In August 1967, Rabbi Zalman Sonnenfeld, director of an orphanage in Jerusalem, sent a furious letter to the Committee to Combat Obscene Literature. “In the wake of the decline in the level of discipline and morality among our wards, we have conducted a thorough investigation,” he reported, adding that the staff found that “a number of the wards had been smuggling into the institution [weekly magazines with] pornographic pictures and horrific sex articles.”
The 51-year-old letter has been preserved in the Israel State Archives along with other appeals to the committee, minutes of its meetings and summaries of its decisions regarding the Hebrew-language publications.
The activity of the committee between 1962 and 1967 was the pinnacle of a failed attempt by the state to control pornographic publications, which had become quite popular in Israel during its second decade. “The phenomenon reflects the crisis of values in Israeli society at that time and the moral panic accompanying it,” observes Prof. Oded Heilbronner, a historian at the Shenkar College.
Heilbronner is engaged in documenting the social and cultural history of Israel in the 1960s. According to him, this topic had been marginalized in academic research until now.
Unlike his fellow historians, Heilbronner has been looking at a very different type of material. His bibliography includes titles like “The Sadist’s Lust,” “Diary of a Streetwalker,” “Magnates’ Mistresses,’ “Unbridled Urges” and “I Was Born a Slut – Memoirs of an Israeli Lady of Pleasure.”
The findings thus far offer a new take on the roaring 1960s. The country at that time, says Heilbronner, is no longer “the good old land of Israel” but rather “a land replete with problems and distortions, an old world that is disintegrating and a society in transition.”
Pornography, which at the time was popularly referred to as “the literature of abomination” in Hebrew, was one of the markers of the spirit of the age. “Tens of thousands of people consumed these books in Israel,” the historian explains. “For some readers it was a kind of revolt against the old, puritanical society.”
Archival documents from this era show that national institutions held contradictory and confusing positions about the subject question – ranging from the desire to allow a degree of freedom and avoid inessential prohibitions, to the fear of the undesirable moral influence of pornographic literature and the damage it was liable cause.
In 1960s’ Israel, distribution of pornography was subject to a British Mandate law from 1936, which stipulated fines and even prison terms. The police were the first to notice that this law was vague and did not define obscenity, per se. That was one of the reasons for the establishment of the Committee to Combat Obscene Literature in 1962. It consisted of representatives of the Education and Culture Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Welfare Ministry along with writers, journalists and educators.
The chairman was historian Dr. Joseph Michman-Melkman, who was the former director of none other than the Yad Vashem Holocaust center.
Those involved found it difficult to carry out their mission. Heilbronner explains that the committee members saw porn as “subversion of the existence of the state,” and expressed fear of its destructive influence on “unstable youth,” “problematic and perplexed young people” and “psychological perverts.”
However, there was a huge gap between the desirable and the actual. The panel had no authority to enforce anything apart from recommending that police investigate publishers of ostensibly offensive materials.
The obscene literature committee relied on complaints from the public, contact initiated by publishers seeking approval for a publication, and deliveries of “suspect” books imported into the country and seized at border inspections. In an attempt to improve their efficacy, committee members were sent on surprise visits to kiosks and bookstores to survey the offerings, but this did not help much either.
Above all was the problem of defining “abomination,” which the committee attempted to address by preparing a list of words and terms used in the books it discussed. These included “seduction,” “dirty words,” “increased male potency,” “lustful women,” “black people and Asians as sex symbols,” “masturbation,” and “homosexuality.”
But when Prof. Heilbronner examined the list of books the committee reviewed, he had trouble discerning any consistent logic behind its decisions and found that it had actually approved many pornographic books for publication. In part, this was because alongside the pornography they depicted messages in the content that “suited the views of some of parts of the establishment,” he notes.
