Sex and Scandal in the Holy Land
Washington went into crisis mode over news of a GOP congressman skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee. Israelis can barely stifle a yawn.
A nation was scandalized and titillated this week when it was revealed that a notable ruling class scion from abroad partied, disrobed, at one of its iconic tourist sites.
The giddily aggrieved publication breaking the scandal used language — BARE ASSED, WILD and "hot chicks" — that underscored the younger nation’s Freudian glee at uncovering shenanigans by a "respectable" visitor from an older and in some ways more conservative ally.
I’m speaking, of course, of TMZ’s coverage of Prince Harry’s session of strip billiards in Las Vegas.
The revelation that Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) leapt nekkid into the Sea of Galilee a year ago? Not so much.
Back in the United States, however, the news has evolved into the sort of mini-scandal that Washington occupies itself with in August. Politico broke the news with a slightly breathless front-pager, noting that the Sea of Galilee, "a Christian holy site, is where Jesus is said in the Bible to have walked on water." And as nudist groups claimed validation from the controversy, Yoder issued an apology for his "spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea."
Israelis, however, greeted the story with a yawn. My review of Israeli Hebrew-language coverage of Yoder’s folly came up only with brief pickups of Politico‘s original story, written in dry wire-service style.
Travel magazine-style file photos of the world’s most famous misnomered lake unfailingly accompanies Israeli news sites’ web versions of the story. Channel 2’s website featured a perspective of the lake Israelis call Kinneret that any local would recognize as taken from the winding road slithering down the Golan Heights, northeast of the lake. Globes, the business daily, ran a lovely shot of a squadron of pelicans. Y-Net, the web sister to the mass circulation daily Yedioth Achronoth, posted a summertime view of the lakeshore greens bleached yellow by the heat.
(The story at least generated one of the great corrections of this year: "The Sea of Galilee is a lake," Politico apologized. "An earlier version of this story mischaracterized it.")
The collective effect of trolling through these stories is of an ADHD conversation. "So this American guy swam naked and … and … It’s so lovely up around the Kinneret, isn’t it?"
The declarative headline at NRG, the Maariv daily’s web sister, was laconic: "Republicans got drunk and swam naked in the Kinneret." (Just one, Yoder, swam naked, although about more than 20 Republicans altogether jumped in.)
"Most people I spoke to couldn’t understand why it was even news," an Israeli journalist friend wrote when I asked what page the story made in the print editions. (Generally, page 8.)
Aaron Sagui, the Israeli embassy spokesman, summed it up this way. "Two words — well, one actually: Non-issue. You could speak to a million and one Israelis and a million wouldn’t even know what you were talking about. And the one guy who did would think it’s a nice summertime story."
There may not be Israeli outrage here. There is, however, Jewish outrage.
Spokesfolks for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the U.S. House of Representatives majority leader who led the 2011 summer tour, made it clear to Politico and whomever else called that the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in U.S. history was not amused.
"Twelve months ago, [Cantor] dealt with this immediately and effectively to ensure such activities would not take place in the future," Doug Heye, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, told Politico.
Patrick Dorton, a crisis manager who also sometimes speaks for the American Israel Educational Foundation, the affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that sponsored the tour, went into full crisis mode.
"After dinner that evening, some in the group went swimming in the biblically significant sea," his prepared statement said.
That last part explains, perhaps unwittingly, why this was no big deal for Israelis. Galilee not only is not a sea, it’s not biblically significant — to Jews. Much in the surrounding area has religious significance — the region boasts a rich Kabbalist tradition. But the waters of the Kinneret are just that — water — for Israelis. It is suitable for drinking (it constitutes about a third of Israel’s potable water supply), boating on, and swimming in.
Yes, Israelis are not exactly strangers to the practice. No Israeli among my circle of friends (and I include myself) would ever actually, in the thick vicissitudes of middle age, cop to having skinny-dipped in Israeli waters, but we’ve all, um, seen it happen.
"There’s barely a body of water in Israel that hasn’t been skinny-dipped in," Naomi Paiss, the spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund (NIF), a group that promotes democracy and civil rights in that country, told me.
I called Paiss because her group’s most recent initiative touches directly on issues of visible flesh. NIF is raising money to push back against an increased effort in recent years among the fervently Orthodox to keep women hidden, among other means by defacing and removing images of women from public display in Jerusalem.
But that is an altogether different issue, Paiss explained. The Orthodox are not overly bothered by the notion of naked people as long they are (a) not visible to the Orthodox and (b) not Jewish.
"They’re not going to care about an American congressman who is not Jewish — the same rules don’t apply," she said.
And secular Israelis? "Israeli secular culture is sexualized and liberated and ‘who cares’," Paiss said, noting the plunging necklines that seem to be de rigeur for Israeli women newsreaders.
"Israeli male friends ask me why I cover so much up if I’m not religious," she said. "I explain it’s because I live in Washington."
Bare flesh is simply no big deal in much of Israel. And it’s not only anyone who has been to Tel Aviv that should have figured this out. Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Israel’s film industry — especially the famously frank 2001 film festival favorite, "Late Marriage" — would have also caught on. As would anyone remotely familiar with Leonardo DiCaprio’s love life, of course.
The thing is, it’s not new. A version of free love was practiced in the first pioneering years of several kibbutzim. It didn’t stick, but it was a signal of a broader trend among Israelis of leaving behind the conservatism and pieties of their Diaspora forebears.
My uncle, after immigrating to Israel from Turkey, lived from the 1940s to the 1960s on a kibbutz, Ginossar — positioned, as it happens, on the shores of the Kinneret. He likes to tell the story of how a resident of the kibbutz — the wife of a noted poet — would torture the kibbutzniks with her unattainable beauty.
One day not too long after his own arrival, my uncle was asked to look after some new Turkish arrivals. They had been in Israel for only a short while and knew no Hebrew. In short order, he lost them.
He set out to look for them and found them crowded around a shack. They shushed him and pointed toward the window. Inside, the poet, returned from the fields, was engaged in vigorous lovemaking with his wife.
That, my uncle says, is when he knew the Turks had acclimated.