Netanyahu and Iranian Jeans: Ironies of Modernity and Tradition

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu provoked a lot of mocking humor by saying in an interview for BBC Persian that “if Iranians were free they would wear blue jeans, and listen to Western music.”

Iranian youth were surprised and annoyed by the ignorant comment, and responded by posting to the web photos of themselves wearing jeans. And while rock and roll is mostly banned in Iran, it nevertheless flourishes underground, and some of the genre can be released in the country if the lyrics are inoffensive.

Aside from Netanyahu’s sheer inaccuracy, his remark is revealing not only of Israeli and Western misconceptions about Iran but also the contradictions in their thinking about that country. The phrase also shows that he equates “freedom” with consumerism in a Neoliberal confusion between political liberty and being a good customer. Neoliberalism, the exaltation of market mechanisms over ethical and institutional goals, imagines society as a set of disconnected atoms seeking the best deal rather than as a moral community seeking the commonweal.

Iran has for the past three decades been categorized by many in Israel, Europe and North America as “medieval.”

Iran is not medieval, of course. It is contemporary with all the other countries in the world; it does not live in a time warp.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s primary charge against Iran is hyper-modern. He is worried about its nuclear enrichment program. It is Iran’s scientific and technological advancement that he says keeps him up at night.

Why does Netanyahu think a country that can enrich uranium is unable to pull on a pair of jeans?

Because it is medieval in that it is ruled by religious law?

But using religion as a marker of backwardness and the medieval is a nineteenth-century, positivist gesture. The French philosopher Auguste Comte equated religion with the medieval and science with the modern.

Israel itself is a mixed picture in that case. Israeli Jews in Israel are under Jewish halakhah, their sharia. They cannot marry non-Jews inside the country because there is no civil law.

Yair Sheleg observes,

“Thus, Israeli-Arabs are faced with halakhic decisions that prohibit one from selling or renting them apartments because of ancient halakhic laws that prohibit permanent status in the Holy Land for non-Jews; women in Israel, who are forced to use the rabbinical courts because of the exclusiveness of the religious system in issues of marriage and divorce, find discriminatory halakhic practices; gays and lesbians have difficulties being recognized by any group that has a religious affiliation because of the halakhic prohibitions against their lifestyle.”

Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi communities in places like Beit Shemesh are if anything more conservative than most Iranian Shiites, with similar attitudes toward gender segregation and modest dress for females.

While many Ultra-Orthodox are not strong Zionists, religious Zionism, using the Bible to justify Israeli settlement policy in the Palestinian West Bank, is a major strain of thought in Israel. Netanyahu has been known to cite scripture in this regard himself.

The Ultra-Orthodox have grown from 2% of Israelis to 8% in recent decades and are the fastest-growing group. They don’t wear jeans. In fact, their dominance of Jerusalem’s public spaces has largely killed night life in that city, especially on Friday night and Saturday, and Israeli Jerusalemites looking for a dance club and rock music and jeans-wearing people mostly have to commute to Tel Aviv for the weekend. (There are a few bars and night spots in Jerusalem; a few.) Even private Saturday afternoon rock concerts in Jerusalem have drawn Ultra-Orthodox ire.

Both Israel and Iran are a mixture of high-level science and engineering and religious commitments harking back centuries. Whereas the Western image of Israel emphasizes the modern and downplays the halakhic dimension except for invoking the Bible to justify the expropriation of Palestinians, the Western image of Iran foregrounds ayatollahs and sharia and ignores the country’s modernity except in its anomalous anxiety about nuclear enrichment. Both images are distorted as in a fun house mirror, but stretched in opposite directions.

So if Mr. Netanyahu wants to wish modernity on Iran, he could start at home by agreeing that the land rights of Palestinians cannot be determined with reference to a book written down in Babylon some 2500 years ago. He could grant the Palestinians what they deserve by international law, their own state. And he could recognize Iran’s right to produce nuclear fuel for its reactors as long as the UN is allowed to inspect those facilities with transparency (the facilities are being inspected, but the UN wants a bit more cooperation). Then everybody, Israelis and Palestinians and Iranians, could enjoy a good rock concert wearing jeans, together.

Posted in Iran,Israel | 17 Responses | Print |

17 Responses

  1. Do the Haredi still stone cars that travel on the Sabbath? When I lived there in the 1980s, a doctor making a house call on the Sabbath was dragged out of his car and beaten to death.

    I often suspect that Israel’s next major war will be civil; the Haredi make even those Tea Party anarchists gleefully strangling their own government look like reasonable people.

