Sexy photo spread sparks outrage

With Hamas firmly entrenched on Israel’s southern frontier and the Jewish state wary of war on three fronts, Israeli diplomats would seem to have their hands full.

But there they were last week, rubbing elbows with the paparazzi at a swanky Manhattan club and celebrating the launch of the July issue of Maxim, the men’s magazine famous for its scantily clad cover girls and sexual content.

The issue features a five-page spread in which four veterans of the Israel Defense Forces strip off their uniforms and assume provocative poses against Israeli backdrops. Among them is Gal Gadot, winner of the 2004 Miss Israel title and a former army fitness instructor, splayed on a balcony overlooking Tel Aviv in heels and a bikini.

The Maxim spread inspired outrage in Israel, where one lawmaker demanded an emergency Knesset meeting on the matter and another derided the decision to promote Israel with images of half-naked women rather than “women of substance and accomplishments.”

The lawmakers objected to the assistance that Israel’s New York consulate provided to the project, which also was supported by the America-Israel Friendship League and Israel 21c, a California-based nonprofit that educates Americans about Israel’s contributions to the sciences.

On June 19, the New York Post picked up the story and splashed Gadot’s image across its front page.

“I’m very proud,” Gadot said at the launch, held at Manhattan’s Club Marquee. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Israel is a democracy and that’s what it’s all about.”

For years, Israel has endeavored to present an image to the world not colored by interminable violence and terrorism. Since the Six-Day War, and particularly since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the country’s spokespeople have struggled to counter the negative perceptions of Israel as a military power and portray it instead as a democratic counterpoint to its authoritarian and less-developed neighbors.

That struggle gave rise to media strategy that stressed Israeli modernity and Western values — its exploding high-tech industry, its scrappy democracy, the beauty of its land and the sexual liberation of its people.

“There was constantly talk of how we can place stuff in the mainstream media that would shed a different light on Israel, because people were fatigued with the conflict,” said Jonathan Schienberg, a former press officer at Israel’s consulate in New York. “There were all these gimmicks that were going on with tourism, getting Hollywood stars to take trips to Israel. That was the biggest thing.”

In the past year, Israel’s Tourism Ministry has run ads featuring Israeli women in swimsuits on a beach in Tel Aviv and gay couples embracing in front of famous tourist sites, prompting religious lawmakers to threaten a no-confidence motion in the Knesset. Last year, Israel’s consulate in New York, which also initiated the Maxim shoot, launched, a blog focusing on non-political aspects of Israeli life.

But the Maxim spread ups the raciness quotient. In one shot, Natalie, formerly of naval telecommunications, sports an unbuttoned army jacket with army dog tags, and little else, underneath. In another, Nivit, a military intelligence veteran in a black one-piece and heels, is perched atop two metal turnstiles.

For some feminists, the images are a regression to an earlier period of overt female exploitation. Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of the feminist journal Lilith, said she was “dumbfounded” by the consulate’s decision to support such a project.

“This feels not only ill-advised and sexist, but also a throwback to an earlier era,” she said. “Israeli companies used to feature women with large breasts in tight T-shirts in ads for grapefruits, long after such ads would have been inappropriate here.”

David Saranga, Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in New York and the head of the department that invited the magazine to Israel, says the sexiness factor is nothing to be ashamed of. With some media feasting on the Maxim photos and their resultant flare-up in Israel, Palestinian terrorism and Israeli reprisals have been momentarily displaced by smooth-skinned bodies against cool Mediterranean vistas.

“What’s the problem with that?” Saranga asked. “People are saying there’s a problem. This is part of the Israeli society going to swimming pools, going to the beaches. And they are in bathing suits. Yes, it’s part of Israel.”

Saranga said Maxim was a “serious magazine” and that it had complete editorial freedom to decide how to portray the Jewish state; the consulate just facilitated their travel, as it does with many publications. The point was to promote Israel as a normal country, particularly among the magazine’s young male readership.

A few people at the party seemed troubled by Knesset member Colette Avital’s description of the consulate’s partnership with Maxim as a “pornographic campaign.” Using his cellphone to illuminate the glossy pages in the darkened club, one attendee, Shai Lerner, scanned the images and concluded they weren’t so naughty after all.

“I don’t think it’s selling sex,” Lerner mused. “I think it’s selling secular culture.”

Nor was it just men who were unfazed by Israel’s daughters arrayed on the magazine’s pages.

Einat Wilf, an Israeli writer and former aide to Shimon Peres who recently challenged Ronald Lauder for the presidency of the World Jewish Congress, said the controversy was overblown.

“I would say that it’s not important either way,” Wilf said. “There’s nothing wrong with drawing attention to Israel’s beautiful women, just as there’s nothing wrong with drawing attention to its scientific achievements.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.