"Iran is here?"
An Israeli commercial featuring supermodel Bar Refaeli came under criticism this week for its portrayal of the niqab -- an Islamic full-body garment for women -- as an instrument of oppression.
The new ad for "Hoodies," a midrange Israeli fashion brand, shows Refaeli -- who owns stock in the company -- and other models tearing off their dark niqabs to reveal a more vibrant and varicolored ensemble underneath, as a song with the lyrics "breaking my chains" plays in the background. The models then spin, air-punch and strike poses that scream "brand-approved empowerment," before Refaeli's voice-over whispers the campaign's slogan: "freedom is basic."
One of the dancers in the video appears to be a Muslim woman who, once out of her niqab, is shown to be wearing a designer hijab, a traditional Muslim head veil. She's joined by Melech Zilbershlag, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew and social media influencer.
Heavy-handedly, the campaign is trying to spruce up local controversies with hints of faux American wokeness. Judging by the Twitter outcry that followed, it missed all the marks.
Bar Rafaeli decides to be woke - by being Islamophobic.pic.twitter.com/JfPllXTYqv— Usaid (M) Siddiqui (@UsaidMuneeb16) October 30, 2018
Commenters from around the world viewed the ad as a tasteless attack on Islam.
This has to be the most ignorant and racist ad I’ve ever seen and I can’t believe a whole company approved this.. I’m disgusted and at a loss of words. pic.twitter.com/oiY1XB27EH— mariam (@fancydaisiesx) October 30, 2018
Refaeli's social media accounts were soon inundated with rebukes from Israeli Muslims, especially women. "Wearing a hijab is my freedom of expression," one woman wrote in Hebrew. "Maybe you shouldn't judge people."
"Accepting the other and not being racist is also basic," wrote another. "Let everyone wear whatever they want!"
Islamic headwear has been an object of controversy in Western countries long before Refaeli donned it. Critics of the human-sized bag insist that it's anathema to open, secular societies to have women feel obligated to cover their face -- let alone entire body -- in public. The burqa has already been banned in France, Denmark, and -- partially -- in Germany.
Defenders of the headwear say that these bans are the real violators of freedom, and that, for many Muslim women, covering up is an assertion of volition. An act of feminism, even.
But unlike the above-mentioned countries, Israel doesn't ban the niqab -- or any other religious costume. Jews and Muslims living in Israel generally see
But there's more: Before the ad first aired, Hoodies launched a nationwide teaser-campaign of billboards and YouTube clips showing Rafaeli's eyes peering through the dark niqab, along with the Hebrew tagline, "Iran is Here?"
This reference to Israel's most threatening geopolitical adversary is commonplace in the country, and has been deployed in the past by virtually every political faction. The nationalist right is in the habit of decrying "Iran is here" to warn about the strengthening of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two terrorist outfits that enjoy the patronage of the Ayatollahs; the secular left, on the other hand, has been using the same slogan to criticize the political influence of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, implying that Jerusalem is at risk of turning into a Tehran-esque theocracy.
The tagline also makes a crude allusion to the hijab protests that swept over Iran this summer, in which women publicly removed their headscarves in defiance of the regime's strict dress laws.
I must admit that I spent hours fruitlessly trying to determine whether Hoodies' appropriation of this loaded slogan is an inspired exploitation of a paradoxical reality -- or an embarrassingly lazy provocation.
Among Israeli Jews, the ad was generally mocked, above all for its incoherence.
"Such a salad," Aviad Kissos, co-host of the Israeli radio show "This Morning," said on Tuesday.
Moreover, the ad belies what many (including myself) consider to be the more imminent menace to civil liberties in Israel. Much more than Iranian Mullahs, the Jewish Orthodox establishment is responsible for the segregation and veiling of thousands of women in too many Israeli neighborhoods. Ignoring this issue placed the ad in tension not only with the coastal woke culture that it's awkwardly trying to imitate, but with its own landscape.
Then there's what the ad depicts as freedom: a world full of power-kicking models in affordable, sport-casual wear. Consumerist abandon.
"You want to talk about freedom? Let's talk about the many women held captive in the cultural prison that Refaeli is the face of," Kissos laughed on his show. "Let's talk about women who take pole dancing classes after Bar Rafaeli danced on a pole in an ad for eyeglasses. Is that freedom?"
But ultimately, Refaeli's ad is a simulacrum of a political statement that aims no higher than getting us to freshen up our wardrobe. Take heart, America, you're still the world's guidepost to something.
Adaam James is a senior editor at Pluralist.
You can argue with him on Twitter.