would have been appropriate. This is not an ethnographic account; it is more similar to cultural studies.
Weiss traces the Zionist story of the historic origin of the need for "new Jew for a new nation," physically distinct from the weakling of the Diaspora. She shows the centrality of the male body in the Israeli body politic, a point made by psychologist Lesley Hazleton in her 1977 book, Israeli Women: The Reality Behind the Myths. The difference between Weiss's focus and other feminist anthropologists writing about Israel is that they focused on the impact of the patriarchal body on women. Weiss's focus is squarely on the body of the idealized, perfectly formed, physically strong, young Israeli male of European ancestry. His is the "new Jew for the new nation," the Chosen People's Chosen Body in the modern state. Weiss traces the impact of the idealized male "chosen body" on the "body politic" in Israeli culture as a collectivity. She sees the idealized male "chosen body" as the "root cultural idiom," a "deep structure," that underlies an ongoing attempt to define a "core collective identity" in Israeli society. Social paradigms...