Ya’arit Bokek-Cohen. Journal of Gender Studies. Volume 26, Issue 6. December 2017.
As an academic who studies infertility, spending time in a shelter during Operation Protective Edge (in Hebrew ‘Tzuk Eitan‘); the military campaign waged by Israel against the Hamas in Gaza during the summer of 2014, allowed me time for a critical problematization of social issues that are usually taken for granted by Israeli citizens. I was particularly interested in magazine articles that focused on sperm bank managers reporting a higher-than-usual demand for sperm donated by men who are either presently, or were in the past, combat soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Coincidentally I talked with two young women who attend a course I teach on ‘The Family in the Era of Change’. Both of them are registered at online dating websites, and they shared with me their impression, that since the beginning of the war on 8 July 2014, more and more young men who sent them messages tended to highlight their combat status, either during their compulsory service or at present, as reserve soldiers.
Obviously each societal and/or cultural trait that grants its possessors a preferable position over others creates a socio-cultural hierarchy, or intensifies and complicates the extant inequality(ies). In the context of infertility and reproductive behavior, most academic essays focus on a feminist critique of the oppressive consequences stemming from reproductive technologies, many of them stressing the reproduction of masculine superiority in the social hierarchy (cf. Bokek-Cohen; Hanson; Moore; Rapp; Reineke). In addition to putting forward a feminist critique, some scholars have also explored how sperm donor screening and marketing has created hierarchies within the male population of a given society. Three of the most intriguing analyzes are the works of Moore and Schmidt, Daniels, and that of Kroløkke. Moore and Schmidt focused on the way sperm banks manipulate the public’s perceptions of sperm. Sperm recipients are manipulated to believe that many social traits are heritable; a false belief that naturalizes differences between men in general, and between donors in particular. Moore and Schmidt also show how sperm banks advertise sperm donations by creating hierarchies between different ‘kinds’ of men, and offer potential customers the opportunity to select the desired donor by manipulating presentation of the semen as ‘new and improved’, a manipulation they term technosemen.
Kroløkke conducted a unique study of a Danish sperm bank operating in the US based on a content-analysis of the marketing material that appears on the Danish sperm bank’s website, she showed how Danish sperm is marketed as high quality, to be perceived by recipients as preferable to the American equivalent. Daniels arrived at similar conclusions, noting that the desired donor profile is one that reflects intertwined superiority in three realms: social class, ethnicity and hegemonic masculinity. She elaborated further on her analysis, and in her later collaborative work with Heidt-Forsythe, argued that donor selection and marketing practices produce subtle forms of eugenics (Daniels & Heidt-Forsythe.
I begin with a clarification of the kinds of statements I do not intend to make. Since women constitute the lion’s share of sperm banks’ clientele (Almeling), marketing the sperm donations of combat soldiers as a cultural performance constitutes a promising avenue for a theoretical exploration of women–army relationships. A typical feminist perspective on women–army relationships might focus on the ways women are denied agency while their status as citizens equal to men is questioned (Sjoberg). The present analysis does not aim at presenting a feminist theory-driven analysis, which I present elsewhere (Bokek-Cohen); rather it takes this theory as an anchor for developing a complementary theorem regarding the way women may react in a sociopolitical context of protracted threat to their own security or to that of people in their nearest social circles. I intend to demonstrate how marketing warriors’ sperm is embedded in a given socio-cultural context while at the same time fostering perceptions of it.
Nevertheless, Ellen McCall’s theory of intersectionality is employed here. This theory was developed to offer feminist scholars more complex theoretical tools, one of which enables those of other academic orientations to better approach and understand their research field. The theory of intersectionality offers methodological sophistication, which is why I borrow its basic rationale for the present analysis. Applying an intersectional approach facilitates the exploration of women–army interrelations in a balanced way, where women are not presented solely as war supporters but as active agents, albeit not as actual combatants, in the reproduction of two mutually reinforcing subjects: warriors and militaristic ideology. I also found the intersectional approach useful for the analysis of militarized sperm screening and marketing in Israel, due to its wide scope, as well as the congruence between this approach and the Bourdieusian analytical tools and concepts which I enlisted for the sake of a comprehensive data interpretation. Since Israelis extend great honor to combatants for their sacrifice on behalf of the Zionist state and its people, this kind of social prestige can be interpreted, using Bourdieu’s conceptualization, as symbolic capital. Therefore, Bourdieusian theory is highly relevant to this analysis, and its main principles are presented here.
