Re-Masculinizing the Jew: Gender and Zionism Until the First World War

Reference: GNovis: Georgetown University Journal of Communication, Culture & Technology

April 4th, 2011

By Rachael Byrne


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Zionism emerged not only as a political and colonial mission to create the Jewish state of Israel as a safe-haven from anti-Semitism, but also as a means to address the very anti-Semitic stereotypes attributed to the European Jewish population. Especially, Zionism sought to replace the effeminacy attributed to Jewish men with a masculinity defined by European gentiles, thus avoiding assimilation into their diasporic countries (and thus losing culture and religion), while actually assimilating into the colonial world order as a means to gain legitimacy from the very European nation-states that drove Jewish people out through anti-Semitic discrimination.

The vehicles used to re-masculinize Jewish men include: socialism as seen with the kibbutzim, settler colonialism thereafter, re-embodiment through gymnastics and agriculture, and the induction of Jewish men into violent European culture through dueling and militarism. These venues used an Orientalist framework, abjecting anti-Semitic stereotypes while at the same time projecting similar or identical versions of these stereotypes onto the native Arab population in Palestine. Thus, Zionism not only pushed to build a colonial state, but also to build the future subjects of this state as re-embodied, re-masculinized Jewish men.


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the increased visibility of women’s liberation movements, along with the emergence of homosexuality as an expression of erotic desire, posed a threat to Central and Western European hegemonic masculinity. Indeed, constructions of gender, and with it masculinity, not only came to the forefront of science by means of psychology and sexology throughout Western society, but also played a role in colonialism, imperialism, and militarism through the creation and reiteration of the Other.1

This Other, of course, encompassed the usual oppressed populations: women, natives, homosexual people, Black people, and Jewish people, to name a few.

Often, as the case with Jewish people, normative masculinity located the Other within its own nation-state; we can see this in the deployment of gendered language in anti-Semitic rhetoric. Often “co-opted by modern nationalism” (Mosse 77), this reestablishment of masculinity sought to create a pure nation for the state, one rid of tarnish from other national and religious peoples. Using this nationalist framework, the majority often “likened women to Jews in their supposed adaptability, forwardness, and absence of reason” (Mosse 104), both emasculating Jewish men and reestablishing their inferiority as a race. Sometimes, even, political Right European men attributed the rise in homosexuality to a “Jewish conspiracy” (Mosse 91), as if Jewish people and homosexual people collaborated to create one threatening, effeminate category. Likening Jewish people to women and homosexuals, European nationalists asserted that, “the true conception of the State is foreign to the Jew, because he, like the woman, is wanting in personality, his failure to grasp the idea of a true society is due to his lack of a free intelligible ego” (Otto Weininger qtd. in Daniel Boyarin, 284). This anti-Semitic language pushed Jewish men farther into a new theoretical ghetto, one where they still maintained their rights as citizens, in most cases, but had to surrender their pride, their solidarity, their nation, and indeed, their gender.

One could clearly understand, then, that out of these repressive European nationalisms blossomed a new Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. Through a dialogical process between established European nations and their Others, Jewish men sought to regain their masculinity by means of a sort of assimilation into the Aryan race, creating “a nation like all other nations” through the creation of “men like all other men” (Boyarin 277). Mimicry became a venue for Jewish men to assert their identities not only as men, but as one nation. To be sure, Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, executed an “internal and external disavowal of the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish men as un-manly [by affirming] the European-wide equation of manliness and rightful membership in the nation” (Berkowitz, Zionist Culture 19). Zionism deployed this sort of manliness not only through the desire to build a state, but through the re-embodiment of the Jewish man through the making of the New Jewish Muscle (Musklejud) via athleticism and militarism. As a reaction to the anti-Semitic effeminacy of the Jewish man, “the Musklejud plays out his greatest triumph as an endlessly repeatable drama: overcoming the sissy within” (Soloman 158). And thus Zionism and masculinity became intimately intertwined.

Zionism, therefore, not only sought to create a Jewish state, but also sought to establish the Jewish nation as “a nation like all other nations”(Boyarin 277), with citizens like all other citizens, and men like all other (European) men. Consequently, Zionism paralleled the expressions of masculinity found in Central and Western Europe at the time. Fusing a post-colonial and poststructuralist feminist framework, I argue that Zionism not only pushed to build a colonial state, but also to build the future subjects of this state as re-embodied, re-masculinized Jewish men. Although colonialism and politics provided a concrete mission for Zionist thinkers, Zionism also called for the creation of a Musklejud through athleticism, agriculture, and militarism. Thus, gender politics played a significant role in the construction of both the Zionist subject and Eretz Yisrael.

Zionism, Colonialism, and Politics

In the beginning of the twentieth century, socialist thought emerged as a means for liberation and emancipation in many parts of Europe. Early Zionists, in trying to negotiate their demands as Diasporic Jews in search of a state, often adopted a socialist framework when discussing the Jewish National Home. Indeed, the second Aliyah (the immigration of Jewish people to Palestine in the early twentieth century prior to the First World War) was mainly composed of socialist Jews escaping violent anti-Semitism and pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. These Jewish migrants established the first kibbutzim (similar to agricultural communes) in Israel, a socialist movement in Zionism that became very popular in the 20th century.

This socialist Zionism “promised an erotic revolution for the Jews: the creation of a virile New Hebrew Man but also the rejection of the inequality of women found in traditional Judaism in favor of full equality between the sexes in all spheres of life” (Biale 176). Thus, while masculinist in nature, this sort of secular, socialist Zionism sought to actively include women in the building of the Jewish state. Their roles shifted from housewife and mother to fieldworker and socialist, although motherhood remained a necessity in nation building (Biale 188). However, as seen by this change in roles, masculinity and femininity were not disregarded, and instead of women and men renegotiating and redistributing traditional gender roles, women adopted traditionally masculine roles in addition to traditionally feminine roles. Therefore, socialist Zionism sought to transform the Jewish people, both men and women, into more masculine subjects, rather than creating an organic equality through compromising both masculine and feminine gendered roles.

While socialist politics prove useful in regarding gender in relation to Zionism, Herzl himself did not commit to socialism as the singular option for the state of Israel. Rather, Herzl found that the act of differentiating the Jewish people politically from their Diasporic nations, whether or not through socialism, would establish the legitimacy of Zionism as politics, and more so as masculine. Thus, since Zionist politics found meaning in

“the masculinity that it conferred, it hardly mattered at all whether it was socialism, anarchism, or finally colonialism that composed the content, for it was the violence that was pivotal. Almost any ‘respectable’ violence that Jews would turn to would restore their dignity and honor, their masculinity, an almost ideal type of goyim naches” (Boyarin 288).

Indeed, Zionism set forth its pathway as a colonialism instead of a socialism or an anarchism, and used this representation to inscribe whiteness onto the Jewish body and white masculinity onto the “white” Jewish man (Boyarin 302).

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