  2. I agree with the overall argument, but one caveat. In recent years Jerusalem began redeveloping itself at the request of a growing student population. With more students headed to Jerusalem, the city has seen increased development aimed at young people. The shuq, for example, has added many new cafes and bars, quite a site to be seen after seeing it last in 2009. On a side note, there’s always been a strong — stronger than one might wager, though no less marginalized — LGBT community in Jerusalem.

    Mostly the nightlife is shifted around Friday night and Saturday day. Thursday evenings are the weekend’s beginning and therefore the most lively nights, and once the sun sets on Saturday, downtown Jerusalem is flooded with people and most stores resume business. Going out on Friday night is possible, but the options are limited and so is transportation.

    The ultra-Orthodox do have a big say in the goings-on in Jerusalem, but the city’s nightlife hasn’t been killed by Halacha.

  3. As you point out, Netanyahu’s ignorant remarks have given rise to a great deal of mocking by thousands of web-savvy Iranians. This is one link to which shows different Iranians wearing jeans, including a young boy talking to the Supreme Leader, as well as one by the Iranian scientist who was murdered allegedly by Israeli agents talking to his daughter. In this new age of communication it is difficult to make such ill-informed remarks and not be held open to ridicule. What is frightening about Netanyahu’s remarks is that it shows that he knows so little about the new Iran that he wishes to bomb. While most regional countries including Turkey are becoming more religious, the majority of Iranians have turned against the rightwing clerics and against religion as a whole. A recent poll showed that only four or five per cent of Iranians regularly go to mosques and attend Friday prayers.

    Iranians have proved that they are good at having fun on twitter and on social media as a whole. On his way back to Iran from New York last week, Foreign Minister Zarif twitted while he was airborne that he was not sure whether he was in Iranian territory or not yet. One of his fans twitted back “Dr. [Zarif] try to go to on your phone. If it’s blocked you’ve reached Tehran.” The twit immediately received thousands of “likes”. link to

    • Dear Farhang, what would happen to those Iranian women if they walked down the streets of Tehran without a “roosari” and/or other regime-mandated dress? I would be interested in hearing your response.

      • Dear Amir,

        Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right to point out that the way women are treated in Iran and the restrictions on how they should dress are unforgivable. My point was not to defend the policies of the regime that are medieval, but simply to point out that, as it is clear from all the articles and comments on the web, Iranians including women do wear jeans, and in any case these human rights violations cannot be cured by invasion and regime change that Netanyahu seems to favor.

        I was watching a program on Afghanistan recently and it showed that women are still suffering from many discriminations despite over 11 years of occupation, and sadly the situation may get worse after the withdrawal of American and ISAF forces as the Taliban have not been defeated and may make a comeback. A similar program on Iraq talked to many Iraqi women who said that their position was much worse than before the invasion. At least at that time they could get out of their houses and have jobs, but now they do not dare leave their homes. Women and children bear the brunt of war and occupation more than men do, because with their husbands killed they should still go on looking after their children. This is why quite a few women who were interviewed said that they had no option but to sell their bodies in order to feed their children. There are over one million widows in Iraq. My objection was to the false pretense of supporting the rights of Iranian people by advocating war.

        All I know is that change should come from within through more education and from without by persuasion and pressure. I also know that a government that has relations with the West will be more open to criticisms of its human rights record in order to safeguard its interest.

        The behavior of Iranian women since the revolution has been nothing short of heroic. They organized the very first mass demonstration after the revolution in protest to obligatory wearing of the veil or scarves, and since then they have been constantly at the forefront of reforms and protests. Once the West gives up the idea of invasion and “all the options are on the table”, the next thing that is needed is a concerted attempt to improve the human rights situation in Iran. I only hope that the agreement between the West and Iran on its nuclear program will not be at the expense of ignoring human rights. That is the regime’s true Achilles Heel.

      • The evil of overbearing patriarchalism is everywhere, it would seem. (Women do it too, of course, maybe less often and virulently, under other names.) Too bad we humans way too often give in to and join on to the notion that G_D mandates all the crap that Pastor/Imam/Rebbi Billy Joshua Achmed say has been REVEALED to them, laid on their obedient hearts, all that stuff.

        link to

    • “A recent poll showed that only four or five per cent of Iranians regularly go to mosques and attend Friday prayers.”

      Farhang, I’d appreciate if you can provide me a link to this poll. If true, it contradicts a survey done three years ago by two Iranian sociologists who found that “in comparison to 1975, four years before the revolution, Iranians are still considerably very religious. The number of Iranians who pray or participate in socio-religious rituals has remained relatively unchanged. The number of people who fast has even increased.”

      link to

      • Dear RD Sultan,

        I am sorry I did not keep a record of the poll that I saw about a year ago that put the number of Iranians who attend Friday prayers regularly to be less than five per cent. I was surprised by that too. However, this does not mean that the majority of Iranians are not pious and religious, but some of the exhibitions of religiosity is definitely state sponsored. In the link that you have quoted above it says “The Islamic regime claims that Iranians have become more religious.” Judging by personal contacts and other evidence clearly many Iranians have been turned off religion as the result of the excesses of the Iranian government, like what one can see in the link that Amir has provided.