Bourdieu’s Field Theory and the Forms of Capital
According to Bourdieu and Bourdieu and Wacquant, people in advanced societies live in a social space that is differentiated into various spheres of life, such as art, science, religion, the economy, and so on. Each sphere tends to form a distinct microcosm endowed with its own rules and forms of authority, what Bourdieu calls fields. A field is, in the first instance, a structured space of positions, a force field that imposes its specific demands upon all those who enter it. It is an arena of struggle through which agents and institutions seek to preserve, or overturn, the existing distribution of capital; it is a battlefield, wherein identity and hierarchy are endlessly vied for. Those who occupy dominant positions in a field tend to pursue strategies of conservation (of the existing distribution of capital), while those relegated to subordinate locations are more liable to deploy strategies of subversion. Habitus refers to lifestyle, the values, dispositions, and expectations of particular social groups which are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life. Perhaps in more basic terms, the habitus could be understood as a structure of the mind, characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions, and tastes. The particular contents of the habitus are the result of the objectification of social structure at the level of individual subjectivity. It may be best understood when analyzing the notion of the ‘habitus’ with regard to the ‘field’ where the habitus is played out; thus habitus may be seen as a behavioral orientation that links individual agents to their contextual environment.
The system of dispositions which people acquire depends on the (successive) position(s) they occupy in society, that is, on their particular endowment of capital. For Bourdieu, capital is any resource effective in a given social arena that enables one to appropriate the specific profits arising out of participation, and contest, in it. Capital comes in three principal forms: economic (material and financial assets), cultural (scarce symbolic goods, skills, and titles), and social (resources accrued by virtue of group membership). A fourth form, symbolic capital, refers to the possession of abstract resources that an individual is granted on the basis of honor, prestige, or recognition that are accepted in a specific culture due to its unique belief system. The different types of capital can be acquired, exchanged, and converted into other forms. Because the structure and distribution of capital also represent the inherent structure of the social world, an understanding of the multiple forms of capital will help elucidate the structure and functioning of the social world.
The Cultural Ethos of Zionist Militarism
A core principle of Zionist ideology is to settle the land of Israel with a Jewish population and to defend its inhabitants from attacks by enemies of any kind (Bokek-Cohen). According to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, one of the founders of the Zionist movement in Europe in the late nineteenth century, and also one of its most influential spiritual leaders, the Jews’ suffering and persecution owe their origins to life outside their homeland, (Israel). Jabotinsky called upon young men to transform their mindset and become what he termed ‘new Jews’. This spirit was necessary, according to his legacy, for the establishment of the Jewish state (Bokek-Cohen). Therefore Jews living in Israel must stop acting ‘like a flock of battered slaves’ and defend themselves; hence, the Israeli nation must ‘know the rifle’ (Naor, p. 141), in order to defend its citizens and survive. Although Jabotinsky has been subject to criticism because of his objection to a policy of restraint in response to attacks, his legacy constituted the platform for the establishment of Beitar—a Zionist youth movement, Etzel—an armed self-defense organization, and the revisionist movement which later became the Likud (the nationalistic political party in contemporary Israel). His political thought infused the infrastructure of the Israeli state with the perception of a nation-in-arms. Ben-Eliezer and Robbins investigated the process by which Israel was established as a nation-in-arms. Starting from 1948, the year in which Israel was declared a state, they show how a statist institutional pattern blurred the distinction between society and the army, placing the army at the center of the collective conscience, and making preparedness for war the project of everyone. Ben-Ari and Lomaski-Feder attribute the evolvement of a military mentalite to the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict and the dominance of the military in Israeli culture. Compulsory military conscription applies to both women and men. The difference between the genders is reflected in regard to service time: currently, men are required to serve 36 months whereas women serve 24 months. Military service is considered a rite de passage to adulthood in Israeli society, and yet the IDF has also been criticized by scholars as an intensely patriarchal and warring institution (Golan) that reproduces and perpetuates gender inequality in Israeli society (Robbins & Ben-Eliezer; Sasson-Levy). Although Israeli military is based on the model of a people’s army with compulsory service for both women and men, female soldiers are usually assigned to service jobs; the few women who are qualified and willing to join a combat troop are allowed to serve only on the ground, and in a limited number of units on the borders (Eran-Jona). This restriction is similar to the norm that prevailed in European armies (Trustram). According to Hanna Herzog, a leading researcher in the area of gender in Israel, not only is the IDF structured according to traditional gender dichotomies, but the army plays a central role in deepening and reaffirming the gendering of Israeli society (Herzog).
