Feminism, Zionism, and Question of Compatibility: A Jew’s Reflections on Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman
By Sarah Emanuel.
On June 10, 2017, I sat in a crowded theater to watch Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman on the big screen. At first blush, I was in awe of her. I admired her strength. I valued her persistence. I liked that she had thighs. It was as if I had been transported back to my ten-year-old self—a ten-year-old dressed in traditionally labeled “boy’s” clothes with the hope that, one day, she’d be seen as strong as her male counterparts (she (I) thought the clothes might help)—all while looking up at the screen, stargazed, wanting to be just like her. And, for the first time in a long time in the context of superhero movie watching, I thought to myself: I can. Because women can.
Given that my photo is attached to this blog post, it should go without saying that both my appreciation for and affect in response to watching Wonder Woman is imbedded in my own privilege. I’d like to say that Gadot’s Wonder Woman is Every Woman, but she is not. Sure, Gadot does not play the typical blonde-haired, blue-eyed princess in distress. But she still plays a cisgender heteronormative superhero. She is also, as many viewers have pointed out, white: “For black feminists,” heeds Kadeen Griffiths, “[Wonder woman is] exactly like every other superhero movie, just with a white female lead.”
Gadot as Wonder Woman
Some viewers have responded to this assertion, however, by highlighting Gadot’s Jewishness. Because Jews historically have not always been considered white (the recent events in Charlottesville indicate all the more that Jews are not included in all—or even “traditional”—constructions of whiteness), the question becomes: is Gadot white?
While I find this line of questioning important, particularly in relation to issues of intersectionality (see here), arriving at a definitive “Jews aren’t white” conclusion can risk erasure, and exclusion. For instance, even if we recognize the racialized Otherness of Jews historically, Jews with light-toned skin have still, in many instances, benefitted from systems of white supremacy, particularly in the United States, where Wonder Woman was produced. To paint all Jews with the same brush stroke not only obscures too quickly the nuanced positioning of Jews within a white-centered system, but also risks erasing Jews of color. To quote Mark Tseng-Putterman and Rebecca Pierce, authors of the article hyperlinked just above: “If white Jews [like Gadot] are people of color, what does that make us?”
The issue of location, though, converges with yet another complicated conversation: the relationship between feminism and Zionism. For instance, while Wonder Woman is indeed an American film, Gadot is not. She is an Israeli Jew who, like most Israeli citizens, served in the Israeli army. For this reason, some have renounced Gadot as a feminist icon, remarking that feminism and Zionism are incompatible entities: “[F]eminism cannot be Zionist,” writes Jaime Omar Yassin, “just as it cannot be neo-Nazi—feminism that doesn’t have an understanding of how it intersects with racial and ethnic oppression is simply a diversification of white supremacy.” Omar Yassin then concludes that, if Gadot supports the IDF, she must: 1) be a Zionist; and therefore 2) support white-supremacist anti-Palestinian violence.
Gadot in IDF uniform
In response to this line of reasoning, I ask:
While Gadot has publically displayed support for the IDF, does praying for the wellbeing of fellow Israeli citizens make one ipso facto a right-winged anti-Palestinian Zionist who supports anti-Palestinian violence? If I, a fellow Jew, say that I enjoyed watching Gadot on screen—or share in the same conversation that I enjoyed studying a few miles west of Gadot’s hometown—or that, while there, I befriended Israelis serving in the IDF (it’s hard not to, given that there is a mandatory conscription) and, subsequently, developed a care for their wellbeing—will my conversation partners assume that I, too, must be an anti-Palestinian Zionist who thinks Palestinians are the problem? I really hope not.
I wonder, though, if feminism might actually teach us something about holding space for multiple views. For example: feminism, by definition, is the advocacy of economic, political, and social equality between the sexes. Many feminist and womanist theorists, in support of this view, attempt to not only expose systems of power as white male dominant, but also, in turn, offer ways in which to restructure those systems so as to leave room for more diversity.
Still, there are some who insist that feminism as an institution is and/or has become another form of misandry (intentionally and unintentionally). And, of course, there are some who, in the name of feminism, hate men (#YesAllMen). But would all feminists share these views? Do all feminists renounce feminism because of the understandings of some? Does all feminism (feminisms?) look the same? Should they?
Zionism, by definition, is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to a Jewish nation state. Like feminism, there have been many Zionist perspectives, from during the movement’s conception in the late 19th century to today. For example, while the energy of the Zionist movement(s) have often been nestled in the belief that a Jewish nation state should exist in the historical region of Palestine—as stories of exile from that location have contributed to the construction of Jewish self understanding for over 2500 years—there have also been persons, particularly in the early years of the Zionist organization(s), who thought that a Jewish state should be established elsewhere. Similarly, while there are Zionists who support the suppression of Palestinian rights and lives, there are also many—including those who feel that Israel should exist where it exists—who don’t. Just as there are many feminists pushing against the notion that being a feminist means hating men, so too are there Zionists pushing against the notion that being a Zionist is to hate Palestinians. Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, there are many Zionists who advocate for the rights, support, and land of Palestinians in the face of Israeli government officials while also maintaining that Israelis and Jews should have those rights also—not more than others but alongside others.
Of course, we could declare this line of reasoning moot just as soon as we recognize that Israel was not empty when it was declared a modern nation state. Arabs lived there, and therefore risked from the get-go the effects of colonization, minoritization, oppression, and occupation. We could also make the claim that, while women experience systemic oppression because of their sex, Zionists do not experience systemic oppression because of their commitments to Israel—or, even if they do, they still have a nation state in which to seek systemic refuge (i.e., Israel).
But what happens when we superimpose a nationalist-racist orientation on the shoulders of one—as if that one (e.g., a woman actor playing a woman superhero in a blockbuster film) must always already fulfill our political fantasies—without room for nuance? Do we become just as dividing as the ideas we’re attempting to condemn?
While I don’t think we can answer these questions easily—or come to a simple conclusion concerning Gadot’s politics, particularly given the minimal information we have—I do think we risk polarization when we associate too quickly one viewpoint from that of another, and another, and another. Maybe some ideas, even seemingly conflicting ones, can, if only in moments, be more compatible than we think.
To conclude, I want to remind the reader that, when I watched Gadot play Wonder Woman, I saw value. But I also saw problems. Now, I feel hope. But I also feel fear. I fear, even as I type, that this post could be interpreted with minimal room for compatible (and even incompatible) nuance. Perhaps it’s time, then, that we call on a Levinasian ethic—to not only “see” the face of the Other, but to, in doing so, converse with the face of the Other, too.
Consider this, if you will, my formal invitation to dialogue, and to, in turn, leave room for more than one line of thinking—not only amongst each other, but also within ourselves.
Sarah Emanuel is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Oberlin College. In May 2017, she received her Ph.D. with distinction in New Testament and Early Christianity at Drew University with a concentration in Women’s and Gender Studies. Her research foci include: New Testament/early Christianity, early Judaism, biblical narrative/storytelling, and the Bible and theory. For five years (2012-2017), Sarah led a Rosh Hodesh group through Moving Traditions, which focused on the impact of gender and gender theory on Jewish teens. When Sarah is not teaching, she is working on her book manuscript: Roasting Rome: Humor, Resistance, and Jewish Cultural Persistence in the Book of Revelation.