Thus, for example, the book “Fanny the Virgin from Monaco” was approved by the literature panel despite its “descriptions of very daring sex orgies as well as acts of violence bordering on sadism.” The reason? “Entire chapters are about love.” The book “Molly Rocky – Memoirs of a Pleasure Girl” was deemed borderline. While the heroine is “a paid love woman” who describes her experiences “in a shady London house of ill repute,” the descriptions of sex were relatively conservative, relative to the genre – for example, “the innocent bump at the bottom of my belly” and “his sword that began to swell.” Not to mention the happy end, when the heroine starts a family and raises children “with patience and love.”
The obscene literature panel ruled that, on the one hand, there were chapters “bordering on pornography,” but also “beautiful descriptions of a girl’s struggle to break free of her degenerate life” – and in the end the work was approved for sale.
“The Secrets of Madame X” met a similar fate. Committee members found that “it deals with the business side of prostitution and does not describe sex life itself” – a point that was apparently in its favor. “The Sadist Kills Again” was also approved: “Despite the picture on the jacket cover, in which there is a half-naked woman, the story is a detective story,” they wrote.
Nor was “Women in the French Army” censored, because “the book is not pornographic. Though it presents lesbian scenes, there are no descriptions of sex in the book. It is not ‘great literature’ but it is literature.”
This justification was not consistent. Thus, for example, in the discussion of Henry Miller’s “Sexus,” one committee member argued that it is “fine literature ... among the best.” Nevertheless the committee opted to ban its Hebrew version. That was not easy in light of the fact that while other books under review were penned by obscure authors, Miller was already world famous.
Ish-Shalom, the Jerusalem school principal, said during one of the discussions: “There is no doubt that our task will be especially difficult this time. I have marked a number of the outstanding passages in the book. These passages really are filth and if they are isolated from the whole work – they are really shocking,” she said. “I am prepared to assume that someone will try to imitate certain things.”
Among the other works nixed by the panel was “In Captivity of Nymphomaniacs.” The book tells the tale of the sadistic abuse of a man by a group of girls, although the descriptions of sexual acts are not particularly explicit (“I am really bursting for a man, Barbara. I’m bursting,” says one of the girls. And another: “I I am going crazy for a man”).
However, Ish-Shalom found the book to contain “a mixture of crimes, sexual perversions, addiction to intoxicating drugs, public sexual intercourse and rape.” She also cited “lesbian love.”
In the summary submitted to the committee, Ish-Shalom wrote: “I read the book with feelings of increasing disgust. It was hard for me to finish it. I have no doubt that in this book there is corruption of the morality of young people, who think about sexual problems and wonder about them.”
A similar fate awaited “Memoirs of a Royal Adulterer,” which committee chairman Michman-Melkman said contains “the crudest descriptions of the sexual act and various sexual perversions.” His list included “onanism” and “two women giving themselves over to one man on the same occasion.”
Decades later, in an interview to Haaretz, Michman-Melman tried to minimize his part in this censorship, and said: “I was not pleased with the committee but I agreed to be the chairman. I hoped we would never act and I did everything I could to hide it. The only one who was happy about the position was my son, who was 15 at the time and got a lot of provocative books to read at home that had been brought before the committee.”
The son, now a man of 71, is Prof. Dan Michman, head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.
The Committee to Combat Obscene Literature was dissolved in 1967, and a year later the Committee on the Matter of Pornographic Publications was created under the aegis of the Justice Ministry. It took a relatively liberal approach to the phenomenon, and even ruled that it is impossible to prove the claim that pornography has a negative influence or to discern any connection between exposure to lewd materials and corruption of public morals. Moreover, it wrote that psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have found that pornographic literature “has a positive role in relieving urges that otherwise could have led to perverted and even criminal activity.”
Accordingly, life became easier in Israel for consumers of pornographic literature but ultimately its fate was sealed in many cases by the emergence of additional actors in the arena: video and then the internet. Today, old dirty books can be found mainly in second-hand bookstores or at public auctions of collectors’ items. Last week, for example, at an auction in Mazkeret Batya, an anonymous buyer paid nearly NIS 7,000 for two of them: “The Escape from the Prison of Debauched Women” and “I Was Col. Schultz’s Personal Bitch.”
If you can’t find such works or can’t afford them, you can peruse them at the National Library – but you can’t check them out to read at home.