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12 September 2010updated 09 Feb 2015 5:23pm

Laurie Penny on the Sabbar Kushur verdict: Zionism, chauvinism and the nature of rape

New details change everything — and nothing — about the verdict.

By Laurie Penny

For months, feminists have been trying to untangle the complex knot of racism, imperialism and misogyny that is the Sabbar Kashur case, in which an Arab man was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for ‘rape by deception’ by a Jerusalem district court after he supposedly tricked a Jewish woman into having sex with him by posing as a fellow Jew. That an Israeli court could convict on such a charge — and that an Israeli woman could file such a claim in the first place — caused international outcry, seeming to illustrate a poisonous culture of prejudice against those of Arab descent. Compared to such a clear-cut case of racism, how could the disdainful treatment of one rape claimant by the press be of any significance whatsoever? Fresh details emerged this week, however, that seemed to throw an entirely new light on the case.

Extracts from the unsealed testimony of the woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, reveal that she initially alleged that Kushur had forced himself upon her, leaving her naked and bleeding in a doorway, but the charge was changed to one of rape by deception following a plea bargain after the woman’s sexual history was revealed. The victim, it is claimed, had alleged rape on several other occasions after being subjected to a lifetime of violent sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her father. She had worked as a prostitute, had fled to a women’s shelter, and was so traumatised and bewildered that the prosecution were worried about putting her on the stand to face-cross examination about her past.

This changes much about the story — but nothing about its racist ramifications. Even if the victim herself could be conclusively shown to have told the entire truth about her experiences, this would not for a second change the fact that the verdict given by the Jerusalem district court was scored with ugly cultural assertions about race, religion and fear of miscegenation.

The judge in the case declared that the sex was consensual, but that the woman never would have agreed to it had she known that Kushur wasn’t Jewish. He added that the state of Israel had a duty to protect victims from “smooth-tongued criminals” who sought to defile “the sanctity of their bodies and souls”. It speaks volumes about the relationship between racism, sexism and imperialism in Israel that a district court was quite prepared to convict on the basis that an Arab had defiled a Jewish woman’s bodily ‘sanctity’ simply by putting his penis inside her, but unprepared to countenance the notion that a woman who had been abused by men throughout her life might have been telling the truth when she claimed to have been brutalised yet again.

I am a feminist of Jewish descent whose relatives live in Israel, and for whom the idea of a Jewish homeland from exile is not a concept of emotional irrelevance. For me, the case is a fascinating illustration of the way in which the chauvinism of contemporary Zionism has come to imitate the chauvinism of modern and ancient patriarchy.

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The central issue here is one of property and power. It is no accident that the word “chauvinism”, whose original usage meant jingoism or an inflated, bellicose sense of territorial nationalism, has since the middle of the 20th century come to be synonymous with “male chauvinism”.

Chauvinism is about territory and ownership. Zionist chauvinism, at its most extreme, sees the land between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean as the birthright of Israelis, property for the consumption and use of all Jewish people, and understands the personhood of individuals who happen to inhabit those lands as an uncomfortable side issue.Male chauvinism, at its most extreme, sees the bodies of women as the birthright of men, for the consumption and use of all male people, and understands the personhood of individual women who happen to inhabit those bodies as an unwelcome nuisance.

For racists and imperialists throughout history, the invasion and defilement of “our” women by “their” men has always been a point of paranoia. The idea of protecting English female “chastity” from the “lustful Indian male” had a significant influence on the policies of the British Raj, and the notion of the savage Indian rapist was used to rehabilitate barbarous reprisals by British troops against the native population. “In some cases, even dating has been criminalised,” commented Dr Golbarg Bashi, professor of Iranian studies at Rutgers. “What is the difference between lynching young black men in the Southern United States on the mere assumption of having ‘laid hands on a white woman’ and criminalising a Palestinian man for having done the same to a white Ashkenazi woman?” she asked.

“In a similar way, the gender apartheid in the Islamic Republic of Iran obliges women to seek formal permission from the state if they choose to marry a non-Iranian.”

Few states which have juridically criminalised inter-racial intercourse have historically shown much concern for protecting the personhood of women from relentless and very real epidemics of male sexual violence perpetrated against them by men from of their own ethnic background, including husbands, partners and family members. Rape as a function and expression of male power in a chauvinist society has habitually been accepted where miscegenation has not.

In an interview, Kushur commented that had he been a Jew, the charge of rape against him might well have been thrown out. Damn straight it might — and feminists and anti-racists everywhere ought to ask ourselves why.