Hadar on Harris, 'Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema'

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The following book review from H-Judaic may be of interest to some H-Women list members.


Rachel S. Harris


David Hadar

Rachel S. Harris. Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema. Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Studies Series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2017. 336 pp. $35.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8143-3967-1.

Reviewed by David Hadar (Free University of Berlin) Published on H-Judaic (August, 2018) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow (University of South Carolina)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52302

Israeli film studies, a vibrant if not large field, has exerted significant influence on Israel and Jewish studies. College courses about Israeli film tend to focus on issues regarded as unique to Israel or Jews, such as the memory of the Holocaust, fissures among Jews of different backgrounds and levels of privilege (Mizrahi versus Ashkenazi, that is, Jews from a Middle Eastern versus a European background), and of course the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rachel S. Harris’s provocatively titled Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema interweaves feminist concerns with the characterization of women in feature films and Israeli issues and contexts. Much of the book is dedicated to films from the last three decades when, as Harris shows, women started taking center stage both as creators and as central characters. Indeed, Harris is far more interested in exploring complex central characters than in debunking or denouncing stereotypes about women as they are presented in films. My review concentrates on the first part of the book, titled “Women on the Front Lines.” On the one hand, this focus originates in my interest in the representation of Israeli women soldiers. Furthermore, I suspect that in the eyes of many international readers, women’s mandatory army service forms a particularly intriguing facet of Israeli women’s lives.

The introduction provides a brief history of Israeli cinema as one that at times maintained, but also questioned, the national Zionist ethos. In the process, this cinema often ignored or instrumentalized women characters and women’s bodies. Harris’s introduction also gives a comprehensive survey of the scholarship surrounding Israeli cinema, as well as the feminist film theory that contextualizes her analysis. Warriors, Witches, Whores describes and critiques over thirty films and the manner in which they portray women of different backgrounds. Harris addresses ultra-orthodox and national modern orthodox women, Mizrachi and Russian immigrant women, Arab women and women on temporary work visas, and secular Ashkenazi women, all contextualized with relevant historical and social information. She discusses such issues as witchcraft, bereavement, fertility, prostitution, and rape. Harris’s treatment of this wealth of cinematic material shows attention to detail and nuance. This is a remarkable feat considering the number of films discussed in the book. To all these films directed by men and women alike, Harris brings the question: to what extent and by what means can these films be seen as feminist?

The first chapter discusses films about the First Gulf War. This conflict was the first time the Israeli home front was attacked but the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were not allowed to open a front against the attackers. Films depicting this war thematize the way in which it destabilized longstanding hierarchies of Israeli culture. Harris shows how this background helped open up a space—though not an entirely satisfactory one—for women’s stories. In other wars, the spotlight was on male soldiers on the frontlines, but since Israelis were not fighting in this war, the focus was on the men and women facing missile attacks at home. Harris writes, “using the traditional structure of contemporary romance,” the international chick flick, some films “use the heightened domestic tensions of the Gulf War as a plot device for these highly feminized stories” (p. 47). She insists that this atypical war was a moment of awakening for the representation of women in Israeli cinema. The next chapter mostly takes on films that show how the Israeli-Arab conflict affects and often distorts the lives of (Palestinian and other) Arab and Jewish women. While narratives about men often project a militaristic us-versus-them mentality even when they are ostensibly anti-war, these women characters allow directors to tell more nuanced stories, even about people most Israelis think of as enemies.

The third chapter looks at movies that direct their gaze on women in the military. Israel has mandatory conscription for women, but they usually do not become combatants. This is depicted in a number of films, and masterfully so in Zero Motivation (2014). This chapter argues that the depiction of women in the military mostly preserves rather than subverts masculine images of what women’s roles should be. In these films, not only are women portrayed unsympathetically and stereotypically, but also and worse, they are never allowed to be combatants; they are “isolated and marginalized from the true business of the army, which is war” (p. 74). This argument suggests that feminism should encourage women to do the same things that men do, even if this entails a toxically masculine environment. I would argue against Harris that feminism can critique such patriarchal institutions by showing, for instance, their wastefulness and absurdity—what Zero Motivation does so well when it points out the uselessness of its protagonists and the anarchism of Zohar, played by Dana Ivgy. Critics informed by feminism might contemplate that the business of the army is upholding patriarchy and fostering masculinity and not only handling security. If films about women soldiers do not generally present empowered women, perhaps this is not because many Israeli filmmakers are on the left (as Harris suggests) but because an authoritarian violent organization could not be a place for anything beyond the most basic individual empowerment.

Warriors, Witches, Whores is an important contribution to Israel studies. It maps out a field of cultural representation of women and offers a thorough reading of this map. The work provides a challenge to Israeli filmmakers who try and dance through the minefield that is the representation of women—one can only hope that a Hebrew version will be issued. Though highly critical, the book also acknowledges the difficulties inherent in this representation. Teachers of Israeli film courses will be especially grateful to Harris’s contribution. Because it is so good at explaining the dynamics of Israeli society and culture, the book or parts of it can also serve as an introduction and context for film analysis. Scholars of Israeli culture now have a resource for discussing the representation of Israeli women in film, and a text with which to argue about where the significance of such representation lies.

Citation: David Hadar. Review of Harris, Rachel S., Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018.URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52302