Grizold contends that there is confusion among scholars between militarism and the related concept of militarization; hence, he stresses the importance of distinguishing between these two concepts while sharing with Ross the view that militarization is more involved with behavioral orientations employed during a process, rather than a onetime performance, which results in militarism. Israeli Militarism has been the focus of much of the scholarship of Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling. According to his investigation, Israeli militarism originates in the protracted rivalry between Jewish and Palestinian citizens as well as periodic wars against neighboring Arab states (Kimmerling). His writings on this topic are in accord with Varas’s view of militarization as a continuous overemphasis of the importance of armed forces in a certain society. Vagts defined militarism as a phenomenon that occurs when there is ‘domination of the military over the civilian … emphasis on military considerations, spirits, ideals, and scales of values in the life of states’ (p. 14). His perspective resonates in Kimmerling’s contentions about Israeli militarism as a central defining principle of Israeli society and its hegemonic social reality.
In Israeli society, militarization is performed in a wide range of practices and rules; the most salient and easiest to detect being those related to daily written and spoken language. For example, in the realm of marketing and business, whereas the words sale or special offer are used to attract potential customers in American and European languages, the Hebrew parallel term ‘operation’, taken from the idiom ‘military operation’ is used in Israel; Whereas ‘kick the bucket’ is a common expression that implies reaching the end of one’s life, the Hebrew idiom is ‘return one’s gear’ which refers to soldiers’ obligations to give back army-issued equipment at the end of their compulsory, or reserve duty, service. In a similar vein, it is not rare to see marketing campaigns in the mass media which, in order to promote their business success, advertise that the company donates funds to support combat soldiers. These examples of military performances owe their origin to the pivotal role the IDF has in shaping behavioral patterns and cultural norms, due to its critical significance for the survival and strength of the Zionist state (Bokek-Cohen). When security and military issues stand as pivotal principles in the political arena and public administration, or in daily civil life, the military provides dogmatic thinking schemata for civilians and soldiers alike. That is why Kimmerling highlighted the cognitive implications of the phenomenon, which ensures the dominance of the army in public life.
In accordance with Kimmerling’s observation of what he terms the ‘militarization of Israeli society’ and the consequent effect of this militarization on the core values of Israeli culture; I show below how these effects can be part of the collective unconscious and both the subject and the object, the means and the goal, of transfusing political ideology into gametes. Owing to the pluralistic nature of Israeli society and its diverse ethnic and religious composition, there is a constant negotiation over the level of militarization in various realms of life. Beer sees the dominance of military elites and militaristic behavior in domestic government, economy, society, and culture as indicative of militarization. Along with militarization in various degrees, segments and fields, the phenomena of remilitarization, and demilitarization also occur in Israeli society (Tzfadia). My analysis sheds light on these forces and counterforces in the field of fertility technologies, and I demonstrate the way militarized sperm screening and marketing serve to remilitarize segments of society that have undergone demilitarization.
Cultural Meanings Infused in Sperm
Most studies relating to sperm donor selection have underestimated the significance of images projected onto the human substance. Sperm is infused with cultural beliefs about possessing attributes beyond heritable genetic material. For example, Martin (1991) demonstrated how sperm cells ‘participate’ in heterosexist performance congruent with patriarchal order. Male substance carries sexualized connotations even in the absence of intercourse (Daniels; Edwards; Haimes; Nash). As Konrad argues, notions of maleness and masculinity continue to be inscribed as physiological attributes with reference to ideas that sperm are active ‘heroic warriors’, with a mission to penetrate the ovum. Ova, by contrast, are represented in medical discourse as passive objects that are swept along the fallopian tubes. Wagner, Elejabarrieta, and Lahnsteiner suggest that ‘the coming together and merging of sperm and ovum is understood in everyday life as an analog to the attracting and meeting of men and women in social life and sexual relationships’ (p. 677). Bokek-Cohen took one theoretical step forward by conceptualizing extended sperm donor profiles as participants in a Bakhtinian mask parade, with the banks providing the donors with a platform for an imagined identity construction to which they incorporate culturally valued traits.
