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In her shoes, in her world: A thought experiment

By Roy Wagner | Translated from Hebrew by Libby Lenkinski

I am writing this for those who are prepared to acknowledge that just because they don’t understand what feminists want, it doesn’t mean that feminists are wrong.

Several weeks ago, the Israeli activist group Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah launched a campaign against funding and whitewashing of settlements that used pornographic associations and rape imagery [Update: See clarification]. It was met with harsh responses from within the community and quickly taken down. But it got me thinking. For the sake of full disclosure, “some of my best friends” are Solidarity activists. I know that most of them think that the campaign was harmful and are working to prevent these sorts of things from happening again. So I wanted to suggest a thought experiment not against Solidarity, but for activists who do not yet understand what was so hurtful about Solidarity’s Migron campaign and why the responses were so intense.

I write this as someone who has not always been a feminist, and who even today is not always sure what a feminist is supposed to do.  I write this as someone who took a long time to understand, for example, the hysterical reactions around “sexual harassment” and all sorts of other expressions that seem paranoid, like “culture of rape.” When I go out clubbing, it happens that a stranger passes by and fondles my ass. To be honest, I enjoy it. It also happens that an annoying nudnik leeches onto you and it’s impossible to lose him and that’s infuriating, but to make that into an existential struggle? And I have a friend who was raped, which is terrible. But to say that I live in a “culture of rape”?!

I write this for those who don’t totally get it but also don’t assume that because you don’t get it there simply isn’t anything to get.


When I try to understand it, I put myself in her shoes. I imagine what it feels like when they cat-call me on the street, calling out, “hey hottie.” But I don’t get it, because I imagine a symmetrical swapping of roles, and if you want to understand someone else, it isn’t enough to imagine swapping roles. You have to also take into account the power dynamics.

As leftists, we understand the failure of the following claim: “Israeli violence passes legal checks and balances, and even if there are some bad seeds, or even if some civilians are harmed during an attack on wanted terrorists, what we do doesn’t count as a terror attack against civilians like the Palestinians commit.” As leftists, we understand that this is a ridiculous comparison because it is precisely because of the occupation that Palestinians can’t implement an organized resistance that would constitute “legal war” against military targets. And when we think about Israel’s operational capacity, wild violence and scope of action, the result is no less an act of terror than what Israelis experienced in 2002.  Because there is no symmetry in the power dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians, there can’t be a symmetrical comparison between their tactics. So when a man attempts to understand how it feels to be a woman, it isn’t enough that he imagines himself in her shoes; in order to understand a woman, the man must imagine himself in her world.

I came up with an analogy; it is far from perfect but it may be helpful for left-wing men to understand something that’s hard for some of us to grasp. Imagine that you live in a society in which half of the people walking around are armed soldiers and cops in uniform. Imagine that they can see that you are a leftist-anarchist-Arab lover. It’s true that after all, you’ve only been arrested or beaten up rarely, but once in a while it happens. It’s part of your reality. And from time to time someone that you know is shot in the leg or the head.

And in this reality, where half of the people in the street are armed cops and soldiers in uniform, almost every day some soldier on the street suddenly aims his weapon at you and makes shooting sounds and laughs. And at least once a week a cop screams at you from across the street, “Hey! Lefty! You’re arrested. Get over here. Nah, just kidding, just playing around.”

And it’s happened to you, while walking alone down a dark street, that a gang of Border Police officers came out of a bar and smacked you around, just a little. And your uncle who is a cop sometimes takes you aside and begins asking questions that quickly turn from casual interest to straight-up interrogation. You know that there’s nothing you can do except go along and wait for it to be over and when it is, not make a big deal because your family, even the left-wingers, feel that if he’s a cop, he must be right.

It isn’t every day that you get beaten or arrested, but every day they make sure to remind you that it could happen. When you go out you must consider whether or not wear the T-shirt with the political slogan, where it’s best not to be alone, and if there’s a lawyer on call that you could turn to if you were arrested, which could happen just like that.

Maybe, through this story, some leftists might figure out what it feels like for some women (not all women, as there are many different women). The analogy is far from perfect, but … Let’s take it one more step.

Suppose your friends, the ones who are active with you in the struggle for the rights of non-tenured professors [who have been striking intermittently throughout this year – eds], some of whom are cops and soldiers, because they’re everywhere, and are not all bad, come up with the following poster: “No job security, No research fund, and a salary that doesn’t justify the effort. The University exploits us, chokes us, and traps us in harmful work agreements.” With this picture (careful: trigger for victims of police violence!):

You ask them to take it down, and they do and they apologize. But your friends also send you the clear message that you really messed up a fabulously successful campaign. Because people would have finally understood that the relationship between the university and the junior professors is truly inhumane, and its as bad as police beating up protesters. And they really aren’t minimizing your experiences, they say, because your friends are actually pro-human rights of leftists. And maybe you’re just too sensitive.

But it’s not the first time that something like this has happened, and you’ve already discussed these things with them, and it’s most painful to take these responses from people who are supposed to be on your side. If for all these reasons you got angry, showed hurt, and yelled on Facebook – then they look at you and say you’re self-righteous, a purist, and because of people like you it’s impossible to advance workers’ rights struggles, and frankly, you’re the one who’s violent here.

Read also:

Misogynist ad campaign exposes hypocrisy within the left

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    1. Steve

      Very interesting.
      And now, please go tell Hamas and the millions who support them to declare a permanent peace with the Jewish state of Israel.
      Thanks in advance!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      Interesting thought experiment. The implication being that all men are potential rapists, which is more or less true. We are innate rapists. Rape, and the abuse of women, feature prominently in the foundation myths of cultures present and past. The Roman legend of the “Rapine of the Sabine Women” and its iconic representation in the renaissance art is a clear example.
      The fact is that force and coercion are intimate parts of male sexuality (heterosexual or homosexual). The question of sexual harrassment, sexism and so on cannot be addressed simply as a nurture issue; this is one of nature. The role of rape in sexual reproduction in mammals is widespread (from cats to chimps), and it must be looked at squarely. Just as slowly we, leftists, have come to realize that the capacity to commit genocide resides in the minds of all people so we must also come to the realization that the capacity to be a rapist resides within all men. If we understand our nature then we can nurture in a way that militates against it.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr Berman

      What puzzled me is that in Torah there are two separate passages where a man who is favored by the Almighty shows the depth of his devotion to the virtue by extreme personal sacrifice: offering his own daughter to be raped. Lot of Sodom is better known of the two. Note that nobody posed a question how many virtuous women live in Sodom.

      The story in Judges 19-21 is quite a bit worse that The Rape of the Sabine Women. To get something more shocking one has to perhaps reach for Marquise de Sade. However, the story of the sin of Benjamin is not making very clear if anybody behave correctly, but in the case of Lot we have most authoritative judgement.

      That said, I think men would not go ballistic over a picture shown here. Mind you, there is no approval given to physical assault by using it on the picture.

      One can also find example where similar “sensitivity” concern seem exaggerated. Is painting “Rape of India” as a pastiche of classic “Rape of Europa” insulting to Indians?

      Reply to Comment