Graffiti, Josephus, and gender

The wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem has become famous for its graffiti – on the Bethlehem side (is it the inside or the outside of the wall?), murals, small pictures, and messages are spray painted everywhere. The graffiti does not stop with the wall itself. As you’re walking down the main Bethlehem-Jerusalem road, just as the wall and a paint-splattered guard tower comes in sight,

Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem

Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem

you also catch sight of this Banksy-esque image (note: the funky box on the soldier’s head is a shadow from a streetlight):

The pat down, Bethlehem

The pat down, Bethlehem

This graffiti inverts the expected power relations between soldier and civilian, exploiting the image of an innocent young girl (wearing remarkably Western clothing) to do so. At the same time, the gendering of this image—male soldier, young girl—reinforces the traditional gendering of war: men bear arms, women are innocent bystanders.

This representation is not representative of the modern Israeli military—women bearing very large guns are to be found on the other side of the wall, after all. But such gendered expectations do have a long history. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working through Josephus’s gendering of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in the first century. Josephus, a former rebel commander, wrote about the revolt in exile in Rome, supported by imperial household—a pretty tricky position, demanding some tricky interpretation of the revolt. The way he presented ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, men and women, in the story of the revolt forms part of his attempt to blame the revolt on a few misguided, wicked rebel leaders, leaving most of the Jews blameless.

According to the Romans, represented by historians like Tacitus and Livy and by the monumental artwork of the empire, it was a woman’s job to stay in the home, praying for the safety of the men at war, celebrating a triumphant return, mourning for the dead. Roman women might defend the house against invaders in the case of siege, or put themselves at risk to seek peace with the enemy, but only barbarian women—like Boudicca of Britain, for instance—would actually take up arms and fight on the battlefield. War was a man’s job, and manliness was proved by strength and valor in war.

Josephus learned this lesson well. In his Jewish War, the women are superb examples of weak cowardice. With only a couple exceptions, they are seen—or rather, heard—screaming in terror at the approach of the Romans.: “Josephus, fearing that the wailing of the women might unman the combatants, had them shut up in their houses…” (Jewish War 3.263 [Loeb Classical Library])

Josephus’s Jewish women are no barbarians to fight alongside the men—who are, incidentally, presented throughout Jewish War as courageous, albeit reckless, examples of Jewish manliness.

At the same time, Josephus emasculated the rebel leaders:

[The Zealots] from mere satiety unscrupulously indulged in effeminate practices, plaiting their hair and attiring themselves in women’s apparel, drenching themselves with perfumes and painting their eyelids to enhance their beauty… Yet while they wore women’s faces, their hands were murderous, and approaching with mincing steps they would suddenly become warriors and whipping out their swords from under their dyed mantles transfix whomsoever they met. (Jewish War 4.561-563 [Loeb Classical Library])

In Jewish Antiquities 4.301, Josephus incorporated Deuteronomy 22:5 into his version of the laws of warfare from Deuteronomy 20. According to Josephus, this particular law prohibits women from bearing weapons in battle. This interpretation is not as zany as it may seem; “a man’s apparel” in Deut. 22:5 could also be translated as “a man’s weapons,” and in fact the verse has long been used as an argument against the involvement of women in warfare. Josephus’s incorporation of the verse into the laws of warfare also means that men should not dress as women at war. The rebels in Jewish War, then, do not only break gender expectation; they also break divine law twice over, first by taking on the appearance of women during war and then, as ‘women,’ by picking up the weapons of war.

(Note that Josephus’s gendering of the revolt is tendentious. There are a few clues that women had a more active role — even Josephus can’t avoid mentioning the presence of women among the rebels at a few points (4.107, 505, 538). Since such women would challenge his gendered presentation of the revolt, a presentation crafted to fit Roman expectations, Josephus omits them from his story, and unfortunately for us their stories remain untold.)

Coming back to the twenty-first century, I find it very interesting that the image of the little girl patting down the soldier, despite its attempt to challenge our expectations of the power relations of the military and civilians, relies on very traditional, and very ancient, expectations for the gendering of warfare. No matter how much realities may have changed over two thousand years, apparently rhetoric hasn’t. Connecting  the wall with Josephus also makes me wonder about the effect of the graffiti on viewers (locals, I mean, not tourists). Josephus’s story about the rebels dressing as women makes them into a mockery for potential Roman readers, all part of his attempt to blame the revolt on a few wicked rebel leaders (handy scapegoats, since they were pretty much all dead or enslaved by the time he was writing). What does the picture of a little girl patting down a soldier do to local perceptions of actual soldiers? What would its effects be if it were on the other side of the wall?

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