The personification motif appears in Baker and Bellis’s ‘Kamikaze Sperm Hypothesis’, as they conceptualize sperm cells as brave soldiers in competition: the fastest and the strongest will win the princess of the palace. This tendency to attach personality traits to sperm cells facilitates naturalizing gender inequities, by presenting social differences between the genders as if they were purely biological (Martin, 1991). Lisa Jean Moore, a leading researcher of the sperm industry and author of Sperm counts, elaborates and argues that representations of sperm are part of a larger social discourse of masculinity, evoked by the threats that fertility technologies have posed to men’s role in the reproductive process. The present analysis supplements the extant scholarship about cultural meanings of sperm by exploring a hitherto unstudied phenomenon, namely the transfusion of a political ideology into gametes. In the next section I describe the methods employed and the data I collected and analyzed as the empirical basis of the project.
Extended Donor Profiles
After a considerable time spent researching extended donor profiles in the US and Europe, by content-analyzing publicly available profiles to every visitor at the banks’ websites, I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to find that Israeli banks refrain from publicly exhibiting their catalog, and provide only one sample profile each. This observational study applied content analysis to available sample profiles of Israeli sperm donors between 12 and 20 August 2014 (these dates fall within the 50-day war period). The data-set was produced by the author after thoroughly browsing the websites of all 19 sperm banks operating in Israel; 16 of these are public banks in public hospitals and three are private clinics that are connected to other banks worldwide. Two out of the three private sperm banks displayed their donor catalog; however, the donors they offered were presented via a link to a website of an international sperm bank: these donors are not Israeli citizens. Each one of the three private sperm banks, and only one of the public banks, offers a sample extended profile of an Israeli donor. Since these sample profiles are used by each bank to represent its donor pool, I treated these profiles as non-randomly selected representatives of the Israeli donors ‘for sale’. Since only one sample is shown by these banks, it can be assumed that this one sample was carefully chosen after investing much thought in its content and covert messages. I used microanalysis of the text (Strauss & Corbin) to look for common themes among the profiles that appeared in the answers to questions related to military service. Verbal narratives regarding military service, though short and concise, were analyzed using Glaser & Strauss’s constant comparison approach to qualitative analysis.
Text on Three Sperm Banks’ Websites
I browsed all the pages of all of the above mentioned four banks and copied the available text that appeared on them to WORD files. I was particularly attentive to pages or paragraphs that included information about donor recruitment policy, donor screening, and which donor attributes were stressed by the banks as relevant and important for the recipient to consider. Not surprisingly, the websites of the private banks were much more ‘friendly’, in that they included useful information about the procedure of donor insemination, their medical staff (names and photos), and detailed information about the available options for purchasing. The website of the public bank was not an independent page but was only one page on the website of the hospital in which it was operated. The information for prospective recipients was scarce and concise and presented only the name of the head of the bank and the contact details of the office.
Interviews with Actual Donors
Two actual donors agreed to be interviewed face-to-face following my advertisement on three forums targeting recently discharged soldiers or those approaching their discharge from compulsory service. No monetary or other compensation was offered to prospective interviewees. I met each one of them personally and talked with them at an unobtrusive table in a café of their choice; each one was interviewed separately for about two hours, and the conversation was recorded on receipt of the interviewee’s permission. One of them is a 27.5-year-old student; he told me he wished to donate to a private sperm bank because of the higher monetary compensation (about USD200 per vial) as compared to that given by a public bank (usually USD 120) but was rejected by private banks because his height is under 5′9″; therefore, he could donate only to a public bank. He had been donating to that bank for 8 months at the time of the interview. The other donor is a 24-year-old man over 6′1″ tall who has been donating to two private banks over the past 1.5 years.