  4. Excellent post. I’d just like to clarify on the demographics of Israel’s religious population:
    -Two major “camps can be generally identified among religious Jews in Israel — the Orthodox (typically National-Religious) and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim), each with its own subdivisions.”
    -Laws favoring religious Jews in Israel have led to an astounding growth in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox population — and in the spread of religious practices and attitudes. “From the early 1950s to the mid-2000s, the [Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox] have grown from approximately “10 percent to at least a quarter of the [Israeli] Jewish population, about 1.5 million people.” The percentage of Jewish citizens who “would choose halakhic [religious] law over any competing democratic standard” approximates 35 percent. Interestingly, the same proportion wants the state “to support the emigration of Arab citizens” and “would have Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, pardoned.”
    -The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities have very different histories. The Orthodox “community never shrank from assuming power in any form, first in the Zionist movement, then in the state.” As a result, the Orthodox “have blended more or less comfortably into [Israel]; they acquired advanced degrees,…took management jobs…, and served in the army.”
    -The ultra-Orthodox communities “kept mainly to themselves while Zionism was taking shape….Dressed distinctively in black caftans and rounded hats…they remain pietists connected to Diaspora sects…”
    “[I]sraeli Jewish society continues to advance, paradoxically, in two contrary directions: The majority is moving toward a more open, secular, Western lifestyle and polity; and the (growing) minority is moving backward, toward a medieval, obscurantist life, attentive to what are perceived as God’s wishes and commands. This ambivalence mirrors the development of the region’s Arab societies — except, of course, that in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and the rest — in which it is the backward-looking fundamentalists who are in the majority and increasingly in the saddle.”
    link to

  5. rock bands in iran, skiing in iran, art in iran, definitely jeans and modernity ..a fabulous country, with a sometimes weird government .. sort of like usa and israel in that regard…

  6. Thanks, Dr. Cole, for so many things that appear and get noticed here. Thanks today for that wonderfully succinct skewering of “neoliberalism,” that sick misnomer.

    One wonders if a big part of the orchestrated drum-pounding and chest-thumping noise about “Sharia Law,” in addition to plain old xenomiseophobia, is the Islamic version of the Uniform Commercial Code. That apparently outlaws and applies various penalties to the kinds of behaviors that have created such a large part of the “economies” of all our Western debtor nations and the huge and apparently uncontrollable supra- and post-national “financial industry” kleptocracy, nations subject to the “ownership societies” that, with covert Koch-urging, Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, the Bush League and now even the Obamites and Merkel GmBH and that British boika have forced on the rest of us. Prohibitions and penalties of the sort that our rentiers and interest-gatherers and peddlers of debt and eaters of common resources could not endure. And have been so very successful at closing off, regulatorily capturing or simply sneering at, having stripped the cojones and more skilled enforcers out of the various governments, one way or another. link to

  7. It’s ironic that Iranian people are up in arms about the TRUE comments regarding Jeans and personal freedoms in Iran by Natanyahoo.. while this comment goes completely UNNOTICED”

    Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman testifying on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday:

    She said of the Iranians: “we know that deception is part of the DNA.”

  8. Typical Netanyahu, given to saying whatever he thinks will help his agenda even if it is fact-free. Ditto for Ehud Barak.

  9. The Shas Party, which was founded by Iraqi-born ultra-orthodox leader Rabbi Ovadia Yousef, holds 11 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

    Rabbi Yousef died just recently at the age of 93 and he was credited with statements labeling Palestinians “snakes” and claiming that Gentiles are expected to be servants of Jews.

    Shas and United Torah Judaism, another ultra-orthodox party, received political power over the last forty years in Israel far beyond their numbers due to the fact they often gave the Likud their narrow majority in the Knesset. As a result, these ultra-orthodox parties recived plum positions in the Israeli Cabinet and translated this into vast political clout that aroused the ire of other Israelis over special privileges – such as military service exemptions – that other Israeli Jews did not enjoy.

    Yair Lapid was a journalist who drew upon this ire and campaigned against the disparate power exercised by these ultraorthodox parties;his party won unexpectedly large number of Knesset seats and suddenly Shas and United Torah Judaism found themselves out of the ruling coalition.

    The era of relative ultra-orthodox political superiority within the Israeli government appears to be waning and Lair Lapid is championing that development.

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