Issue #3

  1. Facing and Confronting Borders

  2. Of Birthright Transgressions

  3. A Curvature of the Spine

  4. Plausible Conversions

  5. Counter-Ruin

  6. Beautiful Creatures

  7. Self Portrait

  8. A Tale of a Woman and a Robe

  9. Five Streets in Kraków

  10. I Love Germany

  11. Anxiety at the Archive

  12. Fidelity to Hybridity: Returning to Ella Shohat’s Arab-Jew

Beautiful Creatures

Omri Ben-Yehuda

© Raimond Spekking, Cologne Pride/CSD 2018 – Auftritt von Netta Barzilai auf der Hauptbühne, Heumarkt, 2018

Israel sent two birds to the Eurovision Song Contest and won. In 1998, it was the gorgeously plumed Dana International dressed in a Jean-Paul Gaultier parrot dress and, in 2018, the kimono-ed chicken Netta. Of course, both deserved to win, but in both cases Israel also played a winning political game. The Eurovision Song Contest is simultaneously a well-known LGBTQ space and an expression of European nationalism. While embracing diversity, it also excludes that which it considers beyond the pale, namely the continent’s historical enemy: the East. The contest perpetuates and reinforces an Orientalist approach that draws an imaginary boundary between Western progress and Eastern backwardness, between enlightened Europe and its benighted Other.

As we have recently discovered, Dana International was chosen to represent Israel on orders from above, at the behest of the first Netanyahu government. With remarkable instincts, the Israelis knew how to give the Europeans what they want: a few feathers, cries of “diversity,” and a wild sense of freedom—the byproduct of which marks Islam as the enemy. In a certain sense, Islam and Arab nationalism are no different from other religions and nationalisms. Their exclusion from the (Western) human order, however, at once led to the birth of secularism, modern nationalism, and colonialism. The Eurovision Song Contest blatantly attempts to capture and consolidate this national imagination.

The subversive phrase in the song “Toy,” the winning song of this year’s Netta, is “Look at me, I’m a beautiful creature.” This lyric encapsulates the subversiveness of the contest itself, in light of the fact that the homo/lesbian revolution—to the extent that it exists at all—is a revolution of the body.

Over the course of the past three centuries, humanism has shaped the concept of “mankind” to exclude all that is not “man:” i.e. women, children, non-European men, and—of course—homosexuals. At the height of this process, in the late 19th century, the concept of “man” coincided with the century’s other great concept—nationalism—which argued that any creature could become a “man”—proud, forceful, inscrutable in face and body. Women, also, could become this kind of “man,” and indeed female world leaders, from Golda Meir to Angela Merkel, have consistently downplayed their femininity. In the 20th century, the Jews joined the national revolution when they decided to revisit Ezekiel’s prophecy of “the dry bones” and raise up the bent-over, subservient, and sickly Jew of the wilderness in order to make him a “man” among “men” (following Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin’s gendered interpretation of the Zionist aspiration to be “a nation like all other nations”). In the second half of the 20th century, the LGBTQ community underwent a similar process, becoming men like all other men, so to speak. The realization of this process is embodied in the spectacle of the Eurovision Song Contest as a gay space that is at the same time a national one. The Western queer and the Western nation are one.

Nevertheless, the “creatureliness” in Netta’s “Toy” does subvert the dominant national vision of masculinity. The German concept of Kreatürlichkeit, which gained currency in the 20th century, gives expression to the body excluded and repressed by humanism for the sake of its vision of masculinity. The creaturely body is exposed, unprotected, faceless, perhaps best represented by the much-circulated images of the starving Jewish victims of the European Holocaust (or famine-victims in “Africa”). The idea of the creaturely body is rooted in the European carnival tradition—in contrast to the respectability and order of the state and religion—and focuses specifically on the “gaping body” associated with fertility, sex, and eating. The creaturely body seeks to demonstrate that we are more animal than human (that we are more briah, in the terms of rabbinical Hebrew)—an approach given modernist expression in the literature of the great Jewish storytellers Kafka and Agnon (the former in the giant vermin of The Metamorphosis, and the latter in the dog Balak of Only Yesterday; Agnon’s dog defeats the Zionist halutz, or pioneer, and reveals his flawed masculinity). The creaturely body thus acts on two opposing planes: wild, carnivalesque excess, and hunger and annihilation.

Thus, a “man” may easily become a woman who becomes a parrot, or a seductive, proud chicken (a transition emphasized in Netta’s song, in the contrast between the gentle melody that characterizes the passage that refers to “Wonder Woman” and the clucking refrain). It is not a Julia Roberts-style “pretty woman,” but a body that is beyond femininity; Netta’s “beautiful creature” is neither woman nor girl nor chicken, but something that moves in between.

Netta Joins the queer community not as a lesbian but as a young woman who does not adhere to the pop star demands to have a petit or athletic figure. Yet the refrain of her winning song is in fact rather conservative. The first part—“I’m not your toy”—could have been a powerful statement had the second part not downplayed the entire situation by turning the object of the song’s criticism into a “stupid boy.” Had it referred to a “stupid man,” it would have expressed a critical position. But in infantilizing the male addressee as a small (and stupid) boy, the refrain relieves him of responsibility for his actions. The song reenacts the tragedy of all Israelis who fail to recognize the fact that they are agential adults who must take responsibility for their actions as members of an independent nation. In dismissing the perpetrator, turning him into a stupid boy, the victim defuses the political force of her statement while, at the same time, reaffirming that he (the Israeli) can never do wrong. He is only a stupid boy.

This is what Sarah and Benjamin Netanyahu understood when they enthusiastically embraced Netta, constantly referring to her as a girl. In fact, youth is often used as a way of accepting/excusing homosexuality (or, in Netta’s case, accepting her refusal of society’s heteronormative and sexist demands) as mischief or play, rather than the conscious actions of adults capable of subverting social norms. It is no wonder that Israel—currently the only (de facto) Arab country to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest—has never sent a song in Arabic (if taking the historical Land of Israel in its entirety, it contains about 6 million Muslim and Christian Arabs and another 3.2 million Jewish Arabs). The contest reaffirms the same Judeo-Christian covenant that has determined the nature of the Israeli ethos from the outset: small, mischievous, cute, wild, and—most importantly—not Arab. The LGBTQ community has failed to notice that the Eurovision Song Contest and the European nation-state in general do not accept them as creatures liable to undermine the social order but rather keep them safely within the entertainment niche of a fun carnival that—at the same time—distinguishes the East from the West. In this failure, the LGBTQ community worldwide participates in one of the greatest historical acts of Western oppression: the oppression of the Arab/East.

There is therefore no greater challenge for this community, leading up to next year’s contest in Israel-Palestine, than to offer its unreserved support for the desperate demonstrators in Gaza. It is only in this way that they can prove that they are proud creatures who understand that there are beautiful creatures over there as well.

Accompanying photo © licensed under Creative Commons

Dr. Omri Ben-Yehuda is Minerva (Max-Planck Gesellschaft) Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of German Philology at the Free University of Berlin. His book on Franz Kafka and S.Y. Agnon will appear in September in Hebrew.