Interviews with Potential Donors
After completing the analysis of the materials provided by the banks in both their websites and the sample profile, as well as conducting in-depth interviews with the two actual donors, I felt that I needed some further, more reflective information on donors. In particular, I wanted to know more about the thoughts, perceptions, and feelings a potential donor may experience when asked about his military service in the context of sperm donation. Based on the information given to me by the actual donors regarding the screening process, I wrote a guide to a simulation of an interview in which applicants were requested to take part, and interviewed four young men who responded to my second advertisements on the same forums I had placed the first. Similarly to the previous search for interviewees, no monetary or other compensation was offered to prospective interviewees. The interviews with the potential donors were conducted in a café and lasted about 40–45 min; the conversations were tape recorded (on receipt of consent). I started with three ‘warm-up’ distracting questions about each interviewee’s occupation and educational attainments, and then asked when he finished military service, followed by questions regarding his job in the army, rank, and his military health profile. After each interview, I told each man that the simulation was over, and I asked him to answer some additional questions focusing on his subjective feelings during the simulation, especially those that emerged as a response to the various questions about his military service.
Interviews with Recipients
In order to have a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, I wanted to glimpse this subject from the recipients’ viewpoint. It is reasonable to assume that the individual values and political attitude of the recipients may be related to the implications they attach to the military background of a donor whom they would consider as the biological father of their future baby. Therefore, I interviewed two acquaintances who gave birth to children by purchasing sperm donations. One of them holds pro-Palestinian attitudes and identifies with a political party ‘Meretz‘ that strives to improve the well-being of the Arab citizens in Israel (see Meretz), as well as being willing to split the land of Israel into two states, withdraw Israeli soldiers and Jewish residents from these areas, and give them to the Palestinians. The second interviewee holds a diametrically opposed attitude and identifies with the largest right-wing party in the Israeli parliament ‘Likud‘ (see Likud). Interviews with each recipient lasted about 1.5 h and included questions about the process of sperm donor selection they went through, which traits they considered to be important when they looked for a suitable donor and their attitude toward information about the donor’s military service and the job he held during this service. I did not plan to include questions about the significance they attached to the donor’s political attitudes. However, since both recipients raised this, and spoke decisively and passionately about it, I listened attentively to this.
Extended Donor Profiles
If someone is interested in a specific donor’s military background, this is one of the most salient features and the easiest to find out. Donor 22215, whose sample profile appears on a private bank’s website, responds to the question about his background: ‘After finishing my military service as a commanding officer in the artillery corps, I started my academic studies. Currently I am a second year student at the Department of Computer Sciences’. The staff of another private bank describe their sample donor 15368 as ‘a former paratrooper who continues to take part in extreme sports activities’. The staff of the third private bank compensates for donor 24484’s non-combatant service by stressing his manly area of study and describes him: ‘recently finished his compulsory military service and is planning to study mechanical engineering next year’.
Public sperm banks do not offer written ‘staff impressions’; however, according to an internet interview with the lab manager at one of the largest banks, they rule out men who did not serve in the army (Kellner). The bank’s senior manager explains in this interview that recipients use the information about the donor’s military service as a cue to his personality; while non-combatant service ensures to some extent the mental and physical health of the soldier, combatants are viewed as dedicated citizens who are willing to contribute to their people. A similar policy is conducted at one of the private banks, explaining that this provides an additional screening criterion to improve the recruitment of high-quality donors. The senior manager explains that this policy has nothing to do with political ideology, and it serves to ensure donors’ mental and physical fitness (Even).
Sperm Bank Websites
Generally, the websites of the three private banks were more pleasing to the eye, incorporating pictures and colorful design, and offered much more information than those of the public banks. One private sperm bank states that ‘our donors are selected after a rigorous screening process’ and in the same paragraph the potential customer is assured that all donors are former IDF soldiers; military service in the Israeli army constitutes a necessary condition for accepting donors. Interestingly, and in accordance with the comment above about military idioms that permeate daily spoken language, the words conscription or recruitment [gi’yus in Hebrew], which originally relate to calling up young men to fulfill their duty of military service, is used by all of the three banks analyzed to denote the bank’s activities for the purpose of attracting potential donors. Although military service is not a mandatory condition for acceptance to a sperm bank’s donor pool (Israel), the analyzed content demonstrate how military service serves the bank in its marketing efforts.
Interviews with Actual Donors
Both donors were former IDF soldiers; one of them served as a sapper in an engineering combat unit and the second was an officer in the intelligence corps. According to the interviewee who had donated to a private bank, this bank disqualified his friend from the program because he had not served in the army. Both donors told me that after their first screening over the phone, they were invited to a personal interview and told to bring their military documents. After genetic testing, they were asked to answer a questionnaire; this was designed to represent their standard donor profile. Explaining to them how to respond, the secretary told the former officer that
they [the recipients] will be ‘turned on’ when they read your military record … try to highlight your strong points … everybody tries to market himself the best way he can … how would you behave if you had to compete for a girl’s heart? …
The former sapper told me he did not hesitate at all:
Whenever I approach a new girl in a bar, they always agree to a date after they hear I used to be a sapper … So it was obvious to me that I would add that information to my profile at the sperm bank … Why wouldn’t I do that?
It is apparent from this statement that this donor sees dating and donor selection as equivalent cases, in which his military job improves his chances of being selected.
Interviews with Potential Donors
Two out of the four interviewees told me they served in combat units, and I could detect their pride in this. One of them was a tank commander in the artillery corps, and the other was a paratrooper. Both of them ended their military service with the maximal health profile (97). Relating to my request to reflectively comment on my questions, one of them told me:
When you asked me about my studies and my work I was sitting tensed up in the chair, I felt as if you were a policeman writing me a ticket for committing a traffic violation … but the very first second you started asking about my military service, I sat up confidently in the chair … all my self-confidence came back to me …
Another man who agreed to be interviewed told me he did not serve in the army at all; in fact he registered on the internet forum for discharged soldiers in order to find a job. He continued (without my asking):
It’s not that I’m proud of it [that I did not serve in the army]; that’s how it worked out. When you told me you’re going to ask hypothetical questions about sperm donation, I thought to myself ‘How the hell is that related to a military service? Is a computer technician less qualified to donate sperm than a former soldier?’ …
The fourth man served as a truck driver in the army, and his health profile was medium (64). He expressed similar attitudes to the interviewee who was not in the army and said that ‘mental abilities are of no less importance for producing high quality babies’.
Interviews with Sperm Recipients
The interviewee who identifies with the right wing party had her two children using a public sperm bank. She is a teacher in her late 40’s with a Master’s degree, whose salary is in the seventh decile. She told me of the process by which she decided between the two donors that she liked the most (of the twenty available); this was before her first pregnancy, which was 4.5 years ago. She used the same donor’s sperm to conceive her second baby 2.5 years after the first birth. She stressed that the military service of the donor was a ‘must have’ attribute, because she looked for a donor with a value system similar to her own and a willingness to sacrifice for the nation; as she viewed herself.
The interviewee who identifies with the pro-Palestinian party had her 6-year-old son conceived in a private bank. She is a University tutor in her mid 40’s with a Master’s degree and whose salary falls in the ninth economic decile. She told me of her considerations at the time she was browsing the websites looking for a donor who best fit her worldview. In contrast to the nationalistic recipient, this interviewee told me that she disqualified donors who presented themselves as present or former ‘warriors’. I present here a part of the interview transcript:
Author: Would you consider receiving a sperm donation from a man who served in the IDF?
Interviewee: Yes, of course.
Author: Is it important to you to know about the donor’s job during his military service?
Interviewee: Yes, of course. I would rather choose a man who performed a job that requires high intelligence.
Author: Which military jobs fit your preferences?
Interviewee: I would take [a sperm donation] from a man who served in the intelligence services … the army computer unit …
Author: I see. What about a combat soldier?
Interviewee: I would not ever consider such a man for my future child’s father!
Interviewee: A man who serves in a combat unit is rigid, mentally rigid and rigorous. My … good friend is married to such a man and she cannot breathe when he is around … I would never agree to marry an army commander … I don’t want his genetic material in my home and in my child!
While these two women expressed polarized attitudes toward ‘warrior’ sperm, both of them expressed a decisive and firm objection to a donor who holds political attitudes which oppose their own. Furthermore, they both attached personality traits to people who hold certain political attitudes. The woman with the leftist orientation attributed to people who hold right-wing views mental rigidity and intolerance towards suffering people as well a lack of sensitivity to injustice, while the woman with a rightist orientation viewed men of rightist attitudes as being willing to give and sacrifice for the collective or for their people, hence possessing superior moral values. Thirdly, they perceived the receiving of sperm donation from an anonymous donor as equivalent to living with his spiritual ongoing and perpetual presence, and therefore treated personality traits and political attitudes as factors that bear heritable significance.
