That was the subject of an intriguing discussion I led yesterday at a session of a course in Hebrew literature in translation taught by my friend Adam Rovner at Denver University. (Adam has a vested interest in Hebrew literature in translation since his wife, Jessica Cohen, is responsible for many of the finest translations of Israeli literature available to the English-speaking public.) In preparation for the class, the students read two texts. The first was Etgar Keret‘s short story “Cocked and Locked,”about an Israeli soldier being mocked by a Palestinian rebel at a guard post. The second was “Wimps,” Chapter Five of Company C, my memoir of my service over nearly two decades in an Israeli infantry unit.
“Wimps,” like Keret’s story, portrays Israeli soldiers facing off against Palestinians in the territories. In the case of my chapter, it’s the height of the First Intifada in 1988. As well as chronicling how my unit coped with the challenges and moral issues presented by the Palestinian uprising, my chapter explores the relationship between army service and masculinity.
In Keret’s story, a young Palestinian man taunts an Israeli soldier by portraying him as a sexual object used by his sergeant. The goading indeed drives the soldier into an unexpected response, but perhaps not for the reasons that an American reader might presume.
The men in Company C are tough and determined, but they are also family men and civilians serving in the army for a couple months a year. They’ve been through wars but most of them have children. Two of them are gay, a fact that the other soldiers accept matter-of-factly and without feeling that their masculinity is threatened. And remember, this is at a time when homosexuality was forbidden in the US army, on the grounds that the presence of gay soldiers in a military unit would play havoc with “unit cohesion” and destroy it as a fighting force.
Comic relief in “Wimps” is provided by Marcel Levy, a French immigrant and paparazzo photographer who boasts of sleeping with every single one of the celebrity actresses he manages to snap in various states of undress. The other men think he’s totally off the wall. Levy’s braggadocio about his purported military exploits is one reason; another is that sexual conquest is not something that these men see as particularly masculine behavior. Both the attitudes toward gay men and toward casual sex show, in my mind, that there are important differences between Israeli and American concepts of masculinity. I don’t mean to say that Israeli men aren’t macho in their own and often infuriating way, but it’s important to understand the contrasts.
After pointing this out, I asked the students what they thought bugged the soldier in Keret’s story and what caused him to take the dramatic action he takes at the end. I suspect that before our discussion the students might have assumed that the soldier felt that his masculinity was threatened—that he was infuriated because a Palestinian guy his own age was accusing him of being queer.
One of the students hit it on the head, in my opinion. “I think he’s upset,” she suggested, “because the Palestinian is perverting the soldier’s relationship with his sergeant.” In other words, he’s suggesting that the soldier’s love for his sergeant is a sexual love rather than the love that prevails among soldiers who fight side by side.
Does that make Israeli soldiers wimps? You might want to read the Company C to find out. An electronic edition, for Kindle, Ipad, and other platforms, will be available very soon. The same goes for my book on the Jordan Rift valley, Israel’s eastern boundary land, A Crack in the Earth. Watch my Facebook page and website for the official announcement, or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you an e-mail notice when the books are out.