GIVAT ONAN, West Bank—On this windblown outpost in the hills north of Jerusalem, a small fringe of Israeli settlers strives to bring the day of redemption promised, as they believe, in the Bible.
A controversial sect shunned by nearby Israeli settlements, the Brothers of Onan believe that by “spilling their seed” on the land of the ancient biblical Jewish homeland, they will hasten the coming of the Messiah. With the Israeli communities of the West Bank considered illegal under international law, the Onanists are the outcasts among outcasts. But they’re unperturbed.
“We can never give up this land,” says the group’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Meir Gedalia Kaplowitz. “You can ejaculate all you want in Tel Aviv or New York, but the Holy One, blessed be He, wants us to perform the miracle here.”
Kaplowitz sits in a messy caravan on a windy hilltop overlooking the desert, as he takes a brief break from his endless routine of Talmud study and self-abuse. Wild-eyed and gaunt, he is the picture of the stereotypical Israeli settler extremist. Only, if anything, even more wild-eyed and gaunt.
The sect takes its name from the biblical Onan, who was ordered by his father Judah to impregnate Tamar, his brother’s widow, and to pass off the resulting children as belonging to his deceased brother. Not wanting to have children he couldn’t regard as his own, Onan fornicated with Tamar but at the moment of ejaculation he “spilled his seed.” God punished this disobedience by killing Onan.
Onanism has become a term used to describe such coitus interruptus, though it is also used for masturbation. In the Hebrew spoken on Givat Onan, masturbation is “onanut.”
“We’re proud to use that word for what we do,” says Haim Hercz, who occupies the caravan next to Kaplowicz. “But it's not all about Onan. Sometimes we call it flogging the Pharisee or chafing the camel. We have a sense of humor, just like people who have sex with women. But anyone can do that five or six times a day. We know that what we’re doing has a deeper purpose, and that’s what keeps us going.”
The Brothers of Onan celebrated Passover with a traditional Orthodox seder this week. (“Frankly it was nice to have something else to do for six hours,” says Hercz.) But next week they plan to take their struggle to Tel Aviv, where they will pray and “shoot their short Uzis” outside the Israeli Defense Ministry to protest any restrictions on building in the settlements.
Successive Israeli governments have justified new construction in the West Bank by arguing that they are only satisfying “natural growth,” whereby the growing families of settlers must be accommodated with new homes. “Obviously that’s not fair on us,” says Kaplowitz.
Israelis who oppose the settlements say the Brothers of Onan are more than a dangerous fringe group. Orla Mohel, a Tel Aviv masseuse, founded Wank Watch to combat the influence of the group. “I’m concerned that a lot of people in Tel Aviv will see them as harmless ‘frotteurs,’” she says. “But they celebrate a story from Genesis in which a father forces a brother to have sex with his sister-in-law, tries to get a third son to marry her, then has sex with her himself.”
Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz writes in his book “The Genesis of Justice” that Onan probably had non-penetrative sex with Tamar, or maybe anal sex.
“I didn’t go to Harvard and I’m not a lawyer, so I'm no expert on the Bible or anal sex,” responds Mohel. “But these Onanists also don’t want to give up the West Bank, which prevents a peace deal.”
Rabbi Kaplowitz argues that he’s no extremist. Rather he claims to represent the Israeli mainstream. “There are only a couple of dozen of us here, but there are thousands of others who’d like to join us. We’re out here in the lonely desert hills, doing something important for the redemption of the world. It’s not easy. We have very slow internet and sometimes youporn.com goes down for minutes at a time. Our thing is exhausting without visual aids.”
US Mideast envoy George Mitchell has condemned the Givat Onan outpost as “illegal under international law and pretty skeezy.” Mitchell also cited the 4th Century sage St. Athanasius of Paros as saying that “to have coitus other than to procreate is to do injury to nature.”
Kaplowitz rejected the criticism. “I don’t take sex advice from Greeks,” he said.