The present study brought to light the phenomenon of militarizing sperm as a hitherto unstudied aspect of militarism and militarization. Militarized sperm donor screening and marketing constitutes a sociological enigma: why do warriors represent the ultimate masculinity, rather than artists or poets, or alternatively, computer technicians? The answer lies in the very deep roots of contemporary Israeli culture and its militaristic nature. The analysis I provided in these pages illustrates that human gametes can be charged with political ideology. Sperm screening, marketing, and selection are politicized; sperm as a product and a service is enlisted for the Zionist vision. Sperm banks do not operate in a cultural or political vacuum; instead they provide a medicalized platform where individual reproductive needs and goals intersect with societal myths as well as cultural and political ethos. Therefore, the theory of intersectionality (McCall) best provides the conceptual tools vital to showing the interdependence between the cultural, political and societal factors on the macro level, and the personal, yet aggregative, health decisions on the micro level. I combine this paradigm with Bourdieusian field theory to account for the sociological mechanism underlying the sources of this interdependence.
On the macro level, and congruent with Bourdieu’s field theory (Bourdieu, Bourdieu & Wacquant), sperm banks are embedded in a specific socio-political context; a circulation of ideas, values, and beliefs may take place between the various social fields. In a militaristic society, individuals who fulfill militaristic roles strengthen and perpetuate the hegemonic militarism, and therefore are granted symbolic capital. Inspired by the intersectional approach, my interpretation of the militarization of sperm demonstrates how cultural ethos and political ideology permeate the arena of reproductive technologies. On the micro level, militarizing sperm can potentially benefit the sperm recipients also. Inspired by Baudrillard, I have shown elsewhere (Bokek-Cohen) how American sperm recipients shop for sperm as part of an ‘ancestry package’ which includes the sperm father and his extended family as described in lengthy dedicated essays written by each donor. I shall present here my previous interpretation and apply and elaborate on it in the Israeli context. An illusionary Zionist family is established and materializes by the utilization of warriors’ sperm. In accordance with research findings that reveal sperm recipients’ fantasies about marrying the donor (cf. Bokek-Cohen; Hanson), I propose that in the Israeli context, a modified version of the same phenomenon may occur, and heterosexual recipients’ fantasies of marrying a strong and brave combat soldier can be fulfilled. It is a prevalent notion that warriors possess personality traits such as assertiveness, decisiveness, consistency, and a willingness to sacrifice for others in general and for one’s people in particular; thus, the mandatory anonymity of sperm donors in Israel can be compromised with some sense of familiarity and certainty regarding the donor as a person, both for the recipient and also for the future child, who may be interested in his father’s personality and legacy (Bokek-Cohen).
The present research project joins a series of studies exploring the diverse and complicated implications of armed conflict upon the lives of women. The present analysis contributes to the extant literature on the diverse ways which women may react to protracted threats to their own security, or that of people in their nearest social circles, by armed and hostile forces. Militaristic conceptions are not extrapolated only in the public sphere; rather they may prevail also in one of the most private spaces of a woman’s life, her idealized sperm donor. According to Enloe, women have played an integral, if not crucial, role in the militarization of many societies, including Israel. The findings of the present project add new layers of interpretation to her theory and showcase how sperm banks provide a platform for a subversive discourse that triggers, facilitates, and intensifies the enlistment of women’s wombs to political and military goals. Hegemonic militarism is enlisted by the Zionist state, and one of its many subtle manifestations occurs on the micro level in the lives of sperm recipients, as one segment of Israeli women. The militarized sperm donor plays a double role for the sperm recipient. One role is obvious and taken for granted, that of a bio-genetical father contributing his high quality genetic material. Yet another role of the sperm donor is played out through the extended sperm donor profiles, which are consumed for the purpose of showing them to future children (Bokek-Cohen): shopping for sperm infused with religio-political meanings grants the warrior-donor the position of a spiritual muse and role model transmitting a paternal legacy to his offspring. This is a culturally-specific habitus, cultivating the Zionist ideology as the basis of any paradigmatic and socio-cognitive schemata underlying Israeli militarism.
Whereas dominant positions within Israeli society are occupied by those who hold pro-Palestinian attitudes, especially in universities, the courts, and the mass media, militaristic Zionist ideology, which represents the opinion of many Israeli citizens, is forced to find its unique way of communicating to the ‘troubled audience’. The silencing of nationalistic attitudes can be counterbalanced in domain-specific media channels, like the narratives presented in the catalog of the sperm bank. Hence, Israeli sperm banks provide an undetectable platform for an alternative subversive discourse, distributed to the ever-growing number of sperm recipients. Israeli sperm recipients are mainly high status single women or lesbian couples (Weissenberg, Landau, & Madgar). Since most of the Israeli citizens of higher socioeconomic status hold pro-Palestinian attitudes, and most homosexual citizens of both genders vote for Meretz as a party whose platform advocates the principle of equality of rights, militarized sperm screening and marketing can be seen as a powerful though hidden mechanism for disseminating militaristic Zionist ideology.
The analysis offered in these pages shows how sperm is infused with religio-political meanings that go beyond those assumed to be ascribed to ‘mere’ genetic material. This phenomenon is compatible with Baudrillard’s sign theory, which sees the evaluation of objects according to their usage value and/or exchange value as reductionism. I have shown that although subject to commodification (Almeling; Bokek-Cohen; Daniels & Heidt-Forsythe; Spar, sperm is not consumed merely for its traditional reproductive benefit; sperm signifies social status and possesses social prestige, as well as carrying an ideological legacy. In this respect, sperm, as a substance infused with cultural meanings and political ideology, is not only objectified; rather it is reified and loses its original role in the reproductive interplay with the recipients’ ova. According to Baudrillardian thought, the interchange of values (economic value, sign value, and symbolic value) provides the ideological basis for critically questioning the political economy of the sign ascribed to objects. Baudrillard explains that the use value is nothing more than an alibi for the conversion of exchange value into sign exchange values such as social prestige. His observations regarding the interrelations between the various values that each traded object can have are aptly applicable to sperm commerce and the sign exchange value ascribed to warriors’ sperm to be donated to Zionist recipients, the mothers of future warriors. This interpretation tacitly assumes that recipients unconsciously nullify their own genetic contribution to the future child; it is the donor’s quality which is presumed to be inherited by the child, as if the warrior is cloned to multiply. The child is expected to be a copy of its father; or in Baudrillard’s terms, the difference between the code and its copy becomes insignificant. This conceptualization of militarization of sperm donor screening prepares the ground for interpreting this cloning of combatants as a major force which challenges old distinctions between combatants versus civilians, or between the army, as located in an extremely public sphere versus reproductive behavior, which is conducted in an extremely private sphere. This point of view illustrates feminist critique of women as ‘national wombs’ enlisted to provide ‘patriotic motherhood’ (Enloe).
The donors manage to convert their symbolic capital into economic capital, and student donors earning money obviously facilitates the funding of their academic studies—the institutionalized admission ticket into the world of amassing cultural capital. This process of capital conversion illustrates Bourdieusian arguments regarding the interrelations between various and diverse social fields, specifically the fields of family, health, and the military as distinct but interdependent social spaces (Bourdieu). However, it is not only the ethnic hierarchy within the Jewish population which is reproduced (Birenbaum-Carmeli & Carmeli) due to recipients’ preference for donors with light complexion, eyes and hair, whose parents immigrated to Israel from European countries, but an additional hierarchy is created by attributing to warriors ‘adequate masculinity’ and higher quality than to donors who served in non-combatant units.
Militarized sperm screening and marketing creates an inner hierarchy within the Jewish male population, along with one that is based on socioeconomic and ethnic-based hierarchy. Combat soldiers, as the ultimate executors of Israeli militarism are located at the top of this hierarchy; men who serve in non-combat corps are located at the middle of the stratum while those who did not serve—no matter what the reason—are excluded from the future gene pool. Sperm recipients willingly devote their reproductive capabilities to warriors to whom they are indebted for their physical and national survival, as well as their sense of security. While not having the option of sexually rewarding the warriors, they dedicate their most precious reproductive resources. In so doing they participate in spreading the warriors’ genes; if some of the donors fall in battle, this might be the recipients’ modest yet meaningful way to eternalize their genetic substance and commemorate their national sacrifice. Thus militarized sperm screening and marketing may re-Zionize the post-Zionist